How we scoffed when people suggested the iPhone would one day be a leading games platform. Had they not seen how rubbish mobile phone games were? Had they not noticed the iPhone was bereft of a D-pad and buttons? The fools!
Only things didn’t turn out as expected. Enterprising developers flipped everything on its head — shortcomings regarding tactile controls became benefits in terms of using new touch and tilt capabilities. Games became increasingly immersive as you interacted directly with content, ushering in new experiences through no longer being able to rely on traditional controls. And then the iPad did it all again – only bigger!
Today’s market is mired somewhat in freemium grindy hell, but gems nonetheless abound. Our list includes the very best premium and free titles the iPhone and iPad have to offer, handily grouped into sections, starting with racers, ending with arcade games, and taking in everything else you can imagine on the way.
Best racing game for iPhone and iPad: Need For Speed Most Wanted
Fortunately, Most Wanted’s gameplay isn’t nearly as grey as the tracks that you find yourself zooming along for street-racer glory. Fairhaven would be better named Greyandverydrabville, but the arcade racing you get up to is of the gloriously breezy kind found in the likes of Sega’s OutRun 2.
You find yourself hurling your car recklessly off of clifftops (having, naturally, crashed through an advertising hoarding first), drifting around bends, or smashing up the Fuzz, if they’re stupid enough to get in the way of your race-winning ambitions while partaking in high-octane thrills.
Beaming in from the future, AG Drive is more or less Wipeout for your iOS device. It looks superb, gleaming metal tracks flinging you about like the most furious of rollercoasters, while a gorgeous sunset or fierce electrical zap threatens to distract your attention for a fraction of a second too long.
The game totally nails the sense of speed that sets futuristic racers apart from those based around cars on tarmac, and the controls don’t let you down as you hover and speed your way to glory.
Riptide GP: Renegade
In the world of Riptide GP: Renegade, it’s been raining quite a bit. Consequently, rather than cheeky scamps skidding about the place street-racer style, they scoot along on souped-up hydrojets, flinging their vehicles into the air whenever possible to perform show-off stunts, and trying hard not to drown when it all goes a bit wrong and they smack into a wall of water at stupid m.p.h.
This is a breezy old-school arcade racer, bouncing you about its undulating tracks and revelling in the ridiculous nature of it all. We could do without the naff storyline, and the visuals have dialled back the blazing blues of GP2 for grittier (i.e. drabber) fare. But if you fancy a quality adrenaline-fuelled and decidedly splashy racer, Renegade is hard to beat.
Reckless Racing 3
The original Reckless Racing was an amusingly ramshackle affair, with rickety trucks and cars screeching around car parks and scrapyards. The sequel added depth but also too much polish, losing the series’ sense of character.
This third entry gets the balance right, enabling you to power-slide through a wide range of settings, including an airport, a charming European hilltop village and, worryingly, an abandoned and very clearly leaking nuclear plant.
The physics is a bit light, and the AI a touch aggressive, but this is as fun a top-down racer as you’ll find on mobile. It also clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, adding a ‘gymkhana’ mode where you rack up points for ‘precision stunt driving’ in a beat-up old truck.
There’s a point where arcade racers lose all connection with reality and they’re all the better for it. Asphalt isn’t bothered by trivial concerns such as an actual car’s inability to fly hundreds of metres through the air, or drift seemingly endlessly around gloriously sweeping bends; instead, it’s all about the need for speed, zooming around beautifully rendered and inventive courses, occasionally smashing your rivals into a wall, just because you can.
It’s a touch shoppy and grindy, but there’s hours of exhilarating racing here without spending a penny.
The best sports game for iPhone and iPad: Super Stickman Golf 3
Super Stickman Golf 3’s ancestor is the same Apple II Artillery game Angry Birds has at its core, but Noodlecake’s title is a lot more fun than catapulting birds around.
It’s a larger-than-life side-on mini-golf extravaganza, with you thwacking balls about giant forests, space stations distinctly lacking in gravity, and strange fortresses with a suspiciously high deadly laser count.
