REVIEW: Power A’s MOGA Game Controller for Android Devices

on Tuesday, Nov. 13th

The current era of mobile gaming is dominated by smartphones and tablets. Every up and coming game developer with half a brain is trying to crack the iOS and Android markets. So too are the classic publishers: EA, Bandai, you name it.

For console-bred gamers this has been a slow motion nightmare.

Let me explain: I had the worst Pac-Man experience of my life the other day while attempting to play the arcade classic with touch controls. I’m including in this all the times I was bullied at the arcade, lost quarters to broken machines, or discovered I was playing a knock-off that was glitchy.

When a game requires a joystick, virtual versions just don’t cut it for me. The same is true for tilt based controls for racers and space sims. They seem to sell but I have zero interest in them whatsoever. This means that entire classes of console style games have been cut right out of my mobile gaming experience. I suspect I’m not alone here.

Which is where Power A’s MOGA comes in.

THE DEVICE

At first glance the MOGA looks like a cut down console controller. Two short, disc-like sticks rise just slightly above the surface of the controller. Four surface buttons on the right replicate the standard face controls of an XBox controller. Two shoulder buttons lay just under the lip of the controller.

On it’s own the MOGA is just a touch narrower than the modern XBox controller, with the sticks almost precisely the same distance apart. This gives the controller an uncanny feel: the body just a bot narrower and thinner, but the thumbs still in proper relation to each other.

The plastic of the body is durable, with the undercarriage constructed out of some of a rubberized styles plastic with grooves cut in at an angle to help with grip.

It is in this configuration that the MOGA can be used with Android tablets. The device connects over bluetooth and can function with any Android 2.3+ device. Yet that is not where the device shines.

The center of the MOGA can be flipped up to reveal an arm that can hold an Android phone. The arm is adjustable, sliding open with ease to accommodate devices as wide as 3.2 inches. It fits a Samsung Galaxy S III pretty easily. After a single go-round where I fumbled with both hands to get the phone in I quickly figured out that I could just slide the phone in with one hand while holding the base of the controller with the other.

In all it takes about two seconds to transform the MOGA from a controller into a portable gaming machine. The device is counterbalanced to make up for the weight of a phone, and manages to feel– at least with an S III locked in– more like a purposefully designed portable than the hybrid it actually is.

That’s an impressive feat right there all by itself.

Power A promises 18 hours of battery life on 2 AAA batteries. I can happily report that I had no problems with the controller’s battery power after several days of on and off casual gaming. A week in, with the same batteries in place and after having accidentally left the device on and the MOGA is still kicking.

In fact, the Galaxy S III I was using as a test device had more problems with standby power than the MOGA. I don’t know if that says more about Power A or Samsung’s engineers.

One glaring issue came up with the provided S III, and is liable to plague any MOGA/Phone configuration that is centered on a similarly laid out device. Certain games would only play in a specific orientation, one that forced me to put the phone in place with the volume controls on the side nearest the controller body.

This meant that it took a concerted effort– either through navigating the menus to get to the software audio interface, or by taking hands off the controller– to alter the volume. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is a rather unfortunate design hitch.

THE SOFTWARE

The secret sauce for PowerA is in the “Pivot” software that acts as both aggregator, store, and launch platform for MOGA enabled games. In the legendarily fractured Android market this software is a necessity.

There’s another side to the software story, however. Remember that these are games designed for touch controls. PowerA is providing an SDK for publishers to convert touch controls to the MOGA. They see this active role in the market as a middleware as an advantage they bring to wooing devs to their new platform.

THE LIBRARY

For the moment, however, this means there is a limitation on the number of games that work with the MOGA. At present around 40 games either work or promise to have support for the MOGA soon.

Some heavy hitters in the gaming space including Gameloft, Sega, and Namco Bandai have adapted games for the system.

Everything about hardware comes down to the games: so do check out the available library before making your own decision to purchase or not. However as launch libraries go, Power A is doing pretty well for itself already.

THE EXPERIENCE

The MOGA unlocked a lot of games for me that I would have never played without sticks. That includes the aforementioned Pac-Man, which I have tried on touch devices more than once only to exit out of the program as fast as humanly possible.

It felt a little strange to play a first-person shooter like N.O.V.A. on such a small device, and the controls are not quite as precise as I’d like on those kinds of games. However more casual console/arcade experiences like Sonic CD and Pac-Man play just as I expect them to. There’s no messy mental translation into the world of touch/accelerometer controls.

A space shooter sim that was provided for test purposes was downright obnoxious without the sticks. An attempt to play Dungeon Hunter III without the device led to pure confusion my my part. Do people actually have fun with these games without controllers, or are they just convincing themselves they are having fun?

Granted: there are those who connect other bluetooth capable controllers to their Android devices and then use the HDMI outputs on certain phones to play them on their TV. Yet that isn’t the same as having a console-style portable experience. That’s using your portable as a console.

THE VERDICT

While the sticks have a nice snap-back to center and just the right amount of pull I’m not as much of a fan of their actual build as I’d like to be. I found the thin layer of rubber that’s affixed to the top of the sticks digging into my thumbs during heated Pac-Man playing. There’s a reason that most thumb sticks these days, even the Nintendo 3DS slider sticks, feature cup like depressions.

The triggers are perfect, and even after a quarter hour of playing I didn’t experience any fatigue in holding the device. However the face buttons were a little “clicky” for my taste, reminding me more of phone buttons than what I’m used to finding on a game controller.

Altogether, as a first gen product, the MOGA is a solid way to kick off this hybrid mobile gaming line. When folded down and placed into the case that ships with the controller the MOGA has little bulk. I could slip it into my back pocket with the phone and I had a mobile system near at hand.

I’d just shy of kill to have this kind of device in the iOS ecosystem. As it stands Power A’s MOGA, which retails for $49.99, gives me a reason to be jealous of the Android set for once.

[Disclaimer: both the MOGA and the Samsung Galaxy S III that was loaded with games were provided for review purposes by Power A. The Samsung was a loaner, while the MOGA has entered our hardware library. Given that we don't have any Android devices at Turnstyle's LA offices it's going to be a very lonely little controller.]

Corey McCall with the video game controller that measures the level of excitement in the player. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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