The App Store’s recent 10th anniversary offered a stark reminder of how much mobile gaming has changed over the last decade. Mobile games today are widely diverse and often more ambitious than in the past, not to mention dramatically more polished on average. And gosh, there are just so many of them across iOS and Android.
It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest — what with the constant torrent of new touchscreen games — but there are some extraordinary and absorbing experiences amid the deluge. With that in mind, we’re spotlighting our absolute favorite mobile games, each of which is primed to entertain whether you’re on the go, curled up in bed, or just eager to kill a few minutes.
Some of these are newer releases that made an immediate impact, while others are enduring modern classics that still warrant attention today. In either case, they’re all highly recommended. Be sure to keep tabs on this list in the future, as we’ll be updating every so often with picks for essential new experiences.
For a relatively small, mobile-exclusive indie, Holedown garnered an awful lot of word-of-mouth attention when it was released — and for good reason too. Hailing from Grapefrukt Games, the studio behind the likewise strong Rymdkapsel and Twofold Inc., Holedown riffs on the classic brick-breaking formula with some new ideas and an addictive progression system.
Here, you’ll launch balls down into a tunnel rather than up into the sky, and it’s all in an effort to clear the obstacles sitting between you and the planet’s core. And you won’t just fire off one ball and try to keep it bouncing around. Instead, through gradual upgrades, you’ll eventually gain the ability to blast up to 99 balls at a time, filling each block-filled cavern with frenetic, zigzagging projectiles.
Even with that kind of enviable firepower, Holedown stays compelling thanks to the strategy required to clear certain types of blocks before any reach the game-ending line up top. I’ve been coming back to the unlockable endless mode for months now, and still haven’t found a good reason to pull this game off of my main home screen.
Adorable as they might be, raccoons are trouble — and that’s definitely the case in Donut County, although not in any traditional way. In this wonderfully offbeat indie, the raccoons have taken over the donut shop ... and for some reason, there are holes swallowing up every building, object and living creature in town. Weird, huh?
You’ll gradually learn what happened from the bottom of the pit beneath the town, as human Mira, her obnoxious raccoon pal BK and other animal inhabitants recall their encounters with the hole. And then you’ll control the hole itself, solving clever puzzles and gliding it across the ground as it grows larger and larger with each object it consumes.
Donut County is one of the most charming games in recent memory. Reviewer Ashley Oh called it “the hole in my heart I never want filled.” And it plays just as well with a finger on your iPhone or iPad as it would with a controller elsewhere, with the full experience included on iOS at a fraction of the console and PC cost. Better yet, the bite-sized missions are an ideal fit for quick sessions on the go.
Available on iOS, $4.99.
Asphalt 9: Legends
Gameloft’s Burnout-esque racing series reached a new peak with 2013’s Asphalt 8: Airborne, which finally rose above mere console copycat status to be a truly refined and entertaining mobile experience. Asphalt 9: Legends doesn’t take another vast leap after five years later, but it adds even more polish and options to what is undoubtedly mobile gaming’s best street racer.
Asphalt 9 is all gloss and speed, letting you loose in more than 50 licensed rides as you whip around dozens of tracks loaded with weather hazards, massive jumps and curved ramps that let you twirl your car through the air. As in its console inspiration, you can bash into rivals for takedowns that also fill your boost meter, rewarding (smart) aggression as you speed toward the finish line. The single-player races are solid fun, but Asphalt 9 is at its best in the frantic eight-player online romps.
Anyone with a sore spot for freemium models might be frustrated with the recharging fuel meter for cars, not to mention in-game currency used for upgrades. But as with its predecessor, you can get plenty of enjoyment out of Asphalt 9 without spending a thing, presuming you can tolerate those elements.
Best mobile games
Like the original Alto’s Adventure, developer Snowman’s Alto’s Odyssey is a game of simple pleasures: basking in the glow of the sunset while zipping down a desert slope, grinding a strip of bunting strung between two hot air balloons, or just narrowly landing a double backflip instead of cracking open your head. Granted, none of that sounds particularly simple or easy, but that’s the beauty of Alto’s Odyssey. Even amid high-flying antics, the game maintains a blissfully low-key tone and never once feels remotely complex, frustrating or unclear.