The single-player game’s fun, but SSMG 3 comes into its own in multiplayer, whether you’re taking the more sedate turn-by-turn route or ball-smacking at speed in the frenetic race mode. Note that the free version has some restrictions (limited courses; fewer simultaneous turn-based games), but there’s still plenty of genuinely crazy golf here to take a swing at.
Touchgrind Skate 2
This one takes a rather literal stance regarding controlling a sports game with your fingers. The board appears on the screen and your fingers become tiny legs, enabling you to perform gnarly and rad tricks, man! Irksome lingo aside, this is a fantastic title that’s initially demanding but hugely rewarding once mastered.
You can also upload videos of your best moves and show off to your friends, and there’s fortunately no way you can skin your knees, unless you trip over while obsessively performing ollies, powerslides and heelflips while walking down the street.
If you’re the kind of person who gets off on using cushions to pot the odd ball in pool, you’ll love Magnetic Billiards. A sort-of physics puzzler take on the popular pub game, it dispenses with pockets entirely — you instead clear the table by building clusters of connected balls that then vanish.
Emptying a table’s the easy part, though — the real skill is in figuring out insanely complex trick shots to get to that point, ‘buzzing’ balls of different colours, and creating a pleasing magnetic shape before it vanishes into the ether. For free, you get 20 tables; £1.49 nets you a ‘skeleton’ key that unlocks the rest of the game.
World Tour Golf
With EA having deserted ‘proper’ golf games on mobile for the arcadey nonsense of King of the Course, WGT thwacks a ball and gets a realism hole-in-one. This really is a quite astonishing game, from the delicate controls through to the eye-popping photo-realistic courses you play on.
A word of warning: it also takes no prisoners. There’s no nonchalantly spinning a ball in mid-air when you fluff a shot. Here, you’ll end up in the bunker, then overshoot the green, before multiple putts leave you embarrassingly over par. But put in the practice and you’ll be a virtual golfing superstar before long.
Strategy and word games
The best strategy and word game for iPhone and iPad: Clash Royale
This mash-up of RTS and card collecting has you battle opponents online in single-screen arenas. Individual, varied units are plonked on the battlefield from your deck, each costing elixir that refills as you fight. Wins come by clocking an opponent’s strategy, and countering with cunning combos.
Clash Royale’s freemium, so obviously designed to mug your wallet, but canny players can progress for free; and it’s hugely compelling, so although your bank balance might be safe, your free time won’t be.
FTL: Faster Than Light
In space, no-one can hear you scream as you repeatedly fail in delivering crucial data to the Galactic Federation, again getting obliterated by pesky rebels. But that’s how things go in this infinitely replayable PC port, which comes across to the iPad unscathed.
It’s manic seat-of-the-pants stuff as you aim to maintain your ship’s integrity and keep the crew alive, an eye on the big picture while micromanaging situations that could ensure your collective downfall. A dash of Roguelike randomness adds further longevity, ensuring no two attempts to not be brutally annihilated are ever quite the same.
There’s no shortage of turn-based strategy titles on iOS, but Warbits is a cut above. It brings Advance Wars-style skirmishes to your iPhone or iPad, two factions duking it out on grid-based maps, lobbing projectiles at each other until one side emerges victorious.
The game is infused with quirky humour, and it fizzes with an energy its more staid competition would do well to ape. Warbits also has plenty of longevity — work your way through the tough single-player campaign, and you’ll be hardened enough to venture online. There, you can take on other virtual warmongers across a range of arenas, or rope in the computer AI if you feel the need to (try and) give it another kicking.
At first, SpellTower seems very simple and innocuous. You get a tower of letters, and drag out words. Tiles disappear and gravity reminds any floating tiles they should perhaps consider obeying natural phenomenon. Rinse and repeat.
But then you unlock Puzzle Mode, where every word you clear adds another row of letters. Finally, Rush Mode showcases the title’s devious streak, a timer relentlessly ticking, rapidly adding new rows of tiles, many of which come badged with numbers denoting the minimum letters a word needs in order to remove them. It’s a far cry from SpellTower’s sedate beginnings, and a perfect mash-up of word games and well-based puzzlers.
