It’s strange to think that Apple’s pricey mobile hardware led to an extremely diverse ecosystem of hugely affordable games. But whereas handheld consoles have historically been lumbered with expensive cartridges, Apple pioneered a digital-only approach and embraced all-comers - indies and majors alike - leading to a staggering number of titles being created for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.
With such a selection on offer, the fight for gamers’ eyes and thumbs now often involves minimising barriers to entry, and so thousands of free iOS games exist. Many of them would embarrass a type-in listing for a ZX81, but the standouts are among the best titles mobile gaming has to offer.
The 35 you'll read about here encompass a wide range of genres, from frantic arcade fare through to thoughtful multiplayer turn-based strategy. Although most of our choices include some kind of in-app currency system, none require payment in order to get some enjoyment from them; that said, if you love one of the games to death and want to reward the developer accordingly, they’ll always be grateful for a few bucks sent their way.
10. Radical (iPhone/iPad)
From the creators of the superb ‘Mikey’ series, Radical is reminiscent of what might happen if someone squashed Super Hexagon flat with a rolling pin. You move your little ship left and right, in order to not smash into a wall. The screen’s wraparound nature means you must often exit stage right, in order to reach a gap on the left. It’s easy at first, but soon becomes a tough endurance test.
9. Sky Force 2014 (iPhone/iPad)
Sky Force titles have been providing old-school shoot ’em up larks on the iPhone since 2009, but this latest release takes things to a whole new level.
It’s gorgeous, with beautifully rendered environments and waves of ships zooming about the place. More importantly, the addictive gameplay that’s the hallmark of the series remains intact, giving you a dazzling blaster with plenty of character for no coins at all.
The sole drawback is that it can get a bit grindy, although you can always spend some IAP on a star doubler to help you upgrade your craft more rapidly.
8. Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol (iPhone/iPad)
What-ho! The master of turn-based strategy takes to the air, in this rather jolly version of World War I ace pilots and their victories over the bally enemy. Essentially chess in the clouds, you strategise your way to the best locations for yelling “Chocks away!” and blasting foes into oblivion. IAPs open up more missions, but there’s plenty here for nowt.
7. Punch Quest (iPhone/iPad)
Most endless runners are more concerned with your character leaping about like a deranged bunny. Not here, where the heroes punch their way to victory. Jab! Uppercut! Slam! Pummel! Eight fingers and two thumbs are apparently all you need to defeat evil — at least until you discover power-ups and find a tame laser-spewing dinosaur to ride!
6. Groove Coaster Zero (iPhone/iPad)
The rhythm-action game distilled to its purest form, Groove Coaster Zero merely demands a single digit and a sense of timing. As the music plays, you prod, press or swipe at precise moments to build your chain. Throughout, your eyes are wrenched from your skull as the track whirls, dives, and gleefully fires dazzling vector shapes every which way.
5. Triple Town (iPhone/iPad)
Triple Town tasks you with building a city on a tiny grid-based board, using a match-and-combine dynamic that has a curious grasp of evolution. Three bushes make a tree! Three tombstones make a church! All the while, bears roam about, making a nuisance of themselves and blocking spaces. Your free moves slowly replenish (you can buy unlimited turns for £2.49/US$3.99), but that won’t bother you as you stare at the screen, trying to think a dozen moves ahead.
4. Royal Revolt (iPhone/iPad)
A young Prince is sent to Bogsmarts to learn about magic. While he’s gone, unruly relatives carve up his kingdom. That just won’t do. A total of 58 castles are therefore ripe for the taking as the Prince and his army set about hacking, smashing and magicking their way to victory in this charming and generous real-time strategy title.
3. Winter Walk (iPhone/iPad)
There are so many endless survival games these days that it’s almost impossible for one to stand out from the crowd. Winter Walk manages to do so by providing real heart and soul as you follow the simple adventures of a gent out for an evening constitutional.
It’s snowy and windy, and all you need to do is hold the screen so his hat doesn’t blow away during a pesky gust, while he natters on about gentlemanly things. (The same dev’s Autumn Walk is equally endearing and entertaining.)
2. Zombie Highway 2 (iPhone/iPad)
Imagine, if you will, Walking Dead, but every episode taking place with the protagonists belting along a highway, occasionally firing guns out of the car window at surprisingly sprightly zombies who lurk at the roadside before springing on to the car, and shaking it until it tips over, so they can eat all the BRAINZZ. The series would probably be shorter than that previous sentence, but, hey, the concept makes for a fun survival video game.
1. Hexiled (iPhone/iPad)
Hexiled cleverly subverts the word-game genre, having you fashion an escape route through a sparse universe of hexagons. As you drag out words, they vanish, and you can use the new tunnel’s edges to start more words. Your aim is to reach the edge of the huge hexagon and with it your freedom.
Initially, Hexiled is a piece of cake, but every successful escape removes seconds or even minutes from the clock during your next go. Therefore, what starts out as a sedate and noodly word game rapidly transforms into a frantic bid for survival. Stats wonks will also love the end-of-game screen, complete with definitions of the words used.