Almost since their inception, mobile phones have played host to interactive entertainment. Older Nintendo Life readers may recall spending hours playing Snake on their battered Nokia whilst waiting for the bus to arrive, but more recently smartphones have totally revolutionised the way we play on the go – to the point where even Nintendo has joined the party, via a series of phone exclusive titles like Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes and Pokémon GO. However, there have been precious few attempts to marry phones and games successfully; Sony's Xperia Play and Nokia's N-Gage being two high-profile failures.
You can detach the left-hand controller and use it as a self-contained pad, held sideways
Still, where there's a will, there's a way, and the arrival of the Nintendo Switch – which, lest we forget, uses Nvidia chips which were originally intended for mobile tech like tablets and smartphones – has emboldened a new generation of device makers keen to blur the line between phone and games console and thereby create an entirely new sector in the increasingly competitive smartphone market. We've already covered the Huawei Mate 20 X, which was directly compared to Nintendo's hybrid system during its unveiling, and companies like Asus and Razer have also released similar handsets recently. However, none of these has given us quite the same feeling of déjà vu as the Android-based Black Shark 2 – a 'gaming' phone which comes with optional slide-on controllers that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Switch Joy-Con we know and love.
As the name suggests, the Black Shark 2 isn't the first phone in this line; the original Black Shark arrived last year. An off-shoot of the Chinese tech giant Xiaomi, Black Shark (the company, not the phone) is eyeing up the burgeoning 'gaming phone' space and has clearly been inspired by Nintendo when it comes to interface design – although the mechanics seen here are notably less sophisticated than the Switch. Rather than connecting directly with the phone itself, the left and right-hand controllers slide onto a snap-on plastic case and pair using Bluetooth; because of this, they require charging separately using a USB-C connection. Still, at least one of the Nintendo's party tricks has been carried over – you can detach the left-hand controller and use it as a self-contained pad, held sideways. Heck, you can even connect it to your TV via the USB-C port at the bottom.
The analogue stick feels nice and responsive, as do the face buttons and the gloriously tactile quartet of shoulder buttons. There's no stick on the right-hand pad – this is replaced by a touchpad which is intended as an on-screen mouse pointer – so you sadly can't break off those pads for an impromptu local multiplayer match, which seems like a missed opportunity. Battery life is excellent, and the pads slide onto the aforementioned case with a satisfying click – even if there's no physical connection present between the phone and the controller. The other cool thing is that the Black Shark 2 phone has a dedicated 'Shark Space' mode, which is triggered by flicking a switch on the side of the handset. This mutes all incoming notifications and frees up as much available memory as possible so you're getting the most out of the hardware – hardware which, even when compared to the Switch, is cutting-edge stuff.
In terms of pure specs, it's vastly superior to the tech found inside Nintendo's console
The Black Shark 2 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset and up to 12GB of RAM; in terms of pure specs, it's vastly superior to the tech found inside Nintendo's console. It also boasts a 1080p, HDR-ready AMOLED screen which has excellent colour depth and striking contrast, all contained within bodywork which mixes metal, plastic and glass to neat effect. There's even a set of LEDs arrayed around the casing which gently pulsate whilst you're playing. (This is a common feature of gaming phones and laptops, so gamers must like this kind of thing, we guess?) Still not convinced? The Black Shark 2 has something called the "Mille-Feuille Full Area Liquid Cooling System" to prevent overheating and even has a 'Ludicrous Mode' which allows you to extract the maximum possible performance from the silicon. Gulp.
Then there are the games. While it's true that the general quality of smartphone games is lower than console titles, it's quite interesting to find we have several direct means of comparison between Switch and the Black Shark 2. Fortnite is, of course, available, and runs at a higher resolution. Hello Neighbor also offers a direct point of reference, although it's worth noting that it appears to run quite a low resolution on both smartphones and Switch. Elsewhere, Sega's suite of free-to-play Mega Drive / Genesis classics look amazing on that punchy AMOLED display, but you'll want to opt for the paid-for editions as the constant adverts can seriously get in the way of the gameplay. Then there are titles like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Real Racing 3 and Final Fantasy Tactics, all of which would be very welcome on the eShop – but aren't available on Switch at present. There's also the large selection of emulators available on the Google Play Store, which cover pretty much every retro format under the sun, right up to the PlayStation, Saturn and Dreamcast. It goes without saying that the catalogue of games on Switch is far, far superior, but it's equally true that there are plenty of decent titles to play on the Black Shark 2 – even if none of them are up to the standard of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and they lack the tight optimisation of 'proper' console releases.
Indeed, that last point is worth focusing on here, because actually configuring the Black Shark 2's controllers to work with the vast majority of mobile games is a real chore. While some will auto-detect the analogue stick, most refuse to acknowledge it and we didn't play a single game that successfully mapped all of the controls on start-up. Instead, you have to bring up a set of on-screen buttons and drag-and-drop them over the various touch-screen controls in order to bind them to the physical inputs of the controllers. Once you've done this, it's plain sailing – but it's a barrier to entry which means the Black Shark 2 user experience isn't anywhere near as seamless as the Nintendo Switch.
The final sticking point is the price; the Black Shark 2 costs £500 in the UK, which is almost twice the cost of the Switch – and you don't get the controllers in with that; they cost an additional £70. Of course, the catch here is that this is a phone as well as a games console, so you could argue that it offers better value for money as it does so much more than Nintendo's system. But is it a better gaming platform? That's highly debatable, and based on the evidence we've seen so far, Nintendo has little to worry about when it comes to smartphone-based challengers to its portable crown.
Thanks to Black Shark for supplying the gear used in this feature.