have fun with an ol d ipad
Turn an iPad into a time machine to play classic 1980s games
he first generation iPad isn’t entirely obsolete just yet; it won’t run YouTube’s app any more, but you can still use the mobile version of the site (m.youtube.com) in Safari, and the iPad’s okay for a lot of other sites and email, too.
The real problem is apps. The original iPad can’t be updated past iOS 5.1.1, ruling out a lot of things in the App Store, especially games.
Midway Arcade is a very worthy exception. It’s a collection of 1980s coin-op games faithfully recreated on the iPad. For 79p, you get the solid gold classics Joust, Rampage and Defender (plus some mediocre filler games), and for another 79p you can unlock a singleplayer version of Gauntlet, which is incredible value. These are arcade-perfect conversions and, amazingly, they only need iOS 4.3 or better to run. However, there is a catch: the on-screen joystick controls make the games totally unplayable. Now, you can buy a physical iPad joystick for about £9 on Amazon. It works by means of a conductive foam pad on the base that simulates a finger touch as you tilt the joystick left and right. This is better, but it’s still unplayable because the suction cup that holds the joystick against the screen gradually creeps during play, until the physical joystick is no longer correctly aligned with the on-screen control area. By ‘gradually’, I mean within about 15 seconds.
Fixing the joystick
My idea is to put a sheet of clear acrylic over that corner of the screen, with a hole in it for the joystick. This will stop the joystick base
from sliding relative to the screen, while still allowing it to tilt freely. The acrylic won’t cover the rest of the screen, so I can still hit the virtual buttons and, being transparent, it shouldn’t get in the way of the action. To hold the acrylic in place I need a frame around the iPad, and if I’m doing that, I may as well put it on a slight tilt to make play more comfortable.
The ‘proper’ way to design this would be to use CAD software to draw a 3D model and use this to make a template for cutting out each piece with a table saw or laser cutter, but I don’t have the carpentry equipment, skill or patience for any of that. So I made a prototype out of cardboard, just cutting and sellotaping bits together until it looked about right. Then I used the cardboard prototype to make flat cardboard templates, drew round them with a pencil on a sheet of 5mm MDF, and then cut it with a hand saw on my kitchen table. (Sure, the table acquired a few extra gouges in the process, but I choose to believe that these battle scars just add character.)
The basic design is an open-sided box. The sloping side pieces each have another smaller piece on the inside with the same slope, so that the iPad rests on them like a shelf. At the front, a length of wooden batten reinforces the inside corners to stop the iPad sliding forwards. The sides and bottom were screwed to the batten with countersunk, 15mm chipboard screws, and all the wooden pieces were also glued with PVA adhesive.
I bought the acrylic as a 5mm thick A4 sheet (£7 on Amazon) and cut the hole using the 32mm hole saw attachment for my drill. To cut out the rounded corner shape, I used my Dremel with the router drill bit. Cutting acrylic tends to generate enough heat to actually melt the plastic, which creates a wide fringe of melted shavings stuck to the cut edges, but if you’re quick you can pull them off with your fingers before they set hard again, and save yourself a lot of filing afterwards.
The Mark 1 version of my iPad arcade cabinet just had this single layer of acrylic hot-glued to the corner of the MDF box. But I found this still allowed too much play for the joystick base. So, I cut a second collar from acrylic and glued it on top of the acrylic platform to create a deeper well for the joystick. This still allows enough movement to register in the game but makes it much harder for the base to come unstuck during frantic gaming sessions.
At this point the deficiencies in my carpentry skills were pretty apparent from the rough corners and small gaps everywhere. I ‘fixed’ this using some bathroom tile grout whitener that I had lying around. Skimming over all the joints with this filled in the gaps nicely and covered over the screws as well. Once it had dried, I gave it a quick sand with fine sandpaper. To pretty it up a little, I applied a coat
I don’t have the tools, skill or patience to do this the ‘proper’ way
of grey spray primer (after carefully masking off the acrylic section, of course) and then two coats of black spray paint.
The end result still isn’t quite as good as an original arcade cabinet, obviously. The screen is a little smaller than the original CRT display, and the on-screen controls cover a bit of the play area as well. My acrylic joystick bracket covers a corner of the screen entirely, so you have to slide the iPad out of the box to reach the ‘back’ button in that corner if you want to change game. It’s also very easy to knock the sleep/wake button when sliding in the iPad. I may cut small slots into the sides to cater for this, and the headphone and charging ports. Overall, I’m quite happy with it. The hardware cost was under £25, and construction kept me busy for a couple of happy afternoons. Defender is still a bit too twitchy a game for a makeshift cabinet like this. Its Hyperspace button is easy to miss without the tactile feedback of a physical button, but Joust and Gauntlet are surprisingly fun to play, and this might just give me enough of a fix to keep me from any rash eBay purchases any time soon.
Construction kept me busy for a couple of happy afternoons
The quick reactions needed to play Defender are still better on an original cabinet, though our home-made one’s joystick still works better than virtual controls.
Modern Pac-Man games are designed to work well with a touchscreen, but only a joystick gives a feeling of authenticity in the original.
In Rampage, you play a monster that’s trying to knock down cities across North America!
35 years later, Joust is still brilliant fun to play – with the right joystick rather than touchscreen controls.
The translucent acrylic joystick mount still lets you see the action on the screen underneath.
Trying to feel your way around eight-position directional controls on a touchscreen is an exercise in frustration.
Game selection in Midway Arcade even goes so far as to recreate the cabinet designs in a virtual arcade.