Odyssey mostly sticks with what worked so well the first time around, pairing one-tap gameplay with fabulous sights — now sand instead of snow — and dashing background music, but the little tweaks really add up here. Actions like grinding alongside cliff walls, bouncing up and out of buoyant lakes, and catching air from a twisting tornado only serve to elongate combos and introduce further nuance, all without complicating the scenic jaunts. It’s a delight.
Threes! trades in basic arithmetic, but this minimal number puzzler is hardly easy. Adjacent 1 (blue) and 2 (red) tiles add up to 3 when you swipe them into one another, and from there, you can merge multiples of three with a like number: two 3 tiles become one 6 tile, a pair of 6s becomes 12, and so on.
Play fast and loose with your addition, however, and Threes! is quick to punish. Every time you swipe the screen and tiles move, whether or not you actually merge anything, the game adds another tile to the tight grid. Make sloppy moves, and you’ll quickly find a claustrophobic space that limits your play — and quite likely leads to your demise and a meager score.
Calculated, methodical play is essential to keep your game moving ahead as you build larger and larger numbers, thus boosting your score in the process. Threes! is a numbers game worthy of obsession … which makes sense, as you’ll need an obsessive level of attention to detail to truly thrive in developer Sirvo’s indie gem.
Part MOBA, part collectible card battler and all cartoonish charm, Clash Royale is one of the most gripping competitive games you’ll find on a touch device. Unlike mobile MOBAs such as Vainglory and Arena of Valor, which closely mimic the big-screen experience (down to matches of 15-plus minutes), Clash Royale’s skirmishes are short, sweet, strategic and sensationally fun.
After building the best eight-card deck you can out of a pile of goblins, witches, fireballs and golems, you’ll have three minutes to try and topple your opponent’s base before they do the same to yours. Clever deck construction will only take you so far, however: You’ll need to manage your finite resources and try to counter your rival’s tactics to have a chance at victory. The frenetic result is tough to resist.
Clash Royale is also a pretty giving free-to-play game, although the ability to spend real money to rapidly buy more chests and cards (and thus upgrades) could wear on some players. Even so, developer Supercell’s matchmaking does a solid job of pairing you with like-skilled — and/or like-equipped — foes.
Pokémon Go has been derided for many things over the last two years: It’s not a “real” Pokémon game; the servers are garbage; it doesn’t even let you trade monsters; and so on. They’re all valid complaints to some extent (although trading eventually arrived), but amid the frustrations, Pokémon Go still provides true moments of mobile magic.
What Pokémon Go lacks in traditional series depth, it more than makes up for with the authentic sense of discovery, as you explore real-world spaces and use your phone to find the digital Pokémon hiding within. It’s a straightforward gameplay loop, but a compelling one, especially with new waves of monsters, amusing community events and research tasks to keep things interesting.
And no other mobile game has produced an experience as memorable or exciting as those first weeks after release, when millions upon millions of people got sucked into Pokémon Go fever. Even well past that buzzy launch period, developer Niantic continues to find new ways to pull fans back in time and again.
Several years of work went into crafting Gorogoa, and it shows throughout. From the very first sight of the titular monster roaming through a city, Gorogoa’s handcrafted beauty shines through via detailed illustrations and immensely clever puzzles. It’s not quite like anything you’ve ever played before.
Gorogoa relies entirely on those small bits of artwork to craft its puzzles and tell its story, as you focus in or pull back on a scene, or drag and drop the images around the grid. When placed atop each other, certain images interact and nudge the story along — like when doorways sync up between scenes to send the character from one location to another, or create an action that drops an item from one image to another below.
Developer Jason Roberts’ oft-fascinating approach has its own inimitable feel and flow, and while also available on other platforms, Gorogoa plays beautifully on a touch device. As Polygon’s Charlie Hall wrote when the game was released, “I’m not sure I’ve played a game so compelling and so engrossing with only my thumb before.”
Florence needs only 40 minutes to deliver an emotional wallop that hits harder and lingers longer than just about anything I’ve ever played. By the end, I was a wreck — partially over the painfully realistic lows of the young relationship portrayed within, but more because of how it resonated with my own life and experiences. That’s a special, unexpected reaction to any game, let alone one designed exclusively for a smartphone or tablet.
