How we scoffed when people suggested the iPhone would one day be a leading games platform. Had they not seen how rubbish mobile phone games were? Had they not noticed the iPhone was bereft of a D-pad and buttons? The fools!
Only things didn’t turn out as expected. Enterprising developers flipped everything on its head – shortcomings regarding tactile controls became benefits in terms of using new touch and tilt capabilities. Games became increasingly immersive as you interacted directly with content, ushering in new experiences through no longer being able to rely on traditional controls. And then the iPad did it all again – only bigger!
Today’s market is mired somewhat in freemium grindy hell, but gems nonetheless abound. Our list includes the very best premium titles the iPhone and iPad have to offer, handily grouped into sections, starting with racers, ending with arcade games, and taking in everything else you can imagine on the way.
The best new iPhone and iPad games
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The titular feathered hero’s sleep is being interrupted by a mysterious tower shining a light on his pond. He resolves to climb to its summit and presumably turn off the structure’s light (or poke its evil eye out or something). Regardless, there are baddies to duff up on the way.
Battles play out as single-screen gallery shooters – a rarity on mobile. The controls are – intentionally – designed to make it impossible to simultaneously move and shoot, which makes battles tough. You must tactically switch between dodging incoming blasts and giving your foes what for.
A ‘roguelike’ structure with levels and upgrades means no two games are alike, keeping you around for the long term. It’s fun stuff – dare we say, a bit of a quacker?
In stills, Arabilis looks like any other farming game. But this is no noodly chill-out effort – instead, seasons pass at breakneck pace, and your chicken overlord gets very angry if a harvest appears and more than a handful of seeds is wasted.
You must therefore carefully place seeds, paying close attention to connections that allow roots to form and plants to grow. Easier said than done when a timer is relentlessly ticking.
Multiple modes provide variation and there are bonuses to find, like growing gigantic veg you’d barely fit in a supermarket, let alone in your fridge. Tasty stuff, then – as long as you realise you’ll be tapping away like a maniac, rather than merely checking in now and again to see how your crops are doing.
You hear the term ‘console quality’ quite a lot with mobile games, but GRID Autosport actually is the Codemasters AAA hit shoved into your iPhone or iPad.
This means you get 100 cars, 100 circuits, and a ton of options to adjust how everything works. If you’re a beginner, keep all the driving aids on and tootle around in a Touring Car, until you get to grips with everything. A veteran? Go for the toughest difficulty and get your cockiness handed to you by losing control and driving your shiny race car into a wall.
With tons of depth, great visuals, and decent controls, there’s nothing else quite like this on iOS.
Need For Speed Most Wanted
Fortunately, Most Wanted’s gameplay isn’t nearly as grey as the tracks that you find yourself zooming along for street-racer glory. Fairhaven would be better named Greyandverydrabville, but the arcade racing you get up to is of the gloriously breezy kind found in the likes of Sega’s OutRun 2.
You find yourself hurling your car recklessly off of clifftops (having, naturally, crashed through an advertising hoarding first), drifting around bends, or smashing up the Fuzz, if they’re stupid enough to get in the way of your race-winning ambitions while partaking in high-octane thrills.
Beaming in from the future, Repulze recalls Wipeout with its gleaming metal tracks that fling you about like a furious rollercoaster. At first, the challenge is slight, merely pitting you against coloured gates, but eventually you find yourself boosting through futuristic worlds while trying very hard to not be blasted into so much space dust.
Like the best gravity racers, the sense of speed here is nearly overwhelming, setting this futuristic offering far apart from relatively staid racers that plonk you in a car on boring tarmac. And although the controls are twitchy, they can be fine-tuned to your liking as you wrestle with them on your way to glory.
Reckless Racing 3
The original Reckless Racing was an amusingly ramshackle affair, with rickety trucks and cars screeching around car parks and scrapyards. The sequel added depth but also too much polish, losing the series’ sense of character.
This third entry gets the balance right, enabling you to power-slide through a wide range of settings, including an airport, a charming European hilltop village and, worryingly, an abandoned and very clearly leaking nuclear plant.
