Serious gamers universally disdain tablet onscreen controls. At best, virtual d-pads and buttons are poor substitutes for real buttons and inputs that provide limited physical resistance and haptic feedback; at worst, they cripple gameplay.
That’s why I was so excited about the Atari Arcade by Discovery Bay Games that I included it in the TechnologyGuide 12 Tech Days of Christmas after only a few minutes of hands-on time. There is a dearth of gamepads for the Apple iPad (Android supports both plug-in USB and many Bluetooth controllers), and countless iOS games that could benefit from a real controller, especially the Atari Greatest Hits app that features 100 of Atari’s best arcade and Atari 2600 console titles.
Admittedly, my initial enthusiasm was at least partially based on Atari nostalgia. So with an impartial reviewer cap on, divorced from my penchant for 80s videogaming, does the Atari Arcade hold up as a viable iPad accessory? Let’s find out.
BUILD & DESIGN
It’s disappointing that Discovery Bay Games did not model the Atari Arcade dock after the 2600 console, complete with phony wood paneling and orange, brown and black color scheme. Instead, the dock is white with red and black accents, and a very plastic build. There is a protrusion in the back with a rubber edge for supporting either the iPad or iPad 2, and a flexible 30-pin connector dongle underneath, behind two sliding rubber stoppers that secure the tablet in place.
The stoppers are controlled by two knobs, one on each side, which are tougher to slide in place than necessary. And the games are controlled by the eight-way joystick and four large black buttons. There are four rubber stoppers on the bottom that do a good job of keeping the Atari Arcade dock in place on a desk or tabletop.
The dock is as wide as an iPad in portrait mode (the short side), and just about as long. The tablet balances nicely in the cradle and doesn’t give the impression it will easily tip over. That said, the dock is very light owing to its build material, and probably wouldn’t survive many drops.
The four buttons and joystick are nicely spaced for comfortable playing, but they all travel farther than expected, especially for those used to the tight Atari joystick that shipped with the 2600 console. They are also quite loud, emitting very audible clicks and clanks when pressed and pushed.
Therein lays the problem. The joystick is just too loose for many games, particularly ones that require the player to move in small spaces, like Centipede and Millipede. Compounding the problem is that some games were designed for alternative control schemes, like a trackball (Missile Command) or paddle (Pong). None of the games are unplayable — and the joystick works better than the optional touch controls 99.99% of the time – but you’ll have an extremely difficult time replicating any past pizza parlor high scores with the Atari Arcade.
Buttons are reasonably responsive when pressed; and again, it’s worth repeating, they are quite loud. And on the plus side, the Atari Arcade requires no batteries or power source; it works right off the iPad and has no noticeable drain on battery.
Many games feature a multiplayer component, which requires a Bluetooth link up and, obviously, an iPad-toting friend with the app and same games. A networked system like Xbox Live would have been preferable.
Atari Greatest Hits App
The Atari Classics App features the games designed for the Atari Arcade. It’s available for free in the App Store but only includes Missile Command. The remaining 99 games cost $9.99 for the lot, which, while not outrageous, is a bit much to ask considering the dock costs $60. I think Discovery Bay Games would earn a ton of good will if they included a promo code for the games, or at least a bundle, with the Atari Arcade.
The games are split into a handful of Atari arcade titles and a ton of old Atari 2600 cartridges. The Atari arcade games are a real treat they feature vector-based graphics not seen since the early 80s, and are tough to find. Some, such as Battlezone, represent the first real attempts at first-person 3D gaming. The games are presented in the native resolution, meaning some of the console titles are cramped in the iPad display while most of the arcade titles fill it nicely. All music and sound effects are original.
The Atari 2600 titles are hit and miss. Some of the console’s “classic” title are real crap and have not aged well at all (Night Driver), while others are semi-forgotten gems (Yars’ Revenge). The sports games are especially charming and still plenty of fun, while others, such as Adventure (a precursor to all action RPGs) have such a vaunted place in videogame history, they are must plays for any serious gamer.
The selection is limited to both Atari console and arcade games, meaning some real classics from other publishers are missing, including Space Invaders, Joust, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong. In addition, the sadist in me wishes the app developers included some of the more notorious Atari games for history’s sake, like the truly awful E.T., which many cite as a major catalyst of the 1983 videogame market crash.
Almost better than the actual games is the promotional material included with each title. For the arcade titles that includes cabinet pictures and brochures, and for the 2600 games that includes the owners manual and distinguished cartridge art, which I think is suitable for framing. In many cases the owners manual is necessary to enjoy the game, particularly in the Swordquest titles, which combine gameplay with clues in the included comic book. It was all part of a contest for players when originally released, and an interesting bit of videogame history.
Old 2600 fans will also be pleased with the virtual console that appears with the 2600 titles, with its familiar digital switches for selecting gameplay type, difficulty, color or black and white presentation, and “game reset,” which old timers know actually means “play game.”
As an Atari fan, I can easily see plopping down $70 for the Atari Greatest Hits app and Atari Arcade dock. It’s worth it for both nostalgia’s sake and an occasional stab at getting some revenge for the winged Yars. For everyone else, the price is a bit too steep for what ultimately amounts to simple and sometimes addictive gameplay, limited to only one app.
That said, there is real promise in this type of iPad peripheral. Perhaps Discover Bay Games can expand Atari Arcade to work with the aforementioned missing classics, more modern arcade fare including side-scrolling beat-em-ups, or, be still my beating heart, a Nintendo Greatest Hits app.