The year's best
Every new week seems to bring at least a couple of great App Store games to savor—extrapolate that out to a full year and the results are pretty amazing. In fact, choosing just 20 was a difficult task: We had to whittle down the final list from dozens of initial options.
But these are the games that really impressed us this year, and stuck with us for more than just a couple days or weeks. In fact, we’ve already written about many of these games over the course of the year, but we wanted to give all of them one last honor before we start digging into next year’s crop of awesome iPhone and iPad games. Without further ado, here are our picks for the 20 best iOS games of 2015.
Most of us can probably relate to being a young child and wondering how deep a well or hole goes—but probably none of us decided to jump in with gunboots equipped and go exploring a bit. That’s the story behind Downwell ($3), a little Japanese indie that has blown up quickly with hardcore gamers for its immense challenge and irresistible hook.
You’ll dive blindly into the black abyss, tapping and holding the screen to unleash quick bursts of downward gunfire, which thankfully also slow you down for a moment. Landing atop certain enemies crushes them and earns you gems, while others injure you—and you only have a few hit points to spare before it’s game over. The lo-fi look is nicely unique, but it’s the thirst for progression that’ll keep you coming back.
Lara Croft GO
This isn’t the Tomb Raider you know and love from consoles—and yet, it totally is. Lara Croft GO ($5) turns the long-running action/adventure series into a touchscreen puzzler, where you’ll move one spot at a time and manipulate the environments to reach a goal. Each stage is like a compact brain-teaser, with obstacles to overcome, enemy patterns to beat, and other wrinkles that build and expand over the course of the campaign.
It doesn’t look quite like Tomb Raider, although the chunky-meets-cartoonish isometric aesthetic is wonderful. And it’s not as fast or fluid as Tomb Raider, but it still captures the essence of the experience in this new form. It’s a pretty superb mobile adaptation, really.
Speaking of taking a console classic and putting a new spin on it for touch: Pac-Man 256 (free) does much the same, and this time, it’s the Crossy Road guys at Hipster Whale that are responsible for this smart reboot. Essentially, Pac-Man 256 turns the arcade legend into an endless maze runner, where you’ll guide the yellow chomper upwards through ghost-filled terrain and try to notch a high score all the while.
But there’s another twist: A garbled tide of (fake) glitchy code constantly creeps up from the bottom of the screen, which distorts the view and will ultimately swallow Pac-Man up if it touches him. It’s inspired by a classic glitch in the original Pac-Man game, but here, it serves as a nice, nostalgia-laden threat to keep pushing you forward.
A man is dead, so naturally, his spouse is the prime suspect—but did she do it? That’s your task to figure out in Her Story ($5), which lets you dig into a stockpile of police interview clips to seek out the truth. The clips, which span seven different recorded video interviews with the (fictional) wife, are well acted—props to actress Viva Seifert—not to mention nuanced and captivating.
You can watch the videos in whichever order you’d like, not to mention as few or as many as you’d like, tapping in keywords to find more and more footage. It has an oddly voyeuristic appeal to it, and it’s well worth sticking with until you’ve pieced together the story.
Horizon Chase – World Tour
Rather than take a classic game and twist it for the modern era, Horizon Chase – World Tour ($3) instead pulls inspiration from retro racers and tries to nail the feeling of those games without replicating them. And it works remarkably well: Aquirius’ game delivers the quick, speedy thrills of early ‘90s racers like Top Gear and Out Run with a fresh new look and a large pile of content included.
Between the lively graphics and retro-fantastic soundtrack, Horizon Chase nails the old-school sensation, and it plays that way too: The races are fast and simplistic, but quick to punish if you don’t smartly choose lanes and avoid crashes. Add in 73 tracks, 16 cars, and vehicle upgrades, and there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Maintaining a bonsai tree is seen as a tranquil and deliberate hobby. Prune ($4) keeps the tranquility of it, which is infused throughout the puzzle experience, but speeds up your window for getting it done: You’ll need to clip the smaller, lower branches from your rapidly-growing tree in a matter of mere moments.
Your goal is to get each tree to sprout flowers in the sunlight, but the effort is stymied by shadowy or blood red orbs in the sky that can quickly kill or poison the branches. Winning each stage means quickly trimming the tree to help the largest, tallest branch prosper in the daylight. Prune isn’t like any puzzler we’ve ever played, and the beautiful graphics and sound help highlight a game that’s both serene and plenty stimulating.
