Nothing this small should work as well as the SteelSeries Free Mobile Controller does. Years of development have resulted in a tiny, pocket-sized controller that had me overlooking its small stature the moment I started playing a compatible game.
Finding a compatible game? Not nearly as enjoyable.
My experience with the SteelSeries Free controller at home closely echoes the experience I had with the device back in September, when I sat down with the company's chief marketing officer, Kim Rom, for some hands-on time. I am continuously amazed that a controller smaller than an iPhone can function at all, let alone feel so comfortable in my giant-sized hands. The tiny buttons are easily navigable, the analog sticks subtly textured to prevent slippage. Despite the small area, the back of the unit is contoured to accommodate a pair of crooked pointer fingers comfortably. SteelSeries' engineers' designed the hell out of this thing, and the end result is lovely.
My experience was also similar in that I gravitated towards the same games I played during the demonstration once I got the unit home. League of Evil 2 is a spectacular experience when played with the Free, granting me a degree of control the touch screen of my iPad or iPod Touch could never hope to achieve. Temple Run is still incredibly easy, though in a way that doesn't feel cheap. Well, not too cheap. When I strayed from those games I stuck to familiar territory. Platformers like Muffin Knight and Pix'n Love Rush; games I already loved that were enhanced by the addition of a controller.
It's not that the list of games supporting the SteelSeries Free controller is particularly tiny. That it works with 85 different iOS titles is an impressive feat. It's just that of those 85, there aren't many I'm really keen to play. There's no N.O.V.A. or Modern Combat on the list, games that cry out for a controller. It's a motley assemblage that doesn't hold much appeal for me.
And if one did catch my eye, the first order of business was unpairing the Free from my iPad. In order to circumvent Apple's ongoing rejection of universal game controllers, the Free is detected as a keyboard, which means that when it is paired, the iOS keyboard ceases to function. Ingenious, if not particularly convenient.
On Android, where controller support isn't a hotly-contested issue, the Free fares much better. The list here contains 114 titles the likes of Grand Theft Auto III, Riptide GP and the Tegra version of Shadowgun. The free is also compatible with any PC or Mac game that can utilize a control pad, with the SteelSeries Engine mapping software giving PC compatibility an extra kick.
PC and Mac aside (I'm quite happy with the older wired SteelSeries controller I picked up at GameStop on clearance for my PC gaming), the combined compatibility of the Free on iOS and Android devices makes for an expansive list, but one that represents a minuscule fraction of the games on those platforms that could benefit from a separate controller. That's not SteelSeries' fault, but it is one of the Free's failings. Until Apple introduces universal gamepad support and Android developers embrace a standard, compatibility lists are never going to be as encompassing as they should be.
The SteelSeries Free Mobile Controller is an amazing little device that does a wonderful job given the limitations forced upon it. I'm just not sure the mobile gaming public is ready to drop $80 on excellent design and good intentions.