Florence peeks into the life of the titular 25-year-old, who struggles with the tedium of her office job routine and an overbearing mother, but then is swept up in a whirlwind relationship with a cellist named Krish. Love quickly blossoms, but tedium and frustration eventually drive a wedge between them. Developer Mountains drives every phase home with pitch-perfect and occasionally crushing minigames that reflect the emotion of each moment.
Florence is a brief experience, but an immensely powerful one — which is why it sits with the year’s heavyweights on our rolling list of 2018’s best games.
Jules Verne’s literary classic Around the World in Eighty Days provides the basis for one of mobile gaming’s most captivating narrative adventures, and developer Inkle’s steampunk-tinged adaptation keeps things light and compact as you speedily traverse the Earth.
As Passepartout, valet to Phileas Fogg, you’ll chart the best course across cities, oceans and continents as you aim to win your master’s ambitious globe-trotting bet. In 80 Days, narrative and navigation are fully intertwined, as each side of the game influences the other. Branching dialogue trees let you carry on conversations that entertain and often illuminate the characters, but also occasionally lead to unexpected routes or helpful details. Likewise, each new locale offers an opportunity to take your adventure along an unfamiliar path, for better or worse.
It’s what makes 80 Days so wonderfully replayable: Attempting to shave off days and win the challenge with each new run is plenty entertaining, but the chats and fun story twists are just as compelling. No two journeys feel the same.
Super Stickman Golf 3
Real-life golf can be slow-paced and laborious, but Super Stickman Golf 3 is neither of those things. Developer Noodlecake’s series has established itself as not only one of the top mobile sports games, but also an essential on-the-go multiplayer experience — and this is the best edition to date.
Super Stickman Golf 3 recasts the sport as something of a puzzle platformer, believe it or not. Each side-scrolling course is peppered with unique obstacles, be they jagged ice cliffs, Portal-like portals or sticky surfaces, and it’s your job to overcome and/or avoid the myriad hazards to reach the cup under par. Powered-up balls help your cause by kicking the typical physics to the curb, plus there are perk-packing golfer hats to unlock.
And while Super Stickman Golf 3 entertains as a single-player experience, it’s even better with pals, thanks to rapid-fire shootouts and asynchronous turn-based duels that scratch different competitive itches. With 20 very distinctive free courses and another 20-plus available to paid users, as well as scads of unlockable items, Super Stickman Golf 3’s swinging satisfaction lasts and lasts.
Monument Valley is downright dreamlike — not only for its fabulous vistas and dazzling sights, but also the surreal nature of its challenges. Each level trades in impossible, M.C. Escher-inspired architecture, complete with sideways staircases, distant platforms that miraculously connect from a certain perspective, and even one memorable mission that takes place entirely within an ever-unfolding box.
But while the geometry is complex, the puzzles rarely are. Rather than tax your brain too hard, Monument Valley pleases with its playful nature, asking you to fiddle with its odd switches and dials to guide Ida to the goal in each stage. It’s always intuitive, too, even as new wrinkles emerge. As Danielle Riendeau wrote in her 2014 review, “Playing it felt effortless, and that sensation was refreshing.”
The Forgotten Shores expansion and sequel Monument Valley 2 expand the premise in enticing new ways, and are both well worth exploring, but it’s developer Ustwo’s original that still feels like a perfectly precise mobile experience. It’s an iconic example of what’s possible when an artful studio designs an adventure around a platform’s strengths.
Shooting fish in a barrel might be easy, but shooting fish that soar past the clouds after you liberate them from the depths below? Well, that’s … actually not too difficult, either, but Ridiculous Fishing makes the premise intensely entertaining.
Developer Vlambeer’s offbeat mobile gem delivers a precise, arcade-style loop that holds up well over many, many attempts. You’ll drop your lure below the boat, but instead of trying to snag the first fish in sight, it’s best to let it drop down as far as you can. Once it hooks something, you’ll then try to add as many sea creatures you can on the way back up. And when the lure breaks the surface, every angler fish, crab and sea serpent is flung into the air for you to gun down with an absurdly overpowered firearm.
