Forget the Nintendo Switch 2, your next gaming handheld could be an iPhone

A Backbone One mobile controller in use
(Image credit: Alex Walker-Todd / Dashiell Wood / Future)

Playing games on your phone has always been a bit of a romantic notion. No, I’m not talking about access to popular casual titles like Candy Crush Saga or Marvel Snap, which are already readily available on all kinds of mobile devices, but rather the elusive fully-fledged big budget releases that you would expect to find on the likes of the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. As good as a lot of the casual mobile titles are, there’s something almost magical about seeing the very latest and most graphically intensive games crammed into such a tiny form factor.

Although the concept of console to mobile video game porting hasn’t really caught the world by storm quite yet, developers have been intermittently experimenting with squeezing the biggest console games onto mobile phones since the days of the very first iPhone. In fact, this pioneering first generation Apple device, along with the later iPhone 3G and 3GS, had its own native Mobile Edition of the groundbreaking 2005 survival horror game Resident Evil 4 - an incredibly ambitious effort given the extremely limited hardware of the time.

This version of the game looked fairly close to its console counterparts, thanks in no small part to the phone’s absolutely tiny 3.5” screen hiding a lot of the imperfections, but it made some serious sacrifices in terms of overall content. When you tally it all up, Resident Evil 4: Mobile Edition features so many major narrative and mechanical omissions that it’s roughly seven to eight hours shorter than the original game.

Growing pains

iPhone SE 2022

The iPhone SE (2022) (Image credit: Future)

Thankfully, we’ve been seeing mobile versions of major console games becoming considerably more impressive over the years as the hardware capabilities of our phones continue to advance. A feature-complete version of 2005’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, easily one of the most technically demanding open-world titles of its time, has been available on select iOS and Android devices since 2013. Specialist studios like Feral Interactive also routinely produce incredible mobile renditions of other popular games which are sold at surprisingly low prices. I’ve sunk countless hours into the studio’s iOS version of the 2016 strategy giant XCOM 2 and recently invested in a pre-order of its upcoming release which finally brings one of my favorite stealth games, 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money, to the platform. 

With the power of modern mobile computing, these older console games run extremely well even on my relatively modest iPhone 13 mini. The arrival of accessories like the Backbone One, a compact mobile gamepad that plugs right into your phone with Lightning or USB-C, has also helped further bridge the gap between console and mobile platforms by freeing us from cumbersome touch controls. Instead, these accessories offer the same level of precision that you would achieve with a standard gaming controller.

Despite this serious progress, however, it still feels like something has been missing. All of the games available on my phone have been quite old and, as a result, not really the killer lineup that would be needed to make iOS or Android a serious console gaming platform. Obviously, this is likely the result of hardware constraints, but the huge success of the Nintendo Switch, a weaker hybrid console powered by a custom NVIDIA Tegra mobile phone chipset, shows that many players would be happy to sacrifice some level of visual fidelity for the sake of pure portability.

In an era where manufacturers expect us to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for mobile phones with more computing power than it took to put a man on the moon, it seems silly that we need to shell out for dedicated gaming consoles when something you already own could comfortably run many of the latest console games.

Promising signs

Resident Evil Village on the iPhone 15 Pro

A screenshot from my time with Resident Evil Village running on the iPhone 15 Pro (Image credit: Capcom)

With the release of the iPhone 15 Pro, it seems like Apple is finally starting to address the clear absurdity here. The company made quite an impression at its September Apple event when it showed off the capabilities of the model’s new A17 Pro chipset through some incredible footage of cutting-edge console games running natively on the platform. This included the then upcoming Assassin’s Creed Mirage in addition to the recent Resident Evil 4 remake and Resident Evil Village. Boasting ray-tracing capabilities like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, the footage looked near indistinguishable from the kinds of visuals that you would be able to achieve on consoles - a far cry from Resident Evil 4: Mobile Edition on the original iPhone.

While this seemed like a massive step forward for the mobile gaming landscape, I was still a little skeptical about the overall experience. However, after going hands-on with the iPhone 15 Pro, fitted with the Backbone One PlayStation Edition, to try Resident Evil Village for myself, I’m now completely sold. Although the technical performance isn’t quite up to par with what you would find on a console, it is comfortably playable in its current state and provides a promising foundation to build upon in future devices. There are loads of graphical options at your fingertips. I found that, with medium settings at 720p resolution and AI upscaling enabled, the experience was buttery smooth and appeared very close to how I remember the game looking when I first played it on my gaming PC last year.

A shot of the Backbone One in use

Paired with a mobile controller like the Backbone One, the experience is very close to a console (Image credit: Alex Walker-Todd / Dashiell Wood / Future)

Obviously, with the iPhone 15 Pro’s $999 / £999 price tag, this is an expensive option if you’re looking to game. Even so, Apple generally begins to roll out its Pro level chips to cheaper models in a fairly predictable pattern so I think that we could start seeing this level of performance for less over the next couple of years. Of course, hardware is only part of the equation and developers will also need to start taking mobile versions more seriously for console-quality mobile gaming to really take off. The handful of games showcased at the September Apple event are a solid start, and, if we start seeing more major new releases coming to the platform it would be fantastic for thrifty consumers. 

Would you really consider buying a dedicated console when your expensive phone can already play a large chunk of the library? This sort of innovation would also offer some of the best handheld games consoles some serious competition. The Nintendo Switch might have the upper hand on the software front thanks to its fantastic console exclusives, but a mobile phone could become a compelling alternative for less picky consumers who just want to play a few big games. Throw in some kind of integration with Apple Arcade and we might have something that could go toe to toe with the popular Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription service.

The future of mobile gaming is still up in the air, but it's certainly in a promising position right now. If Apple’s latest offering proves popular, we could see similar software become available on high-end Android devices leading to a potential arms race where both ecosystems try to cram as much console-quality gaming performance into their hardware as possible. One thing is for sure, though: I will be keeping a close eye on the space for more exciting innovations to come.

The ongoing Black Friday gaming deals are the perfect opportunity to grab a handheld console of your own. For top Nintendo Switch offers, see our roundup of the best Black Friday Nintendo Switch deals or the best Black Friday Nintendo Switch OLED deals.

Dashiell Wood
Hardware Writer

Dash is TechRadar Gaming's Hardware Writer. Before joining TechRadar, he was a print journalist writing articles for some of the UK's biggest gaming magazines including PLAY, Edge, PC Gamer, and SFX. Now, when he's not getting his greasy little mitts on the newest hardware or gaming gadget, he can be found feverishly devouring the latest Nintendo Switch otome.