When it comes to mobile gaming, Apple is still the king. Game developers generally prefer launching their games on iOS first or exclusively, which makes these year-end “best of” lists for iPhone and iPad really hard. But that’s not stopping us, is it?
This year, we’re dumping paid apps. Much like the best Android games of 2015, there are enough great free games on iOS to make a must-have list. And hey, if you can have a good time for free, why pay?
Keep track of how many of these games you’ve already played, because there’s a question coming at the end of this article!
Does not Commute
Genre: Racing / Driving
Don’t you love it when a video game does something new? Does not Commute, from the makers of the addictive Smash Hit, is a top-down driving game. You start in a suburban neighborhood. A car drives forward automatically, you just have to press left or right to steer it. Once your first car reaches the destination, the level saves the trajectory you just took, and gives you a second objective with a second car. Now when you start driving, your first car will ply along its saved trajectory, so you have to be careful not to crash into it.
Pretty soon, there are 10 or more “saved” cars criss-crossing each other as you try to make your objective. Does not Commute is not only innovative about this gameplay, but also puts it all in a 60s Suburban Americana visual style, set to soft jazz in the background. It’s an absolute delight, and like Smash Hit, I can’t understand how this is a free game. But hey, I’m not complaining.
Download: Does not Commute for iOS (Free)
Angry Birds Stella Pop
Look, Angry Birds Stella Pop (read our review) isn’t path-breaking or history-making in any way. But I’d still rank it as one of the must-have games of 2015, and an absolute must-have for parents everywhere. It remakes the classic bubble shooter, where you have to shoot orbs at other orbs hanging from the roof, to form chains of three of the same color.
Developer Rovio takes this successful formula and applies another successful formula: the world of Angry Birds. Stella Pop is well polished, allowing for fine granular control over your bubble shooter, five different types of game modes to keep the gameplay fresh and engrossing, and special powers to get through the more difficult levels. Get it right now. If anyone asks, tell them it’s for the kids—it’ll be our little secret.
Download: Angry Birds Stella Pop for iOS (Free)
Mister Smith & His Adventures
Genre: Text-Based Adventure, Quiz
Can an old-school, text-based adventure really work in the modern world of smartphones? Mister Smith & His Adventures thinks so, and does a marvelous job of convincing us to look for more text games. It’s all about reading, humor and general knowledge here, so if that’s not your thing, move on. But if you give it a shot, I promise you’ll be rewarded.
You will basically be building the character of Mister Smith from the time he was born back in 1970 to now, slowly adding to his personality, and earning points along the way by answering limited-timed quiz questions. The writing is witty and light, making it a breezy read that you will chuckle to while on your daily commute. It’s difficult to truly explain what Mister Smith is like; but given that it’s completely free, I’d recommend going in blind and downloading the game get an entertaining surprise. Heck, it might just inspire you to make your own text adventure games.
Download: Mister Smith & His Adventures for iOS (Free)
This article would have probably been written a lot faster if it wasn’t for the ridiculously addictive Planet Quest. So you’re an alien and your aim is to zap living beings into your spaceship. The planet keeps rotating, so when a being appears, tap the screen to zap them up. It’s not that vanilla though. Planet Quest doesn’t look like a rhythm game at first glance, but that’s what it is. So strap on those headphones and crank the volume up.
The tunes are half the fun, getting you to bob your head as you try and zap those beings. Oh yeah, you have three lives; you lose one for each miss, and half if you accidentally zap up a flower. You regain a life if you zap someone up perfectly. The quirky visuals, the foot-tapping music, and the simplistic gameplay makes this one of those games you can pick up to quickly kill 2 minutes or for a longer gaming session.
Download: Planet Quest for iOS (Free)
It’s always fascinating to see a new spin on a classic game. Hex FRVR is a new take on good old Tetris. You have a hexagonal grid of tiles, and three shapes to choose from. Put the shape wherever it fits on blank tiles. The objective is to make a line of filled tiles, gone from anyone side to any other side. Do that and that entire line disappears.
Much like with Tetris, the objective is to rack up points by fitting shapes and making lines disappear, till you have no more room to fit your shapes any more. It’s so simple, but just so much fun!
