iPhones and iPads mightn't be the cheapest pieces of gaming kit available -- though it's worth remembering that they can do a whole bunch of other things besides play games.
That said, it's hard to ignore the strong foothold mobile gaming has earned in the years since the App Store's launch in 2008. Mobile gaming has played a particularly important role in the growth of the free-to-play business model, for better or worse, and iOS in particular plays host to a number of franchises that are, today, just as recognizable as the Marios and Sonics of the world.
But what are the best games on iOS? Team USG got together, took snapshots of our homescreens and decided to share the iOS games that we just can't quit. What are some of your favorites?
I'm one of those crazy iOS "collectors" and have absolutely tons of games on my iPad. I've whittled them down to this selection, which is pretty much my most-played games (many of which I am still playing).
Splode: This is an odd game, but strangely relaxing and addictive. The screen is filled with floating bug-like creatures, and all you need to do is touch one, which makes it move a short distance before it explodes. If that explosion catches another bug, that’s knocked back and it explodes too. The objective is to simply cause a huge chain reaction and clear the screen so you can move onto the next one. Sounds dumb, but it’s really entertaining.
Osmos: This is one of my favorite iPad games. Guide a floating amoeba-like cell around the screen, absorbing smaller cells than you by crashing into them, and making sure you don’t get absorbed by a bigger one. The more things you absorb, the bigger you get, and the objective is to simply absorb everything. Beautiful graphics, lovely sound and some great gravitational effects make this a simply phenomenal touch-screen game.
Angry Birds: A classic for sure. This is a game I find makes long journeys go by in a flash: I play only to get max stars on every screen – which is really challenging and results in many short games where you're continually trying to figure out just how to do it. That makes time really fly.
Groove Coaster: Great music and graphics make this touch-screen rhythm game rewarding and fun. Play it with headphones!
Atari Greatest Hits: Although the controls on some games are pretty poor, there are still enough fun games in this package to make it worthwhile. And if you’ve got a Bluetooth controller or an iCade, this is great.
TurboGrafx: This is on my iPad for nostalgia purposes only, because I still have a soft spot for NEC's largely-forgotten, early 90’s console. It never gained a huge following in the US, which is a shame, as there were a lot of really cool games available for it.
Conquist: This is basically Risk, but with more map options. The AI isn’t great, but it’s good enough to deliver a pretty decent challenge.
Galcon Fusion: If you're looking for a space-based, real-time Risk turned up to 11, this is it. Lightning fast fingers are required to send fleets of miniature spaceships to invade and take over planets - while several AI opponents attempt to do the same to you. The more planets you have, the more ships you create. It’s very fast, it’s very challenging and it’s very, very fun. Some of the gameplay options are utterly insane. A classic iPad game – highly recommended.
iMAME: This was up on the store for only a few hours before it got taken down, so unfortunately if you don’t already have it, you missed out. Occasionally an app will sneak through that has MAME functionality (Gridlee was the most recent), but for now, there are no official arcade emulators available for iOS.
Triple Town: A fun match-three puzzle game in which you try to build up a city. It’s simple, but very addictive: the sort of game you start playing and suddenly realize an hour has passed and you didn’t even know it.
Midway Arcade: Like the Atari Collection, this is best played with an external controller, as the standard touch controls totally suck. But if you do have such a device, this collection features some of the greatest arcade games ever.
Flick Soccer HD: Here’s your chance to bend it like Beckham. Basically, it’s a free kick game in which you use your finger to “kick” a ball and then swipe the screen to add aftertouch and bend it around the wall into the goal. The game has a great feel, and once you get used to the way you can curl the ball, it’s really rewarding to play. Its timed challenges are particularly enjoyable.
New Star Soccer: I have no idea how many days I’ve lost to this game, but it’s many. Become a star soccer player and pursue an entire career from club to international events and championships. Individual games are simple affairs requiring you to take key shots and make clutch passes by tapping a moving ball, yet it’s still tense and compelling. If you love soccer, this game is a must!
Shogun: My favorite bullet hell shooter on iPad. Looks great. Utterly bonkers to play. Done.
Plague Inc: Evolve a virus and kill everyone on the planet. How can you resist that hideous, but utterly compelling goal? With a variety of different modes and a host of great challenges, this fast-action realtime strategy game it seriously twisted, brilliant and massively fun. It makes you think too. In really weird and horrible ways.
Drop 7: I’ve talked about this under-appreciated classic for years. I rank it up there with Tetris as one of the greatest puzzle games ever. Takes a few goes to figure out how it works, but the moment you “get” it, it’s like a choir of angels suddenly sing and you get sucked into one of the most addictive puzzle games of all time.
