It’s been a memorable year for mobile gaming but which apps have deserved their success and which are the hidden gems?
2019 has been a big year for mobile games. It saw the launch of the subscription-based Apple Arcade, to a rapturous reception, and it’s also the year mobile first person shooters finally came good with Call Of Duty: Mobile. Although Nintendo’s reputation took a hit with Mario Kart Tour proving to be the kind of hollow, exploitative touchscreen game nobody would have imagined from the company that made Mario.
And although there’s no way anyone could ever hope to play every one of the overwhelming tsunami of mobile releases this year, these have been some of our favourites.
Photographs – Puzzle Stories for iOS & Android, £3.99 (EightyEight Games)
Featuring a cast of characters built around an apothecary searching for a cure, Photographs tells five stories of tragic unintended consequences that all flow from noble intentions.
Mixing mini-games and photography – capturing sections of its cute, pixel art landscapes with a virtual camera – it’s fun although not particularly light-hearted, its pervasive sense of melancholy leaving a lasting impression.
Still, it’s not often that storytelling and video games are woven together so eloquently, let alone in a mobile game.
Battle Chasers: Nightwar for iOS & Android, £9.99 (HandyGames)
Nightwar is almost like three games blended together: one about exploring and revealing a map, another a dungeon crawler, and the third a turn-based tactical fighter. It’s to developer Airship Syndicate’s credit that it all hangs together in a wonderfully compelling whole.
Ported from consoles, its scale and production values dwarf the vast majority of mobile games, giving it a sense of grandeur and scope often missing on the small screen.
It even has a New Game+ mode to further extend longevity and let long-term players capitalise on their time investment.
Astrologaster for iOS, £3.99 (Nyamyam)
Told with a mixture of branching conversations and song, Astrologaster is set in London during the plague, a time when people were desperate for medical intervention and very little was available.
That’s just the opportunity quack doctor, Simon Forman has been waiting for, his list of patients suddenly exploding when all London’s real doctors run away to the comparative safety of the countryside.
Charming, witty, and with a rare sense of consequence to your – often near-random – decisions, Astrologaster is based on the life of the real Simon Forman, a man whom players will be glad they never met while suffering from bubonic plague, or indeed any physical ailment.
Starbeard for iOS & Android, £2.99 (Jolly Good Games)
Another day, another match-three puzzle game, but this time things are a little different. Rather than simply matching three or more objects and watching sparkly icons vanish, this has you protecting a garden from invading pests by recharging and deploying your characters’ unique abilities.
What begins as a simple exercise rapidly gains serious tactical involvement, each move you make either setting you up for your next turn, or accidentally painting you into a corner from which it can be hard to recover.
Deep, thought-provoking and complex, Starbeard is a superb game that’s been receiving regular updates since launch.
The Unlikely Legend Of Rusty Pup for iOS, £4.99 (Gory Detail Ltd)
Introduced by a pair of arguing narrators, one on the side of good, the other quite clearly evil, your job is to help the titular robo-dog get across treacherous levels by shifting pieces of scenery to make a safe path.
Guided by lights, which Rusty automatically walks towards, its underground levels get steadily more intricate, requiring long chains of moves to eke out a route through the metallic chaos.
With a delightfully British sense of humour, rhyming storytelling, and a huge and challenging campaign, it’s a miniature work of art made by some of the people responsible for Rare’s greatest hits.
Zombie Night Terror for iOS & Android, £5.99 (Plug In Digital)
Whilst the zombie apocalypse is by now so familiar to gamers that it’s almost like coming home, Zombie Night Terror puts you on the side of the undead, guiding them, Lemmings style, to victory over heavily armed but less numerous human defenders.
The side-on view and 16-bit-style artwork contain incredible levels of detail, from the way the shotgun-toting guards smoke a cigarette as they’re waiting for the horde, or party-goers screaming and doing their best to escape the reanimated corpses you send to chase them.
Although certainly not easy, and with moments that force you to restart quite lengthy levels for a trivial mistake, it remains a great game of real-time tactics.
Cultist Simulator for iOS & Android, £6.99 (Playdigious)
Appropriately for its subject matter, Cultist Simulator generated its own somewhat fanatical following. And it’s not surprising, because gaining anything even approaching an understanding of the game is a serious and fairly long-term undertaking.
With absolutely no instructions or training, you’re instead instantly left to fend for yourself in what is effectively a card-based life simulator. Each card you play can be modified with another to deliver anything from a day’s paid work, to hiring a thug to commit murder on your behalf.
You don’t even have time to think, a countdown constantly ticking down as you navigate a complex narrative and the randomly discovered cards you’ve been dealt. Made by developers who worked on Failbetter’s Sunless Sea, the quality of the prose and its Lovecraftian morbidity will stay with you for a long time.
Dead Cells for iOS, £7.99 (Playdigious)
It’s been out for a couple of years on PC and consoles, but Dead Cells’ arrival on mobile neatly coincided with the ability to pair iOS 13 with Xbox and PlayStation controllers, which despite the very competent touchscreen implementation, is the only way to stay competitive as you progress through this spectacularly complete and well-rounded roguelite.
Working your way through 2D procedurally-generated levels, you fight monsters and do your best to keep your health bar up as you work your way towards its final boss and another Boss Stem Cell that increases the difficulty even further.
It remains a magnificent experience thanks to taught mechanics and a beautiful art style, as well as generously frequent and completely free updates from French developer, Motion Twin. An Android version is apparently in the works for 2020.
Telling Lies for iOS, £6.99 (Annapurna Interactive)
In Telling Lies, you’re given a screen with a search window that gives you access to a database of witness statements. You’re then left to your own devices.
As the story’s protagonists speak and interact, their words appear as subtitles at the bottom of the screen, letting you highlight and search the rest of the database for key phrases. It gives you complete control over what you investigate and how you proceed to unpack the stories with which you’re presented.
It’s a captivating process, and quite unlike any other game you’ll play, with the notable exception of Her Story, which is also developed by Sam Barlow.
Star Traders: Frontiers for iOS & Android, £6.99 (Trese Brothers)
If you’ve been yearning for a fully featured 4X space opera that you can play on a train or plane, Star Traders: Frontiers represents a total fulfilment of that very specific wish.
Starting as a captain on his or her first mission, you’re given carte blanche in terms of how you want to proceed, whether as a merchant, explorer, pirate, delivery boy, or opportunistic hybrid. You’ll also meet numerous factions, whose representatives will either become your friend or foe depending on how you treat their allies.
Utterly open-ended and capable of devouring as many hours as you’re prepared to throw at it, Frontiers is a crowning achievement, and one that will continue to fascinate for years to come.