15 classic games transformed into free-to-play iOS affairs

Taking the old spirit and twisting it into something new—and freemium.

classics f2p lead

Freemium nostalgia

We’ve seen a lot of classic games ported over to iPhone and iPad over the years, but games designed for a controller or arcade stick don’t always translate well to touch. Instead, many creators have been taking their beloved franchises, characters, and game mechanics and translating them into new mobile experiences, or merging them with proven touch genres. 

And in many cases, they’re free-to-play games as well—for better or worse. Here are 15 such high-profile examples: Freemium games based on old favorites that spin that original spirit into a fresh form. Some are more successful than others at being fun or fairly balanced, but given that they’re all free downloads, go ahead and try anything that grabs your interest.

classics f2p pacman256

Pac-Man 256

Pac-Man celebrated his 35th birthday this year, and while the classic arcade game remains a beloved classic, Bandai Namco decided to honor his anniversary with something different. Created with Crossy Road developer Hipster Whale, Pac-Man 256 is a free-to-play mobile twist on the original formula, keeping the mazes and ghosts while making the action endless.

You’ll have to constantly navigate upward to evade the creeping flood of glitchy code—inspired by the famous kill screen from the 1980 original—all while evading (or eating) the ghosts. Maximizing your score is the goal, and power-ups can help boost your tally or turn the tables on those pesky ghosts. Pac-Man 256 has a recharging credits system, although you can pay $8 once for unlimited play.

classics f2p hearthstone

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Hearthstone might be the best-known spinoff on this list—it’s so popular that it seems even bigger than the source games at this point. Blizzard’s collectible card-battler began life on PC and Mac, but it was the move to iPad and eventually iPhone that secured its legacy as a go-anywhere addiction.

Pulling characters and themes from the Warcraft strategy and massively multiplayer online game entries, Hearthstone is a devilishly compelling free-to-play affair in which you build up a deck of creature cards and battle others online. There’s money to be spent to rapidly improve your cards, but Hearthstone is plenty fun even if you don’t reach for your wallet.

classics f2p crazytaxi

Crazy Taxi: City Rush

The original Crazy Taxi remains an arcade classic, and there’s a pretty solid $5 port available on the App Store. But if you’d rather pay zero dollars—upfront, at least—Sega has a fun alternative in the form of Crazy Taxi: City Rush. The fundamentals are the same: You’re rushing around the city to deliver passengers to their destinations. But everything around that plays very differently. 

Rather than an open city, you’ve got short missions to tackle; and rather than fully command your cab, you’ll swipe to change lanes and tap frantically to brake. It doesn’t feel quite as chaotic (or ultimately, as riotously fun) as the original, but City Rush does a good job of making this old favorite seem fresh on iOS.

classics f2p ffrecordkeeper

Final Fantasy: Record Keeper

With a dozen distinct, core single-player games in the franchise—not to mention numerous spinoffs—Final Fantasy has a whole lot of storylines and characters. And Record Keeper is the game to unite them, letting you build a party of heroes from all across the series. You’ll revisit moments from the games, have your heartstrings tugged by the classic songs, and battle against familiar foes and bosses alike. 

And then you’ll battle again. And then battle some more. By and large, Record Keeper is all about combat—improving your party and then digging into more streamlined, menu-driven showdowns. It’s pretty dry, but all the content around the action is really great for fans. Final Fantasy: Record Keeper has a rather forgiving stamina system, but you might be tempted to spend big for rare item draws.

classics f2p pokemonshuffle

Pokémon Shuffle

If we’re lucky, someday we’ll get one of Nintendo’s classic Pokémon adventures on iPhone, and then we’ll be able to “catch ‘em all” wherever we are. Until then, at least we have Pokémon Shuffle, which takes the puzzle-centric combat of Puzzle & Dragons and puts an even cuter and more charming spin on it. 

You’ll drag familiar Pokémon faces across the board to match at least three of a kind, which clears them, sends an attack to your opponent creature, and hopefully sets off a few chain reactions in the process. While not terribly original or strategic, Pokémon Shuffle does a fair job of transforming the series’ creature-catching formula into something else, and the freemium system is super friendly.

classics f2p falloutshelter

Fallout Shelter

The Fallout games for consoles and PC—massive, open-world role-playing games set in post-apocalyptic wastelands—are designed to suck players in and keep them invested. Fallout Shelter may be a very different game, but it’s accomplished the same task for many fans. And it does so not with a large environment to explore, but rather the confinement of an underground shelter.

Fallout Shelter has a compulsive appeal to it: The itch to keep expanding your shelter and improving the lives of its inhabitants is a strong one. And it has an amusing tone like that found in the larger games. Progress comes slowly, however, so be prepared to play in little bits and pieces—or pay to speed things along.

classics f2p fftheatrhythm

Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy again? Sure enough, Square Enix has enough nostalgia to mine for several different games—and this one’s a music game, if that nonsensical title didn’t already give it away. Tapping into the wide back catalog of iconic game soundtracks, Theatrhythm delivers stirring renditions of familiar songs from role-playing epics.

