All play, no pay
As our Freemium Field Test column explored this year, many prominent free-to-play games look promising, but end up being droning grinds. No huge surprise there. But there are truly great games amidst the junk, some of which stand tall alongside the year’s top paid games.
If you’re looking for charming, fun, and rewarding games that don’t force you to spend a cent, these are the best we’ve played this year on iPhone and iPad. We’ve got word games, endless challenges, and even a game about luring neighborhood cats to your home (really!), and there’s plenty of variety in the rest of the mix. Grab these sweet freebies, enjoy, and stay tuned for more coverage of free games as 2016 rolls into view.
Word games are fun and bears are delightful—so Alphabear must be a slam dunk, right? Pretty much! This charming affair from Triple Town maker Spry Fox puts a nicely strategic twist on the usual word-builder, challenging you to build the largest bear you can on a grid of letters, which requires smart and efficient play.
Additional tiles become playable as your bears expand in size, but they’re only available for a few rounds: Waste your opportunity to use any, and they turn to stone. As such, you must make the best word possible using the oldest letters on the board if you want a chance at filling the whole board with a giant bear. If that sounds confusing, just play the game: It’s free, after all.
Last year, Crossy Road was one of our absolute favorite iOS games, free or otherwise. And now developer Hipster Whale has struck gold again by mining the past of a true gaming icon. Pac-Man 256 is Crossy-like in premise, delivering an endless upwards high-score chase, but the idea is uniquely tied into the classic Pac formula.
Here, you’re zigging and zagging through mazes filled with power pellets and the familiar ghosts, who you’ll either chase or evade as needed. And the weird mess of (intentionally) glitchy code coming up from the bottom is inspired by a notorious glitch in the classic arcade game, to boot. It’s a nostalgia blast, for sure, but it’s also quite fun and addictive.
While we’re on that Crossy Road note—Shooty Skies also ended up being one of our favorite free iOS time sinks this year, and it comes from Mighty Games, which has two of the three guys who made Crossy Road (along with other collaborators). It’s similar to last year’s hit in look and approach, but unlike the many Crossy copycats on the App Store, this feels like its own game.
Shooty Skies effectively puts an endless, free-to-play spin on the shoot-‘em-up genre, tasking you with guiding your plane or ship through incoming bullet barrages as you blast the weird array of enemies ahead. It’s very silly and thankfully also quite fun, and has a Crossy-esque character unlock system that also shakes up the sights when you play.
Magic Touch: Wizard for Hire
Harry Potter, take note: Magic Touch: Wizard for Hire is a wizardry game done right on iPhone and iPad. It’s a rapid-fire combat game in which your cartoonish wizard, trying to save a castle atop its rooftop, must dish out an array of spells to stop balloon-bound warriors from landing safely.
You’ll do so by drawing the little icons that appear on their balloons, which begin as simple swipes but soon become jagged patterns that require a little precision. Keeping the enemies at bay quickly requires a constant flow of these tiny sketches, as you figure out which foes must fall first—with some toting several balloons that must be popped in speedy succession. It’s a wonderful little endless experience that puts your touch display to smart use.
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector
Do you like kitty cats? Do you really, really like kitty cats? If so, then you might want to grab Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector right away. It’s a cat-collecting game, but this isn’t Pokémon: There aren’t battles or adventures, or even a storyline to shape the events. No, you’re just luring cats into your backyard to watch them sleep and be silly.
That’s the long and short of it, and if that sounds interminably boring, we understand. But there’s a soothing appeal to the low-key pursuit of the most interesting cats available, which you’ll draw to your yard and living room by placing out all manner of toys and different kinds of food. It’s a top-tier time waster, and we mean that in the best way possible.
Four-letter words usually aren’t prime choices in most word games, but most word games aren’t focused on speed: Embracing both made Four Letters one of our favorite free games this year, and a nice change of pace from the genre’s norm. Here, the goal is simple: Keep tapping in the short words until you run out of time.
That will probably happen because you’re stumped. While it’s not difficult to get on a run and tap in long strings of four-letter words, Four Letters excels at occasionally throwing you for a loop with an odd jumble of letters. Acting fast is essential, as the timer is always ticking down, and each entered word gets you a little more time to worth with. It’s a strongly compelling high-score affair.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
No, we didn’t forget. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft was on last year’s list of our favorite free iOS games—so why does it deserve to make the cut again? Easy: It’s the iPhone support. Blizzard moved the once tablet-only experience over to our pockets this year, and having the obsession-worthy card-battler on hand at any moment made us appreciate it even more.
On top of that, a new expansion and a couple of adventures made the game even larger and more compelling, and there’s always someone new to challenge with more than 40 million users now. Even if you don’t care about the other Warcraft MMO and strategy games, this fantasy card game is an amazing free-to-play draw on iPhone and iPad alike.
