My phone time is usually spent sanding down the edges of my mind on TikTok and Twitter, with a “healthy” dose of emailing, calendar massaging, and capital-S Slacking to get things done. But recently, a new category of app has crept up my iPhone Screen Time leaderboard: gaming, especially through platforms like Steam Link and the Delta emulator.
That’s entirely because of the Backbone One, a snap-on controller that reinvents the iPhone as a legit piece of mobile gaming hardware rivaling the Nintendo Switch. This thing makes mobile gaming a joy beyond the narrow context of pleasant time-wasters like Holedown and Threes. It brings a new sense of focus to the iPhone as a leisure device: You will want to snap the Backbone on, mute your notifications, and immerse yourself in Fantasian. And it clarifies a lot about the future of gaming, as cloud services move from a state of glitchy possibility into reality.
Apple may not be the first company that comes to mind when you hear “handheld gaming” — you probably conjured Nintendo’s Game Boy or the Switch — but it’s already become a powerhouse without really trying.
WHAT IS IT?
A plug-and-play video game controller for iPhones (and just iPhones). Includes a launcher app that rivals AAA offerings from the likes of Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft
It just works!
Plastic construction and flimsy trigger buttons don't quite match the premium materials of the iPhone; no good way to organise your game library or find compatible titles
Gizmodo asked Lewis Ward, a research director at leading market analysis firm IDC, to pull some numbers comparing Apple and Nintendo. (We’re talking about mobile gaming, after all, and the other big players — Sony and Microsoft — don’t offer dedicated handheld systems.) According to IDC, Apple pulled in $US13.39 ($17) billion in revenue from games offered on the iOS App Store worldwide in 2020; Nintendo’s total revenue was $US13.38 ($17) billion. Apple, a company that makes no dedicated gaming hardware or first-party games itself, generates the same money from gaming as the world’s most iconic video game maker.
The App Store is minting money, which helps explain why Apple is also doubling down on its subscription service, Apple Arcade. Games offered there are more robust than the typical freemium game on the App Store — they’re the kind you might buy on console or PC, and indeed they’re often sold there, as well. I won’t play a game like World of Demons — by Bayonetta developer PlatinumGames — with a touchscreen, but happily dove in with my controller.
All to say: If the Backbone One or devices like it (the Razer Kishi, for instance) start to gain a serious foothold, mobile gaming could attract a much more serious breed of consumer, pushing an already successful business over the top. The gamer who once dropped hundreds or more on dedicated hardware might be happy with a hunk of plastic that plugs into their phone.
Well, not “might be” — I’m here to say they would be, actually.
The Backbone One stretches to accommodate any iPhone dating back to the 6S and plugs in via the Lightning port — no fussy wireless settings or lost connections. It has all the buttons you’d find on any other modern controller, plus a unique “home” button that launches an optional Backbone app. You can strap your phone in and jump into a game in seconds. To crib a crusty old Apple motto: It just works.
Games are responsive without notable input lag. The buttons mostly feel great, minus the slightly sensitive and squishy triggers. They’re fine. Overall, the Backbone One is sturdy, with a hard plastic back that stands in contrast to the flexible strap on the Razer Kishi. My iPhone feels secure in the hardware, and I don’t feel like I need to treat it like a Fabergé egg. I’ve tossed it in a backpack and let it topple off of a dresser without any concerns. At $US99 ($128), I do wish the materials felt a bit more in line with the premium feel of Apple’s smartphone, but it’s not like most game controllers are moulded out of stainless steel, anyway.
There isn’t all that much to say about the execution. It’s great. There’s even a headphone jack and pass-through Lightning port for charging. I’ve spent hours playing Forza Horizon 4, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, Taiko Pop Tap, Dragon Ball FighterZ, Destiny 2, Tales of Symphonia, and Wario Land 4 on this thing and have few complaints.
I’ve run three categories of games using this controller: native iOS games; games streamed through services like Steam Link, Google Stadia, and PlayStation Remote Play; and ROMs saved locally on my iPhone and played via the Delta emulator. I’ve tried a variety of genres in each of these categories.
There are zero hitches with native iOS games, as you’d expect. Action games like Call of Duty Mobile work perfectly, as do rhythm titles like Taiko Pop Tap from Apple Arcade and RPGs like Valkyrie Profile.
Streaming works nearly as well. Steam Link in particular has become my best friend with the Backbone One. I can get a few Forza races in from bed, progress in Final Fantasy XIII while brewing coffee, whatever. A lot of this is going to be contingent on your setup, of course. I have a gaming PC hooked into a fibre connection via ethernet; streaming is smooth whether my iPhone’s on a good wifi connection or just using its cell service. PlayStation Remote Play via my PlayStation 4 Pro has been a bit spottier, I’ve noticed, maybe owing to some issue with my hardware. The connection lags or glitches slightly from time to time. Even so, I’ve successfully played through songs on Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight’s hard mode and tackled offline matches in Dragon Ball FighterZ and Soul Calibur VI.
