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The History of Controllers on iOS

It all started with a joke. No, literally. After the iPhone’s successful launch, it was clear there was a strong market on the platform for games. One of the biggest obstacles for certain types of games and gamers, however, was the lack of any physical controls. While many players could and did adapt to virtual controls and other such solutions, there was a major contingent who simply couldn’t enjoy some kinds of games without having some real buttons to push. This was never so apparent as it was when a game that originated on consoles or arcades came to mobile. Intuitive classics like Atari’s Asteroids or SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog were entirely different beasts for players who had issues with virtual controls. 

Early Controllers: Joysticks, Paddles, and Keyboards

“Atari Classic Joystick” by Digital Game Museum is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Methods of controlling video games have come in many forms in the history of the hobby. One of the most popular styles, the joystick, originated as a means of controlling aircraft. The first video game joystick was created in 1967 by Ralph H. Baer, the pioneering inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey gaming console. SEGA combined the input device with a fire button for its 1969 electromagnetic arcade game Missile, and before long it became the dominant control method for arcade hardware. Many early game consoles and computers used joysticks as their primary means of playing games, and although the traditional joystick’s popularity has waned somewhat in recent decades, it is still a popular choice for certain genres. The generally shorter and stubbier analog sticks found on today’s controllers are direct descendants of this classic input device.

“Paddles” by Digital Game Museum is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The paddle controller did not prove to be so long-lasting or influential. Offering a dial that the player can turn and one or more buttons, this type of controller had its heyday in the first couple of decades of video gaming history. Dials had been around for a long time in various other machines. The first popular uses of such devices in video games were in the aforementioned Magnavox Odyssey console’s controllers and, most famously, Atari’s arcade hit Pong. Both products were released in 1972. While not a good fit for all games, paddle controllers offered a more minute degree of control that joysticks of the time couldn’t match. Many early consoles had paddle controllers, and Apple’s Apple II computer came with paddle controllers in the box until 1980. As the genres associated with paddle controllers faded from popularity, so too went the controllers. Today they are almost entirely extinct, but remain one of the best ways to control certain classic games.

They say you can’t beat a classic, and the keyboard and mouse are good evidence for that as gaming controllers go. Keyboards were not primarily designed for gaming uses, but since virtually every computer comes with a keyboard of some sort, they were almost immediately used as such. The computer mouse, which was derived from a trackball device used in radar plotting, was used as early as 1968, but it was its inclusion in Apple’s line of Macintosh computers in the 1980s that truly brought it into the mainstream. The mouse and keyboard complement each other well, covering each other’s weaknesses with their strengths. This powerful team has never really gone out of style and remains one of the most popular means of controlling video games today.

D-Pads and Console Controllers

“Donkey Kong II” (Game & Watch) by Digital Game Museum is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The modern controller owes a rather large debt to Nintendo. Although directional buttons had been used on some arcade games and other devices prior, it was Nintendo’s cross-shaped directional pad that finally unseated the joystick as the most ubiquitous gaming input device. It debuted in the company’s 1982 handheld Donkey Kong Game & Watch. Due to the device’s folding clamshell design, a joystick would not have been suitable. The relatively flatter cross-shaped piece allowed the device to close without issue and offered all of the directions a player would need for Donkey Kong.

The directional pad proved popular enough that Nintendo used it in the controllers for its wildly popular Nintendo Entertainment System console, and it and its variants soon became the default console set-up. While 3D games saw joysticks make a return to console controllers in a slightly altered form, directional pads are still considered a stock inclusion for most such devices. These controllers have been supplemented over the years by various special-use devices such as steering wheel controllers for driving games, instrument controllers for music games, gun controllers for shooting games, and so on.

All of these devices had one important aspect in common: they involved some kind of physical device and/or buttons. Some were quite intuitive, while others were like a whole new language unto themselves. Console controllers in particular only seemed to get more complex as time went on and games became more complicated. Recognizing this, some companies aimed to create input devices that were easier to use. In gaming circles, it was again Nintendo that found the biggest success. Its Nintendo Wii console used motion controls that allowed players to use movements and gestures to interact with the game, and its Nintendo DS handheld included a PDA-like touchscreen. Still, as revolutionary as both of these devices were, Nintendo still saw fit to include the then-standard set of directional pad and buttons.

Suffice it to say, the idea of physical buttons, keys, sticks, and other such devices were and are strongly entrenched in video gaming. As successful as Nintendo’s experimental consoles were, for example, there was always a rather large contingent of players who preferred an alternate, more traditional control style for games. 

Enter the iPhone

When the iPhone launched, those kinds of controls were not an option. Even the familiar control wheel of iPods was nowhere to be seen. Any games had to be controlled via the touch screen or the device’s gyroscope. In one sense, this was a boon that may well have led to the success of mobile gaming with audiences that hadn’t been all that interested in games before. It promoted creative new game designs, making mobile gaming feel like its own new thing.

