I’ve been on the search for the perfect retro gaming handheld for the past couple of years. I’ve modded a PlayStation Portable, used flash cartridges in my old Nintendo DS, and have purchased the Retroid Pocket 2+, and Retroid Pocket 3.
None of these ever felt like the right setup for me, though. I had a lot of fun playing games on them and setting them up, but in the end I just had yet-another device to maintain. It always felt a bit too cumbersome. And it didn’t help that none of the devices I tried were particularly comfortable to use.
I also own a Switch. But, not only does that miss the mark on all of the points above, it’s also not that great at playing retro games, which was my primary goal. I’ve had a ton of fun playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Maker 2, and others, but the retro games on Switch require a subscription or the stand-alone purchase of remakes that are, more often than not, far worse than the original.
Rather than introduce a new device into my life with its own operating system and battery life to manage, I’m now using the Backbone with my existing iPhone 13 Pro. It’s one of those retractable controllers that you can place your device in to turn it into a gaming handheld.
I had never had much interest in these products because I hadn’t heard good things about them. They all seemed to be poorly made by fly-by-night companies. And although there isn’t much history to go on with Backbone, they have partnered with Sony for a PlayStation edition, which is what I decided to go for.
The hardware feels quite good. It’s obviously not as sturdy as an actual gaming handheld due to the nature of the form factor, but I don’t expect it to break anytime soon. The buttons and thumb sticks are all as responsive as you’d hope and they feel great to use.
I wish there was an option to have the directional pad positioned above the left analog stick. That would match the layout of Sony’s DualShock controllers and would be far better for the types of games I tend to play. But that layout doesn’t seem to exist among the competition either.
The Backbone has a dedicated screenshot/screen recording button, which is quite handy. And there’s a Backbone button as well that, when pressed, takes you right into Backbone’s launcher app. I can’t say the launcher app is great, by any means. Especially when compared to the launcher options on Android. But it’s serviceable.
The Backbone app showcases popular games from the App Store, Xbox game streaming, PS Remote Play, it has screenshot and screen recording section, and more. But, for me, the app is basically just a way to quickly launch games using the controller.
Within the section that displays your games there are also games and apps that Backbone is promoting. I wish there was a way to remove those more consistently — I’ve been able to remove some, but no luck with others. Luckily they’re generally out of my way since games are sorted by most-recently played.
In terms of what I’ve actually been playing on it, there’s been a lot of Minecraft. The game suffers from the same problems I have with titles like The Sims in that it’s a lot more fun at the beginning when you’re first collecting resources and building your base. But I think my current world is the one I’ve spent the most time in.
I’m not actively playing as frequently in recent weeks, but I have some ideas for projects that I still haven’t done in and around my base, so I expect I’ll be picking it up again more regularly in the not-too-distant future.
I’ve also had a blast streaming games through Steam Link. I have a Windows machine in my office that I essentially only interact with over VNC through Screens and with Steam Link. I’ve replayed Half-Life 2 recently and have a number of other Steam games in my backlog that I want to play soon, too — Celeste, Hogwarts Legacy, and Cuphead to name a few.
Games from Steam and the App Store are fine and dandy, but the real stars of the show are made possible with AltStore, which makes it easy to install apps from outside of the App Store. You basically install a piece of software on a Mac or PC, enter your Apple ID credentials, and the AltStore app will install on your device.
AltStore has a number of apps that you can install right from within the Browse tab — Flycast, UTM, Provenance, and more — but you can also sideload any .ipa file from the My Apps tab. I’ve installed Dolphin and RetroArch. This gives me access to emulating the following systems:
- Game Boy Advance
- Game Boy Color
- Game Boy
- Nintendo 64
- Nintendo DS
- Nintendo Entertainment System
- Super Nintendo
- Sega 32X
- Sega Game Gear
- Sega Master System
- Sega Genesis
- Sega CD
- Sega Saturn
- PlayStation Portable
- Nintendo Wii
Everything runs surprisingly well. I’ve only come across a small number of games on PSP, Wii, and GameCube that were unplayable — either because of performance issues or incompatibilities with the emulator. In the case of PSP, I could install the stand-alone PPSSPP emulator to improve compatibility, but I prefer RetroArch’s interface.
Speaking of interface — launching sideloaded apps is one thing the Backbone app isn’t capable of. However, as a workaround, I’ve installed the PlayStation App and setup an automation in Shortcuts that triggers every time the PlayStation App is opened. It simply displays a menu listing my sideloaded apps — Dolphin and RetroArch — and launches the one I choose.
With this setup I can open the PlayStation App from within the Backbone app and then select the emulator I’d like to use. It’s not as slick as the emulation-focused launchers available on Android — my current favorite is Daijishō — but it gets the job done.
Moving back to the emulators themselves, there is a bit of a caveat with Dolphin. It requires JIT — just-in-time compilation — which allows the games to emulate at full speed. Without it, the experience would be abysmal. But in order to enable JIT, you need to be on the same network as a JIT enabling server. This is, conveniently, built-in to the AltServer software that AltStore interfaces with, but means that playing games in Dolphin while out and about is a no-go.
It’s an inconvenience for sure, but the vast majority of my gaming is done while at home and in other cases I can always just play something in RetroArch. Hopefully this will change when sideloading is officially offered in the future, but for now the workaround is rarely a hindrance in my use.
With these emulators I’ve been playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Tony Hawk’s Underground, The Lion King, and Super Mario World. And that’s just what I’ve had in my regular rotation, I’ve added about 50GB of ROMs between the two emulators, which will keep me busy for quite some time.
I’m very happy with my current setup. I can emulate roughly the same number of systems as I could on my Retroid devices, but because of the increased performance of the iPhone there’s likely a much larger number of games that are actually playable. And all of them run on a device that I already bring with me everywhere I go.
No need to maintain a separate device with its own software updates and battery life. All I need is the Backbone controller and my iPhone for access to modern mobile games on iOS, PC games through Steam Link, and a collection of the best games from the seventh generation of consoles and earlier.