The physics is a bit light, and the AI a touch aggressive, but this is as fun a top-down racer as you’ll find on mobile. It also clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, adding a ‘gymkhana’ mode where you rack up points for ‘precision stunt driving’ in a beat-up old truck.
Imagine a blazingly fast side-on racer that marries the twitch instadeath appeal of ALONE… with the slipstreaming of MarioKart, and adds an awful lot of pigeons. That’s Pigeon Wings.
Your heroic bird is charged with saving the city from an evil person with too much money, and trains by racing other pigeons between tower blocks and through subway tunnels. Naturally, they all pilot tiny planes rather than use their own wings.
When the feathered hero is deemed ready, he’s flung headlong into an intense dogfight with an enemy craft that dwarfs his plane and spews an endless stream of bullets. With pitch-perfect tilt controls and an oddball sense of humour, Pigeon Wings will make you as happy as a lark.
Think you’re a marvel on a scooter? You might think otherwise when taking on Touchgrind Scooter, which has you blaze along absurdly dangerous courses, performing all manner of stomach-flipping stunts during regular bouts of being flung into the air.
The two-finger controls make the game – instead of a traditional gamepad, you have one finger on the handlebars and another on the deck. Gestures trigger stunts, which when chained get you massive points, shortly before you get all cocky and crash into a bin down an alley.
A game that doesn’t suffer fools, then, but one that’s tactile, immediate and fun, and that properly rewards perseverance and mastery.
BMXcellent: Touchgrind BMX 2
We remember our BMX days, where the most daring thing most people tried was an ‘endo’ shortly before flying over their handlebars. Such stunts are deemed pathetic in Touchgrind BMX 2 (£free + IAP), though, which demands more daring efforts, in a similar style to Touchgrind Scooter.
Super Stickman Golf 3
Super Stickman Golf 3’s ancestor is the same Apple II Artillery game Angry Birds has at its core, but Noodlecake’s title is a lot more fun than catapulting birds around.
It’s a larger-than-life side-on mini-golf extravaganza, with you thwacking balls about giant forests, space stations distinctly lacking in gravity, and strange fortresses with a suspiciously high deadly laser count.
The single-player game’s fun, but SSMG 3 comes into its own in multiplayer, whether you’re taking the more sedate turn-by-turn route or ball-smacking at speed in the frenetic race mode. Note that the free version has some restrictions (limited courses; fewer simultaneous turn-based games), but there’s still plenty of genuinely crazy golf here to take a swing at.
Out of this world: Astro Golf
Fancy some fantasy golf that’s a bit more chilled? Astro Golf (free + £1.99 IAP) echoes Desert Golfing’s relaxed vibe but has you belt balls between planets, gravity letting you perform all kinds of fancy slingshots. The standard mode offers endless algorithmically generated levels. Hard Mode demands you get a hole in one to progress.
Touchgrind Skate 2
This one takes a rather literal stance regarding controlling a sports game with your fingers. The board appears on the screen and your fingers become tiny legs, enabling you to perform gnarly and rad tricks, man! Irksome lingo aside, this is a fantastic title that’s initially demanding but hugely rewarding once mastered.
You can also upload videos of your best moves and show off to your friends, and there’s fortunately no way you can skin your knees, unless you trip over while obsessively performing ollies, powerslides and heelflips while walking down the street.
There’s nothing to stop you playing a FIFA game on your mobile device. Although you’ll need to love IAP and hate yourself. Far better, then, to try Retro Goal instead, which draws on New Star Soccer’s legacy to create a side-on footie game designed for brief blasts of management and goal-scoring superstar heroism.
The management bit involves working with meagre funds to evolve your rubbish side into something that can win all the things. There’s IAP, but if you’re smart you won’t need it. (Hint: buy a fast striker.) The match bits are where Retro Goal shines, though, with lovely gesture-based controls that let you put together fancy moves that’d make even Man City sit up and take notice.
Strategy and word games
Games like Device 6 and Overboard play with the conventions of what we expect from digital books. Vitriol throws crosswords into the mix, fashioning a tactile and decidedly odd mix of narrative and puzzling.
After ‘dialing’ a page to life, you’re faced with a statement peppered with encircled letters and blank spaces. The aim is to fill the blanks with parts of the encircled words, but the twist is the bits you leave behind must remain proper words. Tricky.
