The year in gaming
This month’s release of Super Mario Run was really just the cherry on top of a very sweet year for iOS gaming. All year long, we’ve had compelling and captivating releases for iPhone and iPad, from juggernaut franchises like Mario and Pokémon to plenty of innovative indie games, and lots more in between.
Hopefully you’ve kept up with a lot of this year’s greatness, but if you want to make sure you played the best of the best in 2016, be sure to browse the slides ahead. These are our 20 top iOS selections for the year, spanning games large and small—and free and premium—alike, and you’re sure to find something wonderful in this bunch. And please check back in 2017 for our ongoing You Should Play picks, as well.
Given how utterly exhausting and demoralizing the entire president election season was, regardless of your affiliations, now might not be the time to play a game about a ruler of people. On the other hand, Reigns ($3) is so light and clever that it might be the perfect antidote to these frustrating times.
As the newly-installed medieval monarch, you must make critical decisions to guide your people through hardship—but you’ll do so with a Tinder-like swipe of a card. Army attacking from the north? Strange plague in the city? Swipe one way or the other to make your broad choice. Each decision affects the people, the army, church, and treasury respectively, and failing to balance those needs may bring your swift demise. But then you play as the next king…
Looking for a one-of-a-kind puzzler for your iPhone or iPad? Mini Metro ($5) takes the art of subway creation and turns it into an ever-evolving tactical challenge, in which you’ll have to link together new stations that appear on the super simple-looking map to keep riders moving ahead to their desired destinations.
You’ll get new trains, lines, carriages, and tunnel/bridge components over time, but randomly linking together lines and stations won’t keep your system from being overloaded by demand. Mini Metro forces you to make smart decisions and create an efficient transit network to stay afloat, otherwise passengers get angry and the game ends. And then what? Well, you do it all over again—and try to learn from your mistakes.
Super Mario Run
It’s Mario—on your iPhone and iPad! Nintendo’s star plumber just made the leap onto mobile for the very first time, and Super Mario Run ($10 via in-app purchase) is a smart adaptation of the classic formula. While still a side-scrolling, platform-leaping, enemy-stomping game at heart, everything has been streamlined to make this a fully one-handed play experience.
You won’t need to fuss with virtual buttons or complex inputs, since a tap is really all you need to navigate these stages. And since it is a premium game (the free download gives you a taste), you don’t need to worry about obnoxious free-to-play elements. This is a true Mario game, albeit one built for touch devices.
Severed ($7) is an old-school, first-person dungeon crawler with a grotesque twist: as heroine Sasha slays the imposing beasts she encounters along the way, she’ll slice off limbs and body parts… and then use them to upgrade her own abilities. That’s gross, right? Sure, but it’s also fair payback.
See, Sasha’s family has been taken from her, and so has one of her arms. But you’ll put her other arm to excellent use by swiping the screen to swing your blade while trying to outsmart and outwit these dangerous foes. Accessible touch controls and a cartoonish look help keep Severed reasonably approachable, but this is a meaty, rewarding adventure that hardcore players will also appreciate.
Given its heritage as a spinoff of Clash of Clans, we certainly expected that Clash Royale (free) would be popular—but we didn’t anticipate being so feverishly drawn into this online battler. Clash Royale brings together elements of card-battling games, real-time strategy affairs, and tower defense action to create a one-on-one combat experience that is incredibly addictive.
You’ll build a deck of your best cards—goblins, knights, witches, and cannons alike—and then drop them into the battlefield as resources allow, all with the goal of demolishing your foe’s base before he/she can take out your own. Constant rewards and a really friendly free-to-play system help fuel the competitive fun here.
We’re sure to see other games like Pokémon Go in the not-too-distant future, but it seems unlikely that any of them will be able to recreate the sheer craze around that experience. It was startling, but amazing: seeing packs of people playing the game in public and crowding around gyms and lure-enhanced PokéStops, and genuinely having fun finding digital creatures.
Even if the momentum has faded, Pokémon Go is still by far one of our favorite iPhone experiences of the year. With new monsters just added, various holiday promotions, and other smart tweaks made in the last few months, the actual game here is better than ever—even if there’s less buzz around it right now. We’re excited to see how it expands in 2017.
Human Resource Machine
Ever wanted to learn to code software? Well, Human Resource Machine ($5) won’t actually teach you the language needed to start programming, but it will stamp your brain with some of the fundamental logic behind coding. And you might not even realize it, since this clever indie creation simply takes the form of a meticulous puzzle game.
