The 12 Best Games on the iPhone

Illustration: Sam Woolley
Illustration: Sam Woolley

Time was, iPhone games were a distraction. You’d play them on a commute, or while the water boiled, or during Destiny loading screens. But that was then, and this is now. In case you didn’t know, today’s options today are just as polished (and fun!) as many console counterparts. And now that there are more games on the App Store than stars in the Milky Way, some curation is imperative. That’s where we come in. Here are the best iPhone games on the market.

Screenshot: Supergiant Games

Transistor

At the start of Transistor, Red, a marquee-heading singer in the futuristic city of Cloudbank, loses her voice. She’s kneeling next to a nameless man with a sword (the eponymous Transistor) embedded in his chest. Somehow, his consciousness was copied over to the Transistor. A strange robotic army has swarmed Cloudbank. As far as plot, you needn’t and shouldn’t know more than that. You can call Transistor an action role-playing game, but that wouldn’t do it justice. The combat is a curious mix — part real-time sword-swinging, part time-based planning, part turn-based strategy — that takes a minute to get used to but quickly becomes second nature. It’s the atmospheric elements that really put Transistor in a class of its own, though. Despite the isometric perspective, some seriously inspired art direction makes Cloudbank one of those fictional landscapes you’d expect to see in a Travel + Leisure cover story. Well, maybe without the robot army.

A Good Match For: Music fans; the soundtrack, composed by Supergiant’s in-house maestro, Darren Korb, is unforgettable.

Not A Good Match For: The soulless.

Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Annapurna Interactive

If Found…

If Found… is an interactive visual novel organised around one simple mechanic: erase everything. The main character is Kasio, a twentysomething trans woman who’s returned home to Achill Island, in Ireland. Most of If Found… is told through her journal. As you flip through its pages, you’ll need to erase away the scribbles, doodles, and text to progress. A secondary plot takes place in the future, and centres around an astronaut named Cassiopeia. At the start, she discovers a black hole in our solar system, which obviously spells bad news. The two narratives interweave in ways you won’t expect, and you shouldn’t go in knowing more than that. This game is brief enough (about two hours or so) to take in in one shot.

A Good Match For: Anyone hungry to feel things.

Not A Good Match For: The impatient; If Found… isn’t exactly an action-packed game.

Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Thatgamecompany

Sky: Children of the Light

Don’t call it Journey. Even though Sky: Children of the Light shares a lot of DNA with Thatgamecompany’s previous iconic release, this game is very much its own thing. It’s another social game, in that other players populate your game world. They don’t have screen names, though; rather, you can assign names to faceless co-op partners yourself, which lends an air of mystique to interactions. The task at hand — rebuilding constellations by reviving fallen stars — is equally arcane. You accomplish it through a combination of environmental puzzles and light platforming (complete with a flying cape). As you complete constellations, more areas open up, with more constellations to complete. Beyond that, there’s very little hand-holding. It’s rarely crystal clear where you need to go. As with Journey, you wander until, suddenly, you’re no longer lost.

A Good Match For: Exploration fiends. People who like a little abstraction.

Not A Good Match For: The rare person who couldn’t stand Journey.

Read our impressions of the game.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Concerned Ape

Stardew Valley

C’mon, it’s Stardew Valley! Eric Barone’s farming sim has sold millions of copies across more than half a dozen platforms. There’s a good chance you know what it’s all about, but for those who don’t, here you go: Stardew Valley hands you, via inheritance, a humble spit of land in a small town. From there, your ostensible goal is to build up a farm. In addition to standard farming sim fare — fishing, cooking, Harvest Mooning — you also can plunder caves for materials (and some monster-hunting). The joy of Stardew Valley doesn’t come from mind-blowing game mechanics or a life-changing story. The joy is in the repetitivity. You talk to your fellow townspeople. You do your chores. You live every day as you do, all while time continues unabated and unbothered. As a result, Stardew Valley, despite its low-fi visuals, is one of gaming’s closest approximations of life — of all its fusses and lulls. Good luck finding a more introspective commute-waster.

A Good Match For: Those who are sick of Animal Crossing yet want to scratch that itch. The hungover.

Not A Good Match For: Those who are sick of Animal Crossing.

Read our impressions of the game, from a latecomer.

Study our tips for the game.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Devolver Digital

Gris

To say that playing Gris is like playing though painting, or playing out a poem, doesn’t do it justice. You play as a young woman, who starts out curled in a clearly broken emotional state in the literal palm of a goddess-sized statue. At its core, the gameplay consists of risk-free running and jumping. There’s no combat. You can’t “die.” When you start, the world is essentially stripped of colour. As you progress, you unlock more traversal abilities, and levels start to fill in with colour. A picture emerges: Gris isn’t just another profound indie platformer with a giant heart on its sleeve. It’s a meditation — on depression, on fleeting friendship, on finding the will to keep on keeping on. Best of all, you can play through the whole thing in a matter of hours. Hear! hear! to games that respect our time.

