The best games money can’t buy
The days when you had to buy a dedicated gaming rig and spend a load of cash for a quality gaming experience are long gone. Thanks to the iPhone (and iPod touch) and the App Store, you can get an excellent mobile gaming experience for just a few bucks (or quid, for that matter) or even less.
In fact, a lot of the games out there are free. But can you get great games for nothing at all, or is the “free” section of the App Store just a shoddy excuse to bombard you with in-app purchases?
The answer is, of course, both, and the trick is finding the gems amongst the dross. What follows is our picks of the bunch – our top free iPhone games, presented in no particular order, including both longtime classics and brilliant cutting-edge recent releases. We’ve even included a VR game for you… aren’t you lucky?
New this week: Sailor Moon Drops
Help Sailor Moon and her friends rid the world from the dark forces of evil in
BaconBaconBacon feels a bit like Bejeweled slipped through a time-warp and collided with oddball British gaming humour from the early 1980s. Instead of gems, you swap pigs, and must smite vegans guarding them for extra points. Bonus pigs can be matched for extra sausages, or to fill a ketchup bomb.
In this insanely tough arcade test, you coax a finicky biplane through side-on levels of floating islands. The slightest touch on anything but a collectable coin or runway spells doom, and ghosts of previous crashes helpfully litter the way as you retry. IAP is available to buy coins for restart points, which in this case are tacit admission of your lack of gaming prowess.
Boulder Dash 30th Anniversary
The Boulder Dash series has a long pedigree, but this is the first time its co-creators have teamed up since the classic 1984 original. It’s also the first time (in several attempts) the game has worked on iOS. The game itself is business as usual: dig through dirt; avoid boulders and enemies; grab gems. But it looks great, controls well, and even includes the original caves as an optional IAP.
Sky Force 2014
Sky Force 2014 celebrates the mobile series’s 10th anniversary in style, with this stunning top-down arcade blaster. Your little red ship, as ever, is tasked with weaving its way through hostile enemy territory, annihilating everything in sight. The visuals are spectacular, the level design is smart, and the bosses are huge, spewing bullet-hell in your general direction.
Crazy Taxi City Rush
We imagine this Crazy Taxi rethink will alienate some fans of the original series, but plenty of the classic time-attack racer’s feel remains intact. You zoom through city streets, picking up and dropping off fares against the clock; only this time, everything’s largely on rails. It’s sort of Crazy Taxi meets Temple Run, with plenty of upgrades and mini-games to master.
Asphalt 8: Airborne
At some point, a total buffoon decreed that racing games should be dull and grey, on grey tracks, with grey controls. Gameloft’s Asphalt 8: Airborne dispenses with such foolish notions, along with quite a bit of reality. Here, then, you zoom along at ludicrous speeds, drifting for miles through exciting city courses, occasionally being hurled into the air to perform stunts that absolutely aren’t acceptable according to the car manufacturer’s warrantee.
We’re pretty certain if there’s one thing you shouldn’t be using for a joyride, it’s a jetpack that’s kept aloft by firing bullets at the floor. But that’s the score in this endless survival game with decidedly tongue-in-cheek humour, not least the profit bird power-up, a rather unsubtle dig at certain App Store chart-toppers.
Super Monsters Ate My Condo
Logic? Pah! Sanity? Pfft! We care not for such things, yells Super Monsters Ate My Condo. It then gets on with turning the match-three genre and Jenga-style tower-building into a relentless time-attack cartoon fest of apartment-munching, explosions, giant tantrums and opera. No, really.
Most developers create games from code, but we’re pretty sure Hero Academy‘s composed of the most addictive substances known to man all smushed together and shoved on to the App Store.
The game’s sort-of chess with fantasy characters, but the flexibility within the rule-set provides limitless scope for asynchronous one-on-one encounters. For free, you have to put up with ads and only get the ‘human’ team, but that’ll be more than enough to get you hooked.
Three bushes make a tree! Three gravestones make a church! OK, so logic might not be Triple Town‘s strong suit, but the match-three gameplay is addictive. Match to build things and trap bears, rapidly run out of space, gaze in wonder at your town and start all over again. The free-to-play version has limited moves that are gradually replenished, but you can unlock unlimited moves via IAP.
