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Backbone One (2nd Gen) review – A literal game changer

The Backbone One is an essential, compact device for keen mobile gamers.
backbone one mobile gaming controller review

If you game on mobile in any capacity, you need the Backbone One. After several years of using a standalone iPhone 14 Pro Max to review and play games on Apple Arcade, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t adopt a Backbone sooner – mostly because it would’ve saved me a lot of hand cramping and trouble.

This mobile gaming controller is designed to fit easily into a Lightning or USB-C port on your mobile phone, and transform it into a handheld gaming device. The locking system is quick and simple, and it immediately creates more ergonomic handholds to play through your game library.

Not every game is compatible with the Backbone – I couldn’t use it to play cat sorting game Nekograms, which is one of my favourite mobile puzzlers, and I had similar trouble with word game Disney SpellStruck (in this case, the controller worked, but no landscape mode meant I had to hold the Backbone sideways.)

But there’s certainly plenty of games that are compatible, and they work a treat using the Backbone One. Sonic Dream Team, for example, went from being frantic and near-unplayable, to smooth and moreish. This game in particular benefitted from the Backbone One as it requires fast, accurate inputs as you guide Sonic and his pals through various high-speed courses.

>backbone one controller review
Image: GamesHub

I originally tried this game using the touch input of the iPhone 14 Pro Max, and found difficulty maintaining accurate movement, jumping in time, and making my way through the game’s secret areas. The touch screen on the iPhone is solid, but there’s a certain amount of panic when you’re forced to tap, slide, and tilt your way through courses with speed, that causes those aforementioned hand cramps.

Playing the game with the Backbone One attached meant more room to spread my fingers, a far more comfortable handhold, and greater accuracy with button input.

The buttons do have a much different feel to traditional controllers – the XYBA buttons are more ‘clicky’ than you’d expect, and the L1L2/R1R2 back buttons are lighter and more gummy – but it doesn’t take long to get used to these inputs. After two weeks with the Backbone One, I didn’t think about it at all.

All I was really thinking about was how to get higher scores in Sonic Dream Team, and figuring out which friendship gift is best for Big Challenges in Hello Kitty Island Adventure (his three-star gift is craftable book The Greatest Challenge, it turns out).

Beyond allowing for more accurate, speedy input for games that require quick-thinking, I found the Backbone One was also useful for more casual gaming. As mentioned, I was mainlining the new content in Hello Kitty Island Adventure using the Backbone One, and it proved most useful for roaming Friendship Island and completing new quests.

>backbone one mobile gaming
Image: GamesHub

For the first time, I could complete island racing challenges without accidentally slipping my fingers offscreen, and ruining my best time. Diving and hunting for deep sea creatures also felt more natural, as did running around and pausing to forage for items like mushrooms.

I would add for more casual games, the Backbone One isn’t entirely necessary, but it does enhance the experience greatly, to the point where I’d say it’s an essential device for those looking to mobile game in any serious capacity. It’s a convenience, and it also makes games feel more engaging by nature, as it replicates the feeling of playing a traditional handheld console.

It was much easier to spend hours gaming using the Backbone One, because suddenly my phone didn’t feel like a phone at all – and it meant I was distraction-free. I suppose it also helped that Apple Arcade has such a strong library of games exclusive to iOS mobile devices. I’ve been enthralled by Hello Kitty Island Adventure since it launched in 2023, and recently picked up newer experiences in What the Car? and Sonic Dream Team.

The Backbone One makes these games far more approachable, streamlining some elements of gameplay while allowing for greater “gamification” of the mobile experience. It feels like a genuinely transformative device, and one that’s also very simple and effective in its approach.

It should be noted that there is a Backbone app attached to the controller, and this has a paid subscription element that allows you better manage your games and stream them, but I never felt this subscription was necessary for my enjoyment. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of it until I went digging in the Backbone app. There’s no obnoxious prompts to sign up, and you don’t need the subscription to use the device.

With easy plug and use setup, you just lock the Backbone One to your phone, and then you can play any games you’d like. For me, it transformed my phone into a robust Apple Arcade machine, with plenty of my favourite games made far more enjoyable in a traditional handheld gaming format.

After weeks in use, I don’t know how I’ve gone so long without using a mobile controller like the Backbone One. For me, it’s a total game changer.

Five stars: ★★★★★

Backbone One Mobile Gaming Controller (2nd Generation)
Release Year: 2024
Price: AUD $179.95

A Backbone One was provided to GamesHub for the purposes of this review. Previously, an Apple Arcade subscription and an iPhone 14 Pro Max was also provided to GamesHub. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.GamesHub reviews are rated on a five-point scale.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.