- Chuck Gray
A few months back I wrote a blog post, The Best Cross-Platform Mobile Games, detailing the best of mobile games for both Android smartphones and tablets as well as the iPhone and iPad. In that post I noted that there are many excellent games that are, for the most part, exclusive to the iPhone and iPad. It was the iPhone, after all, that demonstrated just how much potential mobile games have and practically every mobile game studio publishes first to Apple devices before even considering Android, if they ever make it to Android at all. These are, in my book, among the best such mobile games.
The Apple App Store is home to so many great games. It was tricky to decide which ones to share with you. I have noticed that the iPhone and iPad (hereafter referred to as iOS) have become home to many "ports" or conversions of older blockbuster games for previous-generation game consoles and, in a few cases, ports of current-generation games. Though I enjoy many such ports, I feel like too much emphasis is placed on them at the expense of truly original and inventive games built especially for iOS by smaller or independent studios. So here are the (somewhat flexible) rules I conjured for games on this post:
- They must not be available on Android. A few of these games have made their way to PCs and Macs as desktop games. A few others started off as downloadable titles for PCs or the Nintendo Wii but toiled in relative obscurity before coming to iOS.
- They must not be ports of console games.
- They must be built from the ground-up for mobile devices. A couple are based on older (decades old!) IPs, such as "Sword of Fargoal" and "Tapper," but have been completely redone for mobile.
- They have to be substantive. No Farmville, Tiny Tower, Words with Friends, Candy Crush Saga, Simpsons Tapped-Out, rip-offs of such games and other shallow titles that rely on slot machine-like addiction and in-app purchases rather than deep gameplay and/or narrative to keep players engaged. I know those games are enjoyed by millions, but they are a dime-a-dozen and churned out as if they came off an assembly line. The following games took time, skill, dedication, and love to create. They are seen by those of my ilk as works of interactive art.
One final note: most of these games are "Universal," meaning they have been designed for both iPhone and iPad, but an unfortunate few have separate purchases for iPhone or iPad and have been linked to individually.
AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! (Force = Mass x Acceleration)
Yes, that’s its real name. Jump from the top of ridiculously large buildings and zoom past increasingly complex obstacles as you fall, tilting your device to avoid pancaking yourself. To earn points, you’ll have to fall as close to as many buildings as you can on the way done without hitting them, tag their roofs, and say "hi" to your fans. I can’t get enough of this game, even though I die. A lot.
A game for the “99%”, Beatdown has you playing as a recently downsized corporate employee out for revenge. This is a classic brawler or “beat-em-up” game in the vein of Final Fight, River City Ransom, and Double Dragon. Done in 8-bit style colorful sprites and similarly-inspired “A B” controls, Beatdown is a very fun and cathartic game.
Beat Sneak Bandit
The world is in chaos when all the clocks everywhere have been taken by Duke Clockface. It’s up to you, the bandit, to steal them back! Ok, ok, it’s not exactly Shakespeare, but narrative is hardly the point of Beat Sneak Bandit, as you tap the screen to move your character in time with the beat of the music while sneaking past guards and avoiding clever traps. The true challenge comes from the fact that you can only switch the direction of the bandit by running into obstacles. Part rhythm game, part stealth game, and part puzzler? Yes, please!
Racing will get you nowhere in Bike Baron, a Motorcycle trials/puzzler game in which good timing, mastery of controls, exaggerated physics and a good dose of pure luck combine for one of my favorite games on any platform. Additionally, Bike Baron comes with a level editor that players can use to build and share their own levels, extending the life of the game immeasurably.
Bring Me Sandwiches
A giant, hungry alien has invaded Earth and is demanding huge sandwiches in this Adult Swim game. You are tasked with assembling its sandwiches by running through elaborate sandbox levels, stacking whatever you find into sandwiches. People, pets, basketballs, park benches, tires, refrigerators and more are all acceptable fillings for your sandwiches. It’s fun to see just what and how much you can pile on while avoiding obstacles and enemies that threaten to topple your sandwich before it is completed. One of my favorite mobile platformers.
