Gaming accessory maker SteelSeries takes pride in the fact that its Stratus controller sits on the shelves of Apple Stores and on Apple.com. When I spoke with the company's publicists back at CES in the beginning of January they stressed this fact; Apple's own engineers put the controller through its paces during development, and the end product is good enough to be featured officially by the company that makes iPhones and iPads.
That much is certainly true: the Stratus is a surprisingly great controller, especially considering just how tiny it is. Next to an Xbox 360 controller it looks like a cheap toy, but in reality it's definitely not.
It's certainly not priced like a toy. It helps that the price came down from the initially announced $99 to $79, but that's still way more than even brand new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers cost, and those have far more features.
SteelSeries says that's just how much it costs, skeptics guess that Apple contrives to mark up the price, and sources report that MFI ("made for iPhone") controller makers are held to strict guidelines that drive up production costs.
Whatever the truth may be, $80 plus is a lot to pay for a controller. So what are you actually getting with the SteelSeries Stratus?
Not steel, but plastic
The SteelSeries Stratus iOS 7 gaming controller features almost all the surface trappings expected of modern video game controllers: two sticks, a directional pad, four triggers/shoulder buttons, four face buttons, and a pause button. It also has a Bluetooth pairing button on the back and an on/off toggle on the right side.
It charges via an included mini-USB cord, though there's no wall adapter—you're meant to just plug it into your computer. Of course any old USB wall adapter will work, and if you have an iOS device then chances are you have one of those.
The buttons are clicky and the triggers have nice depth. The analog sticks have a surprisingly adequate range of motion, considering their size. Everything responds as it should.
The controller is made of sturdy plastic, with rubbery-feeling grips on the sides. It's smartly designed so that despite how minuscule the whole package is, it still feels quite good in your hands; my index fingers wrap comfortably around the sides to rest on the triggers, leaving my thumbs in the perfect position to access the controller's face. And being so small makes it perfectly portable.
It also comes with a plastic cover that can snap onto the controller's rear when you're using it. This doubles as a convenient place to store the cover so you don't lose it during gameplay, and a way to add bulk to the controller for players with larger hands. Unfortunately the imperfect build SteelSeries provided me with didn't snap correctly and wouldn't stay in place, but the company said that's been fixed for the final retail model.
Finally, the battery life seems to live up to the advertised 10 hours or so.
All told, playing games with the Stratus is a very pleasant experience—when you can get it to work.
Who's to blame?
Getting the SteelSeries Stratus to pair with an iOS 7 device—any device with a lightning connector, I've been told—is initially easy. But I used the controller extensively with an iPad mini, and I found that it would disconnect from the tablet frequently, often for no good reason.
I feel that SteelSeries may not be to blame, though; usually the connection breach occurred when I tried to use the Stratus to play a game whose implementation of MFI controller support was buggy, like Terraria or The Walking Dead. These games and many others (Destructoid has a full list of supposedly MFI-compatible games, and many of them don't work right) don't interface correctly with the controller.
They cause issues ranging from UI glitches to, as previously mentioned, the controller losing its connection with your device and needing to be reset. Some don't recognize its inputs at all, and in others, like Shadow Blade and Nakama, the controller appears to work at first but can't perform advanced moves for reasons that have to be the software's fault.
I tested only a small fraction of the games on that list, but some interfaced with and utilized the SteelSeries Stratus flawlessly: Sonic The Hedgehog 2, the first-person shooter Dead Trigger 2, and Jet Car Stunts 2, for example (maybe being a sequel helps?). And playing these games with real buttons is a joy, despite the adequacy of their respective touchscreen controls.
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The problem is that I don't know who to blame for these issues. It seems that iOS 7's MFi controller implementation is severely lackluster, but maybe developers just haven't caught up to the standards yet? Or maybe there really is a flaw in the Stratus which causes it to bug out with certain software?
The only fact at this point is that the Stratus and other iOS 7 controllers are truly luxury items for dedicated smartphone and tablet gamers. I have no doubt whatsoever that that will change in the future, and controllers, mobile platforms, and app developers will cooperate seamlessly in a beautiful ecosystem.
For now if you're curious or you need to have a physical gaming controller for your iOS devices, you could do much worse than the SteelSeries Stratus. Just be sure to double check that it actually works with your favorite games.