By: Patrick Morris
The fact that basically all flagship phones these days pack significantly more horse power than the Nintendo Switch and yet 99 times out of 100 the Switch is still a better device for gaming leaves me wondering why. Obviously there aren't major triple A games being developed for mobile platforms but I think one of the things preventing big third party publishers like EA, Activision, and Take Two from really diving deep into mobile is the controls…or lack there of. I am fully aware that I'm not the first person to recognize this as evidenced by the wealth of mobile game controller options but for the most part they can be really be described as awkward and half baked. There are several console gamepad imitations with a clip that holds the phone above it, and there are even clips sold separately to just attach your phone to an actual first party console gamepad. But what the switch has proven to us over the last four plus years is that the best way to develop a mobile controller is to cut it in half and attach the halves to each side of the device on which the game is being played. There have always been major hurdles to developing and manufacturing the perfect phone controller and some of those hurdles will probably never go away, but in the age of remote play and cloud based game streaming the backbone one has gotten closer than any product I've seen previously by developing more than just a controller.
Welcome welcome welcome everyone welcome back to LegalSpeak, a ColdNorth Production. I'm TheLawMorris and this is the video essay series in which I get to talk about the games I've been playing and what I think of the medium as a whole. After getting my invitation to Xcloud and getting remote play working reliably well on my PS5 I've found myself gaming in a place that I never really have before, my phone. And so naturally I needed a reliable controller to go with that new experience so here are my thoughts on the things the Backbone One does well, the things it doesn’t do so well, and my thoughts on opportunities for improvement in a Backbone Two.
This being a controller review it would only be appropriate to start with the hardware. The Backbone has the distinct feeling of being a top tier third party controller. That is to say that while it doesn’t feel as premium and polished as a first party controller like the DualSense or the Xbox elites controllers it certainly feels intentional and several steps above the pelican and madcatz controllers of yesteryear and even a cut above most offerings from the likes of Hori and Hyperkin we see on store shelves today. If I were to liken the Backbone's quality to one other third party controller manufacturer it would be 8bitdo. Obviously not first party but in no way does it feel cheap. Build quality feels sturdy and substantial but regrettably just a tiny bit on the light side, face and menu buttons feel excellent offering a satisfying clickiness that has yet to leave me wondering if the phone should have registered a press, and the click in on the analog sticks is the one place where in a blindfolded test I feel certain the Backbone could stand up to a first party controller. And at the bottom of the left and right handles the Backbone sports a recessed headphone and lighting jack respectively offering audio and charging passthrough. Overall the design of the controller feels very intentional and the quality leaves little to be desired.
But nothing is perfect and that includes the Backbone One. Where the face buttons, menu buttons, and analog sticks offer excellent tactile feedback the bumpers and dpad are a much mushier and although serviceable they are a noticeable downgrade from those face and menu buttons. But at leas the bumpers and dpad aren't the worst feeling buttons on the controller, that honor goes to the triggers. Both left and right triggers feel light and almost hollow offering very little in the way of feedback and leave me wondering if the controller would be a better all around package had Backbone opted for clickier digital triggers with less travel more akin to the Nintendo Switch. I also know that this extremely nit picky but the edges around the analog sticks begin to concave further away from the actual stick stem than more traditional analog sticks like the ones seen on the Switch Lite which for whatever reason is a huge part of what separates the Backbone from first party controllers with regard to quality in my mind. And unfortunately the Backbone is made to hold an iPhone without a case and there is essentially zero negotiation on that front. I even tested the controller with the first party Apple leather case and in order to get the lightning connecter into the port I would have had to bend it to a degree with which I was uncomfortable.
But the hardware isn't all there is to review when it comes to the Backbone One, the way Backbone has really differentiated themselves is through software. Immediately upon opening the Backbone the user is met with nearly apple level simplistic instruction card teaching them how to place their phone in the controller then prompting them to download the Backbone app. The app feels as through the developers recognized that despite the wild popularity of mobile gaming in recent years there is yet to be a singly unifying hub for the mobile gaming experience. So naturally with the Backbone app an attempt has been made at filling that void by bringing all your games and game streaming services together into one launcher. Backbone has taken that Launcher and integrated key features that anyone familiar with Xbox Live or PSN have come to expect from a gaming platform. Features like friend lists, party chat, and gaming communities are all centralized and accessible in Backbone's app. The app also manages game capture utilizing iOS's baked in screen recording feature. Overall no matter how impressive the hardware is the real potential in Backbone lies in the software and the how they have poised themselves to become the defacto platform for mobile gaming.
Obviously there are opportunities with the hardware that can be addressed in the Backbone Two. Figure out how to improve upon the buttons under the bumpers and dpad, and just throw the analog triggers in the trash and switch us over to digital click triggers with less travel. I understand that those will have significantly less travel and are less luxurious but simple and good is better than complicated and bad. I know it will be extremely difficult to design and there is no way to possibly accommodate all iPhone cases but leaving more room in the phone cradle then including a variety of sizes of stick on rubber pads and some instructions on how to properly fit your phone in it's case into the Backbone and which pads to use would go a long way in making me use the controller more often. And I cant believe I'm having to say this in 2021 but if you're going to offer a headphone jack (which you should that was really cool) it absolutely must be flush with the surface on which it is mounted.
But the more interesting and I think the more fruitful opportunities for Backbone to capitalize on are in the software. As it is now anyone can download the Backbone app but they need an actual Backbone controller to license it the first time to get the software to work. Which means that in order to license this killer software people have to either borrow a Backbone controller from a friend who has one or spend $100 on one themselves. Granted they'll be getting a pretty good controller but the software alone offers so much potential that wont be reached if everyone is required to plug their phone into a Backbone controller to use. So here is what the Backbone Two needs to include: a download code or some sort of way to download the app for free in the box. Then sell the app for $5 or $10 and allow any third party controller to be compatible. This will allow for growth of the Backbone gaming network which will get the Backbone app on far more phones for gaming purposes inherently giving Backbone more leverage for integration partnerships with game developers. By prioritizing the app Backbone could potentially become that defacto mobile gaming platform and then monetize at a later date.
Also please develop a USB-C version of the Backbone Two and sell both for $80.
The Backbone controller is the first phone controller that I have ever thoroughly enjoyed. It solves the problem of weight distribution introduced by using a controller clip and offers high quality hardware for gaming on the go. Excellent software pushes the entire experience of using the Backbone over the top and makes it something that will absolutely live in my every day carry bag after the world gets back to normal. If you're really into gaming on your phone the Backbone One is an absolute must that definitely gets my recommendation. If you're not as into mobile gaming then it might be a bit to expensive for what it has to offer.
Which mobile game controller do you use and how do you like it? Let me know in the comments down below. Don’t forget you can see everything I do all in one spot over at ColdNorthPro.com. I'll be back next time talking about something else entirely so until then just go play some games!