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What makes a great mobile game? Eye popping visuals? Solid gameplay and controls? Ease of entry, pick up and play features? Are casual games the best suited for Apple’s disruptive gaming device? What about core gaming, is it yet possible on these magical devices? What about social games, shooters, platformers?

The answer: Yes. All of these make great games, and the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad will play them.

Apple’s iOS devices and operating system have proven to be a popular and disruptive force in gaming. Games of all stripe compete in the same marketplace; there are games for just about every type of gamer – and non-gamer – out there. From simple to complex, intuitive to intelligent, iOS games are the next big thing to happen in the gaming world. Since there are more than 100,000 titles to choose from, we thought it might be fun to take a moment here to look at our picks for the top ten iOS games from 2011.

Dead Space for iPad
Released: Jan 24, 2011
Platforms: iPad & iPhone
Seller: Electronic Arts
The idea that mobile gaming is not competition for dedicated handhelds like the DS or the Sony PSP continues to become more and more outdated, as can be seen with this early 2011 release for the iPhone and the iPad, Dead Space, from game publishing titan Electronic Arts (EA). It’s not a port of the console game, but a sequel set three years after the events in the original. This was the first game that found us just as terrified as we were in the original, with a touch-based combat system that, while initially clunky, does its job and gets out of the way. A fully immersive console-quality game like Dead Space available on your smartphone? Sign us up! The best platform to play this on, however, is the iPad – with the faster processor and bigger screen, Dead Space for iPad shines. Well, as much as a game set in the dark scary vastness of space and the dark stay claustrophobic corridors of a destroyed spaceship can shine. And that’s just the thing. This game scared the crap out of us, both in the creepy settings and jump out at you monsters as well as in the sound design alone. The little creaks, not-quite-far-enough-away scuttling sounds, and distant roars of unknown horrors really take this from third person shooter port to something approaching gaming nirvana.

Jetpack Joyride
Released: Sept 1, 2011
Platform: Universal App
Seller: Halfbrick Studios
Canabalt may have been the indie darling that popularized the endless running genre, but Jetpack Joyride, from industry veterans Halfbrick Studios, is the current ruler of the roost. With so much to do, see, and play in this well designed and just darn fun to play game, it’s easy to get spoiled and just forget there are other endless runners out there. They’re all left in the dust, though, as Jetpack Joyride continues to ride the top of the iOS charts. Halfbrick’s mascot hero Barry Steakfries gets a jetpack in this game, and he uses it to fly through a scientist-filled corridor, full of randomly generated and placed obstacles, like missiles, lasers, and electric wires. Like all endless runners, the sheer speed built up over time becomes its own hazard. Lucky for us, there are other vehicles Barry can pick up along the way, including the motorcycle from Halfbrick’s earlier Steakfries feature, Monster Dash, a cleverly named wing-folding avian, Profit Bird, and a giant mechanical dragon named Mr. Cuddles. There’s an in game marketplace where players can upgrade the jetpack and other vehicles along with purchasing clothing, heads & body styles for the perfect sartorial elegance as well as power ups, known as utilities. These are earned in slot machine mini games played after each level, which are themselves powered by chips picked up within the levels. Players are also presented with challenges, called missions, that include things like getting 500M without collecting coins, or slide a total of 50M on your face. These each earn stars, which then become player levels (“beginner,” “rookie,” etc.). Did I mention there’s a lot to do here? That, the offbeat humor and the simple one touch control system make this a game to return to again and again, if only to see what’s next down the corridor.