Fancy Pants Adventures
Fancy Pants is a platformer that started off as a series of Flash games on sites like Armor Games and Kongregate. The platforming is deceptively difficult as you figure out that simply running and jumping like crazy aren’t enough—you need to master the controls and learn how to precisely move your character. The graphics are essentially notebook-margin doodles, but they are animated with such life and fluidity that you quickly forget how silly they look as you get lost in the action.
Groove Coaster is a trippy, colorful music rhythm game that needs to be seen, or even better, played to fully understand it. I’m not even going to try words with this one. Just watch the trailer linked to below.
This 16-bit style platformer has you swinging through obstacle-filled levels by shooting a grappling hook into the ceiling to avoid traps, smash through walls and collect treasure. The game is so fast, so kinetic that your adrenaline level will shoot up and stay there for each and every level. The game was only released for iPhone, not iPad, but you can play it magnified on an iPad, and it still looks pretty good thanks to its simplistic graphics.
Although Horn has been released on Android, it is only available on those devices powered by NVidia Tegra 3 processors, of which there are very few (the most popular being the Google Nexus 7). That being the case, I think of it as a quasi-exclusive iOS game and one well worth being written about here. The main character awakes to find his medieval-style world crumbled around him as if by time and all the inhabitants replaced by huge robots. There is a level of mystery in this that I’m not going to reveal because it makes the game’s narrative rather compelling—you really do want to find out what has happened. The game is rendered beautifully in three dimensions using the Unreal 3 engine (famous for its use in games like Gears of War, Bioshock, and the Batman Arkham series). You do battle with monstrous machines by dodging their attacks, dancing around them, and swiping the screen to attack.
Incoboto (iPhone Version | iPad Version)
I think what I like about Incoboto the most, after its thoughtful puzzles and wonderful art direction, is the sense of loneliness and wonder it imparts. You play a little boy, perhaps the last person in a galaxy in which all the suns are dying or dead thanks to The Corporation. With your parents gone, you’re all alone save for a sentient, friendly sun, Helios. The two of you explore the worlds of the galaxy connected via solar-powered gateways which the two of your must fix by reigniting the suns on each of these worlds. This requires careful thinking as your figure your way through some mind-bending, physics-based puzzles. On each world you’ll find journals next to the remains of its populace telling their story and fleshing out the narrative of what exactly has happened. You will also run into messages and caution signs from The Corporation which paint it as exactly the sort of evil empire that would destroy all life everywhere.
Infinity Blade (I and II)
This is the definitive benchmark game for iOS and the first game to run the Unreal 3 engine on a mobile device. It introduced the swipe-to-attack game mechanic that has been copied numerous times. Progress through levels by battling towering, bizarre enemies, each with its own attack patterns and styles that you will need to memorize in order to survive. Each enemy projects its attacks in an exaggerated style so that you can properly attack, parry, dodge, or shield yourself. Experience points are channeled through your weapons, shields, armor and magical accessories. After a certain level of XP has been gained through one of these items, it is marked as “mastered,” and, if you want to continue gaining XP, you must switch to a different item that has not been mastered. Considering each of these items costs gold that you might not always have, you might find yourself grinding to get enough gold to buy that item. You can buy gold with real-life currency through in-app purchases. Save your money; these games are so satisfying that even grinding rather than quickly leveling up is more fun than buying your way to a more powerful character.
From game design auteur Suda 51 comes this frantic 3D shooter. You play as the President of Japan, a young woman who takes to her Gundam-style attack suit to rescue her country from a technologically superior enemy. Fly around ground forces targeting multiple weapons installations at once with your lasers. The gameplay is frantic and fun with the sort of edge that only Japanese designers can really pull off. Although I think it started out as a game on the Nintendo 3DS’ eShop, its move to the iPhone and iPad has made it much more accessible and worthy of this list.
