Friday, February 27, 2015

HoriPad for iOS: Finally an MFi Controller Done Right

I want to buy a wiiU, but I can't justify the 300 dollar price tag for a system that has only four games on it that I want to buy... one of them (Xenoblade Chronicles X) not even released yet. But among the titles I want that ARE available is Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.

I've always wanted to get into Monster Hunter. I know it is a hugely multiplayer affair, which normally isn't my bag, but co-operative multiplayer is fine. I like it in Dark Souls, it is one of the only draws for me in Destiny, it is probably awesome in the Monster Hunter Series. MH also ticks a lot of the other checkboxes for what I want in an action-RPG. But this isn't a post about Monster Hunter. It is about the piece of gear that made Monster Hunter available to me.

At this point you have to be a massive dick-snob to unilaterally dismiss touchscreen gaming. It is true that the selection of games is skewed way over to the disposable, the shallow, and the irritating... the latter particularly apparent in the dominant forms of monetization. Free-to-play and In-App Purchases are usually truly execrable. Very few devs seem to have figured out how to make these plans palatable and respectful-seeming to gamers. Not that gamers universally deserve respect. But I do.

There are some genuine diamonds in touchscreen gaming. Some of them are even in that disposable, casual space that veteran gamers seem to be so dismissive of. Not even remotely in that space is Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, originally released in 2008 for the Sony PSP. Updated for iOS in 2014, by the looks of all the reviews it is a stellar port. I have iOS devices. I can play THIS Monster Hunter.

But there is just one problem. Monster Hunter is a third-person action game, a genre really, REALLY designed with two PHYSICAL analog controls (read thumbsticks) in mind. Reviewers say the touchscreen controls in MHFU work well, but I had trouble with 'em. I have an iCade with modified stick and buttons that helps me overcome touchscreen difficulties with some games, but iCade implementation is spotty amongst development houses, and not likely to get better since Apple backed a new controller initiative called MFi a while back. MFi support is easy to plug into iOS games and some companies like SNK Playmore have really taken this by the horns.

When MFi was first announced, the company Steelseries raced some controllers to market and pretty much copped all the initial hubbub about 'ooh, physical controls on my iPad'. But they aren't all that good, frankly. They were expensive and to a gamer base that was used to pretty decent stock controllers on their consoles (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One), they were either flimsy or odd or both. Especially for the asking price. But at E3 last year, even more MFi controllers were trotted out by various hardware developers, prominent amongst them MadCatz... and not as prominently, Hori. That meant something to me because I frickin' swear by Hori's arcade joysticks on my consoles. I love 'em. So Hori showed an MFi controller that looked a lot like the Playstation DualShock layout on an Xbox 360-shaped controller. But when their projected release date came due, the controller didn't arrive in stores. And subsequent release info on it got to be pretty scarce or unreliable. Amazon listed it, but that looked more hopeful than anything else.

Welp, I finally got one. At between 70 and 80 dollars, it is still on the steep side (compared to stock console controllers) but a bit cheaper than some of the other MFi choices. It is considered an 'extended scheme' controller. So if you go look at a list of compatible games on a site like bear that in mind. The issue seems mostly to come into play for me when a game only uses the 'standard scheme' and doesn't map to the expected control on the extended device, as with Cave's Deathsmiles mapping movement to the HoriPad's directional pad instead of to the left analog thumbstick. Deathsmiles still works like this, it just isn't ideal.

The Horipad is a rechargeable console-style controller. The impression that it is the size and shape of an Xbox 360 controller from the E3 footage is accurate. It is not a mini controller designed to be 'so portable, just like your iPad!'. And it adds yet another rechargeable device to the legion most people probably own now, with the battery inside probably responsible for most of the heft on this thing. It is solidly built and all the buttons and sticks have a good feel... quite a bit, again, like the Xbox 360 controller, though the location of the sticks isn't offset. They are lined up on either side of the bottom edge like a Dualshock.

Hooking up to my iPad and iPhone through Bluetooth was a snap, though the lighting scheme and use of the power button were a little confusing until I looked at the included instructions. There doesn't seem to be much lag when playing Monster Hunter or DeathSmiles, something of a consideration for Bluetooth devices. The thumbtacks have a rubberized upper surface for grip, and have good stiffness and travel distances. It comes with a USB cord for charging, but no USB-to-outlet converter. I just plugged it into AC pak for an iPad or a Nook and it worked great.

An additional lack of concession to portability, the Horipad doesn't include any sort of clip to attach it to your iPhone or iPad. There is a little foldable easel-thing that your touchscreen slots into... and it does hold it upright. But this just reinforces the impression that Hori was thinking a gamer would make a sort of tabletop console out of it. An iPad played in one's lap wouldn't suffer much, but using your iPhone is awkward. It didn't create a problem for me since most of the games I want physical controls for are on the larger touchscreen, but if iPhone games are a player's main concern, this isn't the most convenient solution.

I'm also going to give it a slight knock for an aesthetic choice also. To me, the pics Hori put out for this thing make it look like it is a silky black controller with a white plate surrounding the thumbsticks. Actually, the body has a super glossy finish, and the thumbstick plate is a tacky, cheap-looking chrome silver. Just weird design decisions on what 'feels' like a near-premium product.

Given the build quality and the console controller-ishness of the layout, I can almost wholeheartedly recommend this thing, with the small aforementioned caveat about no phone clip. If you don't have to have the controller be tiny and portable like an iPhone, then this is probably the best MFi controller out there. For games that would benefit from physical controls, and gamers that want to eke a console style experience out of their touchscreen it might be the only real choice...especially for the fussy, so-called 'hardcore'.

Now to give this Monster Hunter thing a go. At last.

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