In the years since the phrase “don’t you people have phones” became a Blizzard-mocking meme, I’ve found myself honestly playing more video games on my smartphone. (But not Diablo Immortal, which spawned the meme.) In particular, Xbox Cloud Gaming, Google Stadia, and other cloud-gaming services have shined as options on my phone when Wi-Fi or 5G reception is decent.
While select games on these services have on-screen buttons as options, I won’t play with anything less than a physical gamepad. Until this month, I relied on a standard, slim 8Bitdo gamepad, especially when traveling, but this required a phone-to-gamepad plastic harness—and, gosh, those things fall apart when tossed into my bags. There’s gotta be something better, right?
Enter the Razer Kishi V2. At the somewhat steep price of $100, this clamp-to-your-phone gamepad is not a slam-dunk recommendation for anyone who doesn’t regularly play console-styled games on their phone. But it gets closer to earning that value than Kishi’s 2020 version.
A brief primer on the last-gen Kishi
Technically, the first Kishi is even older than that. Razer’s debut Kishi model was a rebrand of the Gamevice gamepad, which launched in 2017 for the iPhone 6 generation. When Razer and Gamevice collaborated on a controller, it came in two versions: Android, with a USB Type-C port, and iOS, with a Lightning port.
In either case, users are expected to turn their smartphone sideways, then connect half to the gamepad’s port. Pull the gamepad’s other half, and a tension-based mechanism will let it stretch to fit over the other side of your phone. Once fully clasped, you have a makeshift Switch-like option for your smartphone: joysticks, triggers, and “bumpers” on both sides, a D-pad on the left, and an ABXY button array on the right.
Like other Gamevice controllers, the 2020 Kishi V1’s best perks included solid joysticks and an easy-to-fold split design so that you could clasp its halves together when disconnected from a phone to fit it more easily in a crowded a bag. But the rest of its buttons left me quite unmoved; the tension on the analog triggers felt cheap, and its D-pad and ABXY button array were mushy.
Worse, the first Kishi’s extendable strap system adds a certain amount of plastic bulk that isn’t compatible with some phone models (particularly the “camera bump” found on newer Pixel phones) or doesn’t extend far enough to support larger smartphones.
A different kind of portable gaming “switch”
This month’s Kishi V2, which was made without Gamevice’s involvement, solves every single complaint on the above list (with the exception of only having an Android model available as of press time). My favorite part about Razer’s new model is an upgrade to clicky microswitches, which honestly aren’t common enough in modern gamepads. If you’ve ever used a Neo Geo Pocket, you know exactly what I’m talking about: They’re responsive and noticeably loud.
This leads to a dramatic improvement in responsiveness and comfort for the D-pad, ABXY array, and bumpers. As someone who likes to pack a few favorite 8- and 16-bit games on an Android emulator, I am happy to report that the sensation of tricky 2D platforming challenges in the likes of Mega Man benefits from these new buttons’ balance of size, spacing, and button-press travel. Kishi V2’s analog triggers have also been revised, and while they get nowhere near the satisfying default tension of an Xbox or PlayStation gamepad, their somewhat hollow pressing sensation is a marked improvement over the first Kishi’s tense-yet-flimsy triggers.
Despite liking the button improvements, I have a nitpick. Kishi V2’s ABXY array is 1.5 mm closer to the right-side joystick than the same arrangement on a standard Nintendo Switch Joy-Con. As a result, an adult-sized thumb can expect to accidentally touch Kishi V2’s right-side joystick while focusing on old-school ABXY button taps—unless you rotate your thumb placement to compensate. Adjusting for this felt a bit unnatural for me, and I could see this being a deal-breaker for certain hands, but I still prefer Kishi V2’s ABXY use case more than the original Kishi by a longshot.
Also, I prefer the Kishi V1’s joysticks, which are the tiniest bit smaller than what you’ll find on an Xbox gamepad but otherwise copy those solid joysticks’ thumb feel and tension. Kishi V2’s joysticks look and feel identical to those found on a Switch Joy-Con, right down to the tiny notches in each cardinal direction. So far, they’ve been entirely serviceable in first-person shooters that require careful aim and frequent joystick-pressing clicks. But my testing has not been extensive enough to determine whether Kishi V2 owners should expect mechanical failures that resemble the dreaded Joy-Con drift issue.