Some games just work better with a gamepad in your hands
One of the big surprises at WWDC 2019 was Apple’s announcement its devices would support PS4 and Xbox One controllers. Apple until then had been cool on games controllers for iPhone and iPad, seemingly pretending they didn’t exist – even though the MFi controller standard has been around since iOS 7. But as 2019 progressed, things quickly changed.
Pretty much every game on Apple Arcade now fully supports controllers. For iPhone-based puzzlers, that makes no odds, but it’s a boon for twitch arcade efforts like Sayonara Wild Hearts and Sociable Soccer, and console-style fare like Oceanhorn 2.
This article explores 20 great App Store games beyond Apple Arcade that also support controllers on iPhone and iPad, so you can get the most from your purchase. And if you’ve not yet taken the plunge and bought one, we’ll first outline your options.
The best controllers for iPhone and iPad
Not all controllers are created equal. PS4 and Xbox One controllers have a strong pedigree, but MFi controllers were created specifically for iOS, and so games sometimes tailor on-screen instructions for them.
Really, any of the controllers outlined below should do the trick. Be mindful, though, that wireless ones will need to be paired with a device. If you use multiple devices, you may be better off buying a controller for each of them.
Also: watch out for sales. We’re listing recommended retail pricing, but PS4 and Xbox One controllers in particular can often be found for less money. Plus, if you’re a console gamer you’ll likely already have one lying around!
SteelSeries Nimbus ($50/£50)
For years, SteelSeries blazed a trail no-one else followed, in making decent traditional gamepads for iOS. It’s still a dependable option, but arguably its biggest benefit is some games providing on-screen instructions directly referencing its button configuration, meaning you don’t have to figure out which one does what. The gigantic LED means you’ll not be confused whether the thing’s fully charged when it’s plugged in, too.
PS4 DualShock 4 Wireless Controller ($60/£50)
The DualShock is rather more slender than the Nimbus, and feels a bit more solid and premium. Four buttons on the left rather than an actual D-pad may irk those who grew up in the (very) old days of gaming. Otherwise, this is a dependable and much-loved rechargeable controller that can be found in a veritable rainbow of colors.
Xbox Wireless Controller ($60/£55)
Microsoft’s controller shakes up the layout compared to the previous two entries on this list. Instead of the analog thumbsticks being next to each other, one is opposite the four face buttons, and the other to the right of the D-pad. It’s a great controller for modern and retro fare alike, although perhaps large for smaller hands; also, it – irritatingly – runs on AA batteries, like it’s 1999 or something.
Gamevice (from $80/£80)
Gamevice clamps your iPhone or iPad between the two halves of the controller. With an iPhone, the result resembles a PSP, and works nicely in landscape – although there is some flex. On iPad, the effect is comically absurd, but surprisingly usable. Note, though, that at the time of writing, Gamevice only supports up to iPhone XS Max and the previous generation of iPad Pro; so carefully check compatibility before buying.
Rotor Riot wired video game & drone controller ($50/£50)
Although you can buy phone clips for the DualShock and Xbox One controllers, Rotor’s comes with one built-in, and connects to your phone via Lightning. This means it’s instantly ready to use, with no messing around – it just works. In testing, the unit felt a bit hollow, and the combination of controller plus phone is a bit top heavy. Still: it’s an interesting option if you want an all-in-one unit.
20 great games for controllers
Not every game on the App Store is compatible with controllers, but close to 1,500 are. Many of those would come recommended, and so keeping our list down to 20 titles wasn’t easy.
We focused on gaming experiences that are meaningfully better with a controller, games that are objectively great, and titles that don’t have a direct equivalent lurking inside Apple Arcade. Enjoy!
Asphalt 9 (free)
On-rails racing may seem like an odd idea, but when combined with Asphalt’s flexible grasp on reality it works really well. Larger-than-life courses almost become puzzles as you figure out the optimum route to victory. If you want something more conventional, try Asphalt 8.
A world has been shattered to pieces, and you need to figure out what’s going on. There’s plenty of exploring and shooting to be done in this gorgeous hand-painted RPG; and as you go about your business, a dynamic narrator reacts to your actions.
Death Road to Canada ($15/£15)
Walking Dead reimagined as a 1980s arcade game might resemble this randomly generated road trip. You explore towns, cave in zombie skulls, and make decisions during downtime. Dripping in black humor, this one needs a controller if you want any chance of making it to Canada.