The mechanic is fresh and works particularly well on an iPhone. Creepy audio and lovely scratchy visuals further enhance what’s another great example of a unique word game for mobile.
For anyone immersed in the daily hell of a commute involving an underground, the notion of designing such a system – and for that to begin as a chill-out session – might seem unlikely. But Mini Metro is captivating from the first train you unleash.
It builds slowly. You connect a few stations by drawing a line, and passengers are ferried about, alighting at the first station that matches their shape. All along, your ears are serenaded by a tinkly generative soundtrack formed by the actions taking place on-screen.
The calm doesn’t last. As time passes, new passengers and stations appear, ramping up the tension and forcing you to juggle scant resources. Eventually, you’ll be overwhelmed and your subway will close. Still, a new one’s only a tap away. Just don’t lose yourself for too many hours in this minimal interactive underground.
You don’t get ‘proper’ games on an iPad, apparently. Which probably comes as a shock to anyone who’s installed Civilization VI. They’re probably also a bit gobsmacked that this really is the full 4X (eXplore; eXpand; eXploit; eXterminate) PC game shoved into Apple’s tablet.
It works really nicely, too, with smartly designed controls, and the kind of depth that can feasibly have a single game last for days. (Which might be a concern to Civ obsessives, now it’s on a properly mobile device.)
There are snags – no online multiplayer, some slightly fuzzy graphics on iPad Pros, and that whopping price tag (although the game is very regularly discounted). Still, if you want ‘proper’ games, you’d best get used to paying for them.
XCOM 2 Collection
If you know your games, you’ll already be familiar with XCOM 2. If not, it blasted up the joint in 2016, firmly cementing itself as one of the best strategy games ever made.
Like its predecessor, XCOM 2 finds you guiding groups of troops in turn-based skirmishes against nasty aliens, along with saving civilians and pilfering tech. It’s deep, tough and even years later hugely impressive.
Now, the entire thing’s on Apple devices by way of XCOM 2 Collection. The usual caveats of PC ports apply: you’ll grumble at it being fiddly on iPhone and it chews through battery on iPad. But this is full-fat AAA gaming – and at a price that’s a fraction of what the same content costs on Steam.
The beardy Viking hero of this breezy platformer was an oafish layabout until acquiring special powers on munching a magic mushroom. Just as well, because his tribe’s vanished, and he must find out why, mostly by way of cut scenes played between levels of leaping, hacking at enemies with swords, and grabbing lots of bling.
That might all sound formulaic, but Oddmar builds on familiar platform game tropes with gorgeous cartoonish animation, lush and varied worlds, tons of secret levels, and multiple challenges per stage that boost replay value.
Even the touchscreen controls are top-notch in this mobile classic, whether you’re blazing through the forest to escape a furious screen-high troll, or riding a pig in a manner that totally wouldn’t be OK with the RSPCA.
FAR: Lone Sails
With its relentless rightwards march, occasional puzzles, and largely monochrome visuals, there’s a whiff of Playdead titles as you get to grips with FAR: Lone Sails. But the atmosphere here is very different – unease replaced with a feeling of freedom and curiosity as you power up a gigantic steampunk vessel and explore a desolate seabed, peppered with the remains of a lost civilisation. Keeping your craft going requires a mixture of brainpower and busywork, and there are set challenges when you chance upon monstrous contraptions that can further your quest, or find yourself having to repair your wheezing craft. But the delight here is in the journey – and the gaps in the story your imagination gleefully fills.
The jolly tunes, pixelated graphics and single-screen action here bring to mind 1980s platform games Bubble Bobble and Snow Bros. However, Drop Wizard is a thoroughly modern creation, perfectly suited to mobile. It boasts a bite-sized pick-up-and-play structure, short level sets ending with battles against ginormous bosses.
Most importantly, the controls are pitch-perfect. Instead of run/jump/fire, you can only auto-run left or right and fall down holes. On landing on a platform below, you emit a magic blast, used to stun roaming enemies. Boot them and they tumble about for a bit, potentially collecting fellow stunned foes, eventually turning into a tasty piece of collectable fruit.
