How we all laughed when people in 2008 suggested you could replace handheld consoles with a phone. Never could the majesty of the Nintendo DS and PSP be beaten by a device with no physical controls! Imagine! And then the games arrived – loads of them. And they were good. Really good.
Now the App Store’s 10 years young, and its gaming ecosystem has matured substantially, some people still gripe you don’t get real games on an iPhone or iPad. They’re missing out big time.
There are plenty of excellent titles to play – and after a rigorous selection process, these are the ones that truly deserve applause, and they can’t be played on anything other than shiny Apple kit.
An intro sequence kicks DEVICE 6 off with the confidence and swagger of a dozen James Bond flicks, but this one’s smarter than the average spy movie. You’re dumped in a castle, on a seemingly deserted island, only remembering a particularly unpleasant doll. It’s all very odd.
What’s also strange is the manner in which the story unfolds: upending gaming and literary conventions, DEVICE 6 fashions geography from its narrative, with sentences becoming corridors you explore. You must flip your device, solve puzzles, and even make recordings.
Dazzling and stylish, DEVICE 6 is a game that could only work on a touchscreen device – and it’s only available on iOS.
This platformer heads towards more conventional territory, featuring a Viking who’s rubbish at being a Viking. But he gets a chance to prove his worth on gulping down some magic mushrooms to acquire ‘special powers’, and then setting out to find his tribe who’ve abruptly been zapped out of existence. All assuming he’s not in the middle of a terrible trip.
Gameplay-wise, this is all leapy jumpy fare, with you grabbing bling and finding exits. But there’s a level of polish here that nudges this iOS exclusive towards console fare. The controls are pitch-perfect, and the visuals are akin to a cartoon, whether you’re avoiding the tentacles of a furious sea monster boss, or fleeing from a massive boulder, as if starring in Indiana Jones Goes Medieval.
The original Eliss was cruelly denied a mainstream breakthrough moment. But back in 2009, it was a defining iPhone game for those fortunate enough to discover it. The game embraced multi-touch in a manner never seen before – and seldom since – having you partake in a kind of ‘finger Twister’, managing tiny planets you combine and separate, in order to shove them into wormholes.
Revamp Eliss Infinity arrived four years later, fully remastered. It added a demented endless mode, and a noodly zero-risk one for when the former fried your brain. That even today Eliss Infinity feels fresh, modern and essential showcases how far ahead of the game this iOS exclusive was upon its release nearly a decade ago.
Developers Kunabi Brother have been responsible for a trio of iOS-only classics, the other two being living calligraphy puzzler Blek and ethereal path-finding classic FROST. But Euclidean Lands gets the nod here, with its mash-up of clockwork puzzling and gorgeous minimal visuals, wrapped around a Rubik’s Cube suspended in space.
It’s a turn-based strategic affair, the aim being to off opposition by getting murdery with a spear, before scarpering for an exit. The constantly evolving nature of the landscape ensures the game comes alive, and it’s again a title that demands the kind of tactile interaction only a touchscreen platform can provide.
Disc Drivin’ 2
The original Disc Drivin’ was one of those ridiculous concepts that should never have worked: a social turn-based racing game. Stripped of speed and simultaneous play, you’d think it would have been dull and stagnant; instead, flicking discs around circuits suspended in space proved tense and exciting.
It was also a showcase for a quirky kind of game that back then could only really happen on iOS, when other platforms were obsessed with the mainstream and required publisher approval. Today, things have opened up more with Android’s growth and the likes of Nintendo Switch, but it’s perhaps telling that the game’s superb sequel still only exists on iOS.
Beat Sneak Bandit
Prior to fashioning immersive adventures like DEVICE 6, Simogo worked on idiosyncratic arcade games, tailoring familiar mechanics to the touchscreen. Beat Sneak Bandit found you helping a benevolent thief steal all the clocks back from an evil mastermind who’s sent the world into chaos now no-one knows when its lunchtime.
Everything moves to the beat, and the game demands you do as well. But interaction solely happens by way of prodding with a single digit. So what you get is a mash-up of one-thumb gaming, stealth, platforming, and rhythm action, with super-stylish visuals and nods to retro fare like Manic Miner, all for the princely sum of a few quid.
This gem first soared on to the App Store in 2011, and became a yardstick for quality quickfire games on Apple devices. It’s another one-thumb effort, with you helping a bird traverse a hilly landscape. She slides down hills, then up the next, her momentum briefly sending her skywards. You then prod the screen to close her wings, timing a dive perfectly for the next slope.
It’s simple, immediate fare, but with high-score chasing akin to classic arcade games, and gorgeous textured visuals that propel Tiny Wings far beyond the bulk of its contemporaries and pretenders. And that’s before you take into account the entertainingly daft side-on Mario Kart that is the Flight School race mode.
Infinity Blade III
Slicing up bits of fruit with a finger, ninja-style, was all very well in the very early days of iPhone gaming, but Infinity Blade took such finger-based swordplay and added massive foes that looked like they’d beamed in from Shadow of the Colossus. It made jaws drop, blasting your eyes with visuals you’d have sworn were being magically squirted into your iPhone from a telly console.
In the event, the canned attacks and game’s repetitive nature showcased that this wasn’t quite a console experience. Still, Infinity Blade II and the latest title expanded on the original, resulting in a compelling mobile-friendly and bite-sized mash-up of brawling and RPG-lite. And deftly hacking up monsters with a finger never really gets old.
Dumping you in a world of interior decorating where technology has gone mad, Telepaint mixes up Portal, Lemmings and tins of paint. Little bipedal pots dodder about like clockwork automatons, hoping you’ll reunite them with paintbrush pals.
For the most part, achieving your goal requires hurling paint pots through teleporters, which blasts the scenery with colour. Then the game ups the ante, having you stack multiple tins, create bridges, and deal with irritating magnetic ‘friends’.
The mechanics might be familiar, but Telepaint brilliantly marries platform action and touchscreen-optimised gameplay. Do be aware, though, that the colour you’ll most see yourself will be red on attempting to tackle devious and hugely challenging later levels.
Our final pick is in many ways neatly representative of all things Apple and gaming. INKS. takes as its core pinball. You spang a ball about, on minimal tables of flippers and bumpers. But INKS. Reworks the conventional by making it considered and beautiful.
In this case, pinball becomes about perfection, figuring out how to hit a series of targets with a tiny number of shots. And when those shots are made, colour explodes from the targets, splattering tables with ink and turning them into tiny works of art.
It’s a sedate and thoughtful take on a type of game usually associated with brashness, noise and frenzied speed. And it has an elegance entirely befitting of the platform it’s exclusive to.