Real Racing 3
While Asphalt 8 aims squarely at arcade racers, Real Racing 3 goes for the simulation jugular. Its stunning visuals drop you deep into high-quality racing action that sets new standards on mobile devices. Plenty of cars and tracks add longevity, although do be aware the game is a bit grindy and quick to hint you should buy some in-app cash with some of your real hard-earned.
Again, the forced Plus+ account sign-up is hateful, but it’s worth persevering to get to this addictive game, where you “unleash the awesome power of your finger,” according to the App Store blurb.
The aim is to drag your finger from the start to the finish of each simple maze. The problem is you’re against the clock and obstacles litter your path. Great graphics and 200 levels of compelling gameplay ensure you’ll be glued to your screen.
Candy Crush Soda Saga
It gets a bit of stick from time to time, but microtransactions aside, the Candy Crush saga is quite a lot of fun. Sandy Crush Soda Saga throws in some new dynamics, making the game even more addictive – and frustrating. You can do quite a lot without parting any money at all, but the game will limit your replays, meaning you’ll eventually hit a timer that demands you take a break for a little while – or pay up to keep playing.
It’s a horribly arbitrary feature, but all things considered, probably a good way of stopping us from becoming forever lost in the colourful abyss.
Trace is a sweet, inventive platform game which has you navigating hand-drawn obstacles to reach the star-shaped exit. The twist is that you can draw and erase your own platforms, to assist your progress.
With an emphasis on time-based scores rather than lives and the ability to skip levels, Trace is very much a ‘casual’ platform game, but it’s none the worse because of it.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Few free games are quite as polished as Hearthstone, but then this is a Blizzard game, so we hardly expected anything less.
There are dozens of card games available for iPhone, but Hearthstone stands out with high production values and easy to learn, difficult to master mechanics, which can keep you playing, improving and collecting cards for months on end. Matches don’t generally take too long either so it’s great for playing in short bursts.
Spider: Hornet Smash
Tiger Style’s Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is an App Store classic, combining arcade adventuring and platforming action, with you playing the role of a roaming arachnid.
Hornet Smash includes a level from that game, but its main draw is the frenetic arcade minigame. Still controlling our eight-legged hero, the aim is to fend off attacks by swarms of angry hornets, while weaving webs and munching tasty lacewings for health boosts. Three environments are included in this compelling and innovative title.
One for pool sharks, Bankshot tasks you with sending your orb to a goal by bouncing it off of at least one wall. A few different modes are on offer in this attractive neon-style game, but the best is Blitz, a high-octane time-attack affair.
Think you know stress? You haven’t experienced stress until you’ve played Spaceteam, a cooperative multiplayer game that requires you to all work together as a crew (and bark orders at your friends). Sounds easier than it is; failure to cooperate will probably end with your ship getting sucked into a black hole.
There are plenty of one-thumb copter games on the App Store, but iCopter Classic goes right back to the genre’s roots. You simply use your thumb to make your copter bob up and down, surviving for as long as possible without smashing into something; and there are plenty of unlockable themes if you prefer, say, a bee, submarine, spaceship or football to a helicopter!
So you think you’re observant? Cell Splat will test that claim to the limit. The game distills ‘match’ games to their purest form. You get a target shape or colour, and, against the clock, must tap all matching items in the well. Quite why this frantic, great-looking, fun, addictive game is free, we don’t know; we just suggest you download it immediately.
Like Cell Splat, InvaderR streamlines and hones a popular game, but this time it’s Space Invaders. Like Taito’s original, aliens are out to get you, but in InvaderR you have it tough. While the invaders are content to stay out of reach, it’s ‘game over’ the second you’re hit by a projectile. This turns InvaderR into a compelling and exciting score-attack game.
Hoggy resembles VVVVVV smashed into Nintendo’s Kirby, combining platforming and puzzles. The game tasks you with grabbing fruit within jars that are peppered around a maze. Complete a jar and you get a key; with a certain number of keys, new maze areas open up. Although occasionally a mite frustrating, Hoggy’s a great-looking, fun and innovative freebie.
Bam Bam Dash
Imagine Monster Dash with the cast of The Flintstones and you’ve got Bam Bam Dash. Your auto-running caveman has to avoid plummeting to his death and being eaten by things with sharp teeth. Nice graphics and helpful dinosaurs you can ride add extra flavour to the game.