A Good Match For: Fans of indie games, great art, or terrific music (the Barcelona-based indie trio, Berlinist, composed a haunting, hopeful score that’ll shake you to your bones).

Not A Good Match For: Players seeking a challenge or an adrenaline rush.

Read our review.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Gameloft

Asphalt 9: Legends

It’s not easy to find a mobile racer that feels like a console game. Asphalt 9: Legends is as close as it gets. Like many other racing games, you get the keys to a garage full of the world’s most coveted rides — Beemers, Ferraris, Lambos — and push them to their limits on an envy-inducing travelogue. You’ll red out in some Insta-famous urbanscapes, like Rome and Shanghai, but also some less-travelled backgrounds. One level takes you through the idyllic Scottish countryside. Another zips through winding roads of the Himalayas. (Hey, we didn’t say Asphalt 9 gets points for realism.) But the best part of this racer is that, unlike many of its peers, it plays like the best console racing games: smooth and fast with just a little touch of Burnout-style ridiculousness. As a bonus, Asphalt 9 is quite a looker: It was one the recipients of the 2019 Apple Design Awards.

A Good Match For: Fans of Burnout, Need for Speed, Forza (Horizon), and other high-octane racers.

Not A Good Match For: Anyone who’s literally behind the wheel. Seriously: Don’t text and drive.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Zach Gage

Typeshift

Word games are a dime a dozen, but none match the brilliance of Typeshift. (Apologies to Word with Friends.) The conceit of Typeshift is simple: Turn all of the letters green as fast as you can. You do this by scrolling adjacent columns of letters, like a Merriam-Webster-branded slot machine, to arrange words in a centre row. If a letter is used in a word, it turns green. At the start, levels only have five columns. As you go, the amount of columns — and the difficulty — increases. Yes, you can size up your scores with others, but the true beauty of Typeshift is most apparent when you face off against the toughest intellectual opponent: yourself.

A Good Match For: Writers. Editors. Crossword enthusiasts.

Not A Good Match For: Anyone who hates Scrabble. Alec Baldwin.

Read our impressions of the game.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Square Enix

Hitman GO

Hitman games are famous for their open-ended sandboxes. At their best, they let you creep around a party or a museum, find your target, and creatively take them out. Hitman GO… doesn’t really do that. What it does do, however, is offer a bunch of smart, tightly designed puzzles that gradually become more complicated as you go, but are never too complicated to finish off in the space of a single bus ride. With its stripped-down board-game aesthetic and abstract violence, it may not look much like a Hitman game, but it still manages to capture the series’ meticulous, satisfying nature.

A Good Match For: Hitman fans, puzzle fiends, and people who like imagining what it means when one board game piece “assassinates” another board game piece.

Not A Good Match For: Those looking for an actual portable Hitman game.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Thekla, Inc.

The Witness

You’re alone on an island, surrounded by puzzles. That’s The Witness, an extremely complicated game that is really very simple. Some of the puzzles are obvious: They’re on screens right in front of you, stacked in orderly rows. Other puzzles are much less easy to find. All of them will stymie and confound you, but over time you’ll gradually dismantle them until the game’s grand design is laid out in front of you like the workings of a finely crafted watch. Some games make you level up your character to access new areas; this one makes you level up yourself. There are few more satisfying feelings in gaming than when you finally realise the solution to a puzzle in The Witness. With a click, a new door opens. The Witness carries over all its brilliance to mobile devices, and works well on the go.

A Good Match For: Puzzle fiends. People who like a challenge. Anyone who liked Myst and wants to see what a modern evolution would be like.

Not A Good Match For: Anyone wanting action. The easily frustrated. People who don’t like puzzles in games and generally just go look up the answers.

Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Study our tips for the game.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Inkle Studios

80 Days

By boat, by land, by airship, by giant mechanised city with legs, do you have what it takes to make it… Around the World in 80 Days? That’s the question at the heart of 80 Days, a fantastical re-imagining of Jules Verne’s famous novel that casts you as Passepartout, manservant to the gentleman Phileas Fogg. As a valet, you are responsible for packing the bags, negotiating at markets, and planning the itinerary on your journey ‘round the globe. Each trip will be different from the one before it, and thanks to the game’s peppy writing and frequent surprise detours, each trip will be a great deal of fun. 80 Days captures the joy and melancholy of travel with unusual wit and humanity.

A Good Match For: People who like interactive stories. Geography buffs. Fans of travel.

Not a Good Match For: Anyone looking for a low-investment, pick up/put down action game. Also, those who hate to read — the majority of 80 Days is text-based interactive fiction.

Watch it in action.

Purchase from: The App Store.

Screenshot: Sirvo

Threes

Threes is basically a game about kissing. And maths. You slide a bunch of little numbers around a tiled pad, trying to get two like numbers next to each other. If you can do that, they’ll get friendly and combine to form a new, bigger number. Keep on moving, keep on combining, and your score will climb and climb. Threes is an immaculately designed game made all the more winning for its aesthetics. Charming, musical, and deviously addictive, it’ll become your new iPhone obsession.

