iOS Game Controller Reviews:

Don’t Hate the Player

There is no doubt in my mind that the Apple App Store is home to one of the finest and most varied game libraries on any mobile platform. Unlike Android, the quality of games on iOS devices is consistently excellent. Because there are only a few models of iPad and Apple works to provide game developers with the tools they need to get the most out of the hardware, you can be sure that if it says it will run on your iPad then it will. Android hardware is variable and open, making it very difficult for developers to ensure that every tablet out there will give a good experience, since it is simply impossible to test on them all.

The mobile generation of games has also started to kill off dedicated handheld game consoles such as those from Nintendo and Sony. It seems that people no longer think having a dedicated handheld game console is pointless given how powerful tablet and phone hardware has become.

When you are playing something like The Banner Saga, XCOM:Enemy Within, or any of the Infinity Blade games the iPad really shines. These games are created with touch control in mind right from the start. However, there are a lot of games on iOS that aim to emulate more traditional gaming experiences such as those you’d find on Xbox or PS4. Unfortunately, playing these games on a touchscreen is generally a pretty sucky experience. Not to mention all the ported arcade classics on iOS that are basically unplayable using this control scheme.

That’s why it’s a great idea to invest in a iOS compatible gamepad if you are an avid gamer. If a game is compatible with a gamepad it is so much more fun to play and it effectively turns your iPad into a highly portable console.

Here are some of the best known gamepads you can buy online today. I check out each one and make a verdict on whether it is worth your hard earned cash. My favorites are at the top and the rest are at the bottom in no order that I know of.

Top Pick: SteelSeries Nimbus Wireless Gaming Controller for Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac

The Nimbus is one special little product. At the moment this is the closest you can get to a gamepad actually made by Apple. SteelSeries is a name that’s been around for a while in the controller business and they worked side-by-side with Apple to design this device.

Actually, I personally think it is sort of ugly, but what really matters is whether it is comfortable to use and widely compatible. This controller was designed to go with the Apple TV, but of course it officially works with just about every other iOS device out there. Design-wise it is sort of a hybrid between an Xbox and Playstation controller. It has the button and stick style of the Xbox, but the layout of a Sony DualShock.

Since it is designed to go with Apple devices it charges via a lightning, but does not include a cable. I understand the reasoning behind this, but which iPad owner doesn’t appreciate an extra lightning cable?

This is of course an MFi-certified controller and will work with apps that are also labeled as such.

Like all Steelseries products I have encountered, I expect a high level of quality from this controller and the reactions of customers who have bought it seems to support that notion.

There are also some other cool features that I think are worth noting. If you have more than one control and you are playing with someone there is a player number indicator on the control itself; just like with the big consoles. The buttons are pressure sensitive for games that support it and the battery is good for 40 hours, probably thanks to the power efficiency of Bluetooth 4.1.

At about fifty bucks even the price is right on point. There are worse-quality products asking for considerably more cash but with fewer features than this.

The main problem I have is that this is only iOS compatible. I know I’m reviewing from an iPad owner’s perspective, but I can’t think of a technical reason this excellent controller shouldn’t work with more things. Also, since this is a full-sized gamepad, you may find it tricky to throw in a bag. If mobility is very important to you, it may be a better idea to check out their Stratus, which is my 3rd place choice here.

Other than that, this is without a doubt where my money is going.

Second Best: Mad Catz C.T.R.L.i Mobile Gamepad

Like SteelSeries, the people behind Mad Catz have really made a name for themselves with their gaming hardware over the years. On top of that, Mad Catz is pretty famous for making some of the coolest looking gaming hardware as well.

Like the other high-end controllers here, the C.T.R.L.i (that’s the last time I’m typing THAT out) is MFi certified. It will play all the games that support the official Apple gamepad standard. In terms of the design and layout Mad Catz has gone for a straight-up Xbox 360 controller clone, which is not a bad thing. That is one of the best controller designs today and anyone who wants to copy it well certainly won’t be hurting the usability of their controller.

