Ever since Apple introduced reference designs and an API for iOS gaming controllers at WWDC, we've known some kind of officially sanctioned iOS hardware was on the way. The Moga Ace is the first we've gotten in our hot little hands on, and after playing with it for a few days, we can safely say that it's a blast.
For some early testing, Moga supplied us with a loaner iPod Touch loaded with a few controller-ready games, including Dead Trigger 2 and Bastion. Both are excellent. Still, it's a little too early to know if the new controller is going to change how we consume games on our iOS devices, or if it's just a gimmick. That said, the current offerings do give us a very good idea that there's a lot of fun to be had. We couldn't be more excited for what lies ahead, even if the hardware and gaming might need a little tweaking before it's totally awesome.
This particular iteration of an iOS controller is one of three Apple described in its reference designs. The Ace looks like a modern console gamepad that you snap a lightning connector iPod or iPhone into the middle of. For controls, the ACE has a D-Pad, left and right joysticks, ABXY buttons, and two pairs shoulder buttons. They're far from ideal for gaming when compared to console hardware, but they're not horrendous either. The exceptions are the D-pad, which is an unusable disaster, and the L2/R2 triggers which feel like they were designed by Fisher-Price. Playing with only the ABXY controls and the joysticks holds up very well.
Overall, the hardware feels flimsy and cheap like a toy. Moga designed the Ace to be collapsible, when you're not using it, so the two handled sides slide together into a compact package. It's a nice touch that makes throwing the Ace in you jacket pocket a tad more comfortable. Unfortunately, the sliding trick also means that the hardware isn't sturdy until you've securely locked an iPod or iPhone into the middle of it with a little locking mechanism. Even then, the whole ensemble lacks the sturdiness you're used to from mobile gaming rigs like the Nintendo 3DS. In fairness, the thing only costs $100 so maybe we should dial back our expectations.
Additionally, the Moga Ace has a rechargeable 1800mAh battery so that it can serve as a backup and/or charge your device while you play. This is a nice bonus even if it's necessary and all but mandated by Apple.
How well do iOS games translate to controllers?
Depending on the game, using the Moga Ace can either be frustrating or a lot of fun. In the games I played the most, Dead Trigger 2 and Bastion, the first thing you really appreciate is that since you don't have to touch the screen to play your games, you can actually see the whole display. Consider that in DT, you've got to have your thumbs on the screen basically the whole time.
Now these are simplified games designed for a simplified control set, which means that they actually don't transfer as seamlessly to the game pad as you might expect. DT is a game that's designed specifically for touch devices whereas Bastion, was actually originally released in the Xbox 360 arcade. One of the games is touch-native, the other is controller native. The differences are significant.
In DT controlling the movement of your zombie-killing hero is actually more precise when you're using the two-thumb touch interface on screen, as opposed to the Moga Ace's two joysticks. That said, pressing your thumbs on the screen is a lot more tiring on your hands than the joysticks.
DT has fully customizable controls so that you can actually map the gamepad to your personal preferences. I honestly didn't find this all that useful—Not in the earlier stages of gameplay, at least. The game is designed to be played with a limited interface so you start shooting whenever there are zombies in your crosshairs. There's no need to map a button for firing, because the game does the firing for you.
In the case of Bastion, on the other hand, the controls were almost perfectly mapped. In fact, the single joystick affords you so much control over the hero, that the game is actually a lot easier when you're using the controller. Maybe that's unsurprising given the game's console origins.
I don't bring up the shortcomings of how games move from one control set to another to nitpick, rather, I think it's kind of fascinating how different game designs move from an Apple display to the Moga Ace and vice versa. The simple response is to simply say that the controllers will get better as the games are designed for them. Well, not necessarily. Don't expect fully featured 3D shooters any time soon. The iOS App Store approval process requires that you must be able to play a game to its fullest using only touch controls, so designing games specifically for the controllers probably isn't going to happen as soon as some people might like. That doesn't mean that developers can't make games that are more suitable for third-party gamepads, or that, at the very least, they can't work to better tailor the games they develop for touch to the controllers.
For a $100, you better believe the Moga Ace is going to end up in a ton of stockings this year. It's a lot of fun, and even only for a temporary amusement, it's not a bad deal—especially considering how expensive iPhone accessories can be.
That said I'm very interested to see what other competing hardware comes out as well as how the games adapt to the new hardware. It's certainly far too early to decide this is the one, since there will certainly be more to learn in the coming weeks. Though it's not exactly easy to search for games that are ready to go with the external controller API, there are supposedly hundreds out there. My thumbs have their work cut out for them.