Any end-of-year ranking is not going to be easy work—but ranking mobile games is perhaps toughest of all. It’s very much comparing apples to Mack trucks: One app might be something of a simple toy, while the next may be a full-fledged RPG, for instance.
Still, it’s a task we here at Paste Games are willing to undertake. We’ve whittled this list down to just ten of 2015’s best. (Eleven, really. Two games came down to a tie and we just couldn’t choose between them.)
The ten best mobile games of the year—or eleven best, if you’re a stickler about stuff like math—follow, below:
When beloved localization studio 8-4 quietly rolled out its English-language translation of Neko Atsume, fans rejoiced—including English-speaking fans who had already been playing the Japanese game for months. A variation on ‘collector culture,’ the simple joy of hoarding cats apparently knows no language barriers. Neko Atsume never bogs itself down with unnecessary intricacies; collecting cats is enough. (Charming hand-drawn artwork certainly helps, of course.)
Fans of the animated Steven Universe series can get a little, erm, ‘precious’ about the show, so what a relief it is that Attack the Light! makes good on an unspoken promise. Besides, Steven Universe was always fertile source material for an RPG; designing a game around these characters seems obvious. But beneath the lovely superflat art and charming writing is a smart, tight, balanced little role-playing game that in many ways transcends its source. It’s also a game that, for whatever reason, didn’t seem to get its critical due upon release. Which is almost criminal, since Attack the Light! really is one of the fullest, deepest experiences on mobile this year.
There’s absolutely nothing to Ball King. Its generous free-to-play model is lifted from last year’s hit Crossy Road; games begin and end as quickly as in Flappy Bird. There is nothing about Ball King that isn’t filched wholesale, that isn’t an obvious bid at becoming this year’s instant-gratification breakout hit. But it never virally ‘caught’ like Flappy or Crossy, or Angry Birds before them—and this, too, almost seems like a mistake, because the entire package just works. Ball King is deliciously tactile, needlessly surreal, secure in its simplicity. It is a perfectly orchestrated time-sink, and it excels.
By all outward appearances a gentle spell-it-out word game in the mold of Bookworm, twee Alphabear bares its teeth early on. This is not an easy game, and its steep challenge-curve may frustrate some players. Some of the game’s more obtuse free-to-play gimmickry (‘hibernating’ bears? It’s clever, but man is it obnoxious) also dampen the otherwise-exquisite joy of playing. Still, it’s easy to get hooked, and the game’s cheery attitude and reassuring pastels go a long way in maintaining players’ goodwill. Alphabear’s fresh new take on “tiled word games” also forgives a lot of minor sins. It’s a new classic, for sure.
Mash up the strategic combat of Warlords with the elegance of Letterpress, and the unholy result would be this year’s Capitals, a competitive game of word-war. Each player is guarding a “king” (well—a “capitol,” presuming the game’s title is a clever pun), and the ramparts are both built-up and destroyed by playing letter tiles. Worst of all, just one strategic play can turn Capitals on a dime, making it one of the more brutal two-player games around. We’d never toss the term ‘Scrabble-killer’ around lightly, but this might be the one.
Prune is unabashedly an ‘art’ game, but it has zero pretensions: At its core, it’s a gorgeous, solid puzzle game. In it, you shear a lone tree’s branches (by swiping at the touch screen), carving away at the tree so that its limbs will grow around numerous obstacles and curl toward the sunlight. Apparently, the game itself was inspired by the practice of trimming bonsai, which might make Prune sound like a slow, contemplative, perhaps even arduous game experience. It isn’t. Because the tree grows so quickly, Prune often tends more toward an ‘action’ pace: You can usually brute-force your way to level’s end by beating back vines as fast as you can—which is to say, there isn’t a ‘right’ way to play Prune. It’s graceful, sophisticated, and wholly gratifying to play.
Last year’s Hitman GO was a crowd-pleaser, and its successor, Lara Croft GO, really is every bit as good as they say. It’s prettier and more action-packed than Hitman—in other words, it’s better in almost every regard—all while refining the turn-based puzzle/action design template that made Hitman GO so successful last year. Mimicking Agent 47’s ‘stealth’ sequences, Lara now has to sneak up on snakes to shoot them—okay—but Lara’s world is so much less static than Hitman GO’s was. With Lara running and jumping and clambering up cliffs with such vigor and life, you might forget that this puzzle game is entirely turn-based. It’s all quite a feat, especially given that, on a mobile phone, Lara is a centimeter tall.
One of the most unexpected surprises of the year, Simogo’s SPL-T is a minimalist revelation of a puzzle game. It’s a bizarre combination of Super Puzzle Fighter—SPL-T is a falling-block game of sorts, one in which some puzzle pieces have countdown-timers so that they eventually ‘zero out’ and vanish—crossed with that grade-school game where you try to see if you can fold a sheet of paper in half more than eight times. It’s hard to describe, admittedly, because there’s absolutely nothing else like it. It’s also tough to get the hang of at first, just because it totally requires the player to think in such different ways spatially… but once you ‘get’ it, you’ll be hooked.
Downwell is a crunchy, rapid-fire “Spelunky-like” (are we at that point already? Are we prepared to start describing games as “Spelunky-likes”?) but, instead of side-scrolling, Downwell occurs vertically, in a procedurally-generated dungeon that the player falls down through. The player’s sprite will often fall right past powerups, enemies, and treasure rooms, making the game wonderfully frenetic torture. Fortunately, the player is equipped with a pair of goddamn gun-boots—making you, the player, feel incredibly powerful for every second you’re not staring in shock at the Game Over screen. (Game designer Doug Wilson has written elsewhere on why Downwell is his favorite game of 2015, and he stages a very convincing argument.)
We cheated: As of this list’s publication, Grayout isn’t actually out, per se. But it will be soon—presumably before the end of this month—and when it does hit, prepare to have your mind BLOWN. Billed by its creators as a “prequel” to their 2013 Blackbar—itself a dark, dystopian look at censorship and thought-policing—Grayout is both mechanically and thematically veeeery similar to its excellent predecessor. Without giving anything else away: It’s also better, richer, more intuitive. We’ve already said too much! Watch for it.
We realize Her Story has amassed its share of the glory this year, but it’s all well warranted. Simultaneously haunting and a little bit cheesy (this is an FMV game, after all), Her Story quickly goes from simple murder mystery to a surreal fairytale-gone-wrong.
It would’ve been so easy for designer Sam Barlow’s game to tonally miss the mark entirely; much of the game’s success or failure ultimately hinges on Viva Seifert’s performance, thank goodness, which is committed, subtle when necessary, and full of depth. At the same time, she sells her character like murderesses are going out of style; her performance-within-a-performance finally seals the deal.
If the mark of a successful game is maintaining a set narrative course even as it bolsters the illusion of players’ agency, well, that’s exactly the knack of Her Story. Mechanically, this FMV game is very simple—it’s almost perilously linear, if you look too close at it—but it encourages player exploration and experimentation like nothing else this year. And although the game relies on the player typing cues into a search bar, Her Story is nonetheless an unexpectedly good fit for tablet devices.
But back to Viva Seifert. If the pictures “got too small” for Norma Desmond, then the iPad’s frame is just a bit too restrictive for Seifert. Her scrumptious performance finds that exacting line between drama and melodrama; almost any other actor would’ve spoiled the entire game. Her Story is, if not the Game of the Year across all platforms, certainly the greatest theatrical treat of 2015—a rarity in videogames, to be sure.
Jenn Frank is Paste’s Assistant Games Editor.