The controller’s namesake, the spring-loaded backplate, ensures that once your phone is in place, it all feels solid and unified. The controls aren’t going to pull away, nor is there a chance of your phone slipping out. The more I spent playing through Alan Wake, then Deathloop, as well as Apple Arcade titles like Fallen Knight and Fantasian, the more it started to blur into a handheld – one with a high-resolution OLED screen. Unfortunately, you will have to remove any cases to ensure it fits inside the controller chassis.
The companion app has a few useful tricks. It can capture, edit and upload gaming content, and it’s pretty intuitive. I don’t usually capture gameplay unless it’s for work, but I’ve already used Backbone’s implementation to send short clips to friends. The company has also announced a Backbone+ subscription service that integrates Twitch streaming and even enables cable connections for keyboards and more. (You’ll get a free year of the service when buying the controller.) There’s also the ability to join chat groups and lobbies, populated with other Backbone gamers, but it’s not particularly vibrant in comparison to Discord, Reddit or other existing gamer spaces.
The app also serves as a games library, of sorts, of all the games you can play with the Backbone One, across Xbox, Stadia, Apple Arcade and individual games in Apple’s App Store. Unfortunately, it’s literally all the compatible games, including unremarkable game clones, and Xbox and Stadia titles you might not even have a subscription for. It’s a shame the app couldn’t interface with which games I’d already installed – which would be impossible for PlayStation Remote Play, admittedly. Tapping the Backbone button during a game will log the title into the library for more convenient access next time, at least. There’s deeper functionality here, but your mileage may vary. It will show recommendations of popular titles, but it’s the incredibly familiar sights of Among Us, Genshin Impact and Minecraft.
The Backbone One is a capable iPhone gamepad, so much in fact that sometimes I actively choose to play Stadia and even remote-play PlayStation when I’m in another room. It is, however, an expensive one. $100 can buy a couple of PS5 controllers, or an entire box of third-party Bluetooth gamepads and smartphone clips.
But for that price, you get a slick experience that marries well with your iPhone. Over the holidays, when I visited my family, I was able to effortlessly (aside from reading the tiny text) play Deathloop while being hundreds of miles away from my console. Like several existing split gamer pads for smartphones, it’s like a tiny Switch. The app also tries to pool together all your iOS gaming experiences in a single place, which is a nice idea, even if Backbone doesn’t quite nail the execution.
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