Review: Motorola Moto Gamepad

There’s no denying that the smartphone market is one of the most competitive sectors of the whole consumer electronics industry. Some of the biggest names in tech are constantly battling to one up each other with better specs, thinner casings, more megapixels, or sheer cult appeal.

This competition is of great benefit to the consumer, and it leads to more powerful and capable devices. However, there is a strong argument this all is variation on a theme, with only a handful of manufacturers with devices that really try to carve out a unique niche.

Enter Motorola, with its Moto Z lineup.

The world of moddable phones

In what Motorola describes as an “ecosystem,” the Moto Z line of phones are able to interact with a family of “Moto Mods,” different add-on devices that modify a Moto Z phone’s capabilities. In some cases, the mods add functionality far beyond what you’d expect a phone to be able to do.

The way these Moto Mods connect is almost as interesting as the add-ons themselves. Each Moto Z phone has an array of 16 pins that facilitate the transfer of data and power, and the mods themselves are held in place by way of magnets. The pin interface is really a marvel of engineering: It offers transfer speeds near the USB 3.1 standard of 5Gbps, and supports a dizzying array of data transfer standards and protocols, as well as electrical current.What all this means is that the technology is flexible enough to allow for a bevy off different add on modules. Motorola currently sells 14 mods, plus the Moto Development Kit for makers/inventors. A handful of these mods are battery packs of differing capacities and styles, but the lineup also includes a Hasselblad camera, JBL Speakers, a projector, a vehicle dock, and a speaker with Amazon Alexa integration.

There’s a lot to be said about these Mods, but one of the most interesting for gamers is the Moto Gamepad. I was an early adopter of the original Moto Z phone when it came out, so of course I was super excited to get my hands on the Moto Gamepad. This add-on aims to enhance the mobile gaming experience by adding functionality on-par with a modern console controller.

The Motorola Moto Gamepad is currently available for an MSRP of $79.99.

Look and Feel

The Moto Gamepad certainly looks like an accessory meant to appeal to gamers. It’s got a familiar black and red color scheme, which is highlighted by an aggressive red logo on the backside. This logo, as well as well as the shoulder buttons, light up red whenever a button is pressed. It’s a cool cosmetic feature.

The number and configuration of the actual controls are in line with other modern controllers. Xbox players will feel right at home here: Buttons are arranged (in clockwise order) Y, B, A, X. There’s also a 4-way directional pad. It’s fairly standard as far as functionality, but it’s well made. Both sets of buttons have a satisfying tactile feel when pressed. The letter buttons have a little more play than I’d like, but the D-Pad is rock solid.

In addition to the buttons directly involved in gameplay, the Moto Gamepad also has three menu buttons. There are Start and Select, which are pretty standard. There’s also Home button, which actually works as a home button for the phone itself. Be careful you don’t accidentally hit this during a critical moment in a game, as it it will take you straight back to the home screen for your phone.It’s got two thumbsticks that feel most like the ones on an Xbox controller, though slightly smaller than usual. They’re very crisp and responsive, and my thumbs felt right at home. Better yet, they do click down and act as “L3” and “R3” buttons.

Impressively, the gamepad does manage to jam in two sets of shoulder buttons above the thumbsticks. (Commonly referred to as L1, L2, R1, and R2.) However, I thought these were the weakest buttons. Using them is more of a soft click than a full press. They’ve also got a lot of wiggle, and overall I felt they had some responsiveness issues if not very deliberately pressed. Still, they’re perfectly functional, and more importantly, they again contribute to the feeling that the Moto Gamepad can go toe-to-toe with any console controller, despite being for mobile gaming.

As a final note, keep in mind that this is easily the largest Moto Mod out there. I’m a big guy that wears big pants with big guy pants pockets, and my Moto Z with the gamepad equipped still stuck out. Not to mention it can be hard to slide out of a pocket due to the thumbsticks. On the go, I’d probably try to keep it in a backpack when not in use. Lady gamers with purses, I envy you here. For the sake of gameplay itself, I actually wish it was a little larger, but the size Motorola chose feels like a good compromise of playability to portability.

Critical Specs

In addition to being an awesome gaming accessory, the Moto Gamepad has a couple other features worth mentioning.

Firstly, the mod contains a 1035mAh battery. It’s not quite as much as one of the dedicated battery pack Moto Mods, but it’s still a nice boost. Motorola claims that this can add about 8 hours of playtime, depending on the game being played.

To keep that battery charged, the Gamepad has it’s own USB-C port built in. It’s a versatile little port, since it can charge the mod even when it’s separated from a Moto Z phone, or can charge the phone and the mod as long as they’re connected. (Which is really handy, since the Gamepad add-on completely covers the phone’s USB port.)

The gamepad also adds something I thoroughly felt was lacking from the Moto Z, and really, most phones in general. I’m one-hundred percent not on board with the industry trend of releasing phones without 3.5mm audio jacks. I’m happy to carry around a few extra millimeters of smartphone if it means I can use my headset hassle-free. The port on the Moto Gamepad delivers great sound when paired with the headphones I use, both in games and other media. It’s a little feature, but it’s one that sometimes makes me want to have the gamepad on my phone even when I don’t plan on playing games.

Using the Gamepad: Setup and Menus

Setting up the Moto Gamepad is a breeze. Like all other Moto Mods, you simply clap the gamepad onto the back of the phone. Make sure the 16 pins on the phone and the mod roughly line up, and magnets will do the rest.

The first time you install the Gamepad, a brief tutorial slideshow will pop up on the screen. It’s pretty straightforward, but the last slide will direct you to download the Moto Game Explorer app. You’ll probably want to make sure you do, since the tutorial will appear every time you attach the Gamepad if it the app isn’t installed.