Alice in the Secret Castle
If brutally difficult old-school games are your thing, Alice in the Secret Castle will appeal. The game boasts 64 rooms of NES-style hell, with a curious game mechanic that hides walls when you hold the ‘A’ button. Progression therefore becomes a case of mastering taxing and relentless (but rewarding) puzzle-oriented platforming.
Fairway Solitaire Blast
In this game, golf met solitaire and they decided to elope while leaving Mr. Puzzle Game to fill the void. What’s left is an entertaining bout of higher-or-lower, draped over a loose framework of golf scores, with a crazed gopher attempting to scupper everything. You get loads of courses for free with Fairway Solitaire Blast and can use IAP to buy more.
It’s clear you’ll never see Nintendo games on iOS, but PicoPicoGames is the next best thing: a collection of tiny, addictive NES-like minigames. Frankly, we’d happily pay for scrolling shooter GunDiver and the Denki Blocks-like Puzzle; that they’re free and joined by several other great games is astonishing.
At first, Froggy Jump seems like Doodle Jump, starring a frog. That’s probably because Froggy Jump pretty much is Doodle Jump, starring a frog. However, its character, unique items, themes and lack of price-tag makes it worth a download, especially if you’re a fan of vertically scrolling platform games.
Another game showing that simplicity often works wonders on mobile titles, SlamDunk is a straightforward side-on basketball game. The time-attack nature of the title gives it oomph, though, and there’s also the option for online competition against players worldwide.
Into the Dead
You know, if infinite zombies were running towards us, we’d leg it in the opposite direction. Not so in Into The Dead, where you battle on until your inevitable and bloody demise. The game’s oddly dream-like (well, nightmare-like), and perseverance rewards you with new weapons, such as a noisy chainsaw. VVRRRMMM! (Splutch!)
What do you get if you cross Drop7 with Zynga? A free version of Drop7! Luckily, the game’s far more entertaining than that attempt at a joke: drop numbered discs into a grid and watch them explode when the number of discs in a column or row matches numbers on the discs. Drive yourself mad trying to boost your score by chaining! Forget to eat!
The clue’s in the title – there’s a quest, and it involves quite a lot of punching. There’s hidden depth, though – the game might look like a screen-masher, but Punch Quest is all about mastering combos, perfecting your timing, and making good use of special abilities. The in-game currency’s also very generous, so if you like the game reward the dev by grabbing some IAP.
Galaga 30th Collection
In the old days, invaders from space were strange, remaining in a holding pattern and slowly descending, enabling you to shoot them. By the time of Galaxian, the aliens realised they could swoop down and get you, and Galaga 30th Collection is the game you get here, with minor updates that improve its graphics and pace, albeit for a weighty 140+ MB footprint on your device. Galaga fanatics can unlock other remakes in the series via IAP.
It’s a little-known fact that baseball mostly involves trying to hit colourful birds flying overhead and bananas lobbed in your direction by a mischievous fan. But X-Baseball provides a perfect, accurate one-thumb iOS recreation of America’s favourite banana-thwacking pastime. (What?)
Rogue Runner is another one of those endless games, where you leap over gaps and shoot things until you fall down a chasm and ponder why your in-game avatar doesn’t learn to stop once in a while. Rogue Runner stands out by offering a ton of skins and a smart overhead dodge-and-shoot variation, which is a bit like Spy Hunter if someone knocked the original arcade cabinet on its side – the vandal.
Draw Something Free
“No drawing skills required!,” boasts the App Store description for Draw Something Free. You might argue otherwise when this app demands you draw something suitably tricky for your friends to guess, but can merely manage a red blob. Still, Pictionary plus iPhone plus social gaming equals ‘must have’ in gaming maths.
Top tip for any budding Indiana Jones types reading this: do not steal shiny things from temples guarded by demon monkeys, otherwise you will die. Still, if you’re too stubborn to take our advice, use Temple Run for training, swiping and tilting your device until your on screen hero meets his inevitable demise.
