There have been a lot of cool things that have started off with lame names.  Xbox, Gmail, iPad, Vita, and BluRay are all ridiculous names, but they all share one thing in common – they have become uniquely identifiable, and in some cases, indispensable.  This go-round we get the Moga – a controller from the folks at Power-A for, of all things….your phone.  Let’s take a look at touchscreens as an interface to really understand why you might want the Moga.

Touchscreens aren’t a new invention, not by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, the concept of a touchscreens were being tinkered with in the 1960s for air traffic control.  By 1977 a company named Elographics (spun off from Siemens) had invented the first curved-glass touchscreens for commercial use.  In 1983 we saw Hewlett Packard give consumers their first taste of the technology with the HP-150 – a computer that had a grid of infrared beams across the monitor to detect finger movements.  1993 saw the first PDA from Apple called the Newton, and IBM brought us the first smart phone called Simon.  In 1996 we saw the first Palm Pilot, and by 2002 we had our first tablet running Windows XP.  In 2007 Apple took the world by storm with the first generation iPhone, and it’s been a touchscreen world ever since.  Touchscreens grace the Vita in several ways, they power every iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch on the market.  Android smartphones all use touchscreens, your Harmony One remote uses a touchscreen, all of the Kindle Fire devices use touchscreens, and even your ATM uses a touchscreen.   To say that touchscreens are a big part of life in a technological world is a bit of an understatement, but they all have one problem – us.

The input device for a touchscreen is obviously your finger, and that means taking up a chunk of viewable space on your screen to take control of whatever application or game you might be using.  This has all but prevented widespread adoption rates as a serious gaming platform as the most popular game style, first person shooters, require clunky HUD replication of controls on the screen.  This also limits complexity as you have to control the game as well as hold the device with the same pair of hands.   The folks at Power-A saw this limitation and wanted to do something about it; let’s look at the Moga.

The Moga is exactly what it looks like – a controller for your Android device.  (there is an iOS-based one coming soon, Apple fans)  The dual analog sticked controller features four face buttons, a start and select button, a sync button, and two triggers as well as a spring-clamp platform to hold even the largest phones.  The device measures nearly the same dimensions as the Samsung Galaxy III in width and length, but somehow manages to feel sturdy and well-constructed.  As I played with the device I realized what the buttons felt most like – my Sony Vita.  The buttons are stiff enough to be sturdy and not accidentally pressed.  The analog sticks feel more shallow than the Vita, being recessed slightly into the case.  This does give them a somewhat confined feel when you are just toying with it, but surprisingly they are very well tuned to what would otherwise be a touchscreen experience.  Slight movements are easily achieved as I later found out during game testing.  The hand grips underneath the controller (where the two AAA batteries that provide the 18+ hours of use are stored) provide grips roughly half the depth of an Xbox 360 or PS3 controller – perfect for a compact system you’ll use on the go.  The weight of the batteries and the heft of the controller are balanced to the rear to help counter the added weight of a phone in the cradle.  Since the device uses no physical connection, instead opting for Bluetooth, the Moga can be used on any Android-based system running “Gingerbread” (2.3) or better without having to lug a cord around.   Enough about the physical – it was time to try out some games.

As it stands the Moga supports 29 games with the number jumping to over 50 by years end, and it accomplishes this with the Moga “Pivot App”.  This included middleware helps add the necessary integration for your favorite action titles to scrub the intrusive HUD and replace it with a clean experience similar to what you’d have on a home console.  Some of the biggest names in the Android market are already supported including Dungeon Hunter 3, N.O.V.A. 3, Sonic CD, and The Dark Knight Rises, with games like Dead Trigger, Blazing Souls Accelate, Duke Nukem 3D, and Virtua Tennis coming shortly.  I chose Sonic CD, N.O.V.A. 3, and The Dark Knight Rises for my tests.

Sonic CD:
There is no doubt that Sonic The Hedgehog is one of the fastest-paced titles on the market from any generation.  The little blue mascot rips through levels in under a minute, gathering rings and pushing the ability of your eyes to track everything on the screen to their maximum.  Certainly, if the Moga suffered any level of input lag it would show here, right?  Well, there is nothing to talk about it that department – the Moga handled Sonic with ease.  My attention wandered as I got lost in the nostalgia of Sonic and completely forgot that I was reviewing this controller – it just works.

N.O.V.A. 3:
The first N.O.V.A. was used to really show off the graphical capabilities of some of the first Tegra processors from nVidia, but shooter fans really found only a passing fancy here as the controller (in this case, your big mitts) got in the way of the action.  I loaded up N.O.V.A. 3 and let it sync up with the Moga only to find that there is actually a serviceable shooter in there this time.  Being prompted to use the triggers, and occasionally a face button felt more like a shooter experience I could get used to.  The camera and movement controls via the analog felt sluggish, but after backing up to the main menu to adjust the sensitivity from the default (which would likely work perfectly for two fingers on the screen) I was able to move around nearly as would expect that I could have were I using a standard console controller.  The Moga analog sticks showed their stiffness here as some minute movements were a little more difficult, but the built-in auto-aim assistance helped compensate.  Using triggers to fire instead of frantically tapping on the screen was certainly a more immersive experience than I’d previously had with this game, though having to press select and pull the trigger highlighted the lack of a D-Pad on this device.

The Dark Knight Rises:

This game caught me off guard.  I imagine there are all sorts of movie spin-offs that come out around the time a title hits the silver screen, but since nearly all of them are complete trash I never pay attention to them.  Surprisingly, this one is different.  More akin to the Arkham titles on the console, the game features a full combat engine, puzzles, a fully-explorable open world, grappling, gadgets, upgrades, consumables, gliding and more – all difficult things to pull off without a solid control scheme.  After playing for a bit with the touch controls, I was glad to be back to using the Moga.   Transforming an otherwise nearly unplayable title into something enjoyable, the Moga handled everything this game threw at it.  Combat using three buttons was a breeze with the face buttons on the Moga, and using the triggers for gadgets and grappling was simple and familiar.   I know I’m not reviewing the game, but with the Moga in hand, I felt like that endeavor might actually be worthwhile!

Dumb name, awesome device
Many analysts have predicted that cell phones and tablets will eventually rule over consoles with their portability and rapidly-expanding power.  Everyone has a phone in their pocket, and nearly everyone plays at least some kind of game on it.  The Moga looks to take that experience to the next level by giving developers access to format they are more used to working with, and giving gamers an inexpensive ($49.99 retail) way to play them.  Given the number of upcoming high-quality games that are coming to the supported list in the next few weeks, it is very clear to me that the Moga is set to deliver.  If you own a Transformer Prime, a Google Nexus, or any other Android device sporting the Tegra 3 chipset, you owe it to yourself to pick one of these up.