Of course, you don’t need hardware of your own to stream games. I was shocked to see how far Google Stadia’s progressed since I last used it sometime last year. Nowadays, you can open a Google Stadia window in your mobile browser, log into your account, and play any game in your library directly in that tab. It instantly recognises inputs from the Backbone One. I bopped around in Destiny 2 and Super Bomberman R Online for a bit and found the games to be totally responsive. They looked great, too. That said, the in-browser experience on my iPhone 12 Mini felt a bit cramped, so it wouldn’t be my first choice — your mileage may vary, especially if you have a plus-sized iPhone.
ROMs on Delta were mostly great. I got hooked on Wario Land 4 and had no problem with the platforming or unusual inputs the game sometimes requires (aiming and tossing objects in the awful “pinball” level, for example). On the other hand, I experienced colossal input lag trying to play through Rhythm Heaven — a favourite on my actual Game Boy Advance hardware — and couldn’t bring myself to progress beyond the tutorial. My guess is this is an issue with the ROM or emulator, given how well everything else runs, but it’s too bad that not everything works flawlessly.
The Backbone app is marketed as a major selling point. You can open it like any other app or via the dedicated orange button on the controller. From here, you can scroll through and launch games in your library, join friends in multiplayer games, and edit or share screenshots and video taken in-game. It’s very nice, rivaling the launchers on your Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, or Xbox, although I wish it had different display options and organisation tools. It simply piles all of your games into one carousel, without the possibility of manual control or folder creation.
Every part of the experience clicks together perfectly, which I found led to a satisfying side effect: The Backbone One keeps you focused on relaxing. When you’re playing a game with this device, you will want to mute your notifications — they take up too much space on your screen — and narrow your attention to the action on your screen. And since you’re gaming on your iPhone, you have no iPhone to be distracted by.
So, the Backbone One helps you get a lot more out of mobile gaming. I would never play any of the games listed above if I needed to control them by pressing my slick thumbs against a panel of glass. I’ve tried using a Dualshock 4 and Xbox One controller via Bluetooth before, too: It’s too much of a hassle just for the sake of playing something on my phone. The Backbone One streamlines everything perfectly.
That was really the problem to be solved. Serious mobile gaming has certainly been possible for some time — it just hasn’t been particularly desirable. With the Backbone One, it is.
This is what should worry Nintendo, with its rapidly ageing Switch hardware. The iPhone is superior to that device in many ways. Even the five-and-a-half-year-old iPhone 6S has a nicer screen, with better resolution and higher pixel density than both the Switch and Switch Lite. And your entire life already orbits around the iPhone. When the time comes, you will buy another one, though perhaps you could live without a Nintendo — especially if you can stream high-end games that the Switch can’t run, anyway.
I care a lot about the longevity of consumer tech. A staggering volume of electronic waste is generated every year from hardware launches and the needless obsoleting of old devices. How long can we expect the Backbone One to stick around?
Theoretically, it should last a while. For starters, there’s no battery or screen to worry about. The device is secured with standard screws rather than the proprietary sort that keep your iPhone itself locked down, so it should be pretty easy to open up and tinker with if need be.
Customer support is great — or arguably overzealous. I reached out to ask about repairing my “broken” device, and they immediately arranged to have a replacement shipped out. (Keep in mind that I bought this unit myself, and that no review hardware was provided.) Oops! I didn’t want that and cancelled the request immediately. Maybe it would be less wasteful if they tried to diagnose issues before just shipping another device out, although I’m certainly not going to fault the company for taking good care of its customers.
The one question mark is the Lightning connector. Apple has changed its ports in the past, which leaves me feeling some concern that the Backbone One could be obsoleted by a new generation of iPhone hardware. A switch from Lightning to USB-C would render the Backbone useless without an adaptor — and maybe even with one, given how snug the fit is. (You can’t even use the Backbone One if your iPhone is in a case.)
If you can put that possibility aside, the Backbone One is an easy recommendation. It’s a joy to use, recontextualizing your iPhone from a distraction machine into a legitimate piece of gaming hardware. As Apple continues to build its Arcade offerings out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it develop a first-party controller that accomplishes the same goal (maybe with extra features to connect with Apple TV and Macs). The future of mobile gaming is taking shape today, and the smartphone maker is already leading the way, right under our noses.
- The Backbone One proves mobile gaming is ready to move beyond Candy Crush casuals.
- Even in Apple’s walled garden, it’s easy to set up an emulator that lets you play ROMs of classic Nintendo games, which is really just salt in the wound tbh.
- Streaming services like Steam Link, Google Stadia, and Moonlight work very well, meaning you can play Forza or Destiny 2 wherever, whenever.
- Would be nice if future iterations of the hardware could feel slightly heftier.
- $US99 ($128) is a lot, but if you’re already a PC gamer looking for a handheld, I’d probably recommend this over a Switch Lite.