Oftentimes, mobile gaming doesn’t get a fair shake. A lot of self-professed ‘hardcore gamers’ consider it beneath them, looking down on the mobile market like it’s something nasty the neighbour’s Great Dane left on their driveway while it had that stomach bug a couple months back.
That’s an industry-wide problem though, sadly. You’ve got PC gamers declaring themselves the master race, Xbox and PlayStation fans bitching back and forth at each other in the comment sections of YouTube videos, and Nintendo… well, doing their Nintendo thing and being completely uninterested in what everyone else is doing. Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t Xbox One and PS4 owners gather together in a Spring meadow, clasp hands and sing Ebony and Ivory together, as our forefathers intended?
In gaming, an open mind is essential. As I say, so many gamers missed that memo, but still. Regardless of your platform of choice, there’s always something you’re missing out on. At the great World Buffet of video games, you don’t want to be stuck just eating the same stale nachos that have been out for three weeks, do you? Get some variety on your plates, my friends, and embrace mobile games.
Sure, cellphone games have a certain notoriety for being stripped down and technically inferior, which is of course true to an extent. There’s no getting away from that sad truth, but there are also some real quality gaming experiences on offer for iOS and Android, made all the better for the unrivaled portability and convenience factor (which even dedicated portable consoles can’t hope to match).
There’s an overwhelming amount on offer, though, so how do you choose the essential apps? We’re here to help, friends. Settle in and check out 20 Free Mobile Games That Are Better Than Call of Duty.
20 Fire Emblem Heroes
You know who does seem to have embraced mobile gaming lately (at long freaking last)? Nintendo, that’s who. A year ago, the idea of a Mario title for phones would have outrageous, unthinkable blasphemy, but Super Mario Run is now a thing. As is Nintendo/DeNA collaboration Fire Emblem Heroes.
Co-developed by Intelligent Systems, creators of the Fire Emblem main series titles and Advance Wars, this turn-based strategy title sees you assembling an army of four iconic Fire Emblem characters. With them, you play through the main campaign or battle other players’ parties in the Arena mode. It’s not the fully-featured super deep experience that FE fans are accustomed to, but it’s tactical enough to keep their interest. It doesn’t lend itself to play binges either, what with the stamina system, but this is perhaps the best play-on-your-commute title I’ve ever played.
Indeed, Fire Emblem Heroes is a game I’ve found myself eschewing console titles for to play at home, which is about the highest praise a mobile release can get.
19 Plants vs Zombies Heroes
PopCap’s Plants vs Zombies has done phenomenally well for itself. From its humble beginnings as an what-the-hell-why-am-I-blowing-up-rows-of-zombies-with-jalapeno-peppers-what-is-this-crazy-talk oddity, this cute and comical tower defense franchise became a global superstar. The main game hit every system known to man (presumably being playable on some of Japan’s more high-tech refrigerators), there’s now a TPS series in the shape of Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare and it’s still a force to be reckoned with on mobile too.
In Plants vs Zombies Heroes, you play not with seed packets but a deck of 40 cards. It’s a collectible card game in the Hearthstone mold, in which you take turns placing cards on a five-lane board. As the name suggests, too, there’s a similar heroes mechanic in play too, making this a great one for Hearthstone fans to pick up. It’s light on the microtransactions, too, which is a real plus.
18 Jetpack Joyride
When it comes to mobile game mascots, Barry Steakfries is right up there with the best of them. The star of Monster Dash and Age of Zombies, he’s done the rounds on phones and tablets across the world, and been pimped out more often than that hooker with herpes from South Park. His finest hour, though, would probably have to be 2011’s Jetpack Joyride.
For me, this is the very essence of what a great mobile title should be. A simple concept (Steakfries has stolen a jetpack from a secret lab and must fly the greatest distance he can while evading security), gameplay to match (hold a finger to the screen to fly upwards, release to fall) and a progression and achievement system satisfying enough to help you keep on trucking. Add in developer Halfbrick’s trademark heaping helping of humour and you’ve got a real winner here.
