Our first impressions of the Xperia Play are almost unequivocally positive, especially from a gaming perspective.

Scratch that. We’ve had our hands on the device for brief stints over the last few weeks, so it's fairer to say the forth and fifth impressions of the Xperia Play are almost unequivocally positive.

Especially from a gaming perspective.

As a smartphone it’s a solid card-carrying member of the increasingly popular Xperia family with good build quality, responsive screen, and a solid UI. However, it’s only when you flip open the slider controls and switch your handy phone into handheld console that the 'wow' factor really kicks in.

Return to form

In practice, the Xperia Play does absolutely nothing to surprise, which for my money is the highest possible praise because that means the Xperia Play is doing exactly what it should: delivering the gamepad experience.

The D-pad is reassuringly solid and responsive, just like a console joypad, and the buttons have that lovely springyness that sings of top notch build quality.

Shoulder-buttons are included (although they're perhaps not quite as large or pronounced as you’d like) and there's a pair of small but perfectly formed capacitive touch pads to stroke should the need arise – for example for twin-stick shooter rotation or FPS aiming.

Although not essential for any of the games we tested, these work superbly well in practice, offering a halfway house between the multi-direction thumb-pads of consoles and the touchscreen virtual gamepads we mobile gamers have gotten used to.

Don't touch me

It’s difficult to over-emphasise what a massive difference this makes to gaming (especially for those of us with larger thumbs) and in truth you get used to this ‘natural’ state of affairs (i.e., a game screen unencumbered by controls) so quickly that it’s only when you go back to a pure touchscreen game that you realise how fiddly the latter can be.

We played about eight games in half an hour, and the Xperia Play dealt well with them all. Console platforming classic Crash Bandicoot was exceptionally easy to pick up. Leaping, spinning, and crashing through obstacle-strewn levels seemed fresh (despite the age of the title), leading us to believe that these PS1 titles could well find a large and hungry market regardless of whether you played them first time around.

Sports games like EA’s FIFA are unsurprisingly far more pleasurable affairs when you have an array of buttons to press, and all fast action titles can look forward to getting a playability boost.

Meanwhile, even those games made for touchscreen devices, like Guerilla Bob, are somehow slicker when virtual pads are replaces with real ones.

Driving games like Asphalt aren’t hugely affected, as tilt controls will remain the favourite option of many and the gamepad has never been the most natural input for that genre anyway. Tilt and touch remain control options alongside the gamepad (indeed at times in the menu system you almost find yourself doing both).

Growing pains

Where the Xperia Play gaming experience was less than impressive during our hands-on, this seemed primarily down to the code itself having been hurried or not properly optimised for precise input, but we have to give some grace here considering the relatively short time developers have had to get code together.

We didn’t get a chance to really put the UI to the test or check out too many of the phone features, as we were too busy playing games. That’s just what this device compels you to do.

If we had to niggle we’d say that the Xperia Play is perhaps a bit bulky and not quite as chic as some of Samsung’s recent offerings, let alone the Apple contingent, but that criticism is at risk of missing the point. The handset isn’t designed for the fashion conscious: it’s designed for the fun conscious, and in that respect it’s a very palpable success.