It was my birthday last weekend (36 if you must know) and I treated myself to an iCade for my iPad; normally I think they’re a bit overpriced at £79 ($99) but it was in a sale and I got some Quidco cashback, plus it was my birthday so that’s okay.

It requires a bit of assembly screwing the sides, back and pre-formed control panel to each other but once complete the design and high quality finish instantly conjures up memories of mis-spent youths in arcades, even if you never actually mis-spent your youth in arcades (the only games I was allowed as a kid were ZX Spectrum and BBC Master games, and I’ve been remedying that ever since).

play PacMan on the iCade for iPadThe verdict is that we love it – my wife is no gamer but got thoroughly stuck in to a couple of classics and modern remakes on the iCade, laughing, cursing and throwing the stick around mercilessly. She’s even downloaded some to her own iPad for when I’m out with mine, it’s that good.

Yes, it’s expensive but it’s the extra level of control it brings to iPad arcade gaming that justifies the purchase – most people instinctively know how to use a stick, even if you’ve never set foot in an arcade. The improvement is profound in some cases; for example, the delightfully insane Forget-Me-Not does alright with swipe-to-turn input but played on an iCade you immediately forget about the controls and focus on the frantic, epileptic-fit-inducing gameplay; arcade gaming feels so right on this thing.

But it’s not perfect

We’ve mostly been playing Pac Man for iPad and a superb Galaga clone called Warblade HD, both of which I highly recommend. They’re the epitome of arcade gaming and well worth the price, even Pac Man’s relatively pricey (for retro) £2.99 – just think how many goes that would buy you in an arcade these days. However, these games are so good that they highlight a couple of issues I have with the controls.

playing Warblade (Galaga clone) on iCade for iPadFirst, both the stick and the buttons, while sturdy and good quality, are very clicky and the buttons require a fairly firm push. Shooting games like Warblade are bloody noisy to play as a result, and it can get pretty tiring hammering away at the stiff fire buttons. Sure, I could work on my arcade physique a little more but it really does feel like hard work after a while.

Second, the stick’s movement is restricted by a square ‘gate’ inside the control panel. The square is set so that the stick locks into the corners on the diagonals as opposed to the Up, Down, Left and Right directions which are on the flat sides of the square gate.

In Pac Man in particular you want to hit those prime directions reliably and often with some force (especially when Hollie is playing it). The way the iCade stick is set up it’s far too easy to hit the flat edge of the square gate and slide into one of the corners; it only takes a small slip like this to trigger a diagonal, turning Pac Man round a corner you didn’t intend to turn or occasionally flipping him 180 degrees, straight into the ectoplasmic jaws of Blinky, Pinky, Inky or Clyde.

Super Crate Box on the iCadeThe clickiness was a bother that I could live with but the stick gate was such a frustration in an otherwise excellent package I Googled it to see if anything could be done. I learned that some square gates can actually be removed from the plastic frame they sit in and can be rotated 45 degrees to place the corners on the prime directions.

Alternatively they can be replaced with octagonal or round gates. Unfortunately the square gate on the iCade’s stick is all one piece and can’t be rotated. For that I’d need to buy a new gate, and so I was introduced to Gremlin Solutions and everything you might need to build your very own arcade machine.

And then I got to thinking about how if I was going to pop the iCade open I might as well see about fixing the clickiness too, so I started learning about switches, button weights, PCB versus non-PCB sticks, the naming conventions of Sanwa joysticks, and how to fit all the above into an iCade. Before I knew it I’d bought a set of eight buttons, a new stick, wiring, and an octagonal gate; £50.36 delivered from Gremlin Solutions, almost as much as I spent on the iCade to begin with.

Hey, it’s my birthday, remember?

Next post – fitting the new kit.

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