Lili is a free-roaming 3-D adventure game powered by the Unreal 3 engine. On a visit to a tropical island to study its flora, Lili discovers an underclass of wooden robots toiling under stone spirits and embarks on a quest to free the robots. The Unreal engine is put to good use in bringing alive one of the most expansive 3-D environments on a mobile game. While it only requires one finger to operate the game, the motions associated with that one finger can get complex, but you’ll adapt quickly enough.
Lost Winds and Lost Winds 2: Winter of the Melodias
Though the Lost Winds games started life on the Nintendo Wii eShop, they enjoyed little popular notice and pretty much no commercial success thanks to Nintendo’s nearly criminal profit sharing plan with indie game studios unfortunate enough to design for their hardware. Now both Lost Winds games are on iOS and better than ever. You control a little boy, Toku, who is accompanied by the wind spirit Enril in a quest to rid the land of evil. The fun lies in using Enril’s wind power to sweep you across platforms, create miniature tornadoes, cushion long falls, transport water and fire and more. The visuals are colorful and lovingly crafted simple 3-D models on a 2-D plane. The game and its characters are brimming with charm and the music is beautiful.
Down-on-his luck thief Lucas MacGuffin steals a cursed amulet that allows him to change from man to wolf and back again. Use the unique abilities of both to maneuver your way through increasingly difficult puzzle rooms designed around grid-based logic puzzles. I love most everything about this game— the hand-drawn art, tongue-in-cheek humor and tricky puzzles are all fantastic.
Mage Gauntlet finds its inspiration in 1990s, 16-bit action adventure RPGs like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Secret of Mana. Retro-inspired games aren’t uncommon on the App Store, but very few have been built with the kind of loving care that Mage Gauntlet was. It's colorful, humorous, and deeply satisfying for fans of the niche.
There’s no game quite like Melodive. In fact, it’s less a game, more of an experience, and definitely best experienced on the iPad’s large screen. In AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! (Force = Mass x Acceleration), you jump and fall, frantically and dangerously. In Melodive, you fall, but there’s no bottom to your fall. Like the name suggests, it’s really a kind of dive but into an endless randomly-generated space that reacts musically to the pattern of your tilt-controlled motion. Meant to be relaxing, there is potentially no end to your dive, but you can game-over by dashing yourself one too many times against the terrain. No bosses, no killing, no real goal other than to fall forever. Not for everybody, but wonderfully unique.
The original Minigore was one of, if not the, original dual-stick shooter on iPhone. Dual-stick games control your movement with a virtual joystick on the left side of the screen and your aim with a joystick on the right. It was one of the first titles that made mobile gamers think that games on iPhone had a serious future. Minigore 2: Zombies takes everything fantastic about that game, amps it up, and spit-shines it to near-perfection. Your character is overwhelmed with a massive number of monsters on all sides, and when I say overwhelmed, I mean it. You must be constantly on the move around the boxed-in stages to stay ahead of your enemies while destroying them with a bevy of destructive weapons. Minigore plays to iOS' strengths with simple but gorgeous chunky graphic design and intuitive controls that won’t confuse you. There are many imitators, but accept no substitutions for Minigore 2: Zombies!
Nihilumbra is a physics-based puzzle platformer brought to life with gentle watercolor graphics that paint a bleak world and a dark, moody story. Your character, Born, willed himself into existence out of the nothingness, the darkness of the world, and that nothingness, the Void, wants him back. You’ll paint the ground with splashes of color which enable Born to jump higher and travel faster as you solve environmental puzzles. All this while avoiding the world’s ravenous creatures and, of course, the on-coming Void which destroys the world you’re trying to escape into. A caption-narrated story slowly unfolds as you move forward and helps you understand your circumstances, the world around you, and just how alone you really are.
