More’s authoritative guide to the very best, absolutely free games for your iPad and iPhone
Looking for the very best free games for your new iPad or iPhone? Whether it's strategy, shooter, sports, casual, physics, action, role-playing, racing, word, sims, or puzzle, iMore has carefully collected all of our favorite free App Store games and listed them below for your playing pleasure.
It's been over six months since our last go at the best free games available for iPhone and iPad, and since it's gaming week for Talk Mobile, it seemed prudent to give it another pass. There's a lot that hasn't changed, such as in sports games, while others, like action games, have lots of new picks. We're folding together iPhone and iPad games this round for simplicity's sake. Odds are you'll find these games just as good on one as the other (though we're always open to hear what you guys have to say about our picks and the format in the comments).
Before we get started, there are a few things that are worth highlighting. First off, many of the best free games will have in-app purchases of some kind. This can lead to poor scaling the further into a game you get (i.e. you might have a rough time getting anywhere without biting the bullet on an IAP), though that's entirely a case-by-case scenario and dependent on your patience level. Second, I've avoided "lite" versions of premium games; two free levels aren't going to do much of anybody good. Finally, there are lots of premium games that are regularly offered for free on a promotional basis, so be sure to keep an eye out for them. We'll be omitting any that are limited-time offers, just so we don't get the hopes up of anyone getting to this list late.
New to our list is RAD Soldiers. This has bumped out Hero Academy as my favorite asynchronous strategy game. Players take turns moving custom-kitted troops around a battlefield trying to hold a zone for five turns. Players accumulate in-game currency through single-player challenges and winning online games which can then be spent on unlocking new troops with their own unique special abilities and style. The variety of combinations in terms of equipment and available actions on a turn-by-turn basis is boggling. Luckily there's an easy undo function before you lock in your various moves and attacks, ensuring that you can deal out the most damage while still taking advantage of the various pieces of cover throughout each level. Speaking of which, there are a lot of great stages to play through, and thanks to the recent Rio expansion pack, you've got a warzone with plenty of sun to enjoy.
Heroes of Order & Chaos is the first MOBA game for mobile, and it's really solid. If you've ever played League of Legends or Dota 2 you'll know what multiplayer online battle arenas look like, but the short version goes like this: two teams of 3 or 5 face off against one another on a symmetrical map. Clumps of troops spawn from each headquarters and start running down one of three lanes towards the opposing base. Players join along with their distinctive heroes and try to chew through the opposition to destroy the towers in that lane and ultimately destroy the central structure. Over the course of that battle, players earn experience points for their kills, gather gold, buy new equipment, and unlock new abilities. Though all of that resets for each new game, players progress on a larger scale as they win matches, and can in turn improve the abilities of their favorite characters. You'll find plenty of heroes to chose from on a week-to-week basis, and can pay to have permanent access to your go-to characters.
Spice Bandits is an absolutely fantastic tower defense game. You take on the role of an adorable little space pirate who plunders various locations on Earth to gather up as much spice as possible. Of course, pesky humans aren't interested in letting you get away with that, and attack your various strongholds in waves while you defend with all sorts of upgradeable alien towers. Maps have a variety of themes and terrain qualities, making every round a new experience.
Over time, you gather spice which can be spent on new kinds of turrets (provided you're a high enough level and have the prerequisite turrets purchased). Spice can also be used to deck out your alien avatar in some swanky threads viewable by friends in competitive and co-operative missions through Game Center. As you level up, you get upgrade points (which can also be bought with spice) to customize your play style as you see fit - cheaper turrets, faster rate of fire or more mesmerizing disco music are just a few options. You can reset your upgrades at any time, allowing you to experiment with a wide array of play styles.
Spice Bandits lets you buy spice through in-app purchases, which also eliminates ads between levels. On the iPad, Spice Bandits makes excellent use of the bigger screen, and the devs have made a lot of user interface changes so you can see more of the action. Spice Bandits also lets your port over your game progress from the iPhone version easily through their Crystal network and cloud saving; it's universal too, so there's only one download to manage across devices.