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved
A game like Geometry Wars shouldn’t translate well to touch, given the precision needed to zap scads of evil, aggressive shape creatures—but Dimensions Evolved ($10) mostly nails the landing on iOS. It’s a full port of the recent console release, delivering fun twists for the franchise like 3D stages, a mission-based adventure mode, and big bosses to topple.
It’s tweaked slightly for touch, with auto-firing enabled if you don’t place a second thumb down for a virtual analog stick, but it’s a fair, optional compromise—and the core blasting action is still so strong and appealing, particularly within the classic modes carried over from earlier releases. Even at a premium price, it’s well worth the investment.
Surely one of the chillest games of the year, Alto’s Adventure ($2) puts a peaceful spin on extreme downhill snowboarding. You’re a little guy zipping down the slopes, grabbing air for backflips and grinding on bunting, all while collecting your llamas that sprung loose atop the mountain. Hit a rock, flub a flip, or get caught by a mountain elder and your run is over—but ‘til then, it’s all cool, cool sliding.
If you’ve played Ski Safari, you’ll surely notice the parallels between the two. However, Alto’s Adventure’s drastic tone change—away from frantic, cartoonish silliness—and one-and-done penalties for crashes give it a unique feel. Also, it’s spellbindingly beautiful, particularly as the time of day changes while you ride.
Does Not Commute
Traffic is surely one of the most widely reviled aspects of modern life, so kudos to game studio Mediocre Games for making a very fun and goofy game out of it. Does Not Commute (free) drops you behind the wheel of one car at a time as you guide each driver to his or her destination—but then you swap to another car, and another, until you’ve pointed every vehicle along its path.
However, they’re all fighting for the same small amount of urban asphalt, which means you must strategically navigate each car so it doesn’t hit the others once they all start moving. It’s a tricky concept to explain, but it all makes perfect sense once you start—and it’s a free game, so why not give it a shot? The hilarious driver background stories make a fun game even more memorable, too.
Surprise! Launching just before Christmas, Badland 2 ($5) takes one of the App Store’s top original games and makes it even better. As before, this side-scrolling floater pushes your little black blob guy through all manner of hazards as it tries to survive the winding trip—all the while being shrunken, enlarged, and joined by many more creatures just like yours.
While the sequel doesn’t dramatically deviate from the successful formula, the levels are more challenging right out of the gate, there are new twists along the way, and an already-pretty game looks absolutely stunning in this second iteration. It’s a sharp touch experience, and well recommended for anyone who got even a little bit of a kick out of the original.
Guitar Hero Live
Activision’s iOS (and Apple TV) adaptation of recent console game Guitar Hero Live ($10+) is a remarkably flexible release. If you buy the big bundle ($100, but we’ve seen it for $60) with the new six-button wireless guitar, you can play it just like on Xbox or PlayStation, jamming along to the notes as they scroll into view. Live splits its action between songs with live video crowds that dynamically react to your performance, and streaming channels full of tracks backed by music videos.
Or you can play a touch version without the hassle of the plastic guitar, whether you buy the bundle or just purchase the touch-only unlock within (down to just $10; was $50 at launch). Both renditions are a blast, and the option to play either way gives the Apple version a leg up on the console releases.
Don't Starve: Pocket Edition
It might seem like obvious advice, but the title of Don’t Starve ($5) is really a mantra for the experience: It’s a grim and unforgiving wilderness survival game that offers little in the way of guidance. In fact, you won’t even find a tutorial to help guide you through the initial days. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it forces you to experiment and really learn the mechanics of the world.
And you’ll learn through a small bit of suffering, too, since each and every death is permanent: Perish and your save file goes along with you. Harsh? Maybe—but each time you play, you’ll learn from your missteps and emerge a stronger, smarter player. And that only makes the sense of accomplishment stronger with each quality attempt that follows.
We’ve seen all sorts of tepid free-to-play puzzlers adorned with cute, fluffy animals, but Alphabear (free) takes a different tack: Its titular bears are nestled deep within the gameplay itself. Here, you’ll build words using Scrabble-like tiles, and when used, they disappear—and the space is filled with bears. The bears combine and grow, and then open up additional tiles to use.
And the bears serve as crucial power-ups, too, which you’ll pick before each match to provide score and strategy boosts along the way. Alphabear’s unique and delightfully bear-centric approach also makes it smarter than the average word game, since the tiles have a limited life span. You’ll need to prioritize certain letters to have a chance of clearing the entire board, which then fills it with one massive bear. Like we said, it’s delightful.