Looking for an isometric 3D dungeon crawler action RPG to scratch that Diablo itch? Of course, you are! There’s a typical epic save-the-world story—blah-blah-blah, who cares—get to the action! Explore, fight, and loot. There’s not a lot original going on here, but it does everything it sets out to do so well you’re not going to mind.
I love stealth games. I’m not especially good at 3-D stealth games such as Thief or Metal Gear Solid, but Perfect Cell’s 2-D, side-scrolling, stealth gameplay fits me perfectly. You are the most advanced organism ever discovered on the planet, a floating pink jellyfish-looking thing with the ability to slash through the scientists studying you and the soldiers who jail you . . . or you can choose to spare them and use the level design to safely avoid them without killing them. Hacking through your foes is definitely easier and will get you through the game more quickly, but you’re rewarded for taking the non-violent path. Controls are swipe based—move your finger around slowly to float stealthily or slash quickly when in the path of an enemy you’d rather not deal with.
Puzzle Agent (iPhone Version | iPad Version)
Puzzle Agent 2 (iPhone Version | iPad Version)
Puzzle Agent is iOS' answer to the Professor Layton series on Nintendo DS. Play as Nelson Tethers, Federal Agent for the U.S. Department of Puzzle Research, and investigate the mysteries of the Scoggin’s Eraser Co. The “clinically preoccupied” townspeople are just as much fun to interrogate as the fiendish puzzles are to solve.
Spiral: Episode 1
Though it’s still in my “to-play” queue at the time of writing, I’m very excited by Spiral. This is the first of three chapters in a 3-D action adventure game built with the Unreal 3 engine. I’ll quote from the App Store description: “Enjoy a 5+ hour story as Tempus – an investigator suffering from strange dreams. While trying to figure out the link between the deadly ‘Spiral’ disease afflicting the population, and the increasing violence and instability occurring around him, Tempus becomes the center of an underground plot that threatens the entire world around him.”
Super Lemonade Factory
You’ve inherited a lemonade factory! Congratulations! But your inheritance is contingent upon touring the entire factory with your wife, a task that is more challenging than you might think. Only by combining the efforts of both characters can you complete the challenges of the factory. I’m in love with the retro-inspired pastel-colored characters and setting.
Sword of Fargoal Legends
Sword of Fargoal is a 31-year-old roguelike game that has seen release on numerous platforms but has found new life on the iPhone and iPad. Descend through 20 levels of randomly-generated dungeons, and battle increasingly dangerous enemies on each level to recover the Sword of Fargoal, acquiring powerful spells and weapons as you go. While the graphic design is little more than static 2-D sprites that bounce against each other to battle, the appeal of Fargoal is in exploration. Each new level of the dungeon is shrouded in fog, covering enemies, treasure, traps, secret doors, new weapons, sanctuaries, and more. The only game I’ve played as much as Fargoal on my iPad is Infinity Blade, a game powered by state-of-the art graphics and genre-defining controls, so I hope that tells you something about how much I love it.
Tapper World Tour (iPhone Version | iPad Version)
Tapper is a classic 1980s arcade game controlled with a joystick and an honest-to-goodness beer tap! The game has been re-released with updated art and swipe controls, but you’ll have to supply your own beer tap. Serve multiple bars-worth of goofy and demanding customers by sliding drinks down the line to them. Put it this way—if you like Diner Dash, you’ll love Tapper World Tour. Come to think of it, Diner Dash was almost certainly inspired by the original Tapper arcade game.
I bought Year Walk a while back, tried it, and put it on the back burner, not because it’s bad, but because it’s really, really good and deep. It’s an adventure game that requires a great deal more attention than I usually have to give to games these days, but it might be right up your alley. From the App Store: “Venture out into the dark woods where strange creatures roam, on a vision quest set in 19th century Sweden. Solve cryptic puzzles, touch and listen in your search to foresee the future and finally discover if your loved one will love you back.”