Dead Trigger is the pre-eminent free first-person shooter for iOS. For all of its tacky, tongue-in-cheek zombie apocalypse dialog, the graphics are excellent, complete with water effects and richly-detailed models. Players gun through various campaign missions, take a stab at daily challenges, weather endless waves of zombies in arena mode, and unlock new weapons as they rank up. Cash is the main reward, but every once in awhile you'll earn the premium gold currency, which is used to buy the really fancy artillery. There's also a wide array of equipment to help keep you alive through your undead-infested ordeals, and once it's all over, you can use casino chip rewards to play the slots and win big prizes. If you're willing to spend a few bucks, Modern Combat 4 is the best paid first-person shooter you'll find on iOS right now.
Major Mayhem is a side-scrolling, dead-simple shoot-em-up. As Major Mayhem, you're on a mission to save your girlfriend from somethingerother - that part's not important. The important part is that players tap on ninjas, thugs, and other baddies to open fire from behind cover, leap over obstacles, and ultimately climb heroically onto your chopper to safety. Saving scientists provides additional power-ups, while eliminating hard-to-hit bonus targets and accomplishing bonus objectives can yield big bonus coins. Players are scored based on accuracy and speed, and are awarded coins which can be spent on vanity items as well as new weaponry. Over time, you also unlock new game types, such as time bomb, arcade, and survival across the game's three themed settings.
Zombiewood is a unique twist on the zombie apocalypse, and chock-full of dual-stick shooting action. Players clean up the streets of Hollywood by blasting through hordes of undead with all manner of outlandish weaponry: flamethrowers, miniguns, pistols, shotguns - you name it. Over time, players unlock some pretty hilarious outfits that also tweak stats like speed and health, though you can fast track through those with in-app purchases. High-grade graphics, unique art style, and non-stop action make Zombiewood a perfect pick for those looking to run and gun.
Baseball Superstars 2013 is an exaggerated baseball game with Japanese-style characters and dialog. While the game keeps tabs on minute details, such as batting averages, running speed, stamina, and confidence levels, there are some more cartoony encounters with "super players" that wear outlandish costumes and wield the unlikeliest of powers.
Pitching and batting is done through moving targets in a target zone using a d-pad and tapping at just the right moment. You'll encounter plenty of challenges, including injuries which require recuperation in a hospital, managing your team roster, and playing against friends online. Personally, I found this game impossibly hard when set on normal difficulty, but I'm positive baseball fans will appreciate the amount of detail in this game. After putting some time into Homerun Battle 2 Free, it's clear that Baseball Superstars 2013 is the top free baseball game on iOS, but for more baseball-themed apps, check out our ballgame roundup over here.
Through in-app purchases, you can get G points, which are spent on character items, training sessions to improve your stats, or even buy whole levels for your batter or pitcher. The pixelation inherent in the game's old-school graphics are really apparent on the iPad's larger display, but the animation remains high-quality. Game Center integration doesn't extend beyond achievement tracking, and while cloud saving is available, you have to make sure you have a Gamevil account active and manually upload game data to and from your iPhone.
NFL Pro 2013 is a full-fledged football game complete with leagues, playbooks, and extensive rosters based on real players and teams. Your players gain experience and level up as you go, letting you improve their stats in a number of areas, like run blocking, catching, awareness, and agility. Every down, you pick a play available (either offensive or defensive), and while you manually control one player, the AI handles the rest. New from the 2012 version of the game is a pre-snap notepad, which allows you to tweak plays at the last second. There's also a great first-person view when making throws. Controls during play are dead simple, but most of your time will be spent flipping through and picking plays. On the downside, your selection is really limited to start, plus quarter lengths are limited to 2 minutes without digging into in-app purchases.
Every game you play uses up energy, which replenishes over time or through in-app purchases. Team points to level up your players can also be bought, along with credits to buy new playbooks, stadiums, gain access to new teams, divisions, and conferences. Unfortunately, there's no cloud saving or Game Center support, though NFL Pro 2012 is a universal app. There's also Madden 13 Social if you're looking for some asynchronous back-and-forth football gaming with buddies.
Real Soccer 2013 offers a wide variety of gameplay types in a fast-paced, realistic package. The core controls are laid out with a standard virtual joystick and sprint, pass and shoot buttons, with a few fancier maneuvers executed through taps and gestures on the playing area. Outside of the stadium, there's a lot of gameplay, too. Players have to build up a team roster, upgrade facilities and staff, increase revenue with merchandising and sponsorships, and make sure their team is well-rested and healthy.