That outrageous concept is only emboldened by intriguing gear and weapon upgrades, fun faux social media updates, new and interesting creatures to capture, and that vibrant, one-of-a-kind aesthetic. Ridiculous Fishing could have been lost to the ages in an unfortunate cloning saga; instead, it’s one of mobile’s enduring essentials.
Reigns: Her Majesty
Tinder meets monarchy? That was the premise of developer Nerial’s original Reigns, which captivated in tiny bursts thanks to its sharp writing and odd twists and turns. But Reigns: Her Majesty proves even more gripping by shifting its focus.
As the title suggests, Her Majesty makes you the queen of a fantasy kingdom, and every decision you make inevitably leads to your fast-approaching demise. Reigns: Her Majesty plays out entirely across this-or-that responses to myriad situations facing your queen, letting you swipe left or right to make a call, and each choice impacts the way that various factions view her and her role as the king’s companion.
It’s not an easy life for the queen, amid myriad threats and pervasive sexism, but that makes for an engaging, bite-sized narrative affair with pointed dialogue and curious detours along the way.
Hearthstone was already an incredible experience when it launched back in 2014, and now four years, several expansions and more than 1,000 additional cards later, it’s better than ever. Although the Warcraft collectible card game spinoff began life on Windows PC, developer Blizzard Entertainment’s mobile versions are flawless ports that maintain the magic on the go.
Franchise fans will get a kick out of the lore, but Hearthstone remains tremendously appealing even for those who have never played World of Warcraft or the RTS classics. It’s an impressively deep yet surprisingly approachable experience, easing genre newcomers into competitive card-based mechanics and then opening up a world of possibilities with deck-building and advanced strategies.
The robust esports scene that has formed around Hearthstone over the last few years is a testament to its high-level possibilities. And while the pros compete on PC, Hearthstone offers the very same experience on smartphones and tablets — and you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy this CCG gem.
Developer Wonderful Lasers makes no bones about Impossible Road’s immense challenge: It’s right there in the title. But while that might put off some potential players, this minimal game’s tough test is balanced out by the intense joy of finally eking out a successful run.
Each attempt begins with your ball on a straight, roller coaster-like plunge — and that’s the only moment of respite you get. Immediately, the procedurally generated path twists, turns, narrows and occasionally goes nearly sideways as you continually adjust to keep rolling ahead, past the next checkpoint. Inevitably, you’ll fall off. But that’s not the end.
In fact, it may be an opportunity. Impossible Road gives you a few frantic seconds to try and land further down the road, and enterprising players can even roll off intentionally to skip ahead. Plan a perfect leap and you might dramatically improve your score. Botch the landing and … well, there’s always next time.
Fire Emblem Heroes
Nintendo is bringing its beloved franchises to mobile with varying degrees of success, and so far, Fire Emblem Heroes is the most adept at maintaining enough of the classic experience in its new touchscreen incarnation. In this case, Heroes keeps the heart of the long-running role-playing favorite despite some serious streamlining.
Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t as robust as the recent Nintendo 3DS entries when it comes to narrative or presentation, but the turn-based battle system still feels nicely strategic without seeming dumbed down in the process. And Heroes is a fan service gold mine, packing in loads of characters from across the franchise’s 28-year history.
It’s not without some freemium frustrations, this time in the form of gacha hero summoning techniques that make getting your favorite characters something of a crapshoot — and a potentially expensive one at that. But you don’t have to spend, and Fire Emblem Heroes’ compelling battles and sharp stroll through series history keep things plenty interesting.
The Room: Old Sins
The Room is one of mobile gaming’s most reliably impressive experiences, and developer Fireproof Games keeps delivering time and again. Old Sins is the fourth game in the series, and like the others, it’s a deliciously atmospheric mind-bender.
As with previous entries, The Room: Old Sins is a remarkably tactile touchscreen experience, challenging you to solve your way through an elaborate puzzle box by twisting, turning and prodding each physical conundrum. This time around, everything takes place within an eerie dollhouse, and each individual challenge within requires you to closely examine objects, hunt for clues and fiddle around until you can unravel a solution.
The previous three Room entries remain essential for fans of clever, on-the-go adventures, but The Room: Old Sins registers as the series’ latest and greatest entry — and you won’t miss much in the piecemeal narrative by starting here before looping back on the past games.
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