Handheld gaming is irreplaceable for me. I’ve banged on this drum at every opportunity. However, mobile gaming has long been a point of inner conflict. Games have come to mobile platforms like iOS for as long as I can remember, from new versions of classics to contemporary ports. Now we’re seeing game streaming really break through, adding console gaming to the list. But mobile gaming has never felt right, the same way a 3DS or Vita does. Backbone, a hybrid of hardware and software, aims to exterminate that feeling.

I stumbled upon Backbone on Twitter, and was immediately intrigued. Mobile controllers have come and gone, but this one stood out due to its no-nonsense form factor and promises of compatibility. I’ve been playing with a review unit for several weeks now, and I mean that literally. I’ve hardly disconnected the Backbone from my iPhone, and have played more games that way than I have on a phone, well, ever. There are inevitable roadblocks of course, but hopefully that’s short-lived.

Backbone iOS Controller Review

I’ve spent a lot of the past couple years trying to find a way to play games on my phone that feels good. It’s been a journey ever since PlayStation 4 remote play came to iOS. That journey has only grown more complicated as Xbox has made its big remote and streaming play, and I also kinda stan for Stadia to be honest. As a result I’ve frankly wasted time and money, and am the proud owner of multiple controllers and plastic mounts that I’ll never use again. Gaming in 2020 has become more and more about convenience, and that ain’t it. Mounts are awkward, and the weird way the weight distributes always feels like I’m forcing the gaming to happen rather than simply using it. And Bluetooth just doesn’t work as well as I want, especially when the occasional connection dip happens.

When it comes to the experience, many mobile-made controllers have other weird problems. Controllers that directly connect to the phone are rare, and many of them don’t have enough buttons for things like remote playing consoles. While iOS supports Xbox and PS4 pads, you’re always going to run into things like virtual buttons that won’t go away, mapping that doesn’t make sense, and no way to do anything about it. And since iOS is so locked down, I always felt like I’d be compromising in some way or another.

Then I got a hold of a Backbone and the magic finally happened. The device itself is as discrete as one of these things can possibly be, with just enough plastic to fit my hands. There’s no bulk or weird weight, and when I do disconnect, the extension mechanism is able to contract so much I can fit the Backbone in a regular pocket. There are dips in either end of the plastic where the phone is held, which helps with preserving sound quality and snugly cradling your device. It also has a headphone jack and lightning port, allowing charge passthrough or several options for headphones.

Compatibility is everything I wanted. I can use the Backbone with zero issues with any controller-supporting game I’ve tried to play. Or at least the ones that have said support properly implemented (please fix Bloodstained, please!!). I can remote play both consoles without any issues, and from Final Fantasy to Call of Duty Mobile it’s like holding a mobile gaming swiss army knife in my hands. It even works with browser-based content like Amazon Luna, and with Stadia arriving on Safari and Xbox Cloud Streaming on the way soon I can hardly contain myself.

Backbone isn’t just a super ergonomic lighting-based iOS pad, though. It’s also a software solution. If you install the Backbone app you gain access to a UI that very much feels like a PlayStation Network or Xbox Live. A dedicated button on the controller opens the app in an instant, and you can do things like add games, change settings, and maintain a friends list. Within the Backbone software you can use voice chat and other party functions, adding multiplayer solutions you can’t get with iOS on its own.

This software doesn’t just give you social features though; it also has in-game benefits. When possible, Backbone will actually override some games and remove virtual buttons that normally wouldn’t go away. It also sports a PS4-like media button that is able to manipulate iOS’ screen capturing to function in that way. It’s never been easier to capture and share video footage or screenshots with a mobile device. Everything just works like a console would - there is some setup involved if you really want to curate the app, but the UI even works well with much older games such as Square Enix’s Final Fantasy ports.

I did run into some issues. Naturally, not every game has the controller support needed to work smoothly with Backbone (or any controller). Some games can be finicky, like Call of Duty Mobile which works perfectly until it doesn’t. But in those cases it’s observably on the game’s side, and nothing a force close won’t fix. I also had some issues using the View button when remote playing Xbox One. That said, when speaking with the folks at Backbone they immediately knew what I was talking about, showing me a workaround and noting the next software update will fix it.

I try not to let speaking with PR and creators about their products and software color my experience, but in this case speaking to the source was a good idea. The folks behind Backbone know their stuff, and that iOS expertise really shows in the product. I also have confidence Backbone will only get better over time, as any issue I brought up or asked about had a specific explanation and answer. I seriously doubt support is going to be a long-term problem.

My only worry is that since mobile gaming (especially on iOS) is still something the Gamer community isn’t all the way sold on as a “legitimate” gaming platform. Some of the social features Backbone includes are awesome and work great, but are going to depend on a growing userbase. If this thing takes off, it could be something really special. But I think that’s going to require lots of word of mouth, if only because a $100 mobile phone controller can be a hard sell on a surface level. Backbone will blow people away when it’s in their hands, and I hope the folks behind it are able to make that happen.

But even if you’re the only person you know with a Backbone, the gaming experience is the best iOS has ever been. I was told the idea started from the creators wanting to simply play Fortnite with each other in the same room. From that problem came a solution that’s more than just a simple controller. It’s a controller with a built-in platform that leverages that combination to vastly improve gaming on iOS. I’ve used Backbone for everything, from playing the brilliant mobile port of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to running through Persona 5: Royal streaming perfectly from my PS5. It’s everything I wanted and needed, and it feels good to say goodbye to that junkpile of plastic mounts.


Pros:

  • Lightweight, comfortable form that can fit in a pocket easily
  • Software is super impressive from managing games to capture features
  • Works on nearly everything without any issues

Cons:

  • A few little kinks to work out
  • Controller support for native iOS games isn’t ubiquitous despite all the recent progress (this is not Backbone’s responsibility; I’m just sayin’)

Score: 10/10

 A copy of this device was provided by the creators for review