One of the primary reasons I decided to get an iPhone over an arguably better Android device is that I was tired of always being behind in the mobile-gaming scene. Android has a bigger library, and more freedom where games are concerned, but it always felt like the big-name games, and what seemed to be the quality titles, hit the iPhone first and often exclusively. I’ve had an iPhone for a few years now, first the 5 and now the 6, and I am surprised to say that it’s become one of my primary devices for both casual and serious gaming. Here’s a handful of the titles that are keeping me busy lately.
Final Fantasy Record Keeper – Free on the App store with in-game purchases (that you basically never need to buy)
I described this game on Twitter as “nostalgia crack.” I grew up playing Final Fantasy games, and am still growing up playing them. I don’t miss a single one, regardless of how critics damn them. Record Keeper is a unique (as far as I’m aware) take on the RPG structure. It is pure progression, which is where the “crack” part comes in, and features all of my favorite moments and characters from the past twenty years of my Final Fantasy infatuation. The game seems complicated at first, and the tutorials are a mixed bag, but once you understand the basic gameplay loop, the game sucks you in to its progression mania. I want to unlock every character I can. I want to level up those characters, their weapons, and fill in every little progress bar possible. In many ways, this type of experience is the bane of quality games, the kind with deep and meaningful stories and well-developed characters. On the other hand, I’ve played those games, many of them Final Fantasy games, and this taps into my memories enough that it’s giving me a positive experience on top of fulfilling those neural feedback hits that most of us look for on our phones. This game also renders almost every character from FF history into the 16-bit style of FFVI, and that makes me egregiously happy.
Lara Croft Go – $4.99 on the App store
Before 2013, I’d never played a Tomb Raider game. I remember watching a friend play through one of the original PlayStation titles in high school, but its polygonal ugliness and obvious character exploitation (and not the good kind, like Pootie Tang) turned me off. 2013’s reboot of Tomb Raider opened my eyes, and so my ears were in-turn open this year when all anyone could talk about was Lara Croft Go. Having played and enjoyed Hitman Go, I decided to try it. And it’s good; really good and more developed than Hitman Go. It’s all puzzles, with satisfying collection mechanics, and a simple story, but one told in elegant wordlessness. It also solves the problem of cognitive dissonance so prevalent in the new Lara Croft games. Lara isn’t butchering hundreds of humans, and in fact never encounters a single one. She may shoot a snake here or there, but that’s the extent of her violence. Rather, she’s solving puzzles and collecting treasure, also known as tomb raiding, and that’s really what adventure should be. The game is beautiful, with that simplistic art-style so common on phone games, and it’s perfect for short sessions of gaming (ie: the toilet).
Neko Atsume – Free on the App store, with in-game purchases that allow you to buy more fish (totally unnecessary)
I downloaded Neko Atsume somewhere around April or May, for free, and haven’t paid a single penny for it (something I should feel guilty about because I’d pay for this game if there were any need to). Since then, I have collected cats almost every single day, never for long, maybe for a few minutes a day, but every day. Neko Atsume isn’t even really a game, as definitions go. It’s a Japanese cat watcher, or “kitty collector” as the title claims. When I originally downloaded the game, it was all in Japanese (it’s since been translated), and I only knew of it from a few podcasts where it was mentioned, often in whispered tones as people seemed embarrassed to love it so much. The basic premise of the game is that you have a cartoon backyard where stray cats can and will wander. It is your job to fill this yard with toys and food, and in return the cats will leave you fish. You use this fish to buy more toys and food. That cycle repeats indefinitely. THERE IS NO OTHER POINT TO THE GAME than feeding these cats, watching them play, and taking their picture. It’s adorable, and everyone should play it. Beware the fat cat; he will eat all of your food.
Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition – $9.99 on the App store, I bought during a sale for $4.99
When I heard that they were re-making the Baldur’s Gate games, it hurtled me back to a decade ago when I was obsessed with CRPGs. Baldur’s Gate I and II were the first games I ever played that felt anything like Dungeons and Dragons, largely because they were set in Faerûn, a fantasy world made popular by D&D. The Baldur’s Gate games translated the obscure rules of D&D into a playable form, and while they lacked a lot of the role-playing freedom inherent to table top gaming, they did so much right that I fell in love with them immediately. Still, I was hesitant to pick up the re-made version of either of these games. I did not want to tarnish the memories of endless college hours spent slogging through dungeons and hearing that timeless phrase, “Go for the eyes, Boo!” On a whim and a sale, I decided to download the iPhone version of BGII, which is likely the worst format for it. This game holds, up, and while playing on the phone leaves much to be desired from a control standpoint, it’s still the game I loved. It really is a bear to play with the fingers, even on the monster that is the iPhone 6, but that’s my only real complaint. The price point is steep at 10 bucks, but it comes with the Throne of Blood expansion, as well as a couple minor content packs that I’ve never played through before. I wouldn’t buy another one of these games for the iPhone, but they are more than worth the ten dollar price tag on an iPad or PC.
Monument Valley – $3.99 on the App store, with a $1.99 expansion
It was hard not to hear about Monument Valley this year. It was hailed by many as the reason to be invested in iPhone gaming. It’s a beautiful puzzle game, easily played on the phone, with a well written, understated story and mind-bending challenges. It lives up to its hype. It utilizes 3D mechanics in its puzzles, making you rotate the objects on the screen in much the same way that Fez did a few years ago. I enjoy this trend of puzzle games that force you to use your mind in ways that most haven’t been able to. We have three dimensional minds, and looking at a flat screen and trying to use logic to uncover the solution to a puzzle doesn’t always feel intuitive. Tetris did this better than anyone, but Monument Valley wraps its thoughtfulness in beautiful clothes and feels more progressive than simply deleting lines in a never ending grid. And as a bonus, the game plays in portrait mode, which is rare and perfect for those times when you want to look like you’re doing something important on your phone but just want to play games.
Prune – $3.99 on the App store
Trees + Japanese aesthetic = Perfection. Prune is exactly what the title suggests, and as someone who has taken an active interest in pruning real trees over the past year, I can stay that it holds up from a technical standpoint. The idea of Prune is to cut the branches of a tree in such a way as to maximize the tree’s growth; much like real pruning. The higher the tree reaches, the more likely it is to catch the light of the stars above, and once it collects enough of that starlight, you complete the level (real trees do not do this, to my knowledge). The challenges become more complicated as you progress, and once you’ve beaten the game you can return to a level and try to collect the blue stars, which are often incredibly high up and require some serious pruning expertise. This is a beautiful game. Maybe the most beautiful game on the iPhone. The style is simple, and there’s not even a large color palette, but its minimalism is its very strength. Controls are simple, you simple swipe your finger where you wish to prune a branch, and you can zoom in with a pinch to make a more surgical cut. Prune is part puzzle game, and part zen experience, and the kind of thing I can see myself coming back to for years to come.