This combination of controls and attack methods is a masterstroke, forcing you to strategise, and making the entire product feel chaotic, fresh and exciting.
A sentient eyeball emerges from the goop, into a colourful minimal world. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, yes – everything wants to kill and eat you, and possibly not in that order.
So you climb, pinging yourself between surfaces like a combination of cycloptic wingless angry gird and pinball, avoiding predators, and grabbing bling. Make your escape and there are 29 more journeys.
Ultimately, there’s little here you haven’t seen before, but Ordia is more about execution and polish than innovation. It feels perfect on the touchscreen, looks superb, and smartly keeps levels short while welding to them several challenges that reward repeat play.
Adventure games and stories
In space, no-one can hear you scream. Unfortunately, people nearby can hear you shriek out in terror when a ravenous xenophobe eviscerates you – something you’ll try to avoid in this semi-sequel to seminal flick Alien.
You play as Amanda Ripley, trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Inevitably, she ends up in much the same situation as her mum, attempting to stay one step ahead of a terrifying hunter, but lacking the equipment needed to end its existence.
This is a tense hours-long bout of action adventure – a stealth-and-smarts effort that marries the AAA polish of the console version with touch-optimised controls. You get a slew of DLCs thrown in too, one of which lets you recreate Ellen’s final mission aboard the Nostromo.
Rich in Swedish folklore, Year Walk has you venture into the cold, dark woods, where strange creatures lurk and terrible events blur reality and fiction, past and present.
With an interface that resembles a creepy, twisted picture book, you must discern clues, unravelling the dark secrets of the forest. Literal horror awaits, along with one of the finest conclusions of any modern adventure title. The journey there will keep you transfixed, not least during those moments it’s scaring the pants off of you.
You know you’re in for a treat as soon as Device 6 launches, unleashing a ballsy credits sequence any classic spy show would be proud to call its own. It then dumps you on a remote island with a name (Anna) and absolutely no idea of how you got there or what to do next.
You navigate the story – literally, since words form corridors you travel along — trying to make sense of what you see and hear, to complete cryptic puzzles and unravel the island’s secrets. To say more would spoil the surprises within, but suffice to say this is a modern gaming classic, and was one of 2013’s finest titles on any platform.
It’s a thinker: unmemory
It looks like an illustrated book, but unmemory (£5.99) soon reveals itself as something smarter as you zip back and forth between parts of an evolving story. Integrated interactive components reveal themselves as a mesh of interconnected puzzles within a mystery you seek to unravel.
Death Road to Canada
This game is like if someone had made The Walking Dead on the SNES, fashioning a home conversion lacking in gore but laced with black humour.
The randomly generated road trip has you travel from Florida to the reported safety of Canada. One moment, you’ll be scavenging for supplies with your little crew, smacking zombies with brooms, and finding a surprising amount of petrol hidden in toilets. Elsewhere, your fortunes are driven by multiple-choice narratives, and intense ‘siege’ scenes where you’re dumped in a claustrophobic space and told to survive.
The randomness can irk when one of your team loses half your supplies through having a hole in their bag, but it’s hard to remain mad at a game that lets you recruit dogs – and those dogs then out of the blue suggest making Molotov cocktails from fuel at an abandoned petrol station.
Puzzle and match games
Baba Is You
This sliding puzzler is all about rules, which might strike you as boring crossed with dull. But you can break the rules – in fact, you have to if you want to win.
Each level has a goal and things in your way. Key properties of elements within the game world are defined by text blocks, such as ‘Wall Is Stop’ and ‘Baba Is You’. Switch words around and you can walk through walls, turn lava into goal flags and more besides.
It’s clever, with deviously designed puzzles that become increasingly intricate in the steps you have to take to succeed. It’s beautifully considered for mobile too, with superb touch controls. Baba Is You? Baba Is Fantastic, more like.
