Once upon a time, there were no genres. This goes for games, movies, books—pretty much anything you can think of. Take cars for example: not much of a point in debating the finer points of a hybrid mini-SUV’s family-storage moonroof camper package when it’s 1908 and there’s only one car, right? In the gaming world, the total explosion of Space Invaders in ’78 kicked off the splintering effect of gaming types. Granted, it was a few years before home consoles blew up and there became a need for genre differentiation, but the change was rapid and permanent. We all know that the Zelda series are adventure games, the Madden and FIFA franchises are sports games, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter, and so forth.
It’s not that difficult to determine where in our game taxonomy to slot a title. Mobile games are no exception, nor are they particularly new to the conversation—gaming on things that don’t play games as primary functions ranges back to the TI-83 calculator games we used to hide in our laps during math class. iPhone and Android have become widespread and legitimate gaming platforms, and the growth of the market around mobile games has been absolutely bonkers, and we (gamers and developers) seem to be kind of at a loss for words. Games tend to inherit their console/PC parent genres (Angry Birds is a physics game, Where’s My Water? is a puzzler, etc.), and so on.
While plenty of new words are entering the vernacular, like “Twitch games” and “freemium,” let’s not take the importance of the “mobile” part for granted. “Mobile” is so much more than “on a phone,” or “miniaturized web/console." It’s the potential and constraint of a four-inch touchscreen and millions of different pairs of hands; it’s the plot retention of someone playing once a week; the one-handed gameplay of a subway commuter; the two minutes I can leave the sink running in the bathroom and sneak in a game of Scramble—all wrapped in the fleeting attention span of someone with access to thousands of other games.
What words will we associate with the mobile platform as it matures? There are definitely some trends—clever input schemes, short gameplay sessions, ultra-fast learning curves, headphone-friendly soundtracks—but the diversity among awesome titles out there is incredible. Beyond the Angry Birdses of the world, there are piles of really kick-ass titles out there that have helped push, polish, and define mobile gaming, so let’s look to them, first. Just for fun, we can slap on some made-up genres, too. If you’re an avid gamer or just hopping into mobile gaming on your new commute (‘grats on the new job!), if you’re looking for a first game to pick up, or an oldie you might have missed, may I present to you, in no particular order:
Seven Super-Great Mobile Platform Ambassadors
We’re calling it: Point-and-click action/slasher
Why it’s here: Simplicity, natural interface, doesn’t require frequent or prolonged attention
Yes, the sequel’s been out for a while, but the first one’s better. This game is a short, repeating adventure of mostly-inconsequential plot, peppered with escalating combat sequences. There are a handful of distinct paths you can take as you play through—just enough to stave off monotony—helped in no small part by how stupidly beautiful the game is. See, the whole thing is rendered using Unreal Engine 3, so long story short: very pretty. Even better on iPad.
The meat of the game, though, is the combat. Encounters set the camera over your character’s shoulder, and you fight by slashing, parrying, poking, and dodging with simple gestures. The battle system is fun, clean, easy to understand, and scales nicely in difficulty. It also rewards patience and close timing, which makes the game crazy engrossing. And remember how that plot is repetitive and inconsequential? Great for commuting. Finally, as you battle your way through, you earn coins, coins turn into new gear, more fighting upgrades the gear, and so forth, so there’s always a carrot to keep you moving. This upgrade scheme is hardly uncommon in mobile games, and while it does artificially extend gameplay without adding actual content, it works pretty well on mobile.
The only reason this game gets a nod over its (even prettier, my goodness) sequel is that Infinity Blade II jumps the upgrade and gear system clean over the shark and overly complicates the point-and-click pathing. Simplify, simplify. That said, if you’ve played Infinity Blade, definitely check out II, because dual-wielding is pretty neat.
We’re calling it: Retro geometry physics puzzler? I don’t even know.
Why it’s here: Aggressive minimalism, multi-touch, consistent style
Everything about Eliss is stripped out, and playing it feels like testing the concept designs for a game that was never made. And you know what? It’s good that it was never made, because Eliss is perfect just as it is. See, all’s ya gotta do is combine and split colored circles by pinching and pulling, and guide them into circular gates of the same color. If circles of different colors touch, the game makes a horrible buzzing sound and you lose health. The whole ordeal takes place with solid shapes on a black background, circles and gates come and go, and if you get however many circles gated without losing all your health, you move on to the next level.
It turns out these simple rules of engagement leave room for sneakily complicated gameplay. Imagine what happens when a vortex opens up in the middle of the screen, pulling everything together. Now your hand is clawed over the phone, three fingers keeping three differently-colored circles from colliding while two others pull other circles into gates, and the gates are disappearing, and there are more circles, and a big red floating thing that can’t touch anything, and you’re panicking.