The Room Three
A premium iOS game series that keeps getting better and hasn’t fallen into freemium trappings? Be still, our beating hearts. Truly, The Room Three ($5) has upped its game once more, with Fireproof’s trilogy-capper increasing the scale of the puzzle experience while still doing an excellent job of delivering tactile touch brain-teasers.
What really sets The Room Three apart from its predecessors is a sense of scale: The larger, interconnected puzzles and hub world make the experience feel even more significant, plus new twists in how you interact with the puzzles (particularly with the eyeglass) add new wrinkles to the experience. Dare we ask for a Room Four, then? Given the upwards trend, there’s no reason to stop now.
HoPiKo ($4) isn’t for mobile players who like their games to be fluffy, mindless time killers: It’s a serious challenge in short bursts that is perfectly suited to touch devices. Unlike many platform-action games that rely on virtual buttons to recreate a controller-like experience, HoPiKo has you quickly fling your hero from landing spot to landing spot, trying to beat the clock as you frantically move through each world.
Each level only lasts a few seconds, but requires expert precision—and they’re stacked up five at a time. Botch a landing, fling yourself into a hazard, or wait too long to make a move in any of those tiny stages and you’ll start the whole bunch over again. Failure stings in HoPiKo, but it’ll only make you want to keep trying.
Implosion – Never Lose Hope
Implosion – Never Lose Hope ($10) is easily one of the most impressive games we’ve ever played on an iPhone, doing an expert job of recreating the gloss and chaos of a console or PC combat game on a much smaller screen. Here, you’re commanding a mech suit through corridors filled with vicious aliens, slashing your sword and popping off rounds while racking up huge, dazzling combo attacks.
While it’s true that Implosion looks absolutely fantastic, it also plays extremely well, with a smart attack button that’s tapped for blade attacks and held and aimed for your firearm. Ten bucks might be a tough sell for some, but Implosion is totally worth it.
Bastion is one of the most memorable experiences available on iOS (or Mac!), as the action role-player is punctuated by stunning graphics and a constant audio narration that gives each action extra weight. Transistor ($10) is the next game to come out of that very same studio, Supergiant Games—and believe it or not, it’s just as cool and distinct of an adventure.
Here, you’ll battle across a dazzling cyberpunk city, attempting to take down four very stylish bad guys as a heroine with a talking sword. There’s a fair bit of depth to the combat, letting you augment and combine moves as desired, although the thankfully streamlined design of the quest means you never feel a need to grind.
Tales from the Borderlands
While Game of Thrones and Minecraft: Story Mode might have been Gearbox’s best-known creations this year, Tales from the Borderlands (free) was surely its most exciting and electric episodic series. Although it’s based on Gearbox’s hit shooter series, you needn’t be a fan or even have any existing knowledge of the source material to enjoy this five-part adventure.
What makes the dialogue and decision-based experience so darn entertaining are the dueling perspectives: You’ll experience moments from the viewpoint of a couple of unreliable narrators, and neither is a particularly honorable person to begin with. Hilarious writing and great characters make the season ($20 to purchase the rest of the episodes) worth sticking through, especially since your choices shape the whole story.
You Must Build a Boat
Intrigued by the startling command that makes up this game’s title? Then follow the order already! Like its predecessor, the stellar 10000000, You Must Build a Boat ($3) offers a unique take on the match-three role-playing game concoction: you’ll frantically match tiles on the bottom of the screen to help the little adventurer up top battle his way through enemies and other obstacles.
Constant matching isn’t key—it’s contextual tile-matching that does the trick, as swords and spell wands must be cleared when a foe is pummeling you, while a key is needed for chests. Other tiles provide additional options, and you’ll need to be well aware of your board’s contents to push further and further ahead. And all the while, yes indeed, you’re building a boat to further the overall adventure.
When we call Lumino City a handcrafted game, we really mean it: the in-game graphics are papercraft models, and developer State of Play built an amazing model city and captured it for the game. It’s truly breathtaking, and lends immense creative charm to this point-and-click style adventure game.
The game itself will be largely familiar for adventure fans: You’ll explore the colorful terrain, solving puzzles by interacting with objects and linking together items. Lumino City doesn’t break the genre mold in that respect, but it’s a very pleasant quest made all the more memorable by the immensely stylish presentation. It’s slick on Apple TV too, but plays more comfortably on an iPad or iPhone.