Having wowed on desktop, the dystopian terror of Papers, Please loses nothing in its transition to iPad. If anything, the more intimate nature of playing on a tablet drags you in more completely, as your interactions take you deep into the private hell of a border guard in a totalitarian state.
There’s no gunplay here; there are no spies to duff up. Instead, you’re mired in bureaucracy, deciding which immigrants may enter the country and which should be rejected.
Initially, this is relatively simple, but you’re soon juggling targets, bribes, and penalties, frantically scrawling notes to keep track of everything, to ensure your family might actually get to eat this week. Without doubt, this can be a very bleak game, but it’s also poignant, engaging and satisfying.
The best platform game for iPhone and iPad: Drop Wizard
The jolly tunes, pixelated graphics and single-screen action here bring to mind 1980s platform games Bubble Bobble and Snow Bros. However, Drop Wizard is a thoroughly modern creation, perfectly suited to mobile. It boasts a bite-sized pick-up-and-play structure, short level sets ending with battles against ginormous bosses.
Most importantly, the controls are pitch-perfect. Instead of run/jump/fire, you can only auto-run left or right and fall down holes. On landing on a platform below, you emit a magic blast, used to stun roaming enemies. Boot them and they tumble about for a bit, potentially collecting fellow stunned foes, eventually turning into a tasty piece of collectable fruit.
This combination of controls and attack methods is a masterstroke, forcing you to strategise, and making the entire product feel chaotic, fresh and exciting.
Described as ‘Portal meets Lemmings’, Telepaint finds you helping clockwork automaton paintpots reach their paintbrush pals.
Each single-screen test involves figuring out how to utilise teleporters to blast your pot in the right direction, simultaneously splattering the otherwise gloomy industrial surroundings with vibrant colour. Early levels are just simple enough for you to get cocky, whereupon Telepaint gleefully smacks your brains out with a Dulux catalogue wrapped around a brick.
On-screen VHS controls soften the blow a little, enabling you to pause the action, take a breath, and set up subsequent teleports. It’s a clever move, and one that stops you seeing red a little too often. Regardless, you’ll never quite look at a can of paint in the same way again after playing.
We usually wear our suspicious look when faced with platform games on iOS, because most of them are terrible; even more so when they’ve been punted across from another platform.
Amazingly, LIMBO loses nothing in its translation from consoles. The spooky, grim, creepy experience, akin to Groundhog Day in hell, remains a nightmarish vision of genius on the touchscreen, whether your tiny adventurer is being impaled by a giant spider or inching his way past deadly blades.
Cally's Caves 3
You’ll probably be a few levels into Cally’s Caves 3 before you wonder what the catch is. This leapy shooty platform game feels like an impossibly solid, complete title for no money at all. But there is no catch: developer Jordan Pearson really is giving you an entire 120-level old-school platformer entirely for free.
It follows the adventures of Cally, whose parents have gotten themselves kidnapped - again. (This is the third entry in the series, after all.) She must go after them, bounding about and shooting things along the way.
Cally’s Caves 3 has smart level design, a checkpoint system that forces you to be a bit careful rather than blundering about, a superb weapon upgrade system (they get more powerful the more things you shoot with them) and tons of charm. IAPs exist, but merely to simultaneously reward the dev and get yourself additional game modes.
Adventure games and stories
The best adventure game for iPhone and iPad: Year Walk
Rich in Swedish folklore, Year Walk has you venture into the cold, dark woods, where strange creatures lurk and terrible events blur reality and fiction, past and present.
With an interface that resembles a creepy, twisted picture book, you must discern clues, unravelling the dark secrets of the forest. Literal horror awaits, along with one of the finest conclusions of any modern adventure title. The journey there will keep you transfixed, not least during those moments it’s scaring the pants off of you.
You know you’re in for a treat as soon as Device 6 launches, unleashing a ballsy credits sequence any classic spy show would be proud to call its own. It then dumps you on a remote island with a name (Anna) and absolutely no idea of how you got there or what to do next.