Still, it’s hard to fight decades of momentum, especially when there’s a lot of money to be made. In addition to the new kinds of games that took advantage of the unique properties of the iPhone, many games that followed more traditional styles and designs came to the platform. Developers tried a lot of different set-ups to allow for those kinds of games on a touch-based device, to varying degrees of success. Some worked better than others, but even players who were able to adapt to such methods would find it hard to argue that the games were better off that way. For many long-time players, it only took one bad experience with a control set-up to write off the whole concept. For some, nothing was going to work except for an actual traditional-style controller.

Unfortunately, Apple had not anticipated the demand for such devices, and iOS had no built-in support for external controllers of any kind. Most original games were built around touchscreens, and for all of the rest, people just sort of muddled through. That’s how things went for a while and they probably would have stayed that way had it not been for an April Fool’s Day joke. On April 1st 2010, online purveyor of geek goods ThinkGeek ran a story showing off a mini arcade cabinet called the iCade that housed an iPad and allowed players to use a joystick and buttons to play games on it. A clever joke to be sure, but one of those jokes that had people wishing it was real. The response wasn’t lost on ThinkGeek, who teamed up with ION Audio to create a real iCade.

The iCade

“ION iCade” by nokia_fan is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The iCade was first shown in January of 2011 and would see release in May of that year at a price of $99.99. Atari got on-board with the device to make sure its Atari Arcade Classics app offered full support for the device, giving the iCade an immediate bit of legitimacy. It’s actually rather clever how it worked. While iOS had no built-in support for controllers, it did have support for Bluetooth keyboards. The iCade simply mapped all of its inputs to keys on a keyboard, with compatible games mapping various actions to those keys. While support was thin on the ground initially, the list of games that supported the iCade grew steadily over time.

While the initial iCade cabinet was built for the dimensions of an iPad, a number of other iCade-compatible controllers were released that allowed other mobile devices to get in on the fun. These iCade devices carved out a niche audience, but controller support seemed to be rather low priority for many developers. Apple didn’t get in the way of the iCade family, but it also didn’t push the devices much at all. They remained an option for hardcore players to enjoy a small number of games. For a couple of years, that was how things stayed with regards to controllers and iOS devices. 

MFi Controllers (Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad)

The next big wave as far as iOS controllers went came from none other than Apple itself. At the WWDC event on June 10 2013, Apple announced iOS 7, the latest version of its mobile operating system. One of the many new features to be introduced in iOS 7 was support for MFi (Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad) controllers. While Apple wasn’t going to be making a controller itself, having official support built in to the operating system was a major step. Many accessory manufacturers saw an opportunity in this new feature and prepared their own MFi-compatible controllers to launch later that year with the arrival of iOS 7.

While Apple had set a number of guidelines, the exact form of each controller came down to the individual manufacturers. Some designs were quite familiar, closely imitating console controllers in both form and size. Others tried to miniaturize those classic designs to make the controllers easier to bring with you on the road. A rather inventive style that proved quite popular was a shell-like apparatus that saw the device placed in the middle of a split controller. American manufacturer Gamevice (then known as Wikipad) had an interesting spin on the shell style, allowing players to slide apart the controller pieces to fit a number of different device sizes and shapes.

Having built-in support and established standards helped the market for iOS controllers grow, and many major publishers and established iOS developers updated existing games with support for the devices. While it wasn’t unusual for games to leave out controller support, most of the new releases that benefited greatly from such controllers included it. You couldn’t really call MFi controllers an overwhelming market success, but they were successful enough that companies kept on making them and improving on their designs. These controllers proved particularly useful for Apple TV users who were seeking a more console-like experience from their games.

Newest Wave: Playstation and Xbox Controller Support

“Console Controllers” by Mark Farrell is licensed under  CC BY 2.0 

The most recent big wave in mobile controller support came with the announcement in fall 2019 that iOS 13 would add in official support for Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox controllers. One of the big criticisms of MFi controllers was that they were a little too expensive for most players to justify buying for mobile gaming alone. By allowing support for these new types of controllers, Apple greatly increased the chances of a player already owning something they can use with their iOS devices. This, in turn, makes it more logical for developers to include support for controllers in their games.

Many of the games included in the GameClub library originally pre-dated all of these controllers and thus did not include support for such devices. As part of the remastering process of GameClub, controller support is being added in for games that would benefit from such devices. Hits like Super Crate Box and Minigore feel like completely new experiences with a controller in hand. If you happen to have a compatible device, make sure to give it a try and see what a difference a good controller makes for these amazing classics.


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