Playing Real Soccer 2013 matches earns you coins which can be used to purchase many of those upgrades. Over the course of play, your team has to advance through various cups and leagues, earning rewards and experience no matter the outcome. "Cash" is Real Soccer 2012's premium currency, which can be traded in for the completion of certain roster tasks (which otherwise take a fair bit of real-world time). Real Soccer 2013 is in a tight race with Pro Evo Soccer 2012, which, though "lite" and saving most of its leagues and progression for paying customers, has a really great Flick Soccer-style penalty kick drill. There's also Real Soccer 2012, which has a few noticeable differences, though keeps the same core gameplay and graphics.
Spaceteam is a truly unique reflex and communication game where players with multiple iOS devices bark orders at one another in order to keep their spaceship moving forward. Everybody gets a randomized control panel with absurdly-named knobs, sliders, and buttons. Players are then issued commands which need to be quickly fulfilled or else the ship explodes. It's a silly premise, but ultimately creates a chaotic and truly fun party game. Expansion packs are sold with new spaceships, commands, and symbols.
Endless runners are fun and all, but why dodge obstacles when you could just punch them? Punch Quest takes a tried-and-true formula of surviving as long as possible and adds some whoop-ass and 8-bit-style graphics. Players jab, cross, and uppercut their way through legions of medieval minions, and occasionally gets some help from a laser-breathing raptor, gnome, or other completely ridiculous character. Though you're perpetually running forward and leaping over obstacles, there are many branching paths which lead to different kinds of treasure. As you accumulate wealth, you unlock badass new superpowers, new characters, new threads, and lots more. The progression options here are very involved and easy to get sucked into. If you're tired of Jetpack Joyride or Temple Run 2, give Punch Quest a shot.
Death Dome is basically a free version of Infinity Blade, except it's placed in a post-apocalytic wasteland. Players fight one-on-one against grotesque monsters with all manner of ramshackle melee weaponry with swipe gestures, and earn rewards as they play. The main character, Phoenix, also develops superhuman abilities thanks to biological pathogen that has trapped the populace of the city in a forced quarantine and spawned the horrors that now ravage survivors. Combat involves a delicate dance of blocking, dodging, and precisely-timed swipes, though combat is interspersed with scavenging mini-games, where players have to quickly tap targets before the baddies show up. Players earn rewards for playing daily and completing individual challenges against opponents (such as executing a certain number of blocks). Skull-branded coins are the primary currency, while death diamonds are the premium currency used for some exclusive items. There are also revives which can be used to bring you back in the middle of a fight or used to purchase the top-shelf weaponry and armor.
The graphics are really excellent, and among the best I've seen in a free game so far. Cloud syncing and Game Center achievements are in effect, which are both appreciated. If you'd like something a bit more classical, Glu also has Blood and Glory 2, which is set in ancient Roman gladitorial arenas. I'm also a big fan of Juggernaut: Revenge of the Sovering for its original take on the swipe-based melee combat idea and additional RPG elements.
Arcane Legends is the premiere mobile MMO, and it's fantastic. The developer, Spacetime Studios, has been working on these kinds of games for awhile, but Arcane Legends is the first time it has felt like everything has come together. You'll find all of the usual RPG stuff in here - multiple classes, levelling up, quests, new gear, regularly-updated content, and all that jazz. When you start a quest, you're dropped in with whoever happens to be around and doing the same one, so you're rarely playing alone. Quests are short and sweet, and the action is all real-time. There are a few things that sets Arcane Legends apart from most MMOs. For one, there's the extensive pet system. Players earn or buy pets which don't only look cute but also add a notable buffs to players and attack on their own. The main pitch for in-app purchases is for potions, which can do the usual stuff like heal you, but also provide limited-time boosts to stats and XP gain. As you might expect, there's also a whole bunch of uber-powered gear reserved for in-app purchases if you really feel like going on a tear.
Short of running Splashtop or some other desktop virtualization app, Dungeon Hunter 4 is the closest thing to Diablo on an iPad that you're going to get. This action-RPG puts players into encapsulated, real-time combat encounters where they have to hack and slash through waves of enemies and complete mission objectives, all the while amassing enough gold to upgrade their gear. There's also an extensive single-player game with its own storyline. There are four classes to explore, each with their own play style and special abilities, as well as four different worlds with four difficulty levels each.
