iOS game developers have been swinging for the fences with massive, high-profile mobile games for years already, but they've been doing it without a physical control option. Touchscreen and tilt controls work fine for many genres, and these digital controller stand-ins have definitely gotten better over the years, but any seasoned gamer will tell you that it'll never be quite the same.
With the launch of the iOS 7, Apple finally took the step of including a built-in controller framework, allowing third party manufacturers the ability to create iOS game controllers. The iPhone was the immediate focus for these companies, with Logitech and Moga going head to head with the PowerShell and Ace Power, respectively.
Having tested both of the these (keep an eye out for our head-to-head smackdown coming soon), I can say that they both work well, but they are hampered by the fact that they require a physical connection to the device itself. This isn't a deal breaker, but it means that if you have a case on your device you'll need to remove it before utilizing the controller. And, although this should be obvious, they work only with the iPhone, so if you happen to have an iPad as well you're out of luck.
The SteelSeries Stratus is the first to dodge both of those issue by going completely wireless, using Bluetooth to connect to your iPhone or iPad. It features four face buttons, four shoulder buttons, twin analog sticks, a digital pad, and a pause button.
It's also almost impossibly small. As someone with large hands, I laughed when I saw it, but it manages to be completely useable despite its petite form factor. You can put it in your pocket and bring it along without feeling like you have a huge bulge sticking out of your thigh, which is a first.
The iPhone as a game console
But believe it or not, these selling points aren't why I think the Stratus is truly the most important iOS gaming accessory yet; it's because of its ability to turn your iPhone or iPad into what is effectively an Apple game console. By using the Lightning AV adapter with HDMI output, you can hook your iDevice up to your TV and then sit back and use the Stratus controller to play the games on the big screen. That's pretty damn awesome.
The only drawback right now is that in the switch to Lightning connectors, Apple's AV adapters are now a tad laggy compared to their 30-pin counterparts. You probably won't want to play a fast-paced shooter with this setup, but anything else works swimmingly, and it's one of the coolest things I've ever done with my iPhone. If (when?) Apple works out the mild lag issues and thereby making every game on the App Store a fine fit for an HDTV, this will be the single greatest reason to invest in a controller.
I say that the Stratus is the most important gaming accessory for Apple's mobile devices because it is, but that doesn't necessarily mean that this particular controller will actually be a success. It's a harbinger of fantastic things to come, but there are a few things holding the Stratus back from bringing game-changing control to the masses.
Price of entry
For starters, it's the first attempt at an iOS controller for SteelSeries, which means the build quality isn't where it really should be. It's built entirely out of plastic, and it still feels like a toy. The button letters are painted on rather than indented, the clear plastic cover doesn't fit well (if you bother to use it), and the buttons and sticks rattle as though they're a bit loose.
This first-run attempt wouldn't be such a turnoff if it weren't for the fact that the thing is so expensive. At a whopping US$99.99 -- currently available for pre-order -- it's not exactly priced for mass appeal. I hear gamers balk constantly at paying $60 for full-fledge console game controllers, and those have been fine tuned to perfection. The $100 price is mirrored by both of the alternatives from Logitech and Moga as well, so it's not like you have a "budget" option to choose from.
For controller-based iOS gaming to take the next step and truly challenge other platforms -- like the 3DS and PS Vita -- it's going to have to be a lot more affordable. I think it will be, especially as we move into the next holiday season, but right now it's definitely an expensive niche.
We're at an interesting cross roads in mobile gaming at the moment. We finally have some physical control options available to us, and we have fantastic titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that support them, but it's all still too expensive to really matter. If a mobile gaming revolution does eventually begin to burn within the iOS ranks, I think we'll be able to look back at the Stratus as the spark, but right now it's just as much in danger of being snuffed out completely.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 4 stars)