Evoland 2 ($8/£8)
Seemingly trying to pack in the entirety of gaming history, Evoland 2 riffs off of classic systems and games, constantly shaking things up through its 20-hour length. The touchscreen controls are fairly horrible, but the game shines when you have a controller.
Gomez’s mind is blown when a mysterious creature reveals the existence of a third dimension. This is a stunning and intriguing game as you flip 2D environments about a central axis. With a controller, the many precision jumps also become a mite less risky.
You probably know the drill by now: drop a bunch of competitors on to an island, and the winner’s the last one standing. Getting Fortnite running on mobile was a feat, but the complex controls result in finger Twister. With a controller, you’re way more likely to emerge victorious.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City ($5/£5)
Having originated on PC in 2002, this one also usually litters the touchscreen with buttons. But with a controller, this sandbox classic finds a new lease of life as you aim to take over a grim and gritty town – or just steal a taxi and bomb about the place.
GRID Autosport ($10/£10)
That this full-on AAA racer even exists on a phone is a modern-day marvel. It’s certainly not the most immediate of racers – you really have to learn to drive the cars; but it is hugely customizable and deeply rewarding, with some fantastic visuals and dozens of tracks.
This platform game finds a girl consigned to a ruined world, trying to find her voice. Despite its watercolor elegance and gentle demeanor, there are some bits that feel far too fiddly on the touchscreen – but with a controller, GRIS feels whole.
Inferno 2 ($2/£2)
When you’re immersed in neon twin-stick shooty thrills, the last thing you want to do is cover half the screen with your thumbs. A controller gets them out of the way, so you can gleefully rampage around Inferno 2’s 80 mazes, blowing everything to bits.
Inside (free + $7/£7)
Few games are more unnerving than Inside, which begins with a child escaping from murderous men with fierce dogs, and then transforms into something significantly weirder. Heavily dependent on precision and timing, Inside has solid touchscreen controls, but you’ll be glad of the physical option when reaching its tricky bits.
Part stealth, part twin-stick shooter, part terrifying glimpse into the future of law enforcement, Jydge finds the titular officer eradicating criminals with his ‘gavel’ rifle. You can go slow at first, but time attack targets are the real prize – and they’re far easier to crack with a controller.
Lego Star Wars: TCS (free + IAP)
TCS means ‘the complete saga’, and that’s pretty much what you get here – six Star Wars episodes reimagined in virtual plastic bricks. Although primarily designed for kids, this one’s entertaining for all ages. It’s great fun blowing baddies into blocks, and using the force to construct new vehicles and weapons.
An adventure in a shoebox, Minit gives you just 60 seconds of life. Fail in your quest, and you at least keep the last item you had when you died. Speed is very much of the essence, then, meaning you don’t want your fingers slipping about on a touchscreen.
Ms. Pac-Man ($4/£4)
Pac-Man is on the App Store, but this follow-up is the better title. The controls are so simple that this game works well on the touchscreen, as you belt about a maze, eating dots and avoiding ghosts. But it was always meant to be played with a physical stick.
Credit where credit’s due: the touchscreen controls in this glossy console-like platformer are seriously good. But its old-school stylings feel perfectly suited to a more traditional set-up. Either way, do play this stunning effort, which is packed full of charm, great level design, and superb set pieces.
Rush Rally 3 ($4/£4)
Although providing some track-based races, Rush Rally 3 is happiest when you’re belting through a forest, co-driver barking instructions in your ear, and trying very hard not to crash into a tree. You’ll welcome a controller when it comes to the not-crashing bit.
Sonic the Hedgehog (free or $2/£2)
Sega’s classic breakneck platform game is reimagined with remastered audio and in full 60fps widescreen. But the blue hero’s doomed if you play using touch controls, because this is retro-style take-no-prisoners gaming, and it needs a gamepad. With one in your mitts, the good times instantly come flooding back.
Classic side-scrolling blasters like Blazing Star and R-Type are on the App Store, but Steredenn blows them away. It’s a visual treat, with all manner of bonkers opponents, a wealth of crazy weapons, and algorithmically generated levels that ensure no two games are ever quite the same.
Street Fighter IV CE ($5/£5)
No round-up of controller-oriented games would be complete without a brawler – although the App Store’s hardly drowning in them. Street Fighter – despite slightly ropey visuals on iPad – makes a good fight of it, though, with tons of characters, and varied modes. (Note: controllers don’t work in the menus – only when giving an opponent a serious kicking.)