Puzzle and Dragons: Without doubt my most-played iPad game – this is a match three, dungeon-crawling, creature-collecting-and-evolving, RPG combat game. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but then Puzzle and Dragons is a huge feast of excellence. It’s not for everyone for sure, but it’ll quickly become apparent whether or not you’ll like it. And if you do, you’ll be playing it for weeks – and if you’re like me, for months and months.
Infinity Gene: This evolves Space Invaders into a retro-looking, but thoroughly modern shooter that’s simply great to play on a touch screen. If you like arcade games, this is very highly recommended.
Dungeon Raid: Yet another match-three puzzle game, but this one has a really fun twist. Not matching monsters results them attacking you. Matching health pots, swords and shields bolsters your defense and restores health. Collecting "loot" lets you level up whatever character you're playing with, and add special spells to your repertoire. There are also characters to unlock that have their own distinct strengths and weaknesses. Dungeon Raid is challenging, but games are generally fast, making it perfect for on-the-go gaming.
That last spot left open for: Dungeon Keeper. I played it a couple of weeks ago, and it's apparent that this modern makeover of Peter Molyneux' classic reverse tower game has retained enough from its original 1997 incarnation to be well worth playing. Really looking forward to giving it a full review when it's released later on this year.
I don't do much in the way of gaming on iOS, to be honest. I'm guess I'm just old-fashioned in my preference for traditional genres and tangible controls. Most of the games on my iPhone are there because my wife was hooked on them and exhorted me to play for a few weeks before losing interest, and I haven't gotten around to deleting them yet. I actually prefer iOS gaming on iPad, so this view of my iPhone games doesn't properly show the really meaty stuff like Sword and Sworcery, Edge, Final Fantasy Tactics, etc.
Bejeweled 2: Every once in a while I need to match three colored objects to make them disappear, and Bejeweled 2 is still my go-to for scratching that itch. (I tried Candy Crush Saga when my wife got hooked on it, but quickly deleted it when I realized the game is, pardon my French, a complete asshole.)
Bookworm: I actually prefer Crosswords Plus for 3DS, but it scratches up my screen something awful, so I fall back on this one to scratch my word-matching needs.
Bookworm Heroes: Of all the games my wife has dragged me into, this was the least odious, even if it is rank with the stench of free-to-play nagging and exploitation. A pretty fun puzzler, my wife eventually stopped playing with me because my familiarity with standard video game mechanics gave me too much of an advantage for manipulating the score multipliers.
Bust A Move: For when I need to pop bubbles while earworm music plays incessantly in the background.
ColumnsDLX: My match-three backup.
Flight Control: I heard this was good and downloaded it, but I don't think I've ever played it.
Game Dev Story: I never got hooked on this one like so many people I know, but it's cute and clever.
iAssociate 2: Another from the "wife wanted me to play this one with her" files.
Star Trigon: I was really happy when the missing Mr. Driller "prequel" got a port to iOS. I don't play it often, but I will always keep it around out of simple satisfaction that this version exists at all.
Some Japanese Game: I have no idea what this is or what it's doing here.
Take It Easy: A somewhat overly convoluted puzzle game, but fun in small doses.
Textropolis: My favorite game here, Textropolis is simple and addictive and still outclasses every similar word-creation game I've played since it debuted several years ago.
Word Smash: Once again, I downloaded this strictly to facilitate marital happiness.
Game Center: Unfortunately, the system won't allow me to delete this.
Confession: I deleted all the games on my iPhone so I had enough room to install iOS7, so this selection is made up of those that I enjoyed enough to put back on again and as such is a bit of a "posed" image. Like Jeremy, I'm someone who doesn't do a lot of gaming on iOS because I prefer physical buttons, loathe free-to-play as it's typically implemented in mobile games, and find that 3DS and Vita games are just, well, better than a lot of the stuff available on iOS.
That said, it's nice to have a few good old standbys ready to play at a moment's notice, so here's my lineup.
Spaceteam: The ultimate party game, and the only game I know of that will have you bellowing "ripple the grab-flangers!" at your friends and family. A wonderfully simple to understand but challenging co-op game based around clear communication.
MicroVentures: I love roguelikes, and I'm well catered to on iOS. MicroVentures is an interesting little game in that each adventure is designed to be only a few minutes long, and contributes to part of a procedurally-generated narrative. It's perhaps not the best, most complex roguelike out there, but it is charming.
Surviving High School: An enjoyable visual novel/dating sim from EA, of all people, and an experiment with an innovative episodic model; each week, a new episode "airs" for free, or you can catch up on past episodes and seasons by paying for them.
Cause of Death: Another episodic visual novel from EA, Cause of Death is, as the title suggests, a police drama affair in which you take on the role of Detective Mal Fallon and Special Agent Natara Williams as they chase down a serial killer. It sucks that EA took away the paid, ad-free version; the banner ads in the current edition are a bit distracting.