In typical Mad Catz style there are a number of colors to choose from, although they are surprisingly run of the mill. I was expecting some wacky themed and branded ones as well. Maybe Mad Catz thinks the iOS crowd would be less positive about their usual enthusiasm for out-of-the-box designs.

The other big difference between this controller and the others here is that it does not have a built-in rechargeable battery. Instead it uses two AAA batteries of your choice. Now, this is not automatically a bad thing. First of all, built-in lithium batteries only last for so many charges before they permanently give up the ghost. Secondly, the battery life from one set is 40 hours, so it isn’t as if you’ll be swapping them around.

You could make use of rechargeable AAA batteries too, keep an extra set while traveling or just pick up some cheap disposables from the airport or nearest convenience store. The main drawback of using AAA batteries is that the controller is not as sleek as it possibly could have been and it is a little less elegant, but from a functional perspective it can actually be better. So you’ll have to decide for yourself which side of the fence you fall on.

This controller basically gives you the full sized controller experience of the Nimbus, but at a price that is only slightly more than the Stratus. To me that seems like a pretty good deal, unless of course you need the extra portability. In which case, go for the Stratus below.

Third Choice:SteelSeries Stratus Wireless Gaming Controller

Like my top pick, this controller from SteelSeries is also MFi certified. It has the same player LED indicators and the same pressure-sensitive buttons. Unlike the Nimbus however, this Stratus is designed to be truly mobile. The Nimbus happens to work with the iPad, but it was designed for the living room experience. That’s great in my book, since that will give you the best and most comfortable gaming experience. What the Nimbus sucks at is portability.

The stratus is designed to be compact, which means it has to compromise a bit in the ergonomics department. It uses an older Bluetooth version (2.1) and has less space for a battery. As a consequence it has a quarter of the Nimbus’ battery life. However, that’s still 10 hours, which handily matches the battery life of the iPad itself. So when your controller needs a charge, so will your iPad, especially since you are likely to do other things than game on the tablet over 10 hours of use. It also comes with an ingenious snap-on cover, which makes it no problem to throw it in a bag.

If you have big hands then this may not be the ideal control for you, but if you want a full-featured, highly-compatible gamepad that can painlessly travel with you, then you’ll be hard pressed to find a better deal than the Stratus.

Fourth Choice: WISETIGER MFI Joystick

Who could ever argue with a WISE TIGER? That’s who is bringing us this MFi-certified gamepad – I’m assuming the name is a direct English translation that sounds better in the original tongue. In terms of looks and configuration this is pretty much a direct clone of the Xbox 360 controller and that’s a very good thing for a couple of reasons.

First of all, this has basically become a standard for cross-platform game controller designs. Unfortunately, the price of this controller is also in line with what an genuine Xbox controller would cost. As far as I can tell the only buttons missing from this are the stick click buttons. Because this is MFi certified it means that the Bluetooth chip has been tested and approved by Apple itself, which means there will hopefully be no connectivity issues.

Of course, what matters the most is the list of games that the controller supports. Thankfully Apple now provides certification and official support for games in iOS. In the old days a given controller would either emulate keyboard inputs or have to have a specially written support module in the app. Now if you have an MFi controller and an MFi game you can be pretty sure that the controller will work.

To be sure, the WISETIGER has some of the latest and greatest iOS games on its support list. These include AAA titles like Knights of the Old Republic and Monster Hunter.

The build quality seems good (at this price it better be) and customers seem happy with it. The WISETIGER is definitely near the top of my personal shopping list. It’s only that stupendous price that keeps my enthusiasm in check.

iPega Next Generation PG-9033
Wireless Bluetooth Phone Game Controller

iPega was one of the first companies to start producing iOS and Android gamepads and they are still very much around. The PG-9033 is now a bit of an anachronism. This will only work with iOS games that are written with iPega in mind, so I really can’t recommend that any iOS user buys this. For Android people the story is a bit different since it can be used with a wide variety of emulator apps that Apple doesn’t allow on its app store.

