I've Turned My iPhone into a Portable PS5 With This Rad Controller

Attaching a Backbone controller to my iPhone has transformed the convenience of playing video games.
January 21, 2021, 2:00pm
A photo of the Backbone accessory for iPhones.
Photo courtesy of Backbone Labs

No gaming device fits into my life the way the Switch does, but despite my best efforts at port begging, not every video game has—or will be—released there. But if a game isn't released on the Switch, the chances of me not finding time to play it exponentially increase. 

As I wrote earlier this month, my preferred place to play games these days is on the couch. I managed to move my save game in Assassin's Creed Valhalla from Xbox to Stadia, and spent the next 10 hours climbing the viking world with the benefit of incredible convenience. 

Advertisement

Now, I want to play every video game on the couch. But how?

This was the quandary facing me and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, the new visual novel/strategy mashup from designer/artist George Kamitani, perhaps best known for Dragon's Crown. Released last September, I'd heard nothing but incredible things about 13 Sentinels, especially in regards to its story. But I'd also been told it can take upwards of 30 hours to finish, and it's hard for me to take on more than a handful of games that long these days. 

The best chance I'd have at playing through 13 Sentinels would be on that special couch, where I can squeeze in bursts of play in-between my kids napping and other quiet moments.

Sony's offered a Remote Play app on mobile devices for years now, allowing you to stream a PlayStation 4 and play games with clumsy digital buttons or syncing a controller. It now supports PlayStation 5, too. That setup worked fine enough when I tried it on my propped up iPad, but what I really wanted was to be able to transform my phone into a souped up Vita. (Microsoft has a similar solution for Xbox owners, but I play most games on PlayStation.)

The solution, it turns out, was already on my office desk, sitting in a box I'd forgotten about.

Months back, I got an email about a $100 device called Backbone, promising to make playing controller-based games enjoyable on an iPhone. I receive a lot of pitches that go in one ear and out the other, and attaching a bulky thing to my phone didn't sound all that appealing. But I asked if they'd send me one they did, because you never know, right? I'm always itching for new places to find an interesting story. But it joined a stack of unopened boxes.

Advertisement

I'd forgotten about Backbone until I saw some friends hyping it up on social media. They were playing—and enjoying—games like Demon's Souls just fine. They swore by the device. 

Maybe this was my ticket to playing 13 Sentinels?

They were right to swear by it—Backbone rules. It's a good controller that makes playing games on your phone, whether mobile games with controller support (like a lot of Apple Arcade releases) or hooking into streaming Xbox and PlayStation games, incredibly simple. I've played over 15 hours of 13 Sentinels this way so far, and chances are I'm going to be playing hundreds of hours of games this way in the future. I basically have a Switch Pro now.

Everything about Backbone is seamless, and it's a huge part of why I became a believer.  

Connecting your iPhone only requires stretching the controller add-on a bit, fitting snugly once the lightning connector slides into place. The controller itself is light, and doesn't make the whole contraption feel heavy. I've spent hours holding the iPhone and Backbone together and it hasn't made my arms tired. Again, it feels right—just like the Switch does.

What really makes Backbone tick is the little light that hums to life when the controller is connected. Tapping the orange Backbone logo immediately takes you to the Backbone app, which has already combed through your phone to discover what it's compatible with, whether existing mobile games or Microsoft and Sony's streaming apps, like Remote Play.

Advertisement

Once in the Backbone app, I could quickly launch the Remote Play app, connect to the PlayStation 5 in another part of the house, and start playing. I even made some progress in the Demon's Souls remake, where all I have left is the last area and final boss, and was able to successfully attack, parry, and dodge without issue. Hiccups in my networking were far more acute while trying to play a timing-based game like Demon's Souls, but it worked well enough, and importantly, the controller felt fine. Granted, it's not as slick as a DualSense, but you also don't constantly feel like you're holding an imitation piece of plastic, either. It works.

I goofed with Souls, but my real time was with 13 Sentinels and weeks later, I've stuck with it. I haven't put any time into 13 Sentinels any other way, and was so taken by this extremely comfortable way of playing that I reworked the network setup in my office so my PlayStation 5 was finally hardwired via Ethernet, allowing me to pump up the quality settings for Remote Play and send a 1080p stream with HDR. It looks so gorgeous on the fancy phone screen

In a more personally convenient world, my Switch would get every game that's released. But in the meantime, the Backbone has helped me bridge that gap, and helped me find ways to play games that I otherwise might not find time for. 

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).