Tilt to Live: My friend Woody once forgot the name of this and thought it was called "Try Not to Die" -- not all that unreasonable, given that it is a game about trying not to die, in which you tilt your device to move your ship around, detonating Missile Command-style explosions to destroy enemies. Enormously addictive. Fantastic soundtrack.
Rogue Touch: A faithful (albeit graphical) version of the original Rogue, complete with potions and scrolls that have unknown effects until you risk using them in a pinch. Not the most impressive game on iOS, but one of the most enjoyable for dungeon-crawling enthusiasts.
Frotz: If you grew up with text adventures and interactive fiction, you'll want to pick this up, since it provides access to a veritable library of text-based fun -- including both classics and new works -- in the palm of your hand.
Carcassonne: The best board game adaptation on iOS, and the best asynchronous multiplayer game on iOS, period.
Elder Sign: Omens: An enjoyable Lovecraftian dice game based on the tabletop game of the same name. It'll do until we get a full-on port of Arkham horror -- oh, and the guy who does the narration in The Stanley Parable does the tutorial voiceover.
Rune Gems: An interesting variant on both Mahjong and match-3 puzzlers, Rune Gems challenges you to pick up groups of colored gems from a board in order to destroy groups of three while ensuring your "hand" doesn't overflow.
Groove Coaster: The one genre of game that works brilliantly on iOS is the rhythm action genre. Groove Coaster is one of the best examples of that, featuring Space Invaders Infinity Gene-style visuals, some excellent original music and some highly addictive gameplay. Avoid the free-to-play version Groove Coaster Zero and pick up its older sibling instead.
Neon Blitz: An exceedingly simple but satisfying game, Neon Blitz gives you a minute to trace over increasingly intricate designs with your finger, with bigger scores coming to those who can continually do so without making mistakes. Facebook connectivity allows for competitive play, but it's enjoyably mindless by yourself.
Zookeeper DX: Yes, it's almost exactly the same game as Bejeweled, but I've always found Zookeeper to be oddly charming and compelling. Also, it is not Candy Crush Saga, which I loathe even more than Jeremy does.
Rebuild: This turn-based strategy game tasks you with organizing a group of survivors in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Enjoyably deep, and a real sense of emergent narrative.
Hard Lines: Snake meets Geometry Wars.
Take it Easy: An interesting board game adaptation that initially appears confusing and complex, but quickly becomes second nature. Features a number of different ways to play over and above the basic board game version, plus includes a two-players-on-one-device mode.
Weirdly, for someone who used to make an honest living writing about iOS stuff, I don't keep my phone stocked with games. Few survive the reviewing process. But, we're not here to talk about those who didn't make it. Who are these tenacious titles who withstood the cut?
Beastie Bay: I'm an unrepentant Kairosoft fan. The Japanese company, for those who unacquainted with their products, is famous for creating cutesy simulation games that, while seldom incredibly innovative, tend to be rather addictive. This one's a slightly odd offering that involves the main character being washed to shore, a bevy of critters, people to be rescued, and a light city simulation.
Pixel People: I don't know why Pixel People is there. It just is. I downloaded it on whim one day and have been unable to delete it since. It just seems so wasteful to lose all that progress, to eliminate all those hard-working clones. Pixel People's main allure is a dirty trick. It works on your curiosity. It asks questions like "What's behind curtain number one?" a million times. And because I have no self-control when it comes to such questions, I'm still playing. I really, really can't wait to see what'd happen when I cross a clown with a neuroscientist.
Nimble Quest: Nimble Quest is like Snake grown-up. Not in the sexy sense, of course. The idea here is that you have a chain of heroes, each of whom come with a different assortment of powers. Everything else? A lot like Snake. Except with treasure chests and power-ups and upgrades. Amazing for playing under the table while stuck with your parents.
Alpaca Evolution: Alpaca Evolution isn't a game, it's a monstrosity, a toy that sank fish hooks into my soul by offering glimpses of a thing straight from hell. It barely qualifies as a game. The premise here is that you control a predatory Alpaca who has the ability to absorb his kin. To absorb his kin, he must first knock them unconscious before consuming their flesh. After a certain number of experience points have been acquired, the alpaca will transform. And, oh god, the transformations. There are no words. No words at all.
King of Dragon Pass: Build a kingdom. Wander a sweeping, sprawling narrative. Learn the idiosyncrasies of your people. Fight battles. Win wars. Lose hope. King of Dragon Pass is an amazing piece of work that won't require your fulll attention, making it easy to do more important things while still achieving significant progress. I'd need to do a full review to properly explain why I love it, but seriously. Download the game.
Jurassic Park: Once in a while, you let your friends talk you into downloading something you never play with. (I need to learn to spring clean)
Ticket to Ride: Europe: I'm a huge fan of board games and Ticket to Ride is one my favorite. Possibly because I habitually play it on a train for atmospheric value. The idea here is to build railway routes for locations you've been assigned and to be the first to do them in the most inefficient way possible.