OnLive gaming plays nice with Xperia Play controls

The Sony(s sne) Ericsson(s eric) Xperia Play smartphone, which is targeted directly at mobile gamers, has a new twist that could add even more appeal. The Android(s goog) handset, which already supports Sony PSP titles and has slide-out game controls, is fully supported by the OnLive cloud gaming service. Xperia Play owners could already use OnLive with on-screen controls, but can now play OnLive games with the phone’s unique, dedicated hardware controls.

While playing games on a touchscreen certainly works, support for the Xperia’s Play hardware game buttons is a smart move by OnLive. The handset may not be the most popular Android handset available, but for hardcore gamers and fans of the PlayStation Portable, it’s a nice compromise between capable smartphone and portable game machine. I’m actually surprised that OnLive didn’t launch with such support for the Xperia Play when it released its Google Android app earlier this month.

For those not familiar, OnLive is a cloud gaming service currently available for Windows PCs(s msft), Mac OS X(s aapl) and, most recently, Google Android smartphones and tablets. The games are played on servers in the cloud and displayed on the host computer or mobile device. Essentially, gamers can get a console experience on a smartphone because the games run on a high-powered server.

I’ve played some OnLive games on my Galaxy Nexus and it works well, provided you have a solid, stable web connection. However, I’m not a huge fan of playing complex console titles on a touchscreen: They often require multiple buttons and controls, which can be difficult to use on a small screen.

That’s where the Xperia Play hardware support comes into play. And OnLive also has a game controller, similar to one you’d use with an Xbox 360. I’ve been testing one out along with a beta version of the OnLive client for Apple’s iPad, so stay tuned for a video review coming soon.

While I finalize my review, you can try the OnLive service with a holiday special. Between Dec. 28 and Jan. 1, OnLive is having a “Winter Three-For-All” promotion with free gaming hours and prizes; titles will include Borderlands, Super Street Fighter IV, and Saints Row: The Third.