17 Final Fantasy Record Keeper
As we’ve already seen, it’s always a great boon for a mobile game to arrive with a big name attached. There are few bigger than Final Fantasy and a free-to-play RPG set across the series’ iconic worlds was always going to get itself a lot of attention on launch.
The game took some time to reach the Western world after its Japanese launch in September 2014, but was certainly a success once it did. It’s an interesting title and one that does its best to provide a kind of greatest hits experience from across the series, by means of the paintings mechanic (the main character hops between magical paintings, each leading to a dungeon inspired by a different Final Fantasy title). It’s not one to spend hours on end with, as the dastardly and bastardly stamina meter is in play again, but franchise fans can’t go wrong here.
16 Angry Birds
Angry Birds, of course, needs no introduction. I’m sure you all remember this one conquering the planet/entire known universe back in 2010, crushing all mobile competition into spam beneath its mighty iron jackboot of pure dominance. Angry Birds was (and kind of still is, if you squint a bit) more than a game, it was a phenomenon.
Seven years later, the franchise has taken more twist and turns than the plot of the average Dan Brown novel. There’s the usual bird-firing puzzle variant, there are match 3 games, there’s a shoot ‘em up, even a fully-fledged RPG with equipment crafting. There’s also a movie, but we won’t talk about that because it’s terrible. Suffice it to say, there’s something for everyone in this franchise, that’s for damn sure.
15 Clash Royale
The collectible card game genre, as we’ve seen, fits the mobile platform like milk fits cereal. Like Beavis fits Butthead. Like alarmingly snug skinny jeans fit those guys you see walking around whose man-parts you really don’t want to be looking at. Along with tower defense games, the touchscreen control format is perfect for these sorts of titles.
Clash Royale utilizes both of these to great effect. It’s a pvp-centric experience that sees you trying to destroy more towers than your opponent. You play cards from a deck of eight, using them for both offensive and defensive purposes. Castle Crasher-esque aesthetic aside, Clash Royale sets itself apart from similar games with its clan mechanic, which allows players to team up, initiate friendly training battle with friends and spectate other clan members’ matches.
14 Pokémon Go
Pokémon Go, friends. Pokémon freaking Go. What can we really say about this one? Nintendo have been trying for decades to get us gamers up off of our big ol’ hairy sagging-over-the-edges-of-the-couch-cushion butts, with Wii Sports and the like, but Pokémon Go was the one. Go was the game that got us walking our dogs for the first time in four years.
The premise is a simple one. Via a Google Maps type program, and what I can only assume is some kind of dark sorcery on Niantic’s part, you can walk around your local area and catch Pokémon as you go. The game was plagued with bugs, glitches, spawn problems and some myriad other issues in the early days, but it’s better than ever now. Still a work in progress, sure, but the popularity of this one speaks for itself.
13 Flight Control
Like Angry Birds before it, Flight Control was a real phenomenon in its heyday. Now that it’s lost its bandwagon and/or hipster value (depending on your point of view), though, it’s a good time to get on board. Or back on board, really; this charming little strategy title still retains every inch of its addictive nature (inches being the standard unit of measurement for addictiveness, apparently).
You wouldn’t think that being a flight controller would be great fare for a quick stress-free mobile title, but Flight Control is another that does everything right. An accessible touch interface, a simple goal (draw paths for the oncoming planes, ensuring they reach the landing strips safely) and reams and reams of that one more go factor reviewers always talk about. A good time whichever way you slice it.
12 Mobius Final Fantasy
Back in the world of Final Fantasy (not to be confused with World of Final Fantasy; man this franchise has spin-offs out the wazzoo), Mobius is the latest mobile title to be released. It follows series stalwart Warrior of Light, as he awakens with amnesia in a town plagued by all manner of ghastly-ass demons. Yep, that is how the story of EVERY SINGLE RPG EVER begins, but stick with me here.
What makes Mobius Final Fantasy such a stellar mobile game? It’s remarkably faithful to the mechanics of the franchise, for starters; a dungeon-exploring RPG with levelling and customization governed by the job system. Some compromises had to be made when translating these elements to the hardware, but this is a real technical achievement right here. Especially when you consider the quality of the visuals. The game’s a solid 10 on that score and as any Tinder user will tell you, you don’t meet many 10s.