We’ve no idea what’s going on in ElectroMaster, beyond a bored girl trying to avoid responsibility by killing everything in sight with electro-blasts. The game’s sort of like a twin-stick shooter but you tap-hold to charge and then release to let rip, dragging your finger about to fry your foes.
Games are short, but this is one of the most thrilling blasters on the system, despite it costing nothing at all.
Grim Joggers Freestyle
The original Grim Joggers was odd enough: 15 joggers jog for their lives in oddball environments, including a warzone, the Arctic, and an alien world. In the free Grim Joggers Freestyle, you get just one world, but it mashes up everything from the paid game into a surreal (but thoroughly enjoyable) endless survival game.
Kings in fairytale lands have a screw lose, or perhaps just an odd desire to create the conditions for a tough videogame. In Wind-Up Knight, a princess has been kidnapped. Horrors! But rather than send an army, the king tasks a knight with rescuing her. Only he’s fragile. And clockwork. And can’t turn around.
Really, it’s an excuse for puzzle-oriented swipe-based thrills, which demand near-perfect timing as the quest nears its end.
Flood-It! 2 meets the rules of great puzzlers: keep things simple, but make the game so challenging that your brains start to dribble out of your ears. In Flood-It!, you tap colours to ‘flood’ the board from the top-left, aiming to make the entire board one colour using a limited number of taps.
This release offers additional modes over the original Flood-It! (timers, obstacles, finishing with a defined colour), and offers schemes for colour-blind players.
The Sims Freeplay
EA might not have a great reputation when it comes to free-to-play (*cough cough* Dungeon Keeper), but The Sims Freeplay is one of the games that’s closer to getting the balance “right”. Buying more Simoleons (the in-game currency) with real money will let you skip ahead, but you can also simply make your Sim earn them in the good old fashioned way by getting them a job. Lifestyle points will let you skip timers, but they can also be earned by levelling up. As for the game itself, this is the closest thing to a fully-fledged Sims experience you’ll get on your mobile.
Social management games are big business, but are often stuffed full of cynical wallet-grabbing mechanics. While Tiny Tower does have the whiff of IAP to speed things along a bit, its tower-building and management remains enjoyable even if you pay nothing at all, and the pixel graphics are lovely.
At first, Letris 4 looks like yet another bog-standard word game, albeit one that’s rather visually swish, but it regularly tries new things. The game’s based around creating words from falling tiles, but it keeps things fresh by adding hazards, such as debris, ice and various creatures lurking in the letter pile. If you’re feeling particularly brainy, you can even play in two languages at once.
Before we played Bejeweled Blitz, we never knew precious gems were so ‘explodey’. Still, here’s the frantic member of the match-tree/gem-swap family, giving you one minute to obliterate as much shiny as possible, and then discover via online leaderboards that your chums are gem-smashing wizards.
Cool Pizza isn’t so much endless running as endless weirdness. In a world of stark black, white and neon, a skateboarder catches air to hack oddball enemies (laser-spewing mini Cthulhus; rotating pyramids of doom) to death. The crunchy soundtrack adds to the sensory overload, resulting in one of the finest freebies on the platform.
Frisbee Forever 2
We already covered Frisbee Forever on this list, with its Nintendo-like fling-a-plastic-disc about larks. Frisbee Forever 2‘s essentially more of the same, but prettier, smoother and with wilder locations in which to fly through hoops and collect stars. It’s lovely and costs precisely zero pence, so download it.
Jeff Minter is a shoot ’em up genius, and his Gridrunner series has a long history, starting out on the VIC-20, at the dawn of home gaming.
This update riffs off classic Namco arcade machines but also shoves modern bullet-hell mechanics into a claustrophobic single screen, and in this version’s survival mode, you have just one life. Argh! The 69p ‘Oxtended Mode’ IAP adds the rest of the standard game.
It looks a lot like Temple Run mashed into a children’s cartoon show, but Subway Surfers plays a lot more like Run!, with its primarily linear leaping and sliding action. There are also plenty of power-ups to keep your graffiti-spraying hoodlum away from the chasing lawman and his faithful mutt. Just don’t try this at home, kids, unless you want to redecorate a train with your innards.
The hero from the insane ElectroMaster returns, but this time she appears to be tasked with feeding sentient houses roaring “HUNGRY!” in a fairly rude manner.