Still, as of today it doesn’t matter how nice a particular controller may be, if it is not MFi compatible you’d need a very good reason (or a specific game) to spend money on it.

XFUNY(TM) Wireless Bluetooth Classic 8Bitdo NES30 Pro

Here we have another proprietary controller that will only word with iCade-compatible games. Usually that’s an immediate death knell in the MFi controller era, but since this controller is aimed at retro gaming and many of the retro games you may care about already exist in iCade-compatible collections on the App Store, this may well be worth it. So with those limitations in mind let us have a look at this NES inspired controller.

They have the colors down pat. At least to the extent where I can remember NES color schemes.
Interestingly, you can use this with both a wired and wireless connection and it works with PC, Mac, and Android as well. Of course one thing the NES did not have was all the same buttons as an Xbox control. It has analogue sticks, stick clicks, and four shoulder buttons. So, really, this is just an extended controller that sort of takes a cue from both the NES and SNES classic controllers. It uses the now-ancient Bluetooth 2.1 standard and as I said, no MFi support. However, it does have upgradable firmware, so perhaps that will change.

If you really like the retro aspect and know that the games that you want to play are supported by this controller then I think it’s a really neat gimmick. That is, if you can stomach the slightly too high price.

abcGOODefg® Wireless Bluetooth NES Controller for iOS

This is another NES-inspired controller, but it really is just like an original NES control. NO analogue sticks, no bumper buttons – just a d-pad and four face buttons. Once again, this is NOT an MFi controller, but you can just check that the games you want to play will work with it.

Luckily, this controller is a bit more reasonably priced, so if you are serious about retro gaming on your iPad, you could have this AND a proper MFi controller. You have to really love these retro games though.

Silvercell Bluetooth Game Console Control

This is pretty interesting. It’s actually a keychain remote controller that can be used for presentations and stuff too. If you want to do VR stuff with a phone this is also a pretty good solution. You have a single stick and four face buttons, which will work for quite a few things apart from games. You can turn ebook pages or work a powerpoint. It’s versatile. It’s also less than ten bucks and has a 40-hour battery life. I can literally think of no reason not to buy one.

SteelSeries Stratus XL

The Stratus XL is a product that doesn’t really make any sense to me anymore. If it and the smaller original Stratus were both the only products from Steelseries on the market it would make perfect sense. If you want a full-sized controller then buy the XL; if you like the more portable design, buy the smaller control.

Now we also have the Nimbus, which is a full-sized controller that is, as far as I can see, better in every way to the XL. The regular Stratus is still fine because it is in a class of its own in terms of its size and purpose, but the Nimbus has basically made the XL obsolete.

Still, we must look at it on its own merits as well. It has the Xbox layout, the same comfortable grip, and MFi compatibility. It has pressure-sensitive buttons and up to 40 hours of battery life. Oh, right – the batteries are not built-in though; they are AA batteries. That can be good or bad, as I explained in the Mad Catz review. The reason this all bothers me is that the XL still sells for the same price as the Nimbus, and the Nimbus is better in every way. It makes no sense to pay the asking price for the XL if the Nimbus can be had for the same money.

I would fully support SteelSeries pricing the regular Stratus and the XL the same; it would still make sense since you would be choosing between form factors. But if you price the XL against the Nimbus it will lose every time. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fine controller. IF you want a full-sized controller and IF you can get this at the same price as its smaller brother, then you’ll be pretty happy with it. Otherwise, spend your money on the newer technology.

Ground Control to Major Tom

Any iOS gamer who is even slightly more than a casual fan of games owes it to themselves to get their hands on a good iOS gamepad. The difference this makes to the experience on the iPad for the right sorts of games is a real revelation. You’ll never want to use another virtual joystick again in your life, trust me on that one.