Sometimes, once in a blue and polka-dot moon, a spin-off comes along that officially becomes A Thing™ in its own right. Remember when Mario decided to try his hand at kart racing and the mighty Mario Kart was born? These are rare and blessed occurrences, friends, and they shape whole video game genres around themselves.
Hearthstone is one such example. A collectible card game from Blizzard based around World of Warcraft lore, it’s become a multi-million player phenomenon as well as a popular eSport. Gameplay is similar to Yu-Gi-Oh, seeing players take turns to summon monsters to attack their rival’s units, with the ultimate goal of depleting their avatar’s life. With an unrivaled sense of progression and the lure of new cards, Hearthstone is a mobile title with an absurd lifespan.
10 CastleStorm: Free To Siege
You’ve probably come across CastleStorm on another format. Since its release in 2013, this one’s hit just about every gaming format known to man, current gen as well as last. It’s a strategy title from Zen Studios, in which two rival kingdoms (the Northern Vikingland and the Southern Kingdom) vie for power. A mix of tower defense and physics-based destruction a la Angry Birds, this one hit mobile platforms as CastleStorm: Free to Siege.
The game translated perfectly to its teeny new Honey, I shrunk the Angry Barbarians home. It’s a more or less fully featured version of the original, benefitting somewhat from the touchscreen interface and quickfire nature of the missions. As far as console-to-phone ports go, this is one of the best you’ll ever see.
9 Layton Brothers: Mystery Room
Gamers who have DS-dabbled over the years will know of Hershel Layton. The nerdly professor in the top hat doesn’t look like a video game hero (more like he’s about to drop the most tedious-ass archaeology textbook of 2017), but don’t be fooled. The Layton games are some of the best titles on the system, a series of beautifully-presented and engaging puzzle games from Level-5.
For Layton Brothers: Mystery Room, the original developers teamed up with Matrix Interactive to create a similar, yet very different beast. As rookie detective Lucy Baker, fresh recruit of Scotland Yard’s top investigative team (the ‘Mystery Room’), you comb crime scenes and interrogate suspects as you progress through the game. As the lovechild of Layton and Ace Attorney, you just can’t go wrong with Mystery Room.
8 Heavenstrike Rivals
Developer Mediatonic have built themselves quite a cult following in the mobile arena. The tiny team from Merry Old England have dropped such PlayStation Mini glory as Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess, Who’s That Flying?! and 1000 Tiny Claws. None of which you’re likely to have heard of, but you should totally get in on them. I swear I didn’t dream them up. If snarky humor and unique takes on familiar genres is your bag, you can’t go wrong.
Anywho, point being, these guys released an App Store/Google Play RPG known as Heavenstrike Rivals in partnership with Square Enix and it’s as tactically diverse and engrossing as any console title. The core of the game lies in developing and customizing a squad from over 200 playable characters, bringing them into the arena and fighting others in the PvP leagues.
7 Flappy Bird
Ah, Flappy Bird. The game that launched a thousand relentlessly irritating Twitter memes. You know the ones. “I’m home alone” (Flappy Bird soars upwards triumphantly), “but I’m on my period” (Flappy Bird plummets and faceplants the floor). You couldn’t get your social media on at all some years back, without this little guy diving all over your screen.
Like Angry Birds before it, Flappy Bird took the accessible-and-addictive-avian-flavoured-gameplay ball and ran it to the end zone. Sporting simple controls akin to Jetpack Joyride, all you had to do was alter your trajectory to avoid the oncoming projectiles and keep on flappin.’ Monstrously, monstrously addictive stuff, particularly so if you have friends playing and you need to bring shame to them, their entire families and their ancestors by beating their highscores (the competition got heated, friends, believe me).
6 Sword Art Online: Memory Defrag
Sword Art Online is another of those Japanese success stories which is just beginning to find its legs out here in the big old scary West. It’s a niche prospect away from the land of anime, otaku, bunny costumes and disturbing tentacle-related adult entertainment, but the following is here. Like Monster Hunter, the series is becoming more mainstream and accepted with each new release.