Local monsters amble about, which can be snared by swiping over them with a surprisingly deadly pixie dust trail, whereupon they’re handily converted into food to be collected. Much like ElectroMaster, HungryMaster feels like someone found a lost classic arcade game and squirted it into your iPhone, but forgot to charge you for it.
Temple Run 2
We have no sympathy for the heroes of Temple Run 2. Having presumably escaped from the demon monkeys in Temple Run, they steal more ancient and shiny goodies. This time, they’re pursued by only one undead ape – but it’s massive. Cue: more running/jumping/hopefully not falling over, and some new mine-cart and zip-line sections. Wheeee!
This combo-oriented match game has a casino feel, and there is a certain amount of luck evident, not least in the way new chips are added to the table. But in carefully laying your own chips in Chip Chain, merging sets of three to increment their number, and wisely playing cards, you can amass high scores while simultaneously wondering why real casino games are rarely as much fun.
Score! World Goals
Take dozens of classic goals and introduce them to path-drawing and you’ve got the oddly addictive game of Score! World Goals. As you recreate stunning moments of soccer greatness, the game pauses for you to get the ball to its next spot. Accuracy rewards you with stars; failure presumably means you’re compelled to take an early bath.
Groove Coaster Zero
Tap! Tap! Swipe! Rub! Argh! That’s the way this intoxicating rhythm action game plays out. Groove Coaster Zero is all on rails, and chock full of dizzying roller-coaster-style paths and exciting tunes. All the while, you aim for prodding perfection, chaining hits and other movements as symbols appear on the screen. Simple, stylish and brilliant.
This latest rethink of one of gaming’s oldest and most-loved series asks what lies beyond the infamous level 256 glitch. As it turns out, it’s endless mazey hell for the yellow dot-muncher. Pac-Man’s therefore charged with eating as many dots as possible, avoiding a seemingly infinite number of ghosts, while simultaneously outrunning the all-devouring glitch. Power-ups potentially extend Pac-Man’s life, enabling you to gleefully take out lines of ghosts with a laser or obliterate them with a wandering tornado.
Although there’s an energy system in Pac-Man 256, it’s reasonably generous: one credit for a game with power-ups, and one for the single continue; one credit refreshes every ten minutes, to a maximum of six, and you can always play without power-ups for free. If you don’t like that, there’s an IAP-based £5.99/$7.99 permanent buy-out.
Cubed Rally Redline
The endless rally game Cubed Rally Redline is devious. On the surface, it looks simple: move left or right in five clearly-defined lanes, and use the ’emergency time brake’ to navigate tricky bits. But the brake needs time to recharge and the road soon becomes chock full of trees, cows, cruise liners and dinosaurs. And you thought your local motorway had problems!
There’s something delightfully trippy and dreamy about Whale Trail, which features a giant mammal from the sea traversing the heavens, powered by rainbow bubbles, collecting stars with which to attack menacing angry clouds. The game’s sweet nature disguises a challenging edge, though – it takes plenty of practice before your whale stays aloft for any length of time.
Games don’t come any simpler than 1800. You try to stop a cursor in the dead centre of the screen, which rewards you with the maximum score. Any deviation and you’ll be awarded with a lower number and have to try again… and again. This one might be insanely minimal but it’s absurdly addictive.
If you’ve never played Peggle before then get ready for a new addiction as shooting balls at pegs has never been this much fun. Actually, before Peggle shooting balls at pegs probably wasn’t even slightly fun, but with its colourful art style, crazy power-ups and high-score chasing Peggle Blast is very much a game where one more go turns into a dozen.
In app purchases can give you an edge, but it’s playable without them and hearing Ode to Joy at the end of each level is all the sweeter for having earned your victory.
Clowns in the Face
Tennis in the Face had a racket-wielding hero saving a city from an evil energy drink corporation, mostly through smacking enemies in the face with tennis balls. This freebie version comes across like the protagonist’s fever dream, placing him in a clown-filled hell, with only his fuzzy balls to save him.
Plants vs Zombies 2
This is more like Plants vs Zombies 2 vs freemium grinding. But if you can look past the forced repetition of stages and irksome IAP, there’s a lot to like in EA’s horticulture/zombie defence sequel, including loads of new stages, a bunch of new plants, plenty of unique features, and a smattering of time travel.
