I’ve been eyeballing the iCade for a few months now, wondering if I want to spend $100 on a gadget with a very narrow focus: playing a handful of iPad games using old-school controls. But the more I looked into it, the more appealing it looked — because if you’ve chosen to jailbreak your iPad, you suddenly have access to MAME which plays thousands of classic arcade games (provided you can find the ROMs). So, shortly after my 40th birthday, I said “Fuck it!” and ordered one.
I rarely spend that kind of money on this sort of goofy, cheesy thing, but something about it really appeals to my inner arcade nerd. That kid who, throughout the 80’s, used to hang out at arcades for hours on end, gleefully dumping quarters and tokens into machines that were so exciting at the time. I still remember what it was like with all the loud, crazy electronic noises filling the room and the groups of people huddled around machines, stacking quarters on them. My brother and I used to make a pass through the arcade each time we went in, just in case a new game had arrived…that was always something exciting. (I remember when “Tron” came out and the machines had these giant monitors stacked on top so the crowd in back could better watch the action.) Today the very sight of a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man game sends me back 30 years! So I definitely have a soft spot for arcades and the golden age age of coin-op gaming.
Once I put this together and got it working, I snarfed down a few compatible apps and gave it a spin. The controls work like a charm: the joystick is very responsive, and the buttons have that perfect clicky quality. They’re physically unlabeled so you have to remember what does what, but it’s not too bad. The unit even has a fake coin slot which lights up when it’s connected to your iPad. Sweeeeet.
The real fun came when I installed iMAME4All on my jailbroken iPad. I dumped some ROMs into it, and suddenly a whole new world of retro arcade gaming opened up. I’ve played MAME games before, but never like this, with a joystick and buttons to be madly mashed! All my favorites are there: Donkey Kong Jr., Jungle Hunt, Zaxxon, Tron, Qix, Q*Bert, Dig Dug, Wizard of Wor, Alien Syndrome, Joust, Super Pac-Man, Gauntlet II, Gorf… It’s an arcade nerd’s dream, and it really takes me back to those days I remember so well.
The biggest caveat to playing the old arcade games is that iMAME is a little finicky: you have to have ROMs that were tweaked a certain way, otherwise they won’t work. You can find massive archives of them online, but unless they’re in that specific format (MAME 0.37b5), they won’t work. Luckily I found a couple of sites which offer them: this one (free and verified) and this one (pay site, not tested by me). It’s also a legal gray area, as some companies still own the copyright to the code while many have long since gone out of business…so that’s a dilemma for you to work out for yourself. Also, the controls are a little odd sometimes, such as for games which required a trackball or steering wheel, but nearly everything I tried was playable and looked/sounded wonderful.