Tiny Wings
Released: Feb 18, 2011
Platform: iPhone
Seller: Andreas Illiger
Here’s one of the big success stories of the App Store – one guy, Andreas Illiger, the sole developer of an iOS game, hits it big on his own. Tiny Wings is the pinnacle of the one tap game. Players start the game and the day itself as a sleeping bird, waking it up with a tap. The sun comes up and the bird begins to move, relying on a single tap from the player to fold the little bird’s wings in, reducing drag and causing it to fall, timing each fall with a dip in the wavy rolling hills of each level, or island. When timed right, the bird gains a burst of speed and height, even soaring above the clouds at times. The resulting game play is a fine dance between perfect timing and rhythm, with the aim being to get the bird as far as possible within one day. There are coins and other special items to pick up along the way, as well as achievements for distance and/or perfect timing. It’s precisely this simplicity and nuanced game play that critics and consumers alike keep coming back to again and again, the former as a rallying cry for (or against) the simplicity of the iOS platform, and the latter laying their money down in ever-increasing numbers. It’s a perfect example of the disruptive power of the App Store, allowing one designer/developer to refine an idea to a high gloss, then actually profit from the hard work put into the game.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Released: March 23, 2011
Platform: Universal
Seller: Capybara Games
Developed by Independent Game Finalists, Superbrothers, and published by Capybara Games Studio (Critter Crunch, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes), Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP is a beautiful looking and sounding adventure game with a distinct story, retro-odd art direction and fabulous soundtrack by Jim Guthrie of Pink Floyd’s The Wall fame (he co-produced and sound engineered the concept album). What makes this one of the best games on the platform? The story is captivating, subtle, non linear, and fairly incomprehensible. The artwork is blocky, pixellated, yet somehow beautiful. The music is ambient and moody, supporting every moonlit path, every momentary pause, every significant story beat. The characters – Girl, Logfella, The Archetype – are all both less and more than the sum of their dialogue and visual design. There’s something happening here, but we’re never really sure what it is, or, at least, what it means. Combat is achieved by rotating the iOS device and tapping the shield or sword icon. Three-eyed wolf beasts are typical foes, though there are others. The player analogue – The Scythian – wonders aloud at many of the scenes and the half-familiar items within it, while also hearing the voices of the other characters. This though dialogue rounds out the divine absurdity of the game, like a dream only partially remembered after waking. Yes, all of that makes this game special and unique, sure to earn a place on every gamer’s device.

World of Goo HD
Released: April 13, 2011
Platform: Universal
Seller: 2D BOY
Yes, World of Goo originally appeared on the Wii and the PC, way back in 2008. The 2D physics puzzler received tons of accolades, but it wasn’t until it appeared on iOS devices that the tactile theme was fully realized. As any fan of the game knows, solving the puzzles of each level requires picking up “goo balls” of various physical composition and arranging them to get to the end of the level, where they are sucked into a large collection container. Using the Wii remote could be more frustrating than solving any particular level, but even the precision abstraction of a computer mouse doesn’t quite get the same level of tactile joy there is in actually grabbing the goo balls with a tap and drag on the iPad, our preferred gaming device for this game. World of Goo is the same gameplay, the same 48 levels as the console and PC versions, but it feels ever so much better to play on our mobile device. The soundtrack is as full of whimsy as the art direction, and is available as a free download by developer and composer Kyle Gabler. Again, this is one of those must-have apps. We show it off all the time, and play it almost as often.

Gem Keeper
Released: October 13, 2011
Platform: Universal
Seller: NCsoft
Tower Defense games are a dime a dozen on the App Store, and there are quite a few good ones, to boot. Gem Keeper, by well-known massively multiplayer online game developer NCSoft (Lineage, Guild Wars I & II), manages to stand above the crowd of solidly good Tower Defense games this year by offering high quality production values, solid gameplay and mechanics, and just the right blend of genre staples to keep players coming back for more. Games of this type of Tower Defense typically include wave after wave of baddies, or creeps, who come in from one side of the screen and follow a fixed path to the goal (generically known as the tower) while the player must place defensive structures (towers) along that path to keep the baddies from reaching the goal. In Gem Keepers, some towers can be placed on movable platforms, which can then be slid back and forth along finite rails, adding another level of strategy to the game. The creeps aim to get to the end goal, steal gems from the tower or towers there, and head back to the entrance of the maze, a game element borrowed from some other dungeon defense titles but polished to a high sheen here, with several strategic elements taking into account this entry and exit strategy.

