You could make a strong case for 2022 being the year of handheld gaming. Despite ageing hardware and no mainline Mario or Zelda release, the Nintendo Switch got a steady stream of great exclusive games throughout the year. The Steam Deck brought a whole new way to play PC games (impressing us so much that we awarded it our overall gadget of the year), and Panic’s Playdate let you play games with a crank. Need we say more?
But we’re not here to talk about any of those. No, we’re here to talk about the handheld gaming device that’s in your pocket at all times. Because while the lazy freemium titles that still crowd apps stores can make it annoyingly difficult to unearth the good stuff, 2022 has also been a pretty great year for mobile gaming. Some of the year’s standout titles on any platform are right there on your phone. Let us celebrate 2022 in mobile gaming together.
It’s perhaps fair to say that Apple Arcade has never threatened the more established gaming platforms, at least not in the way that the Cupertino giant’s TV streaming service continues to disrupt that space. But unlike some large tech companies that have made big moves into the market in the last few years, Apple hasn’t lost interest, either. It continues to release interesting games on the platform that are well suited to mobile play.
An early 2022 highlight was Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, an elegantly designed auto-runner of sorts with a strong environmental message that had you take to the treetops as a particularly acrobatic gibbon. Brief though it was, we genuinely thought the game had some of the most satisfying swinging mechanics this side of Marvel’s Spider-Man, and is exactly the kind of minimalist, bite-size experience that Apple should be promoting on its service.
Shovel Knight Dig was another impressive get for Apple Arcade, launching on the platform alongside the PC and console versions and feeling right at home on your iPhone. The latest spinoff of the now iconic old-school indie platformer is a roguelike, in which the titular Shovel Knight must tunnel deep into the earth to collect loot and bash any baddies in his way. Months on from launch, we’re still dipping in for a few runs every couple of days, and as the most vibrantly colourful Shovel Knight game to date, it absolutely sings on an OLED display.
An exclusive touchscreen shooter from ex-Sega auteur Yu Suzuki and a day one release of the latest Football Manager entry are further evidence of Apple Arcade’s diverse library, and the service continues to be bolstered by re-releases of “classic” indie titles such as Dead Cells, Gris and The Gardens Between. If you use Apple devices, Apple Arcade remains a bit of a no-brainer.
Flixing its muscles
2022 was also the year in which Netflix really signalled its intention to become a major player in the mobile gaming space. Throughout the year, truly excellent titles would just appear as part of your existing Netflix sub with very little fanfare (so little, in fact, that we needed several reminders each time a drop happened), including exclusives like the superb vertical action-platformer, Poinpy, which might be the most infectiously upbeat game we’ve played all year, and the swiping pixel art platformer, Lucky Luna. Both recall the early glory days of mobile gaming, when games were designed to take advantage of a touch interface.
Critically acclaimed indie games such as Moonlighter, Into the Breach and Oxenfree are also part of Netflix games (even if barely anyone is aware of it), and we were pleasantly surprised to see Sam Barlow’s interactive thriller, Immortality, turn up last month. If this is a sign of things to come for Netflix, then it’ll be good for a lot more than Stranger Things.
The platform does need a bit of work, though. Right now you still have to download games from the App Store or Google Play to play them via your Netflix subscription, and if Netflix is really serious about games then it could do a better job of promoting them on the app.
The best things in life are free
Plenty of fun for Netflix and Apple Arcade subscribers, then, but two of the very best mobile games (and games in general) of this year cost absolutely nothing. Marvel Snap has absolutely no right to be as good as it is, and continues to dominate a huge chunk of our gaming time on any given day. The collectible card battler is built on a ruleset so simple that anyone can get to grips with it within a matter of minutes, while being deep enough to demand meticulous deck building and studying of each card’s abilities as you continue to rise through the ranks.
It doesn’t hurt that the game looks absolutely beautiful as well. Cards jump off the screen as you upgrade them with new cosmetic effects and feature distinct animations depending on the character you’re deploying from your hand. You can certainly throw real money at the game if you want to, but the fact that one of outstanding mobile games of the last few years can be enjoyed for absolutely nothing, and not at the expense of meaningful content available to those handing over cash, is kind of amazing given the (usually very justified reputation) of the free-to-play model.
And talking of brilliant free games, right at the end of the year mobile gamers were told they could now download Vampire Survivors, one of 2022’s word-of-mouth smash hits, to their phones, without handing over a penny. Given the time survival roguelite’s minimalist approach to player input – you control your character’s movement and select their upgrades but all attacks are automatic – Vampire Survivors, er, survives the transition to a touchscreen. We’ve already spent as many hours playing it on our iPhone as we did on the Steam Deck.
2022 was noticeably lacking in blockbuster AAA fare on console and PC, but as long as you had a smartphone in your pocket, there was anything but a shortage of games to compete for your free (and toilet) time.