iCade Standard

Since the iPad doesn't have a game controller port on it like a video game console, game developers have come up with a few clever ways to interface physical controls with the device. One such standard is the iCade protocol, made by ION Audio for their line of iPad desktop arcade cabinets and controllers. 

The iCade standard interfaces with iOS as an HID keyboard, paired over Bluetooth Low Energy.

The nRF52 Feather is going to act as a BLE keyboard so that it can "type" the keystrokes that the iCade standard uses.

The press/release scheme allows for button-hold repeat movment and firing, multiple simultaneous commands to work, such as diagonals when an up/down and left/right are hit at the same time, as well as movement and firing at the same time.

Here's what the button mapping looks like for the standard iCade:

The Atari joystick has one single, solitary button, not eight of them like the iCade standard allows! The primary button is mapped to the 'hr' keys, so that's what we'll use!

Feather nRF52 Preparation

If you're new to the Feather nRF52 Bluefruit board, check out this Learning Guide to get started with it.

We'll be programming it as an Arduino board, so make sure you have gone through this setup process and can successfully upload code to it before proceeding.

For extra credit, you may want to also run some of the example sketches to make sure you can pair it with your iOS device.

AtariFruit Code

In researching the iCade standard for my iPad Pinball Controller project, I came across an excellent project by Allen C. Huffman that uses a Teensy as an iCade gamepad controller. We can use a modified version of that code for this project, too!

I made some small adjustments to the code, and included keyboard mapping comments in line, as well as all of the code necessary to convert this to Bluetooth on the nRF52 Feather instead of a hard-wired Teensy.

Copy the code shown below, make a new sketch in Arduino, paste the code into that sketch, save it as AtariFruit_Joystick.ino, and then upload it to your Feather.

Here are the mappings:

  • UP on pin 15
  • DOWN on pin 7
  • LEFT  on pin 11
  • RIGHT on pin 16
  • FIRE on pin 30
// SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2017 John Edgar Park for Adafruit Industries
// SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT

AtariFruit 2600 Joystick
by John Park for Adafruit

For nRF52 Feather and Atari CX40 (2600) joystick.
Reads joystick direction and fire button, sends iCade commands over Bluetooth.

based on:
Teensy iCade Input

by Allen C. Huffman ([email protected])

#include <bluefruit.h>

BLEDis bledis;
BLEHidAdafruit blehid;

#define VERSION "0.1"
#define LED_ON
iCade keyboard mappings.
See developer doc at: http://www.ionaudio.com/products/details/icade

   WE     YT UF IM OG
AQ< -->DC
   XZ     HR JN KP LV

Atari joystick port, looking at the male DB9 on the Atari.
See: http://old.pinouts.ru/Inputs/JoystickAtari2600_pinout.shtml

 1 2 3 4 5/  Up Dn Lt Rt PA
  6 7 8 9/    Bt +5  Gd PB

  The following I/O pins will be used as digital inputs
  for each specific iCade function.
#define UP_PIN    15  // WHT
#define DOWN_PIN  7  // BLU
#define LEFT_PIN  11  // GRN
#define RIGHT_PIN 16  // BRN
#define BTN1_PIN  A2
#define BTN2_PIN  27
#define BTN3_PIN  A0
#define BTN4_PIN  A1
#define BTN5_PIN  30 // ORG
#define BTN6_PIN  A3
#define BTN7_PIN  A4
#define BTN8_PIN  A5

  The following keys are the iCade sequence (hold, release)
  for each function. Send "W" to indicate UP, and "E" when
  UP is released.
#define UP_KEYS    "we"
#define DOWN_KEYS  "xz"
#define LEFT_KEYS  "aq"
#define RIGHT_KEYS "dc"
#define BTN1_KEYS  "yt"
#define BTN2_KEYS  "uf"
#define BTN3_KEYS  "im"
#define BTN4_KEYS  "og"
#define BTN5_KEYS  "hr"
#define BTN6_KEYS  "jn"
#define BTN7_KEYS  "kp"
#define BTN8_KEYS  "lv"

#define DI_PIN_COUNT  12   // 12 pins used.
// #define DI_PIN_START  1    // First I/O pin.
// #define DI_PIN_END    20   // Last I/O pin.



char iCadeDesc[][DI_PIN_COUNT] =  {"Up", "Down", "Left", "Right", "Btn1",
 "Btn2", "Btn3", "Btn4",
  "Btn5", "Btn6", "Btn7", "Btn8"};

/* We want a very short debounce delay for an arcade controller. */
#define DI_DEBOUNCE_MS 10 // 100ms (1/10th second)

#define LED_PIN 17
//#define POWER_LED 17
#define LEDBLINK_MS 1000

/* For I/O pin status and debounce. */
unsigned int  digitalStatus[DI_PIN_COUNT];          // Last set PIN mode.
unsigned long digitalDebounceTime[DI_PIN_COUNT];    // Debounce time.
//unsigned long digitalCounter[DI_PIN_COUNT];         // Times button pressed.
unsigned int  digitalDebounceRate = DI_DEBOUNCE_MS; // Debounce rate.

