In the past, there have been not so wonderful ideas for adapting current mobile devices into something more useful than they were meant to be. There have been microscopes, lenses and other nonsense that have promised to adapt the mobile tech into a useful instrument outside of its boundaries, but rarely do those accessories actually pan out as advertised.
So call me skeptical when I had the opportunity to review the Gamevice for the iPhone. It promised to turn your mobile gaming experience, on particular games, into a console-esque experience that felt comfortable. That’s a big promise considering how incredibly uncomfortable virtual controls can be to a big-handed guy like myself and a huge reason why I don’t like playing games on my mobile device.
Let’s get right into this thing.
The design of the Gamevice is simple. The left side of the device is where you hook up your phone into a lightning connection, which allows for instant communication and charge (with external cable hooked up). It also contains a right thumbstick (duh), A-B-X-Y buttons (Xbox coloring for the win), and top buttons (bumper and otherwise) for comfort/functionality. In addition to those items, you also get a lovely power indicator to the left of the right thumbstick and an additional lighting female input and headphone jack for audio on the bottom of the right side. The layout on the right side is actually kind of nice and it makes sense. On the left side of the Gamevice you have your directional pad, thumbstick (duh pt. 2) and the usual button suspects on the top. Nothing you aren’t used to seeing on a console controller these days, so no real surprises when it comes to expectations versus reality.
The flexible strip on the back, which seems to cool down a hot phone when playing for extended hours, can be adjusted to fit different iPhone types, which include the plus size phones. Once the phone is intact, you can lock it tight by pulling in the strip within the device (just a small push lever on the back that retracts it to make it tight). This ensures the phone fits firmly within the two sides. Now, the only issue I had with this design, and it’s because my lack of reading instructions (I test things with HCI in mind), is how to unlock this strip when a new phone was being inserted. There is an unlock mechanism on the right side of the controller, hidden on the spine, that allows you to loosen it up and put in a new sized phone. Had I not read the instructions, I would have probably torn this poor thing up, but it took a minor beating before I gave in to look for the unlock mechanism in the manual. That said, the device, while plastic for the most part, is durable for a dumbass like myself.
Overall, the design makes sense for the Gamevice. It looks like a cheaply made product, but surprisingly the design was durable and felt more solid once the phone was inserted into it. It feels like a controller when you’re gripping it, which is what it should feel like. I experienced no hand cramps or fatigue when playing games, which certainly got me excited about mobile gaming possibilities. Let me reiterate that it takes a lot these days for mobile gaming to be exciting.
Once you hook your phone into the device, it immediately tries to detect if you have the Gamevice app installed. If you don’t, like I didn’t, the device points you to it immediately in the App Store. The Gamevice app is a gateway to a secondary app store that is dedicated to Gamevice compatible games. Once there, you can see games in broken down categories. There are a load of popular titles (FIFA, The Binding of Isaac and Ms. Pac-Man) that are available for purchase and when you click on one it redirects you back to Apple’s App Store and loads up the specific title. I know that sounds like app store inception, and it is technically, but it makes sense when you’re trying to sort out which app works with the Gamevice. It’s a HUGE help.
Now, before I dug into any of those listed apps, I tried out my current Sonic the Hedgehog game that I purchased years ago, which wasn’t necessarily featured on Gamevice’s app store. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I could use the controller to play Sonic, even going as far as being able to use it on the menu system. I didn’t have many games beyond that which required virtual controls, but I was happy an oldie-goodie could work with the tech. It gave me hope that some older games that I struggled through on mobile would be made better through this device. We can talk more about that when we get to the value section, but it was a pleasant surprise.
Back to the app store, though.
The first game I downloaded to try out was Minecraft. I have a ba-zillion kids and they play that game like crazy, so I was curious to see how well it did with the Gamevice. Surprisingly, it functioned completely nearly perfect, though occasionally the new buttons (and I mean this sparingly) would need to be pressed a bit to get them broken in. Specifically, the R2 button, which is for swinging/building/movement missed about every 9-10 presses, though it smoothed out after a few hours of gaming. Movement with the analog sticks and traversing the menu system was 1:1 responsive for Minecraft. I was actually impressed with how comfortable and well it worked. I handed it over to my kids for a few hours and they played Minecraft just as well as they did with the console versions. And the PC versions. And the Mac versions.
The game worked fine for the gamers that played it.
My main fear with the functionality was it feeling a bit cheap, which could bring back memories of third party controller makers from the early PlayStation days (Mad Catz/Interact — looking at you). Those third party company products would break easily, especially in their buttons/sticks, which was incredibly frustrating and that type of third party product continued for years. Gamevice is not that at all. Once the phone was fitted into the controller holder it worked like a typical console controller would, which impressed the hell out of me. It felt heavy, durable and was spot on what it was advertised to be. There wasn’t a lot to dislike about the functionality of this device. It worked like a controller should work. What more could you want from a mobile phone controller? It functioned well.
Let’s start this out by saying the $99 price tag is not unreasonable, especially if you have kids that game on their phone more than in front of a television. The Gamevice is a durable piece of hardware that works incredibly well. If I could afford three of these for the household, I would purchase them for it. We have one Samsung phone (non-explosive) in the household, so she would be left out, but the rest of the kids would be happy.
That said, the biggest reason the value is hurt here is because more games need to get on board with this product and support it. The list of games that support the Gamevice is impressive, as well as expensive (AAA games have AAA prices), but older games and newer games need to support this, so that the Gamevice gaming library can expand. The device should allow for pre-existing games to work with it, within reason of course (and if the game makes sense for it). Maybe Gamevice developers can sell this idea to other mobile game developers, which could possible lead to updates, which would integrate the device into older games out there. Breathing life into older games can go a long way for everyone involved, which would equal out to more money for everyone and more recognition for the usefulness of this device. For example, if SEGA would update their classic library to work with this device, it would be the best. I want to play Phantasy Star II using this controller, as it would free up space on the screen where my fat fingers reside right now. It doesn’t work with it currently, which makes me incredibly sad. Something like Phantasy Star II would benefit from this controller and make the gaming experience on mobile more than just a casual experience. It would make this device a more valuable piece of hardware, which is what it needs right now.
Anyway, I do enjoy the device and think it makes comfortable sense for us console gamers wanting a bit more comfort and control out of mobile gaming. If you have the $99 and want to support a good mobile accessory, then you should seriously look at the Gamevice. The more people that purchase this thing, the more developers will start eyeing it for compatibility with their titles. It’s a device that would make the mobile gaming world stand out from the shadow of the console world. It can have that type of impact.