EVER SINCE NINTENDO changed the gaming landscape for good with the Game Boy way back in 1989, games console manufacturers have been wrestling with the issue of how to squeeze as much power out of a portable console as possible. For years, the answer was simple: make good games that sacrifice size, scale and graphics to run better on less powerful hardware. It worked for the Game Boy, it worked for the DS, and in a way, it’s even worked for the Nintendo Switch.
In recent times, the answer to this conundrum has become more complicated. The advent of game streaming has allowed players to play what are effectively console games on their phones, while manufacturers like Valve, Lenovo and ASUS’s ROG division have all come to market with handheld PCs that, at long last, have the capability of running full PC games. No longer is it good enough for handheld manufacturers to rest on their laurels and expect gamers to settle for second best when playing on the move.
Which brings us smoothly to Apple. The launch of the iPhone 15 was a fairly standard example of what we’ve come to expect from the Cupertino giant. The 15 and the 15 pro were both incremental updates from their predecessors, with new chips and new cameras as per the usual. What Apple did casually mention, however, is that the 15 Pro’s new A17 Pro chip gives it the gaming capabilities to run actual console games (albeit in App form) as well as the time-burning mobile games most iPhone users are used to. Big budget franchises like Resident Evil, Assassin’s Creed and Death Stranding are already heading to the platform, with more presumably to follow.
The iPhone, then, is now for all intents and purposes a portable console. But is it a good one?
Let’s start with the obvious: it has no buttons. Apple gets around this issue through the use of clever touch screen prompts that allow you to effectively use the phone like a controller and a screen at the same time, but as anyone who’s ever tried to play Fortnite or Warzone on their phone before will attest to, raw dogging a game on a phone screen, particularly when there are guns involved, is not the best experience.
The way around this is to use a third-party plug in controller, the best of which we tried is the Backbone, which clamps on to each end of your phone via its USB-C port and comes in both Playstation and generic layouts to mimic whatever you’d normally play at home. Being asked to fork out $180 for an add-on when you’ve already spent upwards of $2,000 on a phone might sting, but if you’ve bought into the proposition of the iPhone as both a phone and a console, it’s an essential quality of life investment.
But what about the iPhone itself, and, more importantly, the games? Let’s start with the good: the iPhone might be the most versatile handheld on the market. Not only is it, well, a phone, but it’s also surprisingly well equipped for different gaming scenarios. You can plug it into your TV with a USB-C to HDMI adapter, and it’s also compatible with bluetooth controllers like Playstation’s Duelsense, meaning if you combine the two you can effectively use it like an actual console if you want to.
Apple claim that the iPhone 15 Pro’s chip gives it the capability to run games in up to 4k with ray tracing, but will naturally scale things up and down in accordance with how taxing the phone is finding the game to run. So far, we’ve had the chance to test the iPhone out playing two AAA games, Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil Village, and found to a large extent what other reviewers have found: the iPhone, simply, has a way to go to get anywhere close to replicating a console experience.
Resident Evil(s) 4 and Village take slightly different approaches with how to get the best performance out of the iPhone, and neither deliver the kind of results you’d reasonably expect from either a handheld like a Steam Deck or streaming a game on a service like Xbox or Playstation Remote. While Village allows you to tinker with some graphical settings and RE4 is mostly locked, both basically run in 720p at around 30fps. This is, of course, before you factor in frame rate drops, of which there are many—not ideal for games that sometimes throw you into high pressure environments.
All this being said, do the games look any good? For an iPhone, we’d say yes (for reference, GameRiot’s iPhone 15 Pro Max Resident Evil 4 walkthrough is a good indicator of what to expect). There are, of course, issues, most commonly with the speed at which the iPhone loads textures, distant objects and more intricate things like hair and tree leaves, but let’s face it: to get a game running at all, never mind looking this good on a phone, is a pretty remarkable achievement.
This, ultimately, isn’t quite enough to save the iPhone as a ready-made console gaming proposition, though, particularly when you factor in the option of game streaming, which may require a stable internet connection but simply offers more power and a smoother experience.
Could this change? Of course. Apple’s chips get more powerful every year and, as with any console, developers will slowly figure out ways to squeeze more and more performance out of the iPhone with every new game and every new model. But while we won’t be throwing away our PS5’s any time soon, the iPhone 15 Pro represents a potentially exciting step for gaming, and maybe that’s all that matters.