Gamepad-like control shells for phones and tablets have been poking around mobile gaming’s hinterlands for years. There’s the iCade, a stand that cleverly converts your iPad into a mini-arcade cabinet, or the iCade Mobile, a handheld version for your iPhone with a d-pad and face buttons. There’s the JOYSTICK-IT, an arcade stick you affix to your iPhone or iPad’s screen.
There’s even stuff like the SteelSeries Free, a wireless micro-controller with dual thumb-sticks and all the trimmings, though I’m as enthused about the approach as I imagine anyone else would be if you could play PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 games on a 4-inch screen, or PS Vita ones with the control bits snapped off and the 5-inch screen resting on a table or in your lap.
With iOS 7 out, we can throw GameCase on the pile, a svelte-looking pair of stylish, silvery handlebars that sit on either side of an iPhone (connected by a stabilizing rear base into which the iPhone snaps), lending it ye olde Batarang vibe. It checks all the boxes: thumbsticks, a d-pad, face buttons and shoulder triggers. And it plays iOS games, of course.
Trouble is, when I think about using a gamepad with my iPhone or iPad, I imagine more what I won’t play. Not Angry Birds. Not Infinity Blade III. Not Plants vs. Zombies. Certainly not Fruit Ninja or Bejeweled or Cut the Rope. Maybe Grand Theft Auto III or Vice City? Old-school arcade standbys I’ve played zillions of times over? Maybe a few more ports down the “Top Charts” ladder of this or that game of yore?
But not most of what’s available, because most that aren’t ports were built to be played with a touch interface. They don’t work better with gamepads. Let’s not mince words: No one’s building gamepad-angled games for iOS because no one’s really buying gamepads to play them. Chicken, meet egg.
“GameCase revolutionizes iOS gaming as it pairs stunning HD graphics with a natural and familiar console quality feel,” writes GameCase in its buoyant, somewhat breathless press release. “Revolutionizes”? Really? With which games, exactly? Does pairing a gamepad with a screen change much anyway? Haven’t we been doing this for decades?
I don’t want to throw stuff like 868-HACK and Agricola and Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy under the bus, because there’s something exciting happening there. But mainstream iOS gaming’s in a clear and present rut, though it’s nothing to do with GameCase or any of these other gamepad shell ideas — they’re solutions to a mostly nonexistent problem.
The number one game in iOS gaming-dom as I type this is Angry Birds: Star Wars II. The number two game is a sequel to a game that came out in December 2011, in turn a sequel to a game that came out in December 2010. The number three game is Heads Up!, a Warner Bros. concoction billed as “the fun and hilarious new game that Ellen DeGeneres plays on her show.” Scroll down the list and it’s the usual suspects. Minecraft (of course) and all the Minecraft me-toos. Tetris. The older Angry Birds games. Various card and board game analogues. Another Worms sequel. Games about slashing stuff. Games about poking stuff. Cartoon Network tie-ins. Endless runners. A smattering of intriguing indies like Plague Inc., Terraria and Strata. But nothing, to shift the lens back to control interfaces, save the GTA ports — doubtless resurgent because of GTA V — that I’d use a gamepad to play.
Nothing against those games. They’re popular for a reason, and I might as well gripe about this or that thematically repetitive TV show, movie or book. Nor am I saying the future of mobile gaming has to look like gaming’s past, control-wise, say iPhone games that work like Vita or PSP games, much less Xbox 360 or PS3 ones. But will we ever get the iOS (or Android) equivalent of The Last of Us? Arkham City? Red Dead Redemption? Persona 4? Okami? Games you’d actually want a gamepad to play? Games of that magnitude that aren’t ports but developed natively for iOS?
Maybe I’m jumping the gun. Probably I am. Who wants to play a game as vast as Red Dead Redemption — or, for that matter, Grand Theft Auto V — on an iPhone anyway? At this point clapping unwieldy controller shells around an iOS device seems at worst, quixotic and at best, niche. I’m more interested in what happens when (and I say again, when) Apple takes aim at Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo’s turf directly, allowing an iPhone or iPad to square off with set-top consoles, by among other things allowing you to wirelessly beam your games to a big screen. That’s where iOS controllers, whether traditional or newfangled, stop being marginal novelty apparatuses and start sounding interesting to me.