You navigate the story — literally, since words form corridors you travel along — trying to make sense of what you see and hear, to complete cryptic puzzles and unravel the island’s secrets. To say more would spoil the surprises within, but suffice to say this is a modern gaming classic, and was one of 2013’s finest titles on any platform.
Love you to bits
Love You to Bits is an old-school point-and-click adventure reimagined for touchscreen. Rookie space explorer Kosmo searches planets for parts of his robot girlfriend (don’t think too hard about that), regularly finding himself immersed in challenges littered with pop-culture references.
The charm offensive never lets up, from a 2D Monument Valley to a certain famous space cantina. And although the puzzles are typically quite simple and sometimes require crazy leaps of logic, the game’s ceaselessly clever nature, warmth and smarts means you’re going to love it to bits in return.
In Her Story, your device is temporarily transformed into an ancient desktop PC. As it whirrs and clanks into life, you see a window for the L.O.G.I.C. Database, ominously pre-populated with a search term: MURDER. Hit ‘Search’ and video fragments appear, all of a woman being interviewed by police.
If you’re a remotely inquisitive sort, that’ll be it for you. Hours will be spent eking out clues from everything the woman says, and trying to unravel mysteries within mysteries. The database itself intentionally hampers you, limiting access to five videos (although listing how many were actually found). The contrivance is obviously designed to force you to delve deeper, but anyone who lived through the 1990s PC era will probably grin, remembering when software really was that user-hostile.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
An old-school adventure game draped in a Jim Guthrie EP (or perhaps the reverse), Sword & Sworcery is one of the finest exploratory adventure titles around. You find yourself in a mythical realm, mooching about with your little dog, and discovering the mysteries of the world.
The delicate pixel art evokes retro gaming, but far surpasses adventures of old, and the audio is superb. The story is slight and minimal at times, but this draws you in further, and only the narrative’s overly glib nature occasionally breaks the spell. Mostly, though, this is a masterful mix of storytelling, adventuring, art and gaming that has an atmosphere all of its own.
Puzzle and match games
The best puzzle and match game on iPhone and iPad: Threes!
Threes! is one of those rare things in puzzle games: a new idea. As you swipe, every tile on the four-by-four board moves, and pairs merge and level up. Matters are complicated by a new tile being added on the edge you swiped from during every move. The aim is therefore to keep going until you run out of space, planning ahead to create upgrade chains that put off the inevitable deadlock.
In a sense, Threes! is the iPhone’s Tetris — a simple, beautifully realised puzzler understood in moments but that takes months to master. But unlike those Russian blocks, Threes! is infused with personality, the little tiles burbling away and grinning like loons when they spot a partner in an adjacent slot.
World of Goo HD
2D Boy’s beautiful and surreal physics puzzler didn’t start out on iOS, but it really made sense once converted to it. The story centres on the World of Goo Corporation — seemingly a global leader in wrecking a planet — and the curious little Goo Balls that inhabit and power the world.
Puzzles mostly involve inventive ways of using Goo to build structures to a pipe that sucks the oblivious blobs to ‘Goo Heaven’ (i.e. a power plant). In being able to drag the Goo around with your finger, the game comes alive on the touchscreen in a way it just doesn’t when using a mouse or traditional controller. An evocative soundtrack and serious storytelling smarts further elevate World of Goo, frequently transforming a playable, engrossing puzzler into a disarmingly touching experience.
The great thing about Hitman GO is that it both is and isn’t a Hitman game. It’s certainly a long way from a straight port of any entry from the console series, which, let’s face it, would have been miserable on a touchscreen.
Instead, the developers have reimagined Hitman as a kind of turn-based mechanical boardgame. Clockwork guards patrol adorable dioramas, and you must figure out the best route to your target, literally ‘bumping off’ adversaries as you see fit.
However, this title nonetheless somehow retains much of the tension and stealth of its console cousins, despite its radically different approach.
