Betrayal, frustration, regret. These are just a few of the emotions I felt when I bought my first gamepad for a smartphone, the Logitech Powershell, in 2015. The sales pitch sounded so sensible. You’re already carrying a tiny computer in your pocket all the time, snap that phone into a controller case and you’d have the perfect mobile gaming device, right?
Sadly, the Powershell was a big-time piece of shit, with just a few, stiff buttons, painful ergonomics, and poor software support. In short, I felt burned. A lot can change in five years, though. Taking another look in 2020, I’ve found that today’s mobile gamepads have addressed many of the Powershell’s problems. (Some pretty successfully!) The newest of these is the Razer Kishi, which, while not perfect, gets you closer to turning your phone into a game console than ever before.
Between remote play apps and game-streaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud, a good mobile controller now promises more than just greater precision in App Store games. Freed from the limits of onboard processing power, smartphones can play current-gen AAA titles—as long as your internet connection and gamepad are up to the task. Personally, I was just hoping for a controller that could get me through Symphony of the Night and San Andreas for the 1,000th time. I ended up finding something more than that.
In the year 2020
These days, there are basically two options if you want to game on your phone using real buttons instead of simulated, onscreen controls. You can either get a hinged clip that attaches a Playstation-style gamepad to your device or buy a dedicated “telescopic” controller that clamps on either side of it, making your phone look a bit like Frankenstein’s Nintendo Switch. The former, while dirt cheap, is about as finicky as it sounds. The Kishi belongs to the latter category, a space that obscure Chinese brands have quietly dominated in the absence of major manufacturer interest.
The Flydigi Wee 2T is a particularly well-liked example of these strange telescopic gamepads and served as my reference point while assessing the Razer Kishi. At a technical level, the Kishi has a few nice features the Wee 2T doesn’t. The Kishi’s thumbsticks can be clicked in, as on Playstation and Xbox controllers. It also has analog trigger buttons, allowing the gamepad to sense how much they’ve been pushed in. Finally, the Kishi directly plugs into your phone via USB-C or Lightning ports instead of connecting via Bluetooth, meaning no lag or connection issues, no need to charge it separately, and a pass-through port that allows you to plug in your phone while gaming. (Neither controller, sadly, has a headphone jack.)
None of these features matter a whole lot, of course, if the controller sucks to use and hold.
How does it feel?
The first thing I noticed about the Kishi was that it was big, like really big. Clamped on a 6.25-inch LG G8x, the controller measures in at around 10.5 inches by 3.5 inches by 1.6 inches, slightly wider and significantly thicker than a Nintendo Switch. The second thing I noticed was how solid its grip on the phone was. With some creative jury-rigging, I was able to get the Wee 2T to stop bending like a ruler in the throes of simulated combat. Out of the box, the Kishi felt much sturdier, slipping off the phone only when violently shoved into a seat-back pocket.
At the most fundamental level, I’m happy to report that the Kishi did what a controller is supposed to do well. The Kishi’s buttons were more springy than click-y and the analog sticks were precise and responsive with no discernible dead zones. My only real complaint with its build was an ergonomic annoyance. Despite its sizable footprint, the Kishi actually felt a little cramped in my hands. While not crucial for older or slower-paced games, operating the right analog stick was slightly uncomfortable in my natural grip—initially, at least.
On my first night with the Kishi, I struggled to play 2016’s Doom without showing my entire ass to Mars’s demon community. In time, however, I adjusted. A week later, I’d played through half of Far Cry 5‘s main campaign on a phone and had stopped noticing the controller much at all.
Oh yeah, about that
“Great, great, sounds good,” I hear you saying, “but what games can you play?” Well, most of them. While few mobile-first games have controller support, most of the console ports, emulators, and game-streaming apps you’d actually want to use with a gamepad support them. In my experience, every app that worked with a Bluetooth controller played nice with the Kishi. Using just emulators and streaming, a decent smartphone paired with a controller like the Kishi can potentially play most console games made before 2000 or after 2013, which is sick.
Whether that experience is actually any fun is dependent on the comfort of your controller, the quality of your connection, and how optimized the game is for a small screen.
Personally, streaming a small selection of games from the cloud wasn’t as enticing as playing the ones I already had in a more mobile fashion. While my girlfriend watched cable or played something else on the TV, I used the Kishi to stream titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 from the Xbox One or PS4 in our home. (Notably, Playstation’s official Remote Play app doesn’t support third-party controllers, but unofficial versions do.) And when I was away from our network, the Kishi was a pleasant way to sink even more hours into old favorites like Metal Gear Solid or Perfect Dark.
Still, there were some small annoyances. The same rubber piece that gives the Kishi such a solid grip covered the LG G8x’s proximity sensor, initially posing a bit of a mystery as to why the phone fell asleep so easily and why it was so hard to wake up. Similarly, that tight fit meant I had to remove the phone’s case every time I wanted to connect it. And while having a controller I didn’t need to charge was convenient, I found the Kishi shaved a few extra percentage points off the phone’s battery every hour it was attached, whether it was being used or not. Forget to plug in the passthrough port or detach the controller for a day and you might return to find a dead phone.
Perhaps the greatest limitation was one common to all telescopic gamepads I’m aware of. Because the Kishi covers a phone’s headphone jack and its passthrough port doesn’t support USB-C or Lightning headsets, your main alternative to using your phone’s speakers is Bluetooth headphones. In practice, this results in an audio lag that is slightly disorienting in single-player games but could mean instant death in, say, an online shooter.
And then there’s the price. At $80, the Razer Kishi is significantly more expensive than its closest (weirdo) peers, the $50 Flydigi Wee 2T and $35 Saitake STK-7007F. Frankly, none of these devices feel as well-made as their MSRPs might suggest, but I can say the Kishi is by far the sturdiest.
He was a gamer boy
In the end, whether the Kishi is worth 80 of your hard-earned dollars is a question of how far you’re willing to go to for a gaming experience that still won’t be perfect. Having spent dozens of hours fooling around with the thing, I can happily say, “Yes, I’m a sick freak who is willing to go that far.”
Once I adjusted to the stick placement and had all my apps set up, the Kishi brought me delightfully close to having the everything gaming device I imagined years ago. At home, it was a fun way to putter around newer open-world games while lying in bed. On a plane, it let me play a few hours of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and temporarily forget where I was. Any annoyances I had about the controller’s ergonomics soon faded into the background. I began regarding the Kishi-and-phone combo as a single unit, a kind of turbocharged Game Gear to leave on my nightstand or throw in a bag.
After a few days with the Kishi—which we had taken to calling the “Game Girl” around the house—my girlfriend told me she kind of hated the controller. Why, I asked. “Because you’re so obsessed with it,” she said. She had a point. With little else to do in lockdown, tinkering with software settings to put every game I possibly could on the phone had become a game in itself.
- The Razer Kishi is part of a new wave of smartphone gamepads and is the best one yet.
- With game streaming and emulators, a smartphone gamepad lets you play an incredible variety of games.
- The Kishi is big but still felt slightly cramped in my hands.
- It’s 80 fuggin’ bucks.