We’ve nearly cashed out on 2014, and it’s time to look back and recognize that mobile developers are making some of the best games iPhone, iPad, and Android have ever seen.
I’ve polled the GamesBeat staff, and we’ve come up with a comprehensive list of 2014 apps that are all worth getting on your mobile device right now. The following are presented in no particular order.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Hearthstone was already one of our favorite games of the year before it made the jump to iPad and then to Android tablets. Having it just about everywhere (it’s not on phones or Windows devices yet), however, really solidified the card battler’s place as one of the hardest games to put down.
Everything about Hearthstone just feels so wisely designed to keep you coming back for more. The matches are short. Certain strategies are easy for beginners to understand while others require a deep knowledge of the game and are rewarding for high-level players. Many of the cards have special capabilities that are impossible with real cards, and that makes it feel like you are playing something that is a bit more magical than with tabletop games.
All of these aspects combine to make something that is always a blast to play. Having it with you all the time on an iPad or Android tablet means that you can always squeeze in a quick five-minute match, and the touchscreen controls ensure you’ll never get frustrated.
Free: iOS | Android
It’s easy to put mobile gaming in a tiny box. Phones and tablets? They’re great for slow-paced or turn-based apps but nothing else. But Retry proves this assumption isn’t true.
Retry is the first game from developer Level 11, which is a studio that works on experimental games at Angry Birds publisher Rovio. You control an erratic plane that is only capable of doing loops. You must guide this barely airworthy craft through courses filled with obstacles. It’s incredibly difficult, but that’s because the plane is so strange; the touchscreen controls do their job well.
The result is one of the first mobile game that captures the feeling you get when you are playing a skill-based game, and it shows just how versatile one-touch gaming really is.
Free: iOS | Android
It’s tough to find success on mobile since so many apps debut every week on Android and iOS, but great games still often find a way to shine through. That’s what happened with Monument Valley.
Its beautiful imagery caught the attention of players and critics, but it continued to gain buzz thanks to its interesting puzzle gameplay. Monument Valley has you controlling a little character in a white tunic and cap who must navigate architectural structures that do not make any sense. It’s up to the player to manipulate the world to help the hero get around the M.C. Escher-like worlds. Monument Valley doesn’t stress out the player, which means that it has a wide-reaching appeal even to people who don’t typically play games.
$4: iOS | Android
Tetris created a model for puzzle games that a lot of developers have found difficult to ignore, and Threes may end up doing the same thing.
Threes is a game that is all about combining multiples of the number 3. On a 4-by-4 field, you must slide together the numbers 1 and 2 to make 3. After that, you can only combine like numbers (3 with 3, 6 with 6, and so on) to make as large a number as possible. As with all great puzzle games, it’s a simple concept that is nearly impossible to master.
Threes is also ideal for the phone since it has no time limit and you can play with one hand. Other developers instantly recognized Threes as a brilliant idea, and a number of imitations have popped up on the app markets. But the original is still the best.
$2: iOS | Android
Hitman Go shows that smart publishers know that sometimes the best adaptations take a completely different look at a franchise.
The Hitman series is best known for its console games where you control an assassin who must find and take out targets in a fully realized 3D environment. Instead of trying to re-create that type of action-adventure game on iOS and Android, publisher Square Enix decided to turn Hitman Go into a turn-based board game. In this, your character is stuck on a track, and he must move along these rails one space at a time to get to the target without getting spotted. It’s an abstract interpretation of the franchise’s signature gameplay, and it turns the action into puzzles.
It doesn’t hurt that the developer decided to give Hitman Go a board game visual style. The characters all look like little plastic figures. Each level loads with an image of the box that contains the virtual pieces and board.
$5: iOS | Android
Interactive fiction games are often kind of dopey, and you might immediately imagine something like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. But 80 Days is one of those games that proves the genre’s value.
In 80 Days, you play as the manservant of a person who decides to race across the globe from city to city during a steampunk version of the 1870s. During the travels, you must make choices about how to spend your money and tend to your master, and the game responds to your decisions.
Its greatest quality is in its writing. It feels poignant and relevant even as you discover each city and the people who live in them. You’ll want to explore every area to see what new word-painting the developers will paint, and that lasts throughout the entirety of 80 Days.
$5: iOS | Android
Crossy Road is proof that developers can make something new and fresh by putting a small twist on a classic idea.
If you’ve ever played Frogger, than you already understand the basics of Crossy Road. You control a chicken or cat or whatever who must cross the road, river, or train tracks. Only the roads, rivers, and train tracks never end. It’s all about hopping as far as you can. That simple idea works because it always shows you when you’ve beat your friends. It puts lines in the world to show you the furthest everyone has ever gotten.
Crossy Road also features a beautiful art style with big, blocky polygons that cast square shadows on the ground.
Multiplayer online arena battlers like League of Legends and Dota 2 are easily among the most popular — and lucrative — games in the world, and now mobile may have its MOBA champion.
Vainglory is one of many recent MOBAs to hit mobile, but it’s the first to get just about everything right. It’s a great-looking game with uses the iPad’s and iPhone’s power to render detailed characters and tons of spell effects. The controls are simple, which enable you to quickly get into the deeper elements of Vainglory. The matches also never feel hopeless, and you always have a chance of battling back.
Some gamers spend all their time playing stuff like Dota 2, and now Vainglory looks like it could do something similar for people who prefer playing on a tablet.
The Room Two
Some of the best mobile games aren’t social or free-to-play — instead, they use the platform to let you interact with an intriguing world.
The Room Two is a puzzle game where you are secluded in a space and must look around and find the secrets of the items locked away with you. It’s visually beautiful, and the brain-stimulating riddles will keep you coming back as you peel away layers. As you do, you’ll learn lore about the plot through hidden notes and more.
The best part is that while so many other mobile games are trying to get your in-app purchases, The Room Two gives you hours of uninterrupted enjoyment for just a dollar.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
War games are usually only about shooting other people. Valiant Hearts finds value in exploring much more.
When publisher Ubisoft released Valiant Hearts earlier this year, many people didn’t know what to think about it. It’s a World War I adventure game and not a first-person shooter, as you might expect. Instead of having you firing weapons in huge battles, Valiant Hearts tells a story through graphic-novel style art. You get to see what the daily life of an infantryman was like.
Of course, Valiant Heart doesn’t skip over the battles, but these moments are also presented with storytelling techniques and highly expressive art. You also have smaller moments where you must use stealth to avoid getting caught behind enemy lines. It’s a different kind of game, and it’s one that shows off the power of the medium.
$15 (or $5 for each of 4 episodes): iOS | Android