You’ll enjoy the tracks in a couple different ways: In some stages, you’ll tap and swipe along with the notes that appear, while others have you guide an on-screen marker to the beat. In both modes, the music is fantastic, the gameplay is fun, and the cutesy versions of classic characters are charming. Songs are sold individually or in packs, so the amount you want to play will be directly proportional to how much money you’re willing to spend.

classics f2p acpirates

Assassin's Creed Pirates

Each Assassin’s Creed game on consoles or PC is a hearty historical adventure, allowing your nimble warrior to dash through a vast city, climb buildings with ease, and dispatch enemies with a hidden blade. But on iOS, it’s a game about… guiding your pirate ship across seas and blasting other boats with cannons? Yeah.

Assassin’s Creed Pirates is actually a spinoff of 2013’s well-liked Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, isolating only the naval combat and building a free-to-play quest around it. While you might miss the grandness of the typical series experience, Pirates does have an enticing pull as you navigate—and then dominate—the seas.

classics f2p tetrisblitz

Tetris Blitz

You know Tetris? Of course, everybody knows Tetris. But Tetris Blitz isn’t all that much like the iconic, line-clearing puzzler. Sure, the goal is still to fill every gap to erase lines of blocks and boost your score, but Blitz does more than just emphasize speed.

It also takes a lot of the control out of your hand, showing you options where the latest piece could fit and letting you tap the placement you want—rather than manually guiding the piece, of course. And it has explosions, magnets, and other power-ups that really shake up the gameplay. It’s a new spin on classic Tetris, if you can even stomach such a thing.

classics f2p laracroft

Lara Croft: Relic Run

Relic Run’s namesake heroine is known, of course, for the iconic Tomb Raider franchise—and the first two classic entries are available on the App Store for a buck or two apiece, but they don’t hold up terribly well. On the other hand, the simpler Relic Run is actually a lot of fun, even if it comes across like a pretty obvious riff on the behind-the-back endless runner. 

Croft sprints through the jungle automatically as you swipe to change lanes, but Relic Run has a lot more variety along the way: You’ll run along walls or ride a motorcycle, for example, and the presentation is consistently eye-catching. Also, there aren’t any restrictions on the amount you play—so you’ll never have to worry about running out of energy. That’s both rare and appreciated.

classics f2p metalslugdefense

Metal Slug Defense

Hardcore gamers love the Metal Slug series for its challenging, side-scrolling action, despite the cartoonish graphics and sense of humor—but it’s never been a big hit. In fact, with more than 26 million downloads, Metal Slug Defense has surely been played by more people than the original games, and it’s a pretty fun little spinoff from the main series. 

Metal Slug Defense essentially injects the series’ characters and personality into a side-scrolling tower defense game, wherein you’ll spawn units to take down the opposing base while trying to protect your own. It’s less action-packed than the source material, since the actual combat is hands-off, but the light strategy pairs well with the great hand-drawn aesthetic.

classics f2p callofduty

Call of Duty: Heroes

While Call of Duty has a couple of mobile entries—Strike Team and Black Ops Zombies— similar to the console and PC first-person shooter favorites, Heroes is a very different kind of experience. Essentially, it’s a take on the established Clash of Clans formula, challenging you to build up and continually upgrade a base while also attacking other players’ strongholds.

By closely following that established template, Call of Duty: Heroes missed a real opportunity to elevate the base-building genre—but at least this is a slick rendition, complete with familiar series faces and killstreak attacks. Just know that it can be very tedious, especially compared to a shooter. And if you don’t spend money to buy in-game currency, it can also be very slow going.

classics f2p driverspeedboat

Driver Speedboat Paradise

The early Driver games on the first PlayStation were early open-world pioneers, letting you explore a large city and take on car-centric missions as an undercover cop. Later entries embraced more of a Grand Theft Auto-like approach, with on-foot action and even a criminal lead character. But Driver Speedboat Paradise? This is pretty much just a boat racing game. 

True, the Driver name is flexible, but it just feels like Ubisoft wanted to make a boat racer and decided to assign it a once-popular brand. Speedboat Paradise is a fairly generic racer, but the wave cruising is solid enough for a freebie. And since you apparently cross paths with original series lead John Tanner later in the game, we suppose there’s a (thin) tie-in after all.

classics f2p mortalkombatx

Mortal Kombat X

The legendary Mortal Kombat fighting franchise recently got a fresh start on iOS with Mortal Kombat X, which launched alongside the console game of the same name. While the games share characters, moves, and slick visual elements, the iOS version has its own unique gameplay concoction: It’s not just a tap-and-swipe fighter, but also a card-collecting game. 

You’ll assemble a team of fighters based on the best cards you have, and new combatants come very slowly, thanks to the need to buy packs to unlock them. Unfortunately, the tap-based combat is so simplistic that it’s often tedious, and the best cards and packs are hilariously expensive. For fans, it’s an OK distraction—but avoid the urge to spend big.

classics f2p sonicdash

Sonic Dash

Turning the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise into an endless runner makes a ton of sense: He’s a character built around speed, of course, and he’s already sprinting anyway. Sonic Dash takes the side-scrolling hero and drops him into a familiar behind-the-back template, wherein you’ll jump and roll to evade hazards or bash enemies, as well as switch lanes as needed (like in Subway Surfers).

Sega’s game doesn’t do anything terribly fresh with the genre, but it’s colorful and spirited. Bunched-up obstacles prove frustrating before long, however, and the game pushes in-app purchases at seemingly every opportunity. Sonic Dash is lightly fun until the overall app experience turns too grating.

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by Macworld's Editors