The Game Explorer app is pretty simple in function. It shows a pretty substantial list of games that presumably have some level of Gamepad integration. The vast majority seem like the usual microtransaction-riddled chaff that is eroding the integrity of the mobile gaming market, but there are some diamonds here that I’m genuinely excited to play, including GTA III, a Lego Star Wars game, and a pair of Final Fantasy titles (IV and IX).

While my low opinion of the mobile games market shows, I want to make it clear that I actually respect Motorola here for performing their due diligence here in support of apps that work with their product. More power to whoever out there is enjoying Call of Modern War: Warfare Duty.

I wish I making that up, it’s a real game.I also wish the app itself had a few more options and settings to tinker with. Some of the better Gamepad-compatible games do support custom key mapping, which is outstanding. Not all have this customizability though, so I wish the Game Explorer app itself offered some level of button customization, at the very least the ability to swap thumbstick dominance for left-handed players, or default look inversion for you barbarians out there that play that way.

Some of the buttons on the Gamepad actually seem to work on the home screen and in system menus. The thumbsticks, for example, can be used to highlight app icons, and pressing A or X will launch the selected app.

Using the Gamepad: Modern Combat 5

Of course, not a single word of this article means a thing if it turns out that this gamepad sucks at playing games. One of our contacts at Motorola recommended I take the Moto Gamepad out for a spin with Modern Combat 5, and after a couple of hours of playing the game’s single-player story I can see why.

I typically avoid shooter titles (both third and first-person) on smartphones, because I simply find touchscreen controls clunky for fast-paced games, and I feel like my fat thumbs cover up too much real-estate on screen. The Moto Gamepad alleviated both those issues. I’m mostly a mouse and keyboard player, so my fine thumbstick skills are pretty rusty. Still, I felt like I could maneuver more fluidly with the gamepad than I ever have in a mobile game.

The actual key mapping for all the controls felt natural and logical. Every button press was responsive and lag-free, and just made for some really smooth, enjoyable gameplay.

I did have some minor issues, mainly with the outer shoulder buttons, which are used in this game for shooting and aiming down the sights of a gun. When holding both of these buttons down, the gamepad had a tendency to start slipping out of my grip; this occurred often due to aiming and shooting at the same time. All four shoulder buttons can only be pressed straight down from the top, and I think they’d be far more useful if they could also be actuated from other angles. Despite these problems, I don’t think I could go back to playing this kind of game on a smartphone without the gamepad.

There’s also some limited functionality in the game’s menus. Some menus have options mapped directly to X, Y, A, or B buttons, and most options can be selected by moving the thumbsticks. I say limited functionality because some items on the menu were very difficult to reach with the gamepad, or completely unselectable. It’s nice that some forethought was put into integrated the gamepad with in-game menus, but this is probably one area where the touchscreen has the advantage.

Using the Gamepad: World of Tanks: Blitz

World of Tanks is a well known game with a deeply passionate community and a healthy esports scene. I’ve never gotten massively invested in it, but I do appreciate playing a few rounds with my M3 Stuart every so often.

My experience with Blitz was extremely enjoyable. I already liked what this game had to offer, and that I now have the option to take it with me wherever I go is ultimately what sold me on the Moto Gamepad.

I was again impressed by how responsive the thumbsticks were. I was able to track my tank’s turret smoothly and efficiently, even more so after I adjusted the game’s sensitivity settings.

Using the Gamepad: Final Fantasy IX

I wanted to try at least one game for this review that wasn’t an action title, just to test the feel of using the gamepad across genres. I chose Final Fantasy IX due to its classic appeal, and because the Android version is generally regarded as an excellent port.

The mobile version of FFIX really is beautifully optimized for touch screens, as far as the controls are concerned. The real value in the Moto Gamepad for a game like this has more to do with the player’s thumbs. Keeping them on thumbsticks and buttons keeps them off the screen, and I felt like that allowed me to really appreciate the scenery and cinematic beauty that made Final Fantasy IX the smash-hit it was during it’s time.

There’s not much to say about the controls themselves for this game, since the action is semi-turn based, and most of the game moves at whatever pace the player sets. I have larger hands, so my thumbs naturally wanted rest on the sticks. I had to adjust my grip to keep my thumb near the X, Y A, B buttons, and even then I felt a little bit of a strain after a while. It’s slightly annoying, but it’s important to take breaks during long gaming sessions anyway.

Final Thoughts

A few different companies have tried to make dedicated gaming mobile phones over the years, and these have ranged from moderate successes to total disasters. Motorola has succeeded where others have failed by starting with an already stellar smartphone in the Moto Z, and then making an optional controller accessory that compliments a mobile gaming experience, rather than forcing one.

The Moto Gamepad benefits mobile games (at least the ones it supports) by making them feel more like console games. The key is to find the right ones. Motorola includes software that helps with this, but it’s still on the user to find those diamonds in the “freemium” rough. It’s worth it though; after using the Gamepad, I couldn’t imagine going back to touchscreen controls.

Anyone who wants to extract more entertainment value from their Moto Z phone should consider the Gamepad Moto Mod. I know I personally plan to have one of these bad boys ready to go every time I have to fly. Or, if your commute involves any kind of public transportation, it’s the perfect way to pass that time and squeeze more gaming hours out of your day. Any serious mobile gamer should give the Moto Z with a Moto Gamepad some thought next time an upgrade on their provider’s plan becomes available.

Or if you can’t wait that long, the entire Motorola Moto Z smartphone lineup, the Moto Gamepad, and a bevy of other Moto mods, are all available online.