You’re the latest recruit of a corporate empire, and you’ll work your way to the top over the years by completing stacks and stacks of busywork. Thrilling, right? Well, that’s the joke—but the initially simple act of moving things from one end of the screen to the other becomes significantly more complex and requires a lot of problem-solving skills. It’s built for total coding novices, but anyone who already has programming knowledge can tackle tougher challenges.
There’s an art to creating a perfect pinball table, but Inks ($2) flips the script a bit: here, you’re the one creating art using the ball and the table. This inventive twist on pinball still has you flipping the shiny ball through an array of curvy, bumper-laden locales, but instead of trying to keep the ball moving to set a high score, you’ll try to detonate little ink pods on the screen.
As the ball makes contact, each colored block spatters ink onto the table, which your ball then drags around behind it, and the result looks like a pleasing display of action painting. Creating art is really just a byproduct of the gameplay, however, as the task is to trigger each and every ink spatter with as few balls as necessary. It’s really cool, pleasing stuff.
Rodeo Stampede: Sky Zoo Safari
We don’t want to mention Crossy Road every single time we write about Rodeo Stampede: Sky Zoo Safari (free), but the comparison is perfect and intended to be extremely positive. Rodeo Stampede offers up the same kind of lively, energetic, and freemium-friendly endless sprinting fun, but does so with a totally fresh-feeling play mechanic.
Here, you’ll try to notch the farthest distance possible by vaulting your human character onto the backs of various animals, including zebras, giraffes, and eagles. You’ll need to leap from creature to creature to keep pushing ahead and avoiding obstacles, and it’s fast, fun, and endlessly replayable. And that odd Sky Zoo Safari bit from the title is what you’ll spend your time building all the while.
Deus Ex Go
Deus Ex Go ($5) follows in the footsteps of predecessors Hitman Go and Lara Croft Go, and that might be all you need to go drop five bucks in the App Store. Like those earlier mobile hits, Deus Ex Go translates a popular 3D action game from consoles and PC into a smart, steady, and smartphone-friendly puzzle experience with slick production values kept intact.
Here, you’ll tap into Deus Ex’s cyberpunk universe as Adam Jensen, a robotically-enhanced hero who must navigate the turn-based environmental challenges. As such, you’ll use his myriad abilities and your surroundings to overcome guards, turrets, and traps and make your way to the end. It’s another winning translation and an impressive mobile experience, whether or not you already know or care about the source franchise.
While Super Mario Run is surely the biggest iOS platform game launch of the year, we can’t forget about the remarkable Chameleon Run ($2). Like Mario’s mobile jaunt, this side-scroller challenges you to complete a series of compact stages—but it’s much more focused on precision and timing as you push through each intense new gauntlet.
Chameleon Run’s big hook is its color-changing mechanic, which lets you swap between pink and yellow as your hero automatically sprints ahead, but you can only land on platforms of the same color. Correctly alternating colors while zipping through crowded stages is tough but exhilarating, especially as later stages add new play elements into the mix.
SteamWorld Heist ($10) takes the tactical turn-based combat of something like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and gives it a 2D twist. That shift doesn’t just affect the look of the game, which has a sharp, cartoon-steampunk kind of aesthetic, but also changes up combat as well. Now you’ll use the environments to your advantage as you aim epic ricocheting shots to take down foes.
There’s a lot more to SteamWorld Heist than just side-scrolling strategic action, however, as the game exudes personality throughout. Each member of your robotic crew has its own unique tone and traits, with great dialogue and world design to boot. Fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly will probably appreciate this ragtag crew of space pirates, as well.
Super Stickman Golf 3
Five years after the original, the Super Stickman Golf series is still going strong—and that’s definitely true with Super Stickman Golf 3 (free), the first of the franchise to release on iOS without a price tag affixed. Even so, the switch to a freemium model doesn’t hinder this great side-scrolling and cartoonish golf experience from being a perfect fit for your phone.
As ever, you’ll guide the ball to the hole across the nine-hole courses, with things like portals, sticky walls, and giant ice shards lining the paths. And without grabbing your wallet, you’ll have access to 20 diverse courses right off the bat. It’s well worth paying the couple bucks for the premium unlock, however, as you’ll get even more courses along with other sweet perks.
