Despite Apple’s continued efforts, action gaming on an iPhone still isn’t a seamless experience. There are still issues on the software side of things, but Gamesir’s latest peripheral offers the kind of physical controls found on portables like the Nintendo Switch.
Package dimensions: 8.23 x 4.25 x 2.13 inches
Weight: 167 grams, 5.89 ounces
Power: none, powered by phone
Compatibility: iOS 13+
Price: $69.99 via Gamesir direct
Across the last year, there’s been a wave of reasonably priced retro portables. For around a hundred dollars, you can pick up a RockChip RK3226 CPU-powered devices (such as the Anbernic RG351V and ODROID-Go Super) that can adeptly emulate everything from early Atari VCS to PlayStation One games. They’re great little devices, offering the kind of physical controls found on devices like the Game Boy and PlayStation Vita. But there’s an obvious issue: each represents another electronic device that you’ll need to carry around.
One worthwhile alterative is to purchase a controller that cradles your phone. With your mobile device securely and safely stationed inside the grippy rubber base, it’s almost like playing a dedicated portable gaming system. For those who own an iPhone, the Gamesir X2 Lightning Controller offers well-engineered hardware that extends two analog sticks, a direction pad, four face buttons, as well as a pair of shoulder bumpers and trigger-style buttons.
But the experience remains hampered by Apple’s long-running mismanagement of the gaming side of things. Whereas Android owners can enjoy the delights of emulation quite easily, iOS users will have to do a bit of a finagling to get barebones emulation. Apple Arcade showed the Cupertino-based corporation offering a perfunctory monthly service for mobile-based recreations. But their mismanaged MFi program means a lot of legacy titles won’t work with the Gamesir or any other licensed controller. That said, if you’re committed to Apple’s ecosystem, the Lightning controller is one of the better solutions on the market.
Releasing the Lightning
Gamesir doesn’t cut many corners, which is evident when opening the X2’s housing. The unit is safeguarded with a zippered carrying case and kept scratch-free by the container’s plush cloth interior. Additionally, you’ll find four optional rubber caps for the two analog sticks and an instructional manual with the tiniest of print. As someone who takes devoted care to their electronics and buys a carrying case to protect every piece of equipment, it is gratifying to see a company ship this alongside the hardware and not charge an additional fee.
Unlike Gamesir’s similarly designed Bluetooth controller, the X2 Lightning doesn’t require charging. Instead, the peripheral is powered by ingesting a tiny trickle of power from your phone. Pleasingly, the power draw is nearly insignificant enough to notice. When playing Genshin Impact on an iPhone 12, we obtained two hours and 57 minutes of playtime when using touchscreen controls. Playing with the X2 reduced that duration by 5 minutes. Not only is it nice to not have to worry about keeping the Lightning Controller charged, but the absence of a battery keeps the unit’s weight down to a graceful 167 grams.
Accommodating the Entire iPhone Family
Once positioned into the X2’s expandable halves, phones as large as 173 millimeters are held snuggly in the middle. That means everything from a diminutive iPhone 5 to a lanky iPhone 12 Pro Max felt secure, with the rubber grips on both ends prohibiting any hardware drops, even when the peripheral is given a healthy shake. Pleasingly, the X2 can cradle most phones without having to take the case off, which is convenient. But your phone will have to be oriented in landscape mode, eliminating the possibility for playing shooters in tate or vertical mode. The peripheral’s only other stipulation is that your phone must be running on iOS 13 or above.
Pleasingly, the X2’s lightning connecting pivots upward, allowing for an effortless connection. It also eliminates the worry about the connector becoming worn and loose over time. Some might even want to leave the X2 clasped around their iPhone for longer periods of time. With the device’s passthrough connector, you can charge your mobile without removal or even do a bit of music swapping through iTunes.
But Apple’s Policies Taint Software
Excited by the X2’s possibly to turn an iPhone into an all-in-one device, we redownloaded our favorite MFi-compatible games. First up was classic run-and-gun Metal Slug. Although the game instantly responded to the controller, and mostly played well, we weren’t able to toss any grenades. As any SNK aficionado will tell you, that’s a bit of a deal-breaker. While we tried to remap the controls, the game just wouldn’t conform, and we did our best to survive with one less weapon. While Gamesir can’t be blamed, Apple’s shift to a 64-bit operating system means some legacy 32-bit titles won’t work.
Fortunately, other classics fair far better. Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved demonstrates the design of the X2’s two analog sticks. While they have more throw than say, the Nintendo Switch, this design decision allows for more precision when playing a racer like Asphalt 9: Legends. Likewise, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Dead Cells functioned flawlessly, permitting for much better performance that touchscreen play would allow. Unsurprisingly, Apple Arcade titles like Hot Lava, LEGO Brawls, and Tetris Beat all shine when the X2 is wrapped around phones.
Still, there are quite a few games in Apple’s library that don’t offer MFi support. Many of these require players to tap specific areas of the touchscreen. While Gamesir’s app touts a functionality named “G-Touch” that purports to map parts of the screen to controller buttons, it stopped working after the iOS 13.4 update. Their app also links to many of those 32-bit App Store games that haven’t worked since 2017. While other Gamesir peripherals are listed, there’s no mention of the X2 Lightning specifically. Unquestionably, their app is in desperate need of an overhaul.
For those who prefer cloud-based gaming, the X2’s tactile feedback is a vast improvement over tapping on glass. From Xbox Game Pass Ultimate steaming to connecting with Steam Link, the Lightning Controller is well suited for couch-based play. With three levels of turbo-fire, playing classic Cave STGs while reclining offered a relaxing afternoon reprieve.
In the Hands of Players
Since ergonomics can be rather subjective, I recruited a team of three volunteers, who each used the X2 for at least a half hour. Overall, the general consensus on performance was positive, with every member praising the precision of the analog sticks and the feel of the device once an iPhone was cradled. However, there were concerns about the face buttons. While Gamesir uses microswitches, there wasn’t enough travel for two of the testers.
Meanwhile, the shoulder buttons and trigger received encouraging feedback. Not only where they comfortable for resting fingers but emitted a pleasing ‘click’ when pressed. But feedback on the X2’s directional pad was more mixed, with one participant feeling that it was too stiff.
When asked about the pricing of the X2 controller, every volunteer through it was positioned too high. Fifty to sixty dollars seemed to be the maximum cost that each person would pay for it. When they found out that the peripheral had a seventy-dollar MSRP, two testers scoffed, stating that it is very unlikely they would pay that much for the device. The other reassessed their opinion, declaring that they considering paying seventy dollars for a SteelSeries Nimbus+ controller.
Although priced a bit high, the Gamesir X2 Lightning Controller offers a respectable way to enjoy action games with physical controls. While Apple is gradually embracing gaming, it’s been a protracted process and one that’s left many games without support for these types of devices. But if you’re committed to Apple’s ecosystem, the peripheral is undoubtedly functional, extracting some portable style enjoyment from device primarily designed around productivity and consumption.
GameSir X2 Lightning Gaming Controller
Platform: iOS 13 or above
Connection: Lightning connector
Product Size: 177.8*84.3*36.8 mm / 7*3.32*1.45 in
Net Weight: 167 g / 0.37 lbs
Package Size: 203.5*106*55 mm / 8.01*4.17*2.17 in
In the Box: GameSir X2 Lighting / User Manual / Stickers