For anyone immersed in the daily hell of a commute involving an underground, the notion of designing such a system – and for that to begin as a chill-out session – might seem unlikely. But Mini Metro is captivating from the first train you unleash.
It builds slowly. You connect a few stations by drawing a line, and passengers are ferried about, alighting at the first station that matches their shape. All along, your ears are serenaded by a tinkly generative soundtrack formed by the actions taking place on-screen.
The calm doesn’t last. As time passes, new passengers and stations appear, ramping up the tension and forcing you to juggle scant resources. Eventually, you’ll be overwhelmed and your subway will close. Still, a new one’s only a tap away. Just don’t lose yourself for too many hours in this minimal interactive underground.
This puzzle game looks sweet and innocent with its grumpy cartoon birds and vibrant colours. The mechanics seem simple too: swipe to guide your snakebird to fruit, which when munched expands the crabby freak of nature; then make for the exit.
But Snakebird was designed by a sadist seemly determined to smash your brains out. Pretty soon you’re staring at the screen, having made judicious use of the generous unlimited undos, convinced a puzzle is impossible. Many minutes later, you crack it. You feel like a genius. And then you realise there are dozens more levels still to go.
The Room Three
The first two installments of The Room were among the best puzzlers we'd played in years, fully taking advantage of the possibilities of a mobile interface and delivering brain-melting conundrums wrapped up in a creepy, brilliantly realised story.
The third edition is even better though: much bigger in both scale and ambition, it's not just one of the best puzzlers but simple one of the best games of the year.
At its heart, little has changed - you're faced with a box, but every time you find a lock or a switch, it’s just another layer that takes you deeper into a weird and mystifying enigma. But this time you can go further inside the boxes, there are more locations to explore and the puzzles themselves are much more varied. Four alternate endings also give it a longeivity somewhat lacking in the originals.
Best played in the dark, preferably with a storm brewing outside, The Room Three is an atmospheric treat; take it in greedily (although turn off the hints system for the full experience) and then if you haven't already played them, go back and devour the The Room and The Room Two.
The best shooting game for iPhone and iPad: Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved
This is the kind of blaster you want to shove in the face of anyone who whines that mobile can’t do proper console games. As with previous entries in the Geometry Wars series, Dimensions Evolved is a twin-stick shooter where you face legions of lurid beasties intent on your destruction. Only this time, everything’s in 3D.
Rather than doing battle within flat arenas, Dimensions Evolved finds you fighting giant bosses across the walls of a huge cube flipping about in the void, or desperately trying to stay alive among swarms of enemies multiplying across the surface of a giant, lurching space peanut. It looks gorgeous, controls perfectly, has tons of content, and should only be avoided if you’re so much of a pacifist you can’t stomach the idea of shooting small neon spaceships.
This twin-stick shooter updates Asteroids and wraps it around planetoids. The visuals are a treat, from the organic, spinning space rocks to the pyrotechnics on display as your powered-up ship seeks to obliterate everything around it.
The free version of the game gives you the arcade mode, but for £1.49/US$1.99 you unlock missions, survival mode and smart bombs.
The Bug Butcher
Scientists have got a lot to answer for, what with their creating massive genetic monsters. In The Bug Butcher, most have apparently answered by being devoured by said horrors, which happen to have huge teeth; but one hapless survivor remains, which you must protect by shooting ALL THE THINGS. (Except for the scientist.)
You therefore scoot back and forth, blasting bouncing foes, which squelch and split, while keeping a beady eye on the ceiling for scientist-snaring spiders. It all comes across a bit like a mash-up of Pong and Space Invaders, but with scrolling, modern cartoon visuals, and snarky dialogue. And although the slightly banana-thumb controls betray its origins on a platform with ‘real controls’, this is still very much a satisfying iOS blaster.
Tanks! - Seek & Destroy
Formerly known as Panzerkampf 3, Tanks! - Seek & Destroy now has a far more sensible name to match its no-nonsense gameplay.
You’re essentially dumped in a sparse vector landscape, and charged with blowing away endless hordes of tanks. Visually, the game echoes arcade classic Battlezone, but the controls are reminiscent of a racer’s, and the frenetic, breakneck gameplay offers the relentless intensity of the most vicious modern shooters.
