When it comes to gaming on the iPad, it's generally a touch-based affair. Retro gamers have an alternative: external joystick docks have started to emerge, but they have limitations to go with their geek appeal. The Atari Arcade is a joystick and four-button dock for the iPad that turns your Apple tablet into a mini gaming shrine. At $60, it's nearly half the price of the larger, bulkier Ion iCade, an arcade cabinet for the iPad we reviewed earlier this year. It's also more than half the size, and can slide into a backpack--something the tabletop iCade could never do. But, there are limitations: the battery-free device might be compact, but it only works with Atari's retro-gaming app, making it a one-trick pony. Still, this could be a novelty stocking-stuffer worth considering for the iPad gamer who already has everything.
The Atari Arcade has a decidedly hollow-plastic feel, like a budget fighting arcade stick at GameStop. The curved white design with emblazoned red-stripe Atari logo has its heart in the right place, but it looks too racing-futuristic, lacking some old-school charm that the iCade provides.
The Atari Arcade has distinct design advantages over the iCade. It's significantly smaller, and it could be carried in a bag. The iCade, by comparison, is a tabletop device. The Atari Arcade also doesn't use batteries: a 30-pin connector docks an iPad or iPad 2 in vertical portrait mode, while two side tabs lock rubberized feet into place to keep the iPad from shifting. The Ion iCade's Bluetooth connection removes a need for docking, but chews up battery life in the iCade and on the iPad.
Once the iPad is docked to the Atari Arcade, it instantly launches the Atari Greatest Hits app. All 100 Atari 2600 and arcade games on the app have been updated to work with the Atari Arcade's joystick and buttons. Limiting the iPad to a portrait-only mode, however, letterboxes the games down to a fraction of the whole iPad screen real estate. Only a few games, like Centipede, take advantage of the portrait design. Meanwhile, the iCade can orient either way.
Playing Atari games on the Arcade is generally fun, but the appeal can be limiting. A slightly stiff micro-switch joystick and large, mushy buttons don't click as comfortably as the iCade's more professional hardware. You can feel the difference when button-mashing through Asteroids or Yar's Revenge. The hard turns on the joystick are also difficult to pull off without the Atari Arcade shifting a little on the table: make sure those rubber feet beneath are set firmly down on a grippy surface.