Marvel: Contest of Champions
Marvel: Contest of Champions is the rare licensed free-to-play game that’s actually fun to play. Many games like that—such as Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes—rely on the franchise to push you through a grinding, stale experience, assuming you’ll love the source material enough to stomach the tedium. Admittedly, Contest of Champions can be a grind too at times.
But more importantly, it’s entertaining and extremely well-produced, delivering tap-and-swipe fighting action that looks great and plays pretty well, given its streamlined nature. Kabam’s game has loads of heroes and villains to unlock, and while it might prod you to spend money at times, it’s quite fun as a freebie.
Beneath the Lighthouse
Showing that a small indie studio can excel in both quality and quantity, Magic Touch maker Nitrome dropped several stellar iOS games this year—and Beneath the Lighthouse is another big favorite. It’s a puzzler in which you’ll need to guide a rolling hero through small, maze-like worlds, but rather than tilt your actual device to do so, you’ll rotate the circular stages through touch.
Beneath the Lighthouse is tricky but quite charming, and the challenge thankfully proves more endearing than aggravating. You can pay a few bucks within to ease things up a bit, making the game less punitive when you inevitably roll into a wall of spikes, but the free limitations are fair and force you to play smarter.
The old single-player card game gets a nice modern refresh in Sage Solitaire, which more or less mashes in elements from poker without the need for opponents. You’ve got a three-by-three grid of card piles on the screen, and the goal is to make matches and hands to try to clear every card from the table. That’s a tricky task, of course.
Each hand must contain cards from at least two rows, for example, and while you can trash the occasional card to try and yield a better option from below, you’ll lose if you run out of matches. Additional play modes are available for purchase, but the core experience is free and unrestricted, and it’s a fast, engaging tweak on the card classic.
Does Not Commute
Ironically-named studio Mediocre made the excellent Smash Hit, which should be more than enough to convince you to try out Does Not Commute. Beyond the fun pun of a name, it’s another great, unconventional experience—this time putting you in charge of guiding a bunch of cars to their destinations. What’s unconventional about that?
Well, you control each car one at a time, and then they continue along their paths on their own while you move to the next car. It’s a time-shifted traffic jam that you must create and manage to ensure that everyone gets through the same city streets quickly and safely. Add to that the laugh-out-loud funny dialogue and jokey narratives that form, and Does Not Commute surely does warrant your attention.
Brick-breakers were an early mobile favorite, but haven’t been as prominent or exciting in recent years—but Brickies is the best we’ve played in ages. While the core premise of smacking a ball around to smash through grids of bricks remains intact, quite a bit else has been tweaked and enhanced.
Here, you’ve got two paddles—top and bottom—and the main driver of the action isn’t lives, but time. You’ll have a limited amount of time to clear everything in sight, otherwise you’ll have to start over; and if you miss the ball, it’s deactivated until hit again, which wastes precious seconds in the process. Add in inventive power-ups and level designs and Brickies is utterly pleasing throughout.
Although it reminds us of the great Letterpress from a few years back, Capitals carved out its own place on our iPhones and iPad this year by putting a strategic twist on head-to-head wordplay. In NimbleBit’s game, you’re battling another online player in turn-based showdowns, attempting to take control of the game board with each new term.
Your hexagonal capital piece sits at the center of your blue or red empire, and as you make words—using letters of any color—you’ll gain control of more of the board. Having the biggest and best words is less crucial than where you place them and how you build out your territory, and that’s what makes Capitals such a competitive treat.
Planet Quest is definitely the strangest game on this list, but we mean that in the most positive and congratulatory way possible. It’s a rhythmic timing challenge wherein you’ll tap the screen to the beat of the song as indicated, but it’s one with the theme of alien abductions: You’ll tap when the little UFO sucks humans and other creatures up from the ground.
It’s lovely, really. Planet Quest has a delightfully vivid, cartoonish aesthetic about it, and it’s one that changes with each song. Furthermore, the game likes to shake up the camera perspective to try and throw you for a loop on timing, which adds a nice bit of challenge to the affair. It’s not a hugely robust game, but what’s here is quite enjoyable—and free, of course.
While some free-to-play games try to go big with premium-like offerings, Ball King smartly embraces simplicity: It’s the perfect minute-or-two-in-line time-filler. It’s a game about shooting hoops with a familiar pull-and-fling mechanism, challenging you to find the ideal arc to send the ball soaring the sky and through the net. That’s about it, but that’s plenty fun.
There’s plenty to unlock, of course, with a Crossy Road-esque rewards system that constantly tosses goodies your way. You’ll find loads and loads of balls (and substitutes—a muffin?), additional costumes, and new backdrops to unlock, plus there’s a 60-second timed mode beyond the endless, miss-and-you-lose main mode. Ball King does one thing, but does it very well, and we keep coming back to it.