We’re calling it: Physics puzzler
Why it’s here: Excellent balance, cohesive, tight design, short-attention-supportive
This is a very simple would-be web game that wasn’t. See, it has all the makings of a port-from-web—single-screen levels, three stars to collect each level, escalating complexity—but it’s so much more than that. Contre Jour is dark, and kind of eerie for a puzzle game. The soundtrack is a looping piano melody, and it’s sweet-sounding at first, but like a child playing a toy piano in an empty mansion, it gets creepy in a hurry. The scenery and characters, meanwhile, are mostly scary little eyeball things that, the more you interact with them, start getting awfully cute. The scenery is moody, and swirls with the piano, pulling you in and helping you forget how silly and small your iPhone screen is.
This game is a triumph of design. Its art, sound, gameplay—everything, really—combine for a cohesive, engrossing mobile puzzler with surprisingly high replay value. At four worlds and 20 levels per, it’s also easy to pick up and put down for a week at a time, and the difficulty scales very comfortably. Eventually you’ll find yourself having to react awfully quickly, often with both hands, to achieve whatever acrobatics will get you through the level… but each escalation is natural, and you never feel like the game is overreaching the platform or giving you a hard time for no reason.
We’re calling it: Good ol’ point-and-click adventure
Why it’s here: The exception that proves the rule
With all the talk about ingenuity in mobile gaming, it’s worth pointing out the quality of this straight up PC-to-mobile port. Because the original input was all single mouse clicks about pre-rendered backgrounds, Myst translates really easily to the iPhone, and in many ways makes more sense on mobile than it has on any platform since PC. You ever play a point-and-click game on a console? It’s not very satisfying.
Myst’s only drawbacks are holdovers from the original PC game—some smaller items are difficult to click, it’s easy to lose the plot, and a couple of the puzzles involve annoying amounts of backtracking. Still, for a solid nostalgia kick, it really doesn’t get much better than Myst, in all its spooky, iconic glory, on your iPhone. 7th Guest is another good example of an easy point-and-click port, but the iOS version is buggy as hell, and that game was always kind of weird and hard to play anyway.
We’re calling it: twitch/running game
Why it’s here: amazing distillation of a twitch game
You tap on the title screen. A building crumbles loudly as a tiny man runs toward a window. He trips over a box and his pace drops. You tap the screen. He jumps over the next box, smashes clean through the window, and goes tumbling to the rooftops below. Landing with a roll, he gets up and runs as totally badass chase music builds in the background. Tap to jump. Boxes slow you down. Don’t die. You died? Tap the screen. A building crumbles loudly as a tiny man runs toward a window…
Canabalt is a pristine one-button game, and while it got its start as a Flash one-off, its total simplicity makes for a nearly perfect mobile title… and I don’t think I’m alone here. Since its quiet release in 2009, running games have all but become a genre of their own. Just search the App Store for “running game,” and while you might not find Canabalt at the top of the list anymore, you’ll see a glimpse of the dozens that have chased its wake.
We’re calling it: Driving/twitch zombie shooter
Why it’s here: Great use of accelerometer, great fun, great replay value
Oh, Zombie Highway, you are such a silly game. Drive through a post-whatever wasteland down a long, straight highway, dodging barricades of overturned cars. Also, (tap to) shoot the zombies that are jumping on your side windows and trying to overturn your vehicle. Or better yet, slam them into the sides of passing barricades. Aptly named game, right?
And yes, slaughtering the undead is always a good time, but the key to Zombie Highway is the way the control scheme pairs with the gameplay. You drive by tilting the phone, which is easy enough, but you live and die by your ability to swerve, and the more zombies on your car, the more dangerous swerving becomes. When you’re about to hit the score threshold to unlock the next difficulty, and you’ve got four zombies breathing into a rocking SUV, you may catch yourself feeling a little more high-alert than you’d expect. The weapons, meanwhile, are a ton of fun, plus give you something to upgrade other than your vehicle. To give it some replay value, the game also offers a variety of challenge modes to accompany a full weapons loadout—limited visibility, icy surfaces, bigger zombies, and so on. Thing is, it’s entirely worth churning through miles of be-zombied wasteland to get those upgrades, because the only word I can use to describe the crunch of two giant zombies side-swiped into the nose of a wrecked semi, followed by the ka-chunk of a harpoon taking a goon clean off my passenger door… “Joyful.”
We’re calling it: Immersive adventure game
Why it’s here: Possibly the best of all the mobile games?
I want to put this game on every list of anything good, ever. Thing is, it’s hard to say just a little bit about it. S&S EP is a side-scrolling point-and-click adventure, but to say that is hardly doing the game justice. The story is wonderfully drawn with deceptively polished pixel graphics, the writing is concise and clever, and the soundtrack is breathtaking. The soundtrack, actually, is what I think makes the game so special. Curl up on your couch with a pair of headphones, because every transition, shift, and event in the game has perfect sonic pairing.
For all the flak people on their phones get for tuning out the outside world, walking into street lights, and so forth, that small-screen tunnel vision is conducive to oddly immersive gaming, and S&S EP nails it. Just…just go play it.