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing
Released: June 22, 2011
Platform: Universal
Seller: SEGA
While we won’t see Nintendo’s flagship mascot on iOS any time soon, Sega has jumped into the world of the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad with abandon. Their main man, Sonic, is present on no fewer than three titles from the gaming giant, including a port of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, a remake of the original game (Sonic The Hedgehog 4, episode 1) and our current game of discussion, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. This kart racer features the speedy blue hedgehog and many other beloved Sega characters – including Tails, Dr. Robotnik, the Chu Chu Rocket mouse, Ryo Hazuki from Shenmue, and many others – racing along tracks inspired by the selfsame classic Sega games. This game makes all other kart racing type games on iOS in the dust, with solid controls, a nice drifting mechanic and vibrantly fun visuals optimized for the Retina Display on devices that support it. With online play and Game Center support, it’s easy to jump into a kart race with friends or random strangers. Kart racing is here on iOS, brought to you courtesy of the big blue guy with the huge shoes – why does he need a race car, anyway?

Star Legends
Released: August 25, 2011
Platform: Universal
Seller: Spacetime Studios
We’re adding this one to the list because it’s the first original massively multiplayer online game (MMO) that got things right. Well, that’s not quite it. Spacetime Studios used the MMO engine in an earlier game, Pocket Legends, which blew us all away with the online real-time synchronous fantasy themed role-playing game. The problem was one of depth, as they built it up from what seemed originally to be a tech demo. While Pocket Legends is now fun in its own right, Star Legends: The Blackstar Chronicles sprang forth fully formed, unleashed upon iOS and Android gamers alike, allowing both platforms to play together on the same servers, a coup by any measure. Originally created for the PC, The Blackstar Chronicles got stuck in development for many years due to lack of funding support, until the team was able to buy the rights to the intellectual property (IP) and begin work on it for iOS. While this is an MMO, it’s designed for mobile platforms, allowing gamers to hop in, complete a quest or two, and hop out; it never feels to demanding. The controls are solid, the visuals and user interface is easy to figure out, and there are tons of quests and story lines to follow, some of which truly push the boundaries of iOS MMO storytelling. We’re enamored, and think you will be, too.

Real Racing 2 HD
Released: March 11, 2011
Platform: iPad
Seller: Firemint
Firemint has truly created the simulation racer above all others for the iOS platform with Real Racing 2 HD. It looks simply stunning: full of lens flares, reflective surfaces and the sensation of speed. It’s like the Forza of iOS, truly, including 30 licensed cars like the BMW z4 M Coupe, the Chevrolet Corvette c6 Zr1 and Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, just to name a few. The game is made to run on the iPad 2, using the extra horsepower to run the CPU heavy game. The ability to wirelessly stream the game from the iPad 2 to an AppleTV connected high def television set brings the game to a new level of cool, showing many of us the future of iOS gaming. We prefer this game on the small screen, however, as we’re mobile gamers at heart. Regardless, the racing is classic – purchase a car, win races, then buy better cars and enhancements with the proceeds. Fans of less-arcade, more-realistic racing – as well as those wishing to experience the state of the art in iOS games – should definitely try this one out.

Casey’s Contraptions HD
Released: May 18, 2011
Platform: Universal
Seller: Snappy Touch
With the success of Angry Birds, physics puzzle games are all the rage. Thankfully, this indie gem doesn’t copy, rather, it innovates in an already crowded genre space on the iOS platform. Gamers must use eight year old Casey’s 30 different toys across 72 levels to solve the deceivingly simple puzzles. Similar to Scribblenauts, there are many different ways to achieve the outcome of each level, with no specific way being the “correct” one. Players will find joy in the simple pleasures of playing, experimenting, and finding ever more interesting and unique ways to get from point a to point b. much like the PC game, The Incredible Machine. Supporting this “try it and see” ethos is the ability to see shared level solutions from Game Center friends as well as Casey’s own three star solution. Get stuck? See what other gamers and friends have done. An included Level Editor feature kicks it up another notch, as well. Bright, vibrant colors and solid physics modeling keep us coming back time and again to the game, showing folks new to the platform one of the must-have titles in the iOS gaming space.

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