Doctor Who: Legacy
It’s a case of timey-wimey-puzzley-wuzzley as Doctor Who: Legacy aims to show you that your iPhone is bigger on the inside, able to house intergalactic warfare. The game itself is a gem-swapper not a million miles away from Puzzle Quest, but all the Doctor Who trappings will make it a must for fans of the show – or Daleks fine-tuning their tactics regarding how to finally beat their nemesis, mostly via the use of strategically placed coloured orbs.
Rise of the Blobs
Poor Marsh Mal. He’s atop a cylindrical tower, about to be mauled to death by waves of hungry blobs. His only defence: a limitless supply of fruit, which he can use to blow up like-coloured blobs, thereby holding off death for a few precious extra moments.
Yep, it’s Rise of the Blobs – another block-falling game (think: a simplified Dr. Mario wrapped around a tube), but this one has wonderful visuals, suitably squelchy sound, and strategic underpinnings for those willing to master the game mechanics.
Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol
Nyeeeeooowww! Daggadaggadaggadagga! It’s biplane o’ clock in this Civ-like take on World War I dogfighting. You and the bally enemy take it in turns to climb, dive, roll and shoot, as you aim to turn the tide of the war and ensure it’ll all be over by Christmas.
Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol is also one of the few games we’ve seen that understands the concept of micro-transactions, for example enabling you to spring POWs for 69p/$0.99 a pop.
It’s hard not to have a smile glued to your face when playing Tiny Thief, with its colourful cartoon graphics, inventive levels and constant humour.
It feels like a point and click game of old redesigned for the smartphone generation, with simple controls and bite-sized levels.
While you get several level packs for free several more are hidden behind a paywall, but whether you stump up for them or not the game is likely to prove memorable and well worth your time.
The Tiny Tower devs take to the air in game form. In, Pocket Planes, this management sim, you take command of a fleet of planes, aiming to not entirely annoy people as you ferry them around the world. Like Tiny Tower, this one’s a touch grindy, but it’s a similarly amusing time-waster.
Dots looks and feels like the sort of thing Jony Ive might play on his downtime (well, ignoring the festive theme, which is probably more Scott Forstall’s style). A stark regimented set of coloured dots awaits, and like-coloured ones can be joined, whereupon they disappear, enabling more to fall into the square well. The aim: clear as many as possible – with the largest combos you can muster – in 60 seconds.
In Smash Cops, you got to be the good guy, bringing down perps, mostly by ramming them into oblivion. Now in Smash Bandits it’s your chance to be a dangerous crim, hopping between vehicles and leaving a trail of destruction in your wake. The game also amusingly includes the A-Team van and a gadget known only as the Jibba Jabba. We love it when a plan comes together!
If you’re of a certain vintage, you probably spent many hours playing Solitaire on a PC, success being rewarded by cards bouncing around the screen. Sage Solitaire‘s developer wondered why iOS solitaire games hadn’t moved on in the intervening years, and decided to reinvent the genre. Here, then, you get a three-by-three grid and remove cards by using poker hands.
Additional strategy comes through limitations (hands must include cards from two rows; card piles are uneven) and potential aid (two ‘trashes’, one replenished after each successful hand; a starred multiplier suit). A few rounds in, you realise this game’s deeper than it first appears. Beyond that, you’ll be hooked. The single £2.29/$2.99 IAP adds extra modes and kills the ads.
On a mission to fill your entire iPhone with tributes to classic arcade games with super-blocky graphics, the Crossy Road and Pac-Man 256 devs return with Shooty Skies. It’s a top-down vertically scrolling blaster, with heroic animals hopping into their biplanes, taking to the skies, and doing shooty things. Bob and weave between enemies and bullets, or pause for a bit and unleash homing-missile destruction the next time you move.
The game’s relentless, enemies coming thick and fast, spewing all manner of weirdness in your general direction. The deranged bosses are especially tough, such as a huge garbage-emitting mouth, and the “freedom eagle” that flings dollars, fast-food fries and then cruise missiles your way; if you’re fortunate, you’ll pick up a gift beforehand and get a suitably quirky wingman assistant, such as “gunny rabbit.”