Download: Hex FRVR for iOS (Free)
Watch out FIFA, there’s a new challenger for the best soccer game title. Score! Hero would be my pick for the most innovative gameplay I’ve seen this year, and if you like sports games, you can’t go wrong with it. While FIFA is about authentic football gameplay, Score! Hero makes it about passing and shooting. Instead of controlling the game’s course for 90 minutes, each level of Score! Hero shows a paused scenario, and sets a few objectives.
The controls are the cool part. Draw a line from your player to shoot the ball. You can draw a line from player to player to pass; player to player’s head for an aerial pass so that he can score a goal with a header; shoot directly at the net; or shoot in a direction where another of your players will be the first to reach the ball. Each time one of your players connects with the ball, the game is paused and you have to choose your next action. You’re basically strategizing an entire play, and also executing it. Couple this with good graphics and you have a winner on your hands (or feet) here.
Download: Score! Hero for iOS (Free)
One of the classic franchises in video games, Rayman and his friends have been entertaining all of us for years in their platform games, making it to our list of best Android games of 2013. The new Rayman Adventures puts everything that’s great about the series into one free-to-play title. The mechanics remain the same as always. Every level starts with you running at full speed, and you have to tap to jump, swipe to change direction, or swipe to break through flimsy obstacles. All the while, collect points, rescue friends, unlock bonuses—all the staples of a great adventure platformer.
As always, one of the highlights of Rayman Adventures is the brilliant soundtrack. While it’s not up to the level of Rayman Fiesta Run‘s exaggerated mariachi band, you’ll still have the background score stuck in your head even after you put your phone away.
Download: Rayman Adventures for iOS (Free)
The sequel to the popular Blendoku is a great example of how to make a free game, while allowing purchases for those who are impatient. The puzzle game has over 500 levels for free. Each level has two colored blocks. Your objective is to connect them with gradients so that one color transitions into another. The number of gradients are limited, so it’s about figuring out the path with the least possible moves.
New in this sequel is a multiplayer mode, where you compete against Facebook friends or random players to finish the puzzle in the best possible moves. If you run out of your five lives or hints, you can buy more, but like most games, you can just wait to replenish too, so that you can safely turn off IAPs for kids and let them keep playing.
Download: Blendoku 2 for iOS (Free)
Genre: Shooter, Multiplayer
If you ever wanted a demo of the iPad’s graphics processing capabilities, download Afterpulse. Heck, it doesn’t even support some of the older iPhones and iPads any more! It’s a gorgeous third-person shooter that has you doing one thing alone: shoot at enemies. No really, that’s it.
Afterpulse starts with you shooting a few bots, and quickly becomes a multiplayer online game. You play either a free-for-all deathmatch or a team deathmatch. Move around with the left on-screen joystick, aim with the right on-screen joystick, and just keep shooting. It’s simple, it’s intense, it’s spectacular.
Download: Afterpulse for iOS (Free)
So there’s a cute koala, shaped like a cube, trapped in a fiendish prison. It’s time to help him escape. Your only tools are two on-screen buttons and the force of gravity. Tap the buttons to rotate the cube. Gravity still acts only from the phone’s bottom though, so the koala will toss around based on that. Using the laws of physics, you need to get the koala to the exit in each of the 75 levels, dodging spikes and other dangers.
The game’s puzzle designs are some of the most challenging I’ve played, and since there are no checkpoints, it becomes that much more frustrating when you make a small mistake and have to start over. My strategy? Zoom out, figure out the big traps, concentrate, and then just pray. I’ve only got to level 44 though, so you might want a better strategy…
Download: Cube Koala for iOS (Free)
BONUS: Lara Croft GO ($4.99)
Just like in our best Android games of 2015 roundup, I can’t resist this one exception. Lara Croft GO is ours and Apple’s mobile game of the year, and you’d be a fool not to get it. This mobile interpretation of the Tomb Raider series is just about perfect. Tackle mini-puzzles and enemies, figure out how to get past snakes and defeat the big bad dragon, and do it all in one of the best-designed games of all time.
Since our glowing review, developer Square Enix even released an additional pack of levels for free, so that price is not as steep as it looks. Just pay and download this, you’ll regret it if you don’t.
Download: Lara Croft GO for iOS ($4.99)
How Many Did You Play?
At the start of this article, we asked you to count how many of these games you have played. Tell us your number in the comments below! We’d love to see how many iOS users actually download and play free games, since that’s what these developers seem to be counting on.