A Good Match For: People looking for a simple puzzle game to play on a commute, anyone who likes competing with their friends for high scores.

Not a Good Match For: People hoping for a deep story, those who prefer sub-standard clones.

Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Study our tips for the game.

Purchase From: The App Store

Screenshot: Square Enix

Final Fantasy Tactics

Easily one of the most celebrated video games of all time, Final Fantasy Tactics feels right at home on a mobile phone. It’s a sweeping saga, but individual turn-based battles unfold in manageable chunks, which makes it a fantastic commuting game. The mobile port brings over the dialogue enhancements from the PSP version, but with none of the framerate issues. If you haven’t played this classic, it’s absolutely worth downloading it. And even if you have, it’s never a bad time to play it again.

A Good Match For: Fans of turn-based games or tactics games. Anyone who loved the original and wants a good way to replay it.

Not A Good Match For: Those who prefer simple mobile games. Final Fantasy Tactics is a complex and challenging game that requires learning and mastering a ton of different abilities, classes, and strategies.

Read our impressions of the port, and our retrospective about the game’s legacy.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: The App Store

How has this list changed? Read back through our update history:

Update 6/6/2020: It’s been three years and 47 iPhones since we’ve updated this list, so a total overhaul was due. We kicked off Super Mario Run, Legend of Grimrock, Hearthstone, A Dark Room, Ridiculous Fishing, Reigns, and Framed 2. They’re all terrific, but we needed to make room for Typeshift, Asphalt 9, Gris, Stardew Valley, Sky: Children of the Light, If Found…, and Transistor, which, by some ridiculous oversight, didn’t get added the minute it released on the App Store. Kotaku regrets the error.

Update 11/16/2017: We’ve added Framed 2, The Witness, Legend of Grimrock and Final Fantasy Tactics, and taken off Framed, Drop 7, Device 6, and Final Fantasy IX.

Update 1/11/2017: We’ve added Reigns, Hearthstone and Super Mario Run while taking off Super Hexagon, Alto’s Adventure and Downwell.

Update 3/24/2016: We’ve added Final Fantasy IX and taken off Hoplite.

Update 1/6/2016: We’ve added Downwell and Alto’s Adventure to the list, and bumped off Asphalt 8 and Knightmare Tower.

Update 10/7/2015: We’ve added Hitman GO to the list, since it had been absent for far too long. It replaces Angry Birds Star Wars II.

Update 1/12/2015: Our list gets an overdue update as Framed, 80 Days, and A Dark Room bump off Infinity Blade III, Plants vs. Zombies, and Rayman: Fiesta Run.

Update 6/04/2014: Hoplite and Threes make their way onto the list as 868-HACK and Oceanhorn say goodbye.

Update 2/18/2014: With a new design comes an opportunity to totally overhaul the list. We’ve made a bunch of additions and subtractions: Goodbye Bad Hotel, Ghost Trick, Horn, Hero Academy, Need For Speed Most Wanted, and Temple Run 2. (All good games!) Hello Knightmare Tower, Device 6, Rayman Fiesta Run, Oceanhorn, 868-HACK, and Asphalt 8.

Update 09/20/13: There’s yet another new iteration of the iPhone out today so why not update the list of games that we think are best for Apple’s smartphone. Infinity Blade gets replaced by sequel Infinity Blade III and the same thing happens with Angry Birds Star Wars, as Angry Birds Star Wars II builds on its successes. If you have any money after getting a 5S, these games should be on your must-try list.

Update 04/18/2013: So long, Letterpress! You warmed our word-loving hearts but Ridiculous Fishing’s outdoor mayhem cannot be denied. Lock and load, everyone!

Update 01/28/2013: This time, Temple Run 2 bumps off Lili from the iPhone charts.

Update 11/16/2012: Angry Birds Star Wars unseats Angry Birds Space, Letterpress writes Bejeweled out of favour and Need for Speed Most Wanted passes Jetpack Joyride in this change to our list of the most attractive games on Apple’s mobile phone.

Update 09/21/2012: Ready for the iPhone 5? We’ve added two more Unreal Engine 3 games — Lili and Horn; the joyous frustration of Super Hexagon; the artsy and musical Bad Hotel; and the unique strategy stylings of Hero Academy. Apps dropped to make way for the new ones include Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, Edge, Eliss, Groove Coaster and Where’s My Water.

Want more of the best games on each system? Check out our complete directory:

The Best PC Games • The Best PS4 Games • The Best Games On PlayStation Now • The Best Xbox One Games • The Best Games On Xbox Game Pass • The Best Nintendo Switch Games • The Best Wii U Games • The Best 3DS Games • The Best PS Vita Games • The Best Xbox 360 Games • The Best PS3 Games • The Best Wii Games • The Best iPhone Games • The Best iPad Games • The Best Android Games • The Best PSP Games • The Best Facebook Games • The Best DS Games • The Best Mac Games • The Best Browser Games • The Best PC Mods

Note: If you buy any of these games through the links in this post, our parent company may get a small share of the sale through the retailers’ affiliates program.

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