Multiple modes and power-ups add a little depth, but mostly this is about speeding about and blowing things up with your rage face on.
There are a bunch of first-person shooters for iOS, but they’re various levels of hideous, given that complex gamepad controls really aren’t suited to the touchscreen. EPOCH.2 cunningly deals with such limitations by way of a post-apocalyptic shoot-and-cover experience based around gestural input.
There’s a story underpinning everything, but mostly you’ll find yourself immersed in an explosive choreography, tapping and swiping to make your surprisingly nimble robot leap about, blasting its foes into so much scrap.
The whiff of IAP and a slightly iffy upgrade model don’t take the shine off your rustbucket’s antics, not least when you find yourself alternatively dodging and pummelling a giant boss in this bleak and desolate future.
The best arcade game for iPhone and iPad: Osmos
Osmos is best described as an ambient arcade game. Although demanding quick thinking and fast reflexes, it also rewards planning and patience.
The aim is to grow your mote, which can absorb those smaller than itself and get about the place by ejecting matter. In moving and causing your mote to shrink, you discover an uneasy balancing act must be continually played out as you explore playgrounds that echo microscopic primordial soup through to solar systems with deadly sun-like ‘attractors’ and dozens of orbiting motes.
Forget-Me-Not is a pick-and-mix of classic arcade gaming. You control a little square with eyes who spews lasers and munches flowers.
As he ambles about each randomly generated dungeon, other critters go about their business, which usually means furiously trying to kill anything nearby. Before long, open warfare breaks out and huge chunks of the maze are obliterated as you frantically seek out the key to the exit.
Equal parts Pac-Man, Rogue, Wizard of Wor and Gauntlet, and with dashes of other arcade titles, Forget-Me-Not is easily the equal of every one of its inspirations, and one of the finest arcade titles we’ve ever played.
When Eliss arrived in 2009, it was a game that defined the iPhone, fully taking advantage of multitouch. You had to contain and manipulate planets, which could be torn apart or merged before being dragged to portals of appropriate size and colour. Letting planets of different colour collide would deplete limited energy reserves, and matters were further complicated by space storms and other hazards.
Years later, this semi-sequel still feels fresh, and in later levels success demands intricate yet speedy finger gymnastics. Beyond the original game, there’s also a truly crazed endless mode to master.
In a world devoid of humans, robots have seemingly taken up hoverboarding and kleptomania. A nefarious android has pilfered all the batteries that power your village, and so you hop on your board and scoot after him, scooping up any batteries dropped in his wake, across 30 diverse levels.
This could have all been painfully generic, but Power Hover pushes everything to the max. The simple controls — left or right, and that’s it — are twinned with floaty physics that lends the game a unique feel. The level design is superb, optimal pathways weaving through deserts infested with giant sand worms and spider-like drilling apparatus intent on stabbing an inconvenient hole in your droid. It all adds up to a challenge that’s familiar and yet has the capacity to surprise and delight.
Pinball’s something of a lost art, which is a huge pity. The best pinball tables are the equals of the finest videogames around, offering a surprising amount of depth while demanding precision and concentration.
Pinball Arcade is almost an interactive museum, housing dozens of fully playable classic tables inside your device. You get Tales of the Arabian Nights for free, and IAP enables you to buy the likes of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Bride of Pin•Bot, Black Knight and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Fruit Ninja reimagined by a lover of precision geometry, Linia rewards gamers with the keen eye, lightning fast reactions, and dexterity of a snake snatching prey out of thin air. Each of the 80 or so scenes features shapes that bob, weave and meander. Your task is to swipe through them in such a way that your finger collides with shapes to match the colour order of a set of discs elsewhere on the screen.
Linia never urges you to hurry. You can watch the patterns and cycles until you clock when to strike. Then it’s all down to a pixel-perfect slice across the screen at precisely the right time, before, presumably, finally allowing yourself to blink, having been staring at the screen for a good couple of minutes waiting for your moment.