The games are based on the novel series of the same name; RPGs with MMO elements that found a home on PSP and PS Vita. For the mobile spin-off, Memory Defrag, a different and innovative battle system was implemented. Now, I can count on one finger the number of games that have made touchscreen-tapping combat truly engaging and this is that game.
5 Game Dev Story
As we’ve seen through the course of this list, the mobile format seems more suited to some genres than others. Puzzlers, tower defense and other such titles fit iOS and Android as perfectly as one of Ed Gein’s creepy-ass skin gloves fits its former owners, while more involved games like RPGs and the like are tougher to pull off.
Strategy games and sims are also a challenge to get right on such limited hardware, but Kairosoft seem to have the Midas touch in that regard. This Japanese dev team is known for its charming, addictive and gorgeously pixel-y simulator games for mobile, the most popular of which (arguably) being Game Dev Story. In this one, you take ownership of a start-up game developer and must lead them to success by managing staff, sales and review scores.
Another entry from the super fun virtual world of the CCG, we have Shadowverse. Cygames’ effort grabbed Japan by the man-plums and wouldn’t let go last year, becoming the country’s most-played entry in the genre within a month. Unlike the World of Warcraft-centric Hearthstone, this one’s anime stylings are based on one of the dev’s previous efforts, Rage of Bahamut.
Shadowverse distinguishes itself from similar titles with a set of mechanics all its own. Perhaps the most welcome of these is the ability to ‘evolve’ cards you’ve already played, at the cost of evolution points (the equivalent of mana). Fans will also appreciate the game’s minimal RNG, a factor which often turns players off of this sort of title. It’s hipster Hearthstone, I guess you could say, which is probably enough of a selling point in and of itself.
3 Soccer Spirits
The convenient, always-there accessibility and connectivity of our mobiles is a powerful tool for game devs. They’ve used these factors, canny bastards they are, to hook us on the bittersweet phenomenon that is the gacha game.
Named after those dastardly gachapon machines (put your money in, toy comes out in a little capsule, hope it’s one you don’t already have, which you inevitably do, repeat until you’re trying to use your newborn son as collateral to get another loan from the bank), the term refers to titles that centre around the player ‘buying’ units. Soccer Spirits is a tactical sports title in which you have to acquire new players to bolster your team. The best of which, naturally, you only have a slim chance of acquiring.
As with Fire Emblem Heroes, it’s hard to fault the gameplay, but the morality? That’s a whole different issue.
2 Pokémon Duel
When it comes to Pokémon, it’s really no surprise that we’re double-dipping. After all, the franchise has seen more offshoots and spin-offs than you could shake an irritating little yellow rat mascot at over the years. The law of averages states that some of it will have to be worthwhile and Pokémon Duel certainly is.
The core of the series has always been the battles and Duel provides yet another twist on this. While Pokémon Rumble featured wind-up toys, here you fight with a custom set of Pokémon figures. It’s a board game, essentially, albeit a board game with huge raging fiery lizards of death as pieces. Which sounds several billion times more fun than Scrabble with your arthritic grandma. Which it is. Pokémon Duel isn’t as cheap with its gems as most, so get involved and progress away!
1 Plague Inc.
Now, I’m one hell of a hypochondriac. I’m the sort of guy who uses hand sanitiser after using hand sanitiser, lest any ninja bacteria hiding on the hand sanitiser bottle remain un-sanitised (they’re waiting on there, preparing to pounce down my throat and give me herpes. I just know it). So, for all intents and purposes, Plague Inc. is not the game for me. Your goal, after all, is to grow and develop a super-disease so that it wipes out the entire population of the planet.
While the game gives me a real sense of disquiet to play, I have to admire what Ndemic have done here. A hugely compulsive, varied and original strategy title, Plague Inc. has a huge and loyal following and was even ported over to consoles and PC (rather than vice versa) in the shape of Plague Inc: Evolved.