Without a doubt, RunGunJumpGun ($3) is the most intense game we played on iPhone and iPad all year long. This retro-stylized side-scrolling game plays a bit like a slightly demented Jetpack Joyride, only your giant gun is not only used to launch you up and into the air, but also to shoot down any enemies or threats in your way.
You’ll find plenty of threats within the 100+ stages here, but many of them can’t simply be blasted away: homing laser-beam whips, spiky caverns, and spinning, flesh-ripping blades are all around, and precise timing and careful navigation are needed to get through unscathed. And the old-school look is complemented by weird cut-scenes and an ominous atmosphere that gives RunGunJumpGun some added kick.
Inks was the first game of 2016 to shake up pinball in a really fun and appealing way, but it’s not the only one. PinOut (free), from the makers of Smash Hit and Does Not Commute, seems a bit more traditional on the surface—aside from the highly neon, futuristic vibe—but then you’ll find that there’s no top border to the table. It’s endless.
That’s right: PinOut is endless pinball, and your goal is to keep moving the ball up and ahead into new areas, each with its own flippers and unique design. Each new world you encounter adds fresh environmental twists and tweaks the aesthetic, as well, and it’s the kind of game you’ll want to play over and over again as you race against the clock to reach new and deeper areas.
Many of the games on this list are designed to divert your attention for only short spurts, but if you’re looking for a puzzle game to really concentrate on, Twofold Inc. ($4) is your top pick from 2016. Hailing from the makers of the great, ultra-minimal strategy game Rymdkapsel, Twofold Inc. finds you clearing chains of like-colored blocks to satisfy requests from the little, one-eyed robot atop the screen.
Careful consideration is needed here, as you’ll need to prioritize requests to avoid penalties while also setting up your board for later demands. Speedily swiping together chains will lead to a swift demise, so Twofold Inc. isn’t ideal for bite-sized sessions. Still, between the smart puzzle action and the warm aesthetic (including the music), this is a game you’ll want to stay with for a while.
Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes
In the previous mobile Plants vs. Zombies games, we’ve always been the heroic plants, fighting for control of our yards and rooftops by flinging peas and other organic items at the undead creepers on the other side of the screen. Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes (free) changes that approach, letting you take control of either party, but it’s not the only big shift here.
Heroes takes the form of a competitive card game, in which you’ll pick a side, bring your best deck of character and ability cards, and take turns dropping them into the battlefield. While it’s a big shift for the franchise, Heroes maintains nearly everything we love about PopCap’s silly series while giving you something fresh and really fun to play.
Exhausted by timed puzzle games? Just want something to unwind and noodle with at the end of a long day? Klocki ($1) can fill that role admirably. It’s a play-at-your-own-pace puzzler that finds you swapping or rotating tiles to complete a line from start to finish. Initially, this is very straightforward and simple—but of course, it doesn’t stay that way for too long.
Later levels add further puzzle mechanics, but thankfully do so gradually so you’re prepared when things get very complex. As later levels stretch across 3D planes and introduce different types of lines and patterns to complete, Klocki can get very tricky. However, with no timers or annoying UI elements, you can take your time and enjoy the process. Relax!
The Banner Saga 2
Looking for a complex adventure to pour some hours into? Seeking a fantasy world to get lost in for a while? The Banner Saga 2 ($5), much like its acclaimed predecessor, can satisfy both of those urges and then some. This sequel is pretty close to the original in terms of approach and design, but that’s no knock against one of the most beautiful and engrossing experiences on iOS today.
The Banner Saga finds you leading a caravan of survivors as the world nears its end, and you’ll need to battle some towering monsters in tactical role-playing combat, as well as make strategic decisions for your group. Emotional storytelling and dazzling artwork make this another memorable quest, plus fans of the first game can import their story into the sequel.
Lost in Harmony
Tap-based rhythm games are perfectly suited for touch devices, and that’s definitely the case with Lost in Harmony (free)—although there really hasn’t been a music game like this one before. It’s partially a familiar beat-tapping game, with little icons appearing on the screen in tune with the song, but it’s also a lane-changing runner game… except the hero is skateboarding towards the screen instead of away from it.
That can be a strange mix, and Lost in Harmony surely has some quirks, but the overall experience is enthralling. You’ll zip through some really surreal worlds while thumping electronic versions of orchestral tracks play, and it’s anchored by a story of teen love amidst illness. Like we said: it’s an odd one, but also really imaginative and gripping.