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The smartphone controller industry is still somewhat in its infancy, reflected by the wide variety of options and brands on the market. But truth be told, acquiring a smartphone gamepad is still a dicey proposition in South Africa.
Yes, despite Madcatz, MOGA and numerous other companies releasing mobile gamepads, it’s become very difficult to find these in the country. Fortunately, Razer is on hand, as it gears up to release its Serval controller.
Meant for the Razer Forge TV Android gaming console, Razer is also selling these controllers separately, but is it worth the cash?
A solid design
Before you unbox the controller, you’ll notice the elaborate packaging, featuring a lint-free cloth at the front, a matte-like lining in the case itself and some velcro to keep the package closed.
Open the box and you’ll find the controller, a micro-USB cable for wired play, extra analogue nubs, a warranty card, smartphone clip, batteries and instruction manual all tightly packed together. I feel like Razer didn’t think you’d put the stuff back in the box, because it’s nigh-on impossible to get everything back in (the clip is the main culprit here). Also, it would’ve been nice if they included a USB-on-the-Go cable in case your batteries die.
Anyway, what about the controller itself?
There’s no doubt that you’re getting a rather well-designed controller here, using the Xbox 360 template of staggered analogue sticks, a near-identical battery pack and analogue bumpers/triggers. In other words, you’ll feel at home for the most part.
There are some deviations from Microsoft’s formula though, such as the addition of Android home and back buttons at the bottom and flattened out controller handles (ostensibly for stability with the phone attached). The flat bottom in each handle does feel a tad “edgy” in your hands, but it wasn’t a big deal for me, as I could always shift my hands instead.
Otherwise, the controller’s face buttons feel solid and “clicky”, the shoulder buttons feel satisfying (although the triggers are audibly creaky) and fighting game fans will like the well-designed d-pad.
Adding the smartphone
The handset clip is obviously included in the box, allowing you to slot your phone into the controller for convenient gaming. It’s a rather easy process to attach the clip to the controller (slide the front into place first, then clip the back in), although it does make a *snap* noise that’s both satisfying and alarming.
Once it’s on, it’s actually tough to take the damn clip off for the first time, but the key is to loosen the rear initially. And once you’ve got this method down, you’re good to go.
Sliding the smartphone into place almost requires three hands, as you’ll need to pop open the clip and keep it open (the attachment clamps down on your phone) and then slide your phone into the thing. But once you’ve got it in place, setup is a breeze.
All you need to do is turn on the controller, hold down the power button to begin Bluetooth scanning, enable Bluetooth on your phone and connect to the gamepad. Sorted.
You can even use the pad to navigate through the phone, I found, the analogue stick/d-pad being used to highlight each icon and flick through the homescreens. Of course, the addition of hardware back and home buttons is another plus – being a bit more convenient to some than pressing the buttons on your phone.
There is one major weakness in this arrangement though, and that’s the top-heavy nature of the controller/smartphone combination. The combination manages to balance just about fine on its own, but all it takes is literally blowing at the pairing to send it toppling over. Seriously. I can’t help but feel that the controller should’ve been a little flat-bottomed near the shoulder triggers to give it a bit more stability.
The stability issue isn’t going to be a problem when actively playing a game, but if you’ve left the controller attached for later gaming or you’re watching a movie, it’s definitely going to be annoying.
Where are the games?
The touch-based nature of smartphones means that most games aren’t compatible with controllers unfortunately.
But Google could’ve done a much better job of highlighting gamepad-enabled titles, such as a dedicated hub/tag on the Play Store. Instead, you’ll need to manually search for “controller enabled games”, which Google autocompletes anyway, to find decent picks.
The other alternative is to find websites that highlight great controller-enabled titles, such as Android Gamepad Games.
The few controller-enabled games we did try worked suitably well though, such as SA’s own Neon Shadow, Riptide GP 2, Zombie Gunship and Pac Man 256. Also, a game using a virtual analogue stick is by no means an indicator of its compatibility. So there goes my hopes of playing Pumped BMX 2…
It’s no secret that many people interested in smartphone gamepads are in it for emulation, so we immediately downloaded the Game Boy Advance and SNES emulators. And yes, controller support is well-established here, allowing you to map different buttons and all that. So those looking to get their emulation fix will only be limited by the power of their device.
Will you be able to finish Chrono Trigger in one sitting though or does the controller lack juice?
I wasn’t able to kill the AA batteries, as I didn’t spend a super-lengthy time playing with the controller and it seems to automatically shut itself off after a while. But I can’t help but feel that a lithium-ion battery pack would’ve been more convenient. Still, the ability to quickly swap out batteries is a plus. Different strokes, I suppose…
The Serval is really a well-designed piece of kit for the most part, although the top-heavy nature is a rather notable design flaw, but there is an even bigger concern though. And that’s the price.
Verdict: At an eye-watering recommended price of R1599, you’re better off visiting Amazon, eBay and Gearbest and getting a controller for a few hundred rand. Hell, you’ll still have cash left over to buy a super-cheap smartphone to use as an emulation station. Even if you’ve got the money to spare, the likes of MOGA, iPEGA and other manufacturers offer similar or better solutions for the price.
Note: At the time of writing, the Razer Serval doesn’t have a release date or list of supported retailers.