/* For the blinking LED (heartbeat). */
unsigned int  ledStatus = LOW;             // Last set LED mode.
unsigned long ledBlinkTime = 0;            // LED blink time.
unsigned int  ledBlinkRate = LEDBLINK_MS;  // LED blink rate.

unsigned int pinsOn = 0;

void setup()
  // Just in case it was left on...

  // Initialize the serial port.
  Serial.println("Go to your phone's Bluetooth settings to pair your device");
  Serial.println("then open an application that accepts keyboard input");
  // Set max power. Accepted values are: -40, -30, -20, -16, -12, -8, -4, 0, 4

  // Configure and Start Device Information Service
  bledis.setManufacturer("Adafruit Industries");
  bledis.setModel("Atari Fruit Joystick 52");

  /* Start BLE HID
   * Note: Apple requires BLE device must have min connection interval >= 20m
   * ( The smaller the connection interval the faster we could send data).
   * However for HID and MIDI device, Apple could accept min connection interval
   * up to 11.25 ms. Therefore BLEHidAdafruit::begin() will try to set the min and max
   * connection interval to 11.25  ms and 15 ms respectively for best performance.

  /* Set connection interval (min, max) to your perferred value.
   * Note: It is already set by BLEHidAdafruit::begin() to 11.25ms - 15ms
   * min = 9*1.25=11.25 ms, max = 12*1.25= 15 ms
  /* Bluefruit.setConnInterval(9, 12); */

  // Set up and start advertising

  // Docs say this isn't necessary for Uno.
  //while(!Serial) { }


  // Initialize watchdog timer for 2 seconds.

  // Pins default to INPUT mode. To save power, turn them all to OUTPUT
  // initially, so only those being used will be turn on. See:
  // http://www.pjrc.com/teensy/low_power.html
  for (int thisPin=0; thisPin < DI_PIN_COUNT; thisPin++ )
    pinMode(thisPin, OUTPUT);

  // Disable Unused Peripherals
 // ADCSRA = 0;

  // Initialize the pins and digitalPin array.
  for (int thisPin=0; thisPin < DI_PIN_COUNT; thisPin++ )
    // Set pin to be digital input using pullup resistor.
    pinMode(myPins[thisPin], INPUT_PULLUP);
    // Set the current initial pin status.
    digitalStatus[thisPin] = HIGH; //digitalRead(thisPin+DI_PIN_START);
    // Clear debounce time.
    digitalDebounceTime[thisPin] = 0;
    //digitalCounter[thisPin] = 0;

  // Set LED pin to output, since it has an LED we can use.
  pinMode(LED_PIN, OUTPUT);
  // pinMode(POWER_LED, OUTPUT);
  // digitalWrite(POWER_LED, HIGH);



void startAdv(void)
  // Advertising packet

  // Include BLE HID service

  // There is enough room for the dev name in the advertising packet

  /* Start Advertising
   * - Enable auto advertising if disconnected
   * - Interval:  fast mode = 20 ms, slow mode = 152.5 ms
   * - Timeout for fast mode is 30 seconds
   * - Start(timeout) with timeout = 0 will advertise forever (until connected)
   * For recommended advertising interval
   * https://developer.apple.com/library/content/qa/qa1931/_index.html
  Bluefruit.Advertising.setInterval(32, 244);    // in unit of 0.625 ms
  Bluefruit.Advertising.setFastTimeout(30);      // number of seconds in fast mode
  Bluefruit.Advertising.start(0);                // 0 = Don't stop advertising after n seconds

void loop()
  // Tell the watchdog timer we are still alive.

#ifndef LED_OFF
  // LED blinking heartbeat. Yes, we are alive.
  if ( (long)(millis()-ledBlinkTime) >= 0 )
    // Toggle LED.
    if (ledStatus==LOW)  // If LED is LOW...
      ledStatus = HIGH;  // ...make it HIGH.
    } else {
      ledStatus = LOW;   // ...else, make it LOW.
    // Set LED pin status.
    if (pinsOn==0) digitalWrite(LED_PIN, ledStatus);
    // Reset "next time to toggle" time.
    ledBlinkTime = millis()+ledBlinkRate;

  // Check for serial data.
  if (Serial.available() > 0) {
    // If data ready, read a byte.
    int incomingByte = Serial.read();
    // Parse the byte we read.
      case '?':

  // Loop through each Digital Input pin.
  for (int thisPin=0; thisPin < DI_PIN_COUNT; thisPin++ )
    // Read the pin's current status.
    unsigned int status = digitalRead(myPins[thisPin]);

    // In pin status has changed from our last toggle...
    if (status != digitalStatus[thisPin])
      // Remember when it changed, starting debounce mode.
      // If not currently in debounce mode,
      if (digitalDebounceTime[thisPin]==0)
        // Set when we can accept this as valid (debounce is considered
        // done if the time gets to this point with the status still the same).
        digitalDebounceTime[thisPin] = millis()+digitalDebounceRate;

      // Check to see if we are in debounce detect mode.
      if (digitalDebounceTime[thisPin]>0)
        // Yes we are. Have we delayed long enough yet?
        if ( (long)(millis()-digitalDebounceTime[thisPin]) >= 0 )
            // Yes, so consider it switched.
            // If pin is Active LOW,
            if (status==LOW)
              // Emit BUTTON PRESSED string.
              Serial.print(" pressed  (sending ");
              Serial.println(" to iCade).");
#ifndef LED_OFF
              digitalWrite(LED_PIN, HIGH);
            } else {
              // Emit BUTTON RELEASED string.
              Serial.print(" released (sending ");
              Serial.println(" to iCade).");
              if (pinsOn>0) pinsOn--;
              if (pinsOn==0) digitalWrite(LED_PIN, LOW);
            // Remember current (last set) status for this pin.
            digitalStatus[thisPin] = status;
            // Reset debounce time (disable, not looking any more).
            digitalDebounceTime[thisPin] = 0;
        } // End of if ( (long)(millis()-digitalDebounceTime[thisPin]) >= 0 )

      } // End of if (digitalDebounceTime[thisPin]>0)
    else // No change? Flag no change.
      // If we were debouncing, we are no longer debouncing.
      digitalDebounceTime[thisPin] = 0;
  } // End of (int thisPin=0; thisPin < DI_PIN_COUNT; thisPin++ )

  // Request CPU to enter low-power mode until an event/interrupt occurs

void showHeader()
  int i;
  // Emit some startup stuff to the serial port.
  Serial.println("Atari 2600 BlueCade by John Park for Adafruit. ");
  Serial.print("Based on: iCadeTeensy ");
  Serial.println(" by Allen C. Huffman ([email protected])");
  Serial.print(" DI Pins (");
  for (i=0; i<DI_PIN_COUNT; i++)
    Serial.print(" ");
  Serial.print("), ");
  Serial.println("ms Debounce.");

void showStatus()

void showDigitalInputStatus()
  Serial.print("DI: ");

  for (int thisPin=0; thisPin < DI_PIN_COUNT; thisPin++ )
    // Read the pin's current status.
    Serial.print(" ");
    //Serial.print(" (");
    //Serial.print(") ");

 * RTOS Idle callback is automatically invoked by FreeRTOS
 * when there are no active threads. E.g when loop() calls delay() and
 * there is no bluetooth or hw event. This is the ideal place to handle
 * background data.
 * NOTE: FreeRTOS is configured as tickless idle mode. After this callback
 * is executed, if there is time, freeRTOS kernel will go into low power mode.
 * Therefore waitForEvent() should not be called in this callback.
 * http://www.freertos.org/low-power-tickless-rtos.html
 * WARNING: This function MUST NOT call any blocking FreeRTOS API
 * such as delay(), xSemaphoreTake() etc ... for more information
 * http://www.freertos.org/a00016.html
void rtos_idle_callback(void)
  // Don't call any other FreeRTOS blocking API()
  // Perform background task(s) here
// End of file.

If you're dying to jump ahead and test out the code before we wire up the joystick, I get it! -- you can try pairing the Feather with your iOS device and grounding each of the assigned pins with a jumper wire. But, don't worry, we'll do more thorough pairing and testing on later in the guide if you're not sure how to go about that.

Once you've uploaded the code, it's time to get inside the joystick and build the AtariFruit circuit!

This guide was first published on Dec 04, 2017. It was last updated on Jun 11, 2024.

This page (Programming the Feather nRF52) was last updated on Jun 11, 2024.

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