Let's make no bones. With the announcement of its iCade 8-Bitty gamepad for iPhone, iPad and Android, ThinkGeek is not merely evoking the 8-bit era with an 80s-styled peripheral. It is specifically emulating the controller of the original Nintendo Entertainment System and in doing so, recreating (or trying to, at least) a classic piece of controller design. It would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall in the conference room at ThinkGeek HQ when a name for the product - it's hard to imagine that the name iCade Nessy was not discussed.
It's a much simpler task to identify the differences between the 8-Bitty and a NES controller than it is to list their similarities. There are two shoulder buttons and an additional two face buttons (for a total of four) not present on the NES controller - necessary additions given the sophistication of contemporary games. And the controller is more colorful than Nintendo's gray, red and black original, with a front face of primary colors, and edged in a wood-styled veneer. In terms of outward appearance, that's really about it.
A close inspection of the product photography betrays the incredible attention to detail and respect shown to the original NES control pad. The 8-Bitty recreates its inspiration down to an insane level of detail. There are the small, rounded oblong rubber buttons recessed into the face in the precise location of the NES controller's start and select buttons. There are the chubby arrows on each of the D-pad's four directional buttons. There's even the tiny cuboid of missing plastic on the controller's upper edge in line with the cable of the original controller.
Hopefully the 8-Bitty will feel as authentic as it looks. Correctly weighted buttons and pad are a must, though I won't be fully satisfied unless the D-pad squeaks and crunches under duress the way my NES pad did during more frantic games of Nintendo Tennis.
Functionally, this is very different gear, of course. The 8-Bitty is a wireless controller for iPhone, iPad and Android devices, powered by two AAA batteries (sold disunitedly). As one would hope the device is compatible with the iCade-compatible games library including Atari Greatest Hits.
No release date has been announced (though Ars Technica is reporting it will see daylight this year), but the price of US$24.99 makes the 8-Bitty a tempting prospect compared to the $99.99 iCade - and might perhaps be more evocative of retro gaming to children of the late 80s who cut their teeth on colorful platformers in their bedrooms rather than on shmups in smoky amusement arcades.