Besides the gold you earn from enemy kills, there are also gems which can be spent on a bunch of different items. Keys which are earned regularly to open random prizes at the end of each level. The Retina-optimized graphics are really great, and the boss fights can be particularly challenging, even if you've got the backup of some buddies through online multiplayer.
The 16-bit console era spawned some of video gaming's most beloved games and game systems. It was dominated by games for systems like the Sega Genesis and Nintendo's Super NES. Heroes In Time harkens back to that time in glorious, Japanese RPG-style fashion, when The Legend of Zelda had set the style for multiple generations of console RPG play. You can choose from four different character classes and embark on numerous side quests that complement the main storyline.
Battles happen in realtime, with plentiful loot drops when you defeat enemies. Cutscenes and art are reminiscent of Japanese anime and manga, definitely adding to the JRPG feel. The one downside of Heroes In Time is that it's optimized for the iPhone, so iPad players need to resort to zooming to fill their screen - but with the game's intentional homage to the 16-bit era, the blocky graphics don't detract from iPad gameplay. Heroes In Time has in-app purchases, but it isn't blatant or abusive - it's perfectly possible to play through the game without spending a dime of real money.
Real Racing 3 is a stunningly beautiful racing game that sets a high bar for graphics. Players burn through a wide variety of race types on real-world tracks, gaining cash for new rides and upgrades in the process. One of the more interesting features in Real Racing 3 is the asynchronous multiplayer. Once you've buddied up, you can play against the times made by your friends. Their progress is transposed on your track, but it's not a ghost; you can knock them around to get ahead and climb the leaderboards. New tracks and cars are released regularly, so you're never hurting for fresh content. Your car will lose some durability over the course of races and eventually affect your performance, so make sure it stays in good repair. The smooth tilt controls, excellent graphics, and smart multiplayer implementation are sure to rope in even those that aren't normally big racing fans.
Forever Drive is a sharp, polygonal top-down racing game with a cool abstract art style. The controls are simple and fluid, with options for tilt, tap, or d-pad. You're scored based on how many stars you pick up and how tightly you hug highlighted shoulders, but don't get too wild; you have a limited amount of time to get through as many tracks as possible. That means you need to drive smart and avoid the civilian traffic that explode in a Tron-esque display if you so much as nudge them. One of the core elements of Forever Drive is the track builder.
It's pretty simple - you draw a line from one end of a square to the other, pepper some scenery along the sides, and the highlighted turns, stars, and extra traffic are added in automatically. You then have the option to share these tracks online, which then randomly compose the arcade mode of other players. When you play, you get fed a series of user-built tracks one after another, which you can rate up or down after you're done driving them. There are also weekly leagues where you have a chance to win in-game currency, with which you can buy a few unlocks, but the vast majority of car bodies, model variations, and paint jobs are earned by gaining experience points throughout gameplay. If you're impatient, you can always buy credits through in-app purchases. Forever Drive is a universal app with cloud saving, so no worries about saving your progress on the iPhone version. Game Center leaderboards are also supported.
Smash Cops Heat is a cops-and-robbers racer, where players have to navigate through a city while trying to take down perps fleeing from the scene. Other mission types have players attempting to rush to their fellow officers for back-up, or navigating challenging obstacle courses. The core controls are dead-simple, involving dragging your finger behind the car, and tilting it around to navigate corners. A few taps are required to use special abilities. You can also tweak the controls to use a virtual joystick instead, if you prefer.
There are a handful of in-app purchases available, such as consumable Super Cops, which temporarily turn your vehicle into an impossibly fast and tough cruiser, InstaRams that give players a sudden (and often needed) burst of speed, and a bunch of paint jobs based on international police forces. Over the course of gameplay, new vehicles are unlocked, including SWAT-style vans, several other cruisers, and even a Semi further down the line, though you can't acquire them through IAPs (perhaps rightly so).
