This $99 gaming gadget is keeping my PlayStation Vita 2 dreams alive

The Backbone One controller using an iPhone and AirPods
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

I’m a member of the Vita faithful. In my humble yet correct opinion, portable gaming hardware doesn't come better than Sony’s ill-fated second handheld. 

Launched in 2011 in Japan and a year later in the U.S. and Europe, The Vita threw every hardware and software trick in the book into its luxurious piano black chassis. A 5-inch OLED panel? Check. Twin joysticks? Check. Front and rear cameras? Check. Headphone port and touchscreen? Check. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi? Check. It was small enough to be supremely portable but large enough to keep you engrossed in Uncharted, Need for Speed or - my personal favorite - Everybody’s Golf.

And it was a failure.

I don’t need to get into the reasons the Vita didn’t succeed here - they’ve been covered ad nauseum elsewhere on the internet. 

But I am one of the people that remain hopeful of a PS Vita 2 at some point in the near future. That possibility is on a knife-edge right now. Thanks to the Nintendo Switch, Steam Deck and ROG Ally, handheld gaming is having something of a renaissance.

PlayStation Vita

(Image credit: Future)

Sony seems to have cottoned on to this and as a result we have the PlayStation Project Q. Which is, to all intents and purposes, a DualSense with a screen. 

Details are scant but, rather than playing its own catalogue of games on-device, this new handheld uses PS5 Remote Play to keep gamers in the zone when they’re kicked off the family telly.

While Sony hasn't given much away, we do know a bit about Project Q. It will have, according to the press release, "a vibrant 8-inch LCD screen capable of up to 1080p resolution at 60fps." 

Sony also says: "The device delivers crisp visuals and smooth gameplay streamed from your PS5 when you’re away from your TV. All of the buttons and features of the DualSense wireless controller, including adaptive triggers and haptic feedback, are featured on the device."

So far, so mediocre. And if PlayStation bosses decide to charge a significant amount for this accessory — let's say somewhere between the $349 Switch and the $499 Steam Deck — I’ll spit out my mouthful of SoulStorm Brew in disgust.

The reason is, of course, there’s already a perfectly good product that fits this need. It’s cheaper, does the same job and is much closer to my dream of a PS Vita 2 than anything else out there. I’m talking about the Sony-certified “PlayStation Edition” of the Backbone One mobile game controller. Previously only available for iOS, an Android edition was announced just days before Sony’s PlayStation Showcase.

Chances are you’re toting a smartphone with a faster refresh rate and, possibly, an OLED panel that’ll make your Remote Play games look a lot better than what Project Q is touting. Similarly, if you opt for the Backbone One, you’re getting an additional 3.5mm headphone jack and only 138g of weight. Pop an iPhone 12 in there and you’ve got a 300g device akin to a Switch Lite.

And while you can choose to use it while at home on the sofa connected to Remote Play, you can also take it out and about on a commute or away for a long weekend. And enjoy some of the best iOS games or Apple Arcade offerings to boot. If you’re of the Android persuasion, you can use it with many of the best Android games.

Showing some backbone

Backbone One iOS mobile game controller

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Backbone actually goes further with its own app and subscription package (Backbone+) offering features like a centralized hub for all your gaming content, 24/7 support and, crucially, the ability to hook your controller up to another screen, like a PC or Mac, via a cable to use it as a standalone controller. 

The controller itself is well-made, with suitably clicky buttons and responsive joysticks. It’s not perfect: Because it’s made to be compatible with different models of phone, it’s not a seamless fit on any one of them. There’s a bit of bow and flex when you’re using it which you won’t get with a dedicated handheld.

If Project Q is going to have any chance of winning me over, I’m going to need to see some kind of on-board storage that allows me to play offline and away from my house. Without that, the whole exercise seems rather pointless.

Even if I didn’t have a Backbone One, I could just pair a DualSense controller to an iPad and use that as a second screen.

Unfortunately, the cynic in me says if Project Q doesn’t succeed, Sony will see it as yet more proof that people don’t want a PlayStation handheld. And my dreams of a PlayStation Vita 2 will die somewhere in the back of a boardroom in Tokyo.

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Jeff Parsons
UK Editor In Chief

Jeff is UK Editor-in-Chief for Tom’s Guide looking after the day-to-day output of the site’s British contingent. Rising early and heading straight for the coffee machine, Jeff loves nothing more than dialling into the zeitgeist of the day’s tech news.

A tech journalist for over a decade, he’s travelled the world testing any gadget he can get his hands on. Jeff has a keen interest in fitness and wearables as well as the latest tablets and laptops. A lapsed gamer, he fondly remembers the days when problems were solved by taking out the cartridge and blowing away the dust.

  • Lion3
    The problem is that this has an XBox-style or Switch-style layout with the analog joysticks being diagonal or offset. I just can't seem to find a phone clip-on device of this type that has the joysticks side-by-side on the bottom, PlayStation-style.

    Obviously there are plenty of Xbox and Switch gamers and it makes sense to cater to that market to make and sell things laid out in that style.

    But there are lots of PlayStation gamers too. Five generations of the living room console, plus the Vita. Plus some other odds and ends from Sony and others that also use this layout.

    So why are smartphone controller add-ons in PlayStation-style layout not just much rarer than XBox/Switch-style but in fact all but impossible to find?
  • hush404
    That's actually a good point. You'd think backbone would have thought about that when making a PlayStation branded version of their controller. Huh.
    I grew up with the PS systems and prefer the sticks together, but can easily play with something where they're offset. Thus this decision doesn't cause me a big issue but it's still an interesting design choice.