There Is No Game: WD
Once upon a time, there was an annoying user – and that user was you. That’s how the programme helming There Is No Game: WD feels, initially trying to convince you that there is no game and suggesting you switch the thing off and do something else instead. Of course, you are annoying – or at least persistent and curious – and so you’ll poke around, gradually cracking TING’s devious puzzles. Before long, you’re down a rabbit-hole adventure that blazes its way through genres, bombards you with belly laugh jokes, and occasionally smashes out your brain. Do yourself a favour and play this one – but go into it as blind as possible. Don’t even watch the trailer. In fact, there is no trailer. Honest.
Each level of Dissembler begins as a tiny slice of digital abstract art – coloured squares that might in another life have found themselves on a gallery wall. But here, pairs of squares can be flipped, like in Bejeweled. As in that game, the aim is to make matches of three or more.
The twist is that in Dissembler, matched elements vanish, and nothing replaces them. You must therefore figure out the exact chain of swaps that will enable you to remove every square, rather than leaving some isolated.
Endless undos and simple early levels lull you into a false sense of security, but this game eventually becomes brain-smashingly tough. Still, you’ll feel like a genius every time you crack one of its later levels.
This game’s predecessor, the sublime Euclidean Lands, wrapped Hitman GO’s turn-based stealth puzzling around a Rubik’s Cube. You twisted and turned planes to reach your foes, prior to getting all stabby. Euclidean Skies, though, enables you to break up the levels, while they get to work breaking your mind.
Now, increasingly complex 3D architecture can effectively be unravelled, so you can simultaneously prod switches and reach doors, or use a spinning rocky outcrop to obliterate unwary enemies. Like the original, it’s a tactile joy, marrying the best of dazzling visuals and deviously designed brain-smashing challenges.
Day Repeat Day
You might have had your fill of match-three games, but Day Repeat Day tries something new, fusing familiar puzzling with a branching narrative – and sinister undertones. The game starts with you taking on a new role at the joli company, which utilises a match-three interface for packing goods. Chat to your boss, complete your tasks, and you can toil away for the rest of your virtual life.
If that was all Day Repeat Day had to offer, it’d be pleasant but unremarkable. But the built-in messaging system provides a second thread to the game, forcing you to make tough decisions with friends and relatives. Other details peppered throughout provide shrewd, satirical commentary on the work/life balance, and the denouement hits home in a manner you’d never expected from a game whose core is fundamentally a skewed take on Candy Crush.
A retro-infused shooter with attitude, Steredenn is all raucous rock guitar soundtrack and chunky graphics. As the riffs are squealing in your ear, you pit your ship against waves of aliens, randomly hurled your way. Some are massive bosses, which when you defeat them replenish your shields. Others are nippy little buggers with giant chainsaws welded to their cockpits.
Fortunately, you can respond in kind. At any point, you can hold two weapons, which vary from huge lasers and guns that spew bullet casings to a giant saw blade and a set of jaws. Not exactly Star Trek’s boring torpedoes, then – and all the better for it.
Railly good: Super Crossfighter
Another blaster with old-school leanings, Super Crossfighter (£2.99) has you zip back and forth along a rail, blasting aliens that dodder about like their ancestors in Space Invaders. The twist: you can leap to the top of the screen and unsportingly shoot them from behind before they realise. Bet they weren’t expecting that!
Fancy seeing the sights of the universe? Want to blow up lots of nasty alien scumbags while doing so? Got a strong stomach when you find yourself in a ship whirling about the heavens, making you feel as if you’re in a washing machine being attacked by elite fighter squadrons? Congratulations: you’re hired!
In Interloper, you get a full six degrees of freedom as you whirl about asteroids, dog-fighting for your life, going PEW PEW PEW like you’re a combination of Han Solo and Starbuck. It’s exhilarating stuff, with plenty of customisation options and a smart interface that adapts for landscape, portrait and different screen sizes.
This one should never have worked. It’s a premium take on that game where you spang a bunch of balls about, gradually depleting the numbers on bricks, until they explode and let you dig even deeper. But whereas most such games are after your wallet, Holedown merely eats away at your time.
Like its IAP-happy chums, Holedown is grindy and repetitive – but in a manner that’s compelling and hypnotic rather than annoying. This is down to its mix of polished visuals, amusing sound effects, and a smartly conceived upgrade cycle. Plus you’ll feel like a pool wizard on nailing tough shots that take down really high-numbered bricks with a dozen balls bouncing around like angry wasps.