Duels of the Planeswalkers is the mobile imagining of the original tradeable card game, Magic: The Gathering. Like the original, players put on a robe and wizard hat (okay, not really), and summon monsters and sling spells at one another until one of them is kaput. There are five colors types for spells, each with their own unique play style. There's online one-on-one multiplayer if you upgrade to the premium pack, as well as a solid single-player experience which includes traditional duels and some more interesting challenge scenarios. Controls are very fluid, allowing players to easily tell what's happening as the game flows, plus the visuals are great. You can zoom in on cards to get full text and art. While you don't get to fully customize your deck, you can unlock and buy new ones, as well as acquire new cards for individual decks as you use them. Those that are nostalgic for Magic will be happy to see it in the App Store, and even those that aren't will find the learning curve very small.
Poker by Zynga is a simple but polished Texas Hold 'em game for iOS and plays cross-platform with folks on Facebook. The game has been out for a long time, so boasts a full feature set - you can add friends, find tables within your comfort range, and even give other players gifts for display, like drinks, or a box of tissues if they're having a particularly rough run.
The one downside to Poker by Zynga is that you'll have to have a Wi-Fi connection active in order to play, and as fun as it is playing with real people, they can just as often be aggravating. Though you're given a stack of chips to start, and can earn more through various ads and daily giveaways, you'll have to shell out real cash for chips when you run out, just like a real casino. Poker by Zynga doesn't use Game Center since it relies on its well-established Facebook users to keep playing, and there's no mention of Retina iPad support, but it's not particularly needed to enjoy the game. Keeping up with games across iPad and iPhone was easy as pie since they're both connected through your Facebook account.
This game plays out like a combination of chess and an RPG. Hero Academy is a turn-based multiplayer strategy game with asynchronous gameplay, meaning you have your turn, then your opponent has his - this can take place over hours or days, so you can have several battles waging simultaneously. Each turn consists of several actions, like putting a character on the field of battle or attacking an opponent's piece. You defend your crystals while your opponent defends his on a randomly-generated playfield.
Hero Academy is free to play but limited only to only one playable team unless you pay $1.99 to unlock another. The developer has extended the game with many other character packs that you can download through in-app purchases. Because of the asynchronous gameplay you aren't rushed to make quick decisions on the battefield; you can think out your approaches and even undo moves before you commit to them. The whimsical graphics and sound are sure to please, as well.
Letterpress is an asynchronous online word game with really great, simple, pared-down style. Players share a five-by-five grid of letters from which they can assemble words. Each side takes turns making words, and once submitted, those letters are claimed by that player. When the other player's turn comes along, however, those tiles (and the points earned by them) can be stolen back. The points from tiles can be strategically protected from this kind of theft by claiming tiles on all sides of that letter. As you can imagine, scores rise and fall dramatically every turn.
The game is wrapped up after every tile has been claimed. For an extra $0.99, you can play more than two games at once, and enjoy a few different themes, but even in its free format, Letterpress is excellent so long as you have at least one friend who you can count on moving regularly and frequently. Plus the sharp, stylish graphics don't need much tweaking in their current state.
Scrabble, by most accounts, is the original word game and has a solid presence on iOS. Players take turns dropping letter tiles on a grid to form words, while those tiles each have their own value, which is then added up and added to the players' total. Planting letters on multiplier squares can crank those scores fairly high. Swipes help players flip through multiple games, while handy features like teacher mode show you how many more points you could have gotten with an alternative word. You can play with friends, but there's also a random opponent finder so you get hop in right away. A Scrabble dictionary is built in so you can check to see which options are available to you. Through in-app purchases, you can get a tile tracker to see how many tiles are left of each letter, or pick up some fancy luxury boards and tiles. Scrabble remains a classic, and it's great to see the experience recreated so faithfully on iOS.
Okay, so You Don't Know Jack is more of a trivia game than a word game, but I had to get it in the list here somewhere. You've gotta pick the right word to win - that counts, right? YDKJ is an absolutely hilarious game where players have to answer a series of themed questions as quickly as possible and compare scores with Facebook friends. Different question types keeps things interesting, such as Dis or Dat and the Jack Attack at the end. You only get so many plays per day unless you spend some of your hard-earned in-game currency for extra rounds. The voice acting is absolutely fantastic, the graphics sharp and characterful, and the ongoing stream of new content keeps things perpetually fresh.
