Razer Kishi review: the most convenient phone controller
The trouble of finding a reliable gamepad to use with your phone was, more or less, figured out when Android 10 and iOS 13 added native support for the DualShock 4 and Xbox One controller. Still, Razer is trying to solve it a little differently with its Kishi mobile controller, an $80 accessory made in partnership with Gamevice that — by looks, if nothing else — turns your phone into a Nintendo Switch lookalike. It’s a compact controller that splits in half, delegating an analog stick and D-pad to the left side, and another analog stick and face buttons to the right side. Each side is connected by a flat data cable that extends far enough to fit your Android phone’s big, bezel-less, high-res display in the middle.
The Kishi supports both Razer Phones, the Google Pixel 2 and newer, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and newer (excluding the S20 Ultra), and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and newer. Other phones are supported, though it’ll need to have Android 8 Oreo software, a center-aligned USB-C port, and dimensions that don’t exceed 78.1 x 163.7 x 8.8mm. Razer is aiming to release the Kishi that’s made for iPhones this summer.
$80 is certainly not inexpensive, but Razer addresses several pain points of using one of the controllers that I mentioned above with a phone. For starters, it connects to the phone’s USB-C port directly, so there’s no pairing required, and you don’t need to buy a clip to snap together your controller and phone. It has a USB-C port of its own that allows for passthrough charging while you’re gaming, so you don’t have to charge the controller separately or pack along an extra set of replacement batteries on a long trip. Razer also touts lower latency here than you might experience with a controller connected via Bluetooth. Indeed, gameplay seemed slightly more snappy with the Kishi than my Xbox One controller, depending on the game.
I’m a big fan of these conveniences, though there are some unique problems here that aren’t present with those other controllers. First off, if your phone has a headphone jack, you won’t be able to access it. The same goes for any buttons on your phone that might be inaccessible when you pop it into the cradle. Playing audio from your phone can be a struggle, too. The USB-C passthrough port on the controller unfortunately doesn’t support audio, and the clever vent built to let sound from your phone’s bottom-firing speakers is only useful if your phone has speakers located there. The Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 that I used to test feature dual front-facing speakers, which is the ideal scenario. If you aren’t in a position to let the audio play out of the speakers, you’ll probably want to resort to using Bluetooth headphones. That works, though there was a slight delay. Razer isn’t to blame for the audio lag, though it mostly counteracts the bonus of having lag-free controls.
Another issue that I couldn’t ignore is that my phone’s battery drained faster with the Kishi connected — even when no game was running. So that USB-C passthrough port will come in handy.
A more fundamental issue with Razer’s new controller is that the buttons and sticks just don’t feel as good as ones I’m used to hammering on. These clickable analog sticks are matte-textured, but having seen my DualShock 4’s sticks deteriorate over the years, these don’t seem like they’d fare any better over hundreds of hours of gameplay. The face and shoulder buttons function perfectly, though the button travel ranges from feeling either too clicky or spongy. Frankly, I’m not surprised that some of the finer details of the controller fall a little short compared to the DualShock 4 or the Xbox One controller. But compared to the feel and button arrangement on other mobile phone controllers, I think the Kishi is among the best out there. It’s a low bar, but still.
This would be very hard to recommend spending $80 on if there weren’t a bunch of good games to play. In addition to games like Fortnite, this controller is compatible with the growing list of games available on Google Stadia, Nvidia GeForce Now, and Microsoft xCloud. Instead of using this controller to get a console-like experience on your phone, you can play actual console games if you have a subscription to either service (xCloud is currently in an invite-only phase) and a strong internet connection. A few games I played during my testing included Destiny 2, Yakuza 0, Soulcalibur VI, and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. If you’re at a loss of Android games to play, the Kishi app will keep tabs on titles that are compatible with the controller.
Playing new games and ones that I love with the Kishi is almost as good as using my other trusty controllers. And as cloud game streaming picks up, the proposition of picking up something like the Kishi, a controller that’s as simple to set up as it is to stow away, seems more attractive by the day. That’s a heap of praise I didn’t expect to give Razer’s controller. It’s not without its issues or expenses, but if you see yourself playing a bunch of games on the go, including cloud services, the Kishi is as convenient as they come.
Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge