Still spend most of your iPhone gaming time glued to big-name best-sellers like Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope, and Draw Something? Nothing wrong with that, but you're missing out on a mobile landscape teeming with incredibly varied, beautiful, and inventive games in cheap (or even free) packages.
From brain-busting puzzlers to epic action romps, these are just a handful of the iPhone games you should be playing these days.
Waking Mars (Tiger Style) - $4.99
What to expect: Exploration, adventure, and puzzle-solving
Explore the labyrinth of caverns under Mars in this eerie and joyfully original platforming adventure game. Life on Mars exists in the form of varied and sometimes hazardous plant life — jetpack your way around the tunnels, planting seeds and bringing a complex-yet-intuitive ecosystem to life. It's visually enchanting, with perfect touch controls and a well-crafted gradual learning curve. Botany has never been this much fun.
Puzzle Juice (Colaboratory) - $0.99
What to expect: Cross-genre word and puzzle game
Big fan of Tetris? What about Bejeweled? Ever done a word search? If you think those games are challenging, trying playing all three at once. Or just play Puzzle Juice, which somehow combines three awesome games without overwhe-- well, OK, it's utterly stressful. But it's the kind of entertaining stress that classic puzzle games have been wooing us with since video games began.
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Sky Gnomes (Foursaken Media) - $0.99
What to expect: Race against the clock, customization, league competition
Lawn gnomes freefall to the ground in this cute, customizable racer. Elegant single-touch controls let you steer your ship to collect snowflakes, coins, and power-ups while avoiding natural hazards like rainclouds and sunbeams. Every race earns you virtual goods to spend in the store for upgrades -- you can speed your progress along by coughing up real-world cash, but the game's well integrated online league system will promote you to tougher divisions if you outperform too quickly. The real challenge? Stopping yourself from taking "just one more dive."
Plants vs. Zombies (Popcap) — $2.99
What to expect: Cartoonish tower-defense, lots of ridiculous zombies
The only thing that will stop the rampaging hordes of brain-eating zombies is… some plants in your backyard? The quintessential fun-for-all-ages arcade/strategy "defense" game, this hit tasks you with harnessing sunlight to grow vicious plant life to fend off waves of zombies. An overgrown "wall-nut" can be used to delay your common flesheater, but when they come running in with a pole-vault, you might need to shoot snow peas to slow them down. A big recent update adds even more modes to this already-bursting gaming garden.
What to expect: Tiny turn-based strategy
Swords with Friends? That's about the gist of Hero Academy. A simple but addictive turn-based strategy game, this gem lets you battle for control over a small arena by casting spells, swinging axes and generally trying to outthink your opponent. The matches are over quickly, too, making this a nice pickup for those who love to take turns but are a little bored with word games.
You Don't Know Jack (Jellyvision) - $2.99
What to expect: Game-show style trivia
The folks at Jellyvision made the You Don't Know Jack brand pretty big in the 90s, and the formula still works today for iPhone — quick-hitting multiple choice pop culture trivia delivered in a pseudo-TV game show format. The narrator adds a lot of color commentary, which can slow down the proceedings, but his jokes are more hits than misses, at least.
Dungeon Raid (Playhaven) - $2.99
What to expect: Match 3 in a row with RPG elements
Take the tropes of a classic Dungeons & Dragons game — health potions, spells, hit points, monsters — and then abstract it all into a match-3 puzzle game. It doesn't sound exciting, but in the case of Dungeon Raid, it's immensely addictive. Each game is a tense gauntlet to upgrade your character's attributes fast enough before the dungeon's denizens overwhelm you. You can customize how your next game is played by picking different character classes that alter abilities and sway what powerups become available. Deep and rewarding, it's a high value.
Beat Sneak Bandit (Simogo) - $2.99
What to expect: Rhythm-tapping and platforming
There isn't a genre for Beat Sneak Bandit. It's a stealthy platform game that requires rhythm-tapping to move your bandit around a mansion, hunting for clocks whilst avoiding security guards and floodlights. The jazzy music and art-deco visuals are a treat. It can be frustrating if you're rhythmically challenged, but the inventiveness will win most over.
World of Goo (2D Boy) - $2.99
What to expect: Puzzle-solving, quirky story, terrific art
This award-winning puzzle game is almost four years old (with a more recent conversion to the iPhone), but its incredibly clever physics-based mechanics have not aged one bit. Create towers from stretched balls of goo to form a path for other goo balls to slide along and reach their metal pipe destination. The wonderful art style, humor, and sound design all lend to a sublime experience.
Triple Town (Spry Fox) - Free
What to expect: Addictive, simple strategy
Already a popular game on the PC, this town building puzzler is a fantastic match for the iPhone. The task is simple: populate a town by matching up grass, trees and buildings, while contending with limited space issues and lots of very annoying bears. In-game purchases can help you get an edge, but you can also play it for hours on end without dropping a dime.