Pixel People is a very cute collection game that adds the chunky-bit charm of Tiny Tower with the mix-and-match creation complex of Doodle God and the city-building mechanics of Clash of Clans. Players are in charge of a Utopia in the sky, but have to splice together the genes of various clones in order to make all of the workers you need. Though most buildings function as typical in collection games, generating revenue so long as you check in on them once in awhile, many structures offer new functions. For example, the legal firm allows players to purchase new land tiles with the premium currency, Utopium, rather than the cash they gather on a day-to-day basis. There's also a vanity pet system in place. Players can gather heart from the homes in their Utopia, and once they hit a certain number, they unlock a cute new creature to wander the streets. Pixel People is adorable, addictive, and has surprisingly witty writing for character and building captions.
The Sims FreePlay is a classic life simulation game where you tend to a collection of virtual people, each with a variety of needs and colorful spectrum of personality quirks. You do everything from steering their conversations with other Sims, decorating their home, getting them to work, and making sure they bathe regularly. A recent update even added the ability to play as and care for child Sims. As you guide your Sim to accomplish daily tasks, you gain experience points, level up, and unlock new items.
Unlike the old Sims games that had a handy fast-forward button, activities in The Sims FreePlay all happen in real-time, so when you put your little people to sleep, they're gone for 8 real hours. As you play, you earn Lifestyle Points, which can be used to immediately satisfy your Sim's needs and quickly complete tasks. Those can be bought through in-app purchases, alongside the game's currency, Simoleans, which your Sims earn through various kinds of work. The UI is scaled very nicely to the iPad, though syncing to the cloud is manual, if you're thinking of playing on the iPhone too.
Order Up!! To Go is a great restaurant simulation game. Players pick their menus, prepare meals, and earn tips depending on how well they're made. If you've ever played Cooking Mama on the Wii, a lot of the gameplay will be familiar. Various types of gestures translate to preparing ingredients, but cooking times must be precise, and that can be a real challenge when juggling multiple orders that have to stay hot by the time they're served up.
The art style is cartoony, with plenty of goofy references to real-world food brands. As players progress, they gain access to new, swankier restaurants, fancier dishes, and bigger paydays. Just be sure to properly stock up on enough ingredients for different kinds of dishes, otherwise customers will have to pick stuff they don't like, and reduce your restautant's review rating on Yarp. If things get a little too hectic, you can always invest in new equipment or hire helpers to take care of certain jobs. Order Up!! To Go is a colorful, hectic, multifaceted game that is sure to scratch your itch for a business sim. You might also want to check out Pocket Planes or Tiny Tower, though I find they're both better formatted for the iPhone.
Dots is a really elegant implementation of virtual currency. At its core, Dots is a fairly simple matching gaming where players have to draw a line between as many adjoining, same-colored dots as possible within a limited timeframe. Players can't draw diagonally, but get extra dots for completing full loops. Those dots you eliminate by matching don't disappear, though; you get to keep them and spend them on various power-ups. Of course, you can also buy dots through in-app purchases to get those power-ups more directly. The game is refreshingly simple, and super-flat graphic design will catch many people's eye. It reminds me of Olo in a lot of ways, and that's a good thing.
Cut the Rope remains a classic physics puzzle game, and despite its many premium iterations, this one is very free. The goal is for players to get a chunk of candy into the mouth of Om Nom, an adorable little alien. This is usually done by slicing rope with swipes with expert timing, and making use of the various objects around the stage. Sometimes they're obstacles, sometimes they're active enemies that will chase after the candy, while others are useful tools when used right. Every level has three bonus stars, which you'll need to snag if you want to access the later levels. Of course, you can just pay up to get access to everything.
Puzzle Craft is a wonderful expansion on the classic match-three game type. Between the mines and the fields, players have to draw lines which attach similar tiles - grains, chicken, and trees, or rubble, iron, and gold, for example. As players do this they accumulate resources which can be spent on constructing tools which are used as power-ups through gameplay. For example, rakes can quickly clear away any grass tiles. Those resources can also be spent creating homes for new villagers and structures, which provide food, tools, and other bonuses to miners. Harvesting isn't always easy, though - gas pockets in the mines and wolves in the fields can quickly ruin your day if you're not prepared for them. Over time, your village grows, your buildings are upgraded, and you exploit new types of resources. I really love Puzzle Craft for being able to satisfy both a short-term need for a quick puzzle as well as be rewarding in the long-term as you develop a robust town.