Review: Atari Arcade brings retro joystick gaming back on iPad

While all eyes are on Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to deliver the next-generation of gaming in portable and console form, one old-time friend is making a silent return. Atari is partnering with DiscoveryBay Games to launch the Atari Arcade — an iPad dock that enhances old-school arcade classics with the tactility of a joystick and four physical buttons.

Right off the bat, you're probably thinking the Atari Arcade is an iCade knock-off. It certainly seems so at a glance; the Atari Arcade is the second joystick dock for the iPad, but the similarities pretty much end there.

Read on to find out if the Atari Arcade is up to snuff to make you want to play games like Pong, Asteroids and Centipede all over again.

Where iCade Ends And Atari Arcade Begins

The iCade is a mini arcade cabinet that connects to an iPad via Bluetooth and houses the tablet. The Atari Arcade, instead, connects via the 30-pin dock, which allows it to be more than a tablet holder. Once docked, either generation of the iPad can be locked securely in place with two switches, and then you're ready to play.

The 30-pin dock connection gives the Atari Arcade another advantage over the iCade: the joystick is powered entirely by the iPad, no batteries required, and no battery-chugging Bluetooth. With the Atari Arcade, we got anywhere between 8-10 hours, which is within the iPad's normal battery life.

That advantage also brings about a downside, which is the iPad can only be positioned in portrait mode and not landscape. Ideally, an open dock such as the Atari Arcade would leapfrog the iCade with this low power consumption, but DiscoveryBay Games clearly chose to make some sacrifices in favor of longer battery life.

How Does Gaming On The Atari Arcade Feel?

To answer that question in one word: average. A modern joystick experience can be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes they move around smoothly and sometimes, as with Atari Arcade, they're really stiff. There's nothing wrong with the Atari Arcade — it's a very sturdily built peripheral and feels like it could survive a few hard drops — but it's just that controlling games with the joystick feels imprecise.

We're not sure if it's the stiffness to the stick or that game apps need better optimization and sensitivity or what, but when you're missing easy blocks in Pong and the ball's only just bounced back and forth two or three times, you know something is off.

The four buttons are nice and springy — going as far as sounding super clicky and there are some nice rubber pads on the Atari Arcade's base to prevent it from slipping around — but that's really the only standout point in regard to the controls.

What Can I Play On The Atari Arcade?

As of right now, the only iPad app the Atari Arcade is compatible with is Atari's Greatest Hits — a free app that comes with Missile Command, though if you want anything else you have to pony up.

That said, the selection offered isn't going to blow anybody away, except for those looking for a nostalgic trip through classic Atari 2600 games, or grown up golden-era gamers looking to introduce Super Breakout to their kids, who only know what's on today's PlayStations and Xboxes.

Games can be purchased within the app at $1 for a set of four, or you can buy the entire bundle of 100 Atari 2600 games for $15. We poked around with a few of the games and while we'd love to recommend springing for the full 100 games, we can't — even at $15. Most of the games like 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Golf and Home Run are pretty bland and generic — hardly offering much replay value.

We really like what DiscoveryBay and Atari are trying to do here with bringing us back to that arcade feeling of wobbling a joystick around and tapping buttons with fingers, but we can't help but feel the Atari Arcade is a huge missed opportunity to give modern day games the retro control treatment.

The Verdict

DiscoveryBay Games' Atari Arcade is filling a very small niche. It's the same market that those Atari Plug and Play TV joysticks occupy — only those come with a whole bunch of actually, dare we say, "fun" games. At the very least, the iCade finally has some competition.

We're really hoping partnerships are formed with other iOS developers to enable the Atari Arcade as a controller. As it stands, not being able to play a superb fighting game like Capcom's Street Fighter IV just doesn't seem to sit well. Asteroids is still great fun, but it's not quite as purdy as watching Ryu hadouken the hell out of Ken.

The Atari Arcade is scheduled to drop on October 2 at Target and then in November at Toys "R" Us and Walmart for $60. Take your pick, the iCade sells for a whopping $100. They're both considerably expensive peripherals, but when has any decent "appcessory" made for the iPad been cheap?

Make us proud Atari and give us a wider variety of game support, please. Smoothing out those sensitivity issues would be nice, but as pointed out, that could be a issue problem than just Atari's hardware here.

Via DiscoveryBay Games

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