It’s the future, and instead of looking stern and wearing wigs, judges – or, rather, jydges, take law to the lawless, and sentence them with a bullet in the megacity of Edenbyrg. (Presumably, they long ago sentenced champions of the letter U.)
The actual gameplay is a curious mix of stealth and speedrun, with a big dollop of twin-stick blasting. So you’re dropped at missions where you blow away perps and rescue a bunch of happy hostages, aiming to do so in a manner where you don’t get killed yourself, and get out before the timer runs down.
The stealth and timer alike both ramp up the tension, and Jydge’s varied levels and scope for player configurations provide long term appeal – creep.
It would be easy to dismiss Night Skate, which at first comes across as yet another one-thumb survival effort – Canabalt on a skateboard. But once you clock what Night Skate is trying to do, it’s much more interesting.
Ostensibly, you tap to avoid obstacles and not fall down holes that end your go. But the game’s more about spotting opportunities to string together combos that rapidly ramp up your score – and not then eroding your points by messing up.
Whatever points you gain add to targets for unlocking new palettes and levels. Beyond that, it’s just you and your sense of timing. The lack of grind (except on in-game objects, obvs) and IAP feels resolutely old-school, but – along with the Game Boy stylings – in the best possible way.
In Jumpgrid, all you have to do is hop between nodes on a three-by-three grid, munching spinning cubes, before escaping through a teleporter. Easy. Except it isn’t. And that’s because this stripped-back mash-up of Frogger and Pac-Man has been fused to the screaming vortex of a Super Hexagon.
This means it’s fast. Shapes wheel and whirl before your eyes, like a combination of modern art and sadism, only too keen to smash your craft to oblivion. Discover the wraparound nature of the grid and you’ll feel smug for about half a second – right before Jumpgrid punches you again and again, on repeat, until you succeed.
It sounds like punishment. It’s actually brilliant.
Giant Dancing Plushies
Like something from a fever dream, Giant Dancing Plushies reimagines Hollywood monster movies by replacing toothy kaiju with giant stuffed animals strutting their stuff to a disco beat. The armed forces elect to blow the stuffing out of them, and so you must help them bop in time to the music, stomp baddies, grab bling and avoid civilians. (They’re not evil giant dancing plushies, after all — they’re just having fun.)
The swipe-based gameplay is immediate; and unless you’re as dead inside as a soft toy, the game’s guaranteed to raise a smile. There’s a smart progression tree too, where you gradually power-up your plushies (so they can take on increasingly deadly army forces), unlock new game modes, and replace the game’s soundtrack with whatever’s playing on your device.
Beat it: Beat Sneak Bandit
In Beat Sneak Bandit (£2.99), you’re the titular thief, sneaking about single-screen levels, trying to grab clocks and not get spotted. The twist: everything moves on the beat. The result is a unique, entertaining bout of clockwork madness that combines stealth, rhythm action, platforming and path-finding, all controlled by a single tapping thumb.
One for people with short attention spans, pureya is a two-thumb arcade test that shakes things up every ten seconds. You prod buttons to direct a snowboard down a mountain and then – boom! – end up blasting asteroids, helping a penguin leap across gaps in the ice, and more besides. After nine such mini-games, any marbles you collected along the way are lobbed into a pachinko machine. (The prizes: even more games.)
There’s little in pureya that you haven’t seen before. But like WarioWare – its most obvious influence – the combination of breakneck pace, colourful visuals and a real sense of fun sets it apart. It offers solid value too, in that every game you unlock can be played as a standalone endless high-score chaser.
Plenty of games have rhythm, but few evoke the feeling of dancing. But that’s where Vectronom heads, even if its minimalist visuals put you in mind of mobile classic Edge.
The challenge is broadly the same as in that game – get to each level’s exit; but here, the landscape and hazards are in thrall to the beat. Only by recognising patterns (such as when a path inconveniently turns into a deadly drop on beats two and four) can you swipe your way to victory.
Vectronom is a pulse-pounding triumph. The odd overly tricky bit aside, it brilliantly marries its varied soundtrack with expert level design, for a challenge that’s immediate yet fresh.