This year’s most captivating games either pushed the envelope with state-of-the-art graphics and rich narratives or perfected already proven formulas for touch-based devices. The best titles also bridged the gap between casual and hardcore gamers.
Some developers (Phosphor Games and Vivid Games, most notably) went for realistic 3D graphics that often packed in hours of story-based gameplay similar to console titles. Others like Rovio and RocketCat Games, stuck to churning out repetitive, casual gaming experiences that kept us fully engaged. All being equal, these disparate approaches produced truly riveting games that took full advantage of the features and processing capabilities of mobile devices.
The developers with games in this list should be very proud of their creations. Despite certain genres being oversaturated (such as pick up and play or side-scrolling games) and the unpopular monetization trend of forcing customers to pay for content through in-app purchases, these geniuses managed to make games that are infinitely addictive and rewarding. The picks listed below were curated by Appolicious advisors (most notably gaming guru Andrew Koziara) and members of our user community.
We also have a separate list of the best iOS and Android apps of 2012.
Horn (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android $6.99)
The character Horn is a young blacksmith’s apprentice who must defeat giant monsters who are villagers transformed by a horrible curse. Using a melee combat system similar to Infinity Blade, but with major gameplay enhancements like using a crossbow and puzzle-solving, the developers on the Phosphor Games team were truly pensive during Horn’s development. Horn is the best game of 2012 because it combines an imaginative narrative with top-of-the-line graphics, proving that mobile games with endearing stories can be beautiful despite the limitations of iOS devices. Horn appeals to gamers young and old, and is a great title that will enlighten you as to just what your smartphone or tablet is capable of handling. We should note that Horn does suffer a bit on earlier generation Android devices and operating systems.
ARC Squadron (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad free – limited time only)
ARC Squadron is a rail shooter game that combines the retro experience of playing an old Nintendo 64 console game with state-of-the-art graphics geared specifically to touchscreen devices. Powered by the Unreal Engine 3 development toolkit, ARC Squadron has players try their hands (and fingers) in intergalactic warfare. Each area of the galaxy involves a handful of levels with bonus challenge levels along the way, culminating in an epic boss fight. ARC Squadron is very arcade in nature, as scores in each level directly translate into currency that lets players upgrade and purchase new ships, weapons, and skins. Somehow ARC Squadron manages to ape the gameplay of classic console titles like Star Fox 64, yet feel fresh in a mobile media environment.
Angry Birds Star Wars (iPhone, iPod touch 99 cents, iPad $2.99, Android smartphones free, Android tablets $2.99)
Star Wars merchandising, both before and after the Disney acquisition, has never felt so good. The newest edition to the Angry Birds family is just plain awesome. Old birds are re-dressed as Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, Chewie, and the rest. The birds also get all new powers, including shooting blasters and swinging light sabers. The game is a brilliant mix of the old school Angry Birds mechanics and the gravity mechanics of Angry Birds Space (also a worthy addition to any “best of 2012” list). Add all the Star Wars references and visuals (from the original trilogy, only) and you have a game that is out of this world.
Rayman Jungle Run (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android $2.99)
Apple named this Ubisoft title the 2012 game of the year, and for good reason. Many of us were totally praising this game before it was cool. Based on the utterly brilliant Rayman: Origins (a console-based platformer to rival even Mario), this auto-scrolling runner manages to keep all the creativity and bizarre charm of its predecessor, but with bite-sized levels and half of the controls removed. Seriously though, Ubisoft stripped ‘Origins’ down to its core for this simple game, but it’s just as fun and the visuals are just as jaw-droppingly crisp and vibrant as ever. It’s a bit more challenging than other runners, but do not skip this one.
LetterPress – Word Game (iPhone, iPad free)
Move over, Words With Friends. Developed by atebits, Letterpress is an inventive multiplayer word game that mixes the strategies of Boggle and Chess. The virtual board of this game is covered in red and blue tiles, each representing you or your opponent. The objective is pretty basic: change as many tiles as possible to match your color while spelling words. Games end when tiles run out. It helps to both have a high letter count and know when to play defensively, blocking off letters by placing your tiles around them. LetterPress supports asynchronous multiplayer through Game Center, so you can face off against as many players as you desire from all over the world at the same time.
Beat Sneak Bandit (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad $2.99)
Beat Sneak Bandit elegantly combines rhythm games (in which players tap along to the beat of the music playing in the game), with puzzle gameplay and stealth action. You’ll need to tap to the beat to make the Beat Sneak Bandit character take his sneaky steps, and time your way through the game’s obstacles and traps. The game is really a clever take on touchscreen games, has a great art style and musical selection, and is easy to play while challenging to master.
Punch Quest (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad) (Free)
Punch Quest is an impressive side-scrolling, endless running game where the main objective is to meet monstrous obstacles head-on with a barrage of uppercuts and jabs. Enemies include feeble skeletons, shield-wielding orcs, fire-breathing imps, and spellcasting wraiths. During the game your fully-customizable protagonist collects coins called “punchos” for buying skills, super moves, boosts, and upgrades. There are even bonus levels where your warrior rides a dinosaur that shoots lasers out of its mouth or transforms into a cartwheeling gnome! RocketCat Games, one of the most reliably talented and awesome developers in the iOS gaming space, are is responsible for the Hook Champ games and the excellent Mage Gauntlet.
Real Boxing (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, iPad mini) $4.99
Real Boxing, developed by Vivid Games, delivers a one-two punch of well-designed gesture controls for a touchscreen combined with beautiful, console-quality graphics. Your device’s camera catches punch gestures using the V-Motion Gesture Control System. The game features a surprisingly effective Career Mode, where you develop, train, and customize your prizefighter. You’ll be hard-pressed to find flaws with this game as you build up your fighter and even take him online into real-time multiplayer fights over Game Center.
Jetpack Joyride (Android) Free
Jetpack Joyride, released by Halfbrick Studios on Android in September, is the endless running game closest to perfection. Although it launched and rocketed to the top of the charts on iOS in 2011, the game’s presence in the Android Market was substantial. In Jetpack Joyride you play as the fiery and uber-manly Barry Steakfries who swipes a top-secret machine gun-powered jetpack from a laboratory only to be met by thousands of obstacles including electric pillars, rockets, and terrified scientists. Your goal is to collect coins and get as far as you can before dying. The game has an exceptional sense of humor and an impressive array of interchangeable costumes, jetpacks, power-ups, and vehicles. What sets Jetpack Joyride apart is that behind its simple formula, there’s a hugely addictive mission/challenge system which pushes you to play again and again. The difficulty and learning curve are set perfectly so even casual gamers will never feel overwhelmed.
The Room (iPad, iPad mini) $1.99
With The Room, Fireproof Games delivered the most intriguing puzzle game of the year. Mind-bending puzzles, a surreal atmosphere, and delectable 3D graphics in stunning HD quality make The Room a necessary app for every gamer who owns an iPad 2 or higher. The game works ostensibly as a mystery that you solve using a single finger control scheme through puzzles contained within ornate boxes. It is definitely the most realistic looking game released in 2012, even more so than titles from the Zen Bound series. The Room was designed to be a pick up and play game, and although it is rated 9+ for Infrequent Horror/Fear Themes, it is the sort of game you can play with your family if they’re cool enough and can handle the suspense.