The mobile app market is, it’s not entirely unfair to say, flooded with absolute dross. It’s reached such a stage now that it’s actually quite difficult to discover new apps now, leading many developers to bemoan how difficult it is for their games to get noticed, even when they are genuinely innovative and interesting.
The most commonly attributed factor that has led to this situation is the rise of “freemium” gaming — titles where you can download and play for free and then, at some point, will probably be expected to stump up some cash to make further progress. Depending on the game, this might be a better weapon, additional in-game currency, a special building or, in some cases, paying to unlock further levels. The effectiveness of this implementation varies from game to game and people tend to disagree somewhat on whether or not it’s a “good thing” overall. Some games are clearly moneymaking machines rather than fun experiences, and that sort of thing is regarded by many longtime gamers as being pretty obnoxious — but there are plenty of free iOS games that you can play for free and have an incredibly satisfying experience, too.
So here’s a few of them. Some are completely free, others might ask you to make an in-app purchase at some point, but the thing they all have in common is the fact that it is not necessary to spend money on them to have an enjoyable experience.
The Zookeeper series of Bejeweled-style “match-3″ puzzlers has been around for a while now on various platforms. Zookeeper Battle is the latest incarnation, and it’s a freemium synchronous online multiplayer battle variant of the formula. And it’s quite astonishingly good.
Like past Zookeeper games, you have to match groups of three or more animals by swapping them around on a playfield, much like in Bejeweled. The twist is that successfully creating groups adds to your “attack” and “defense” scores, and when a round’s time is up, your two scores are compared to your opponents, and damage is done to your respective life bars accordingly. The first to keel over exhausted loses — or, if there is no clear winner after five rounds, the one who has the most health remaining wins.
Zookeeper Battle works well as a free game because it’s bite-sized, quick to play and you won’t find yourself wanting to play for hours at a time, meaning that the usually-obnoxious “energy” system that the game makes use of becomes largely irrelevant for all but the most dedicated players who really have nothing better to do.
Grab it here.
Rune Gems describes itself as a “match-3″ game which may give you visions of Bejeweled, but in actual fact this is something a bit more original than your average clonetastic puzzle game. Presented with a stack of tiles similar to in Mahjong/Shangai Solitaire, it’s your job to remove tiles from the board by collecting groups of three of the same color into a rack at the bottom of the screen. The quicker you do it, the more points you score. It’s that simple, and it’s quite marvellously addictive.
Rune Gems is free to download and play but only includes 15 levels — additional ones are available for a one-off purchase of $0.99. For casual players who only play phone games on the toilet, however, these 15 levels provide ample challenge, as achieving a “three star” score on each is not very easy at all.
Grab it here.
Enough puzzle games. You want something insane, right? Enter HungryMaster, one of the most gloriously bonkers games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. In this questionably-translated Japanese title from Xionchannel Software, you play the role of a perpetually hungry young girl who is accompanied by a cat called Saten and tasked with turning hordes of wandering enemies into various delicious treats and then delivering said treats to houses around the various 2D maps.
A lot of HungryMaster’s appeal comes from its self-consciously retro aesthetic — the game features scanlines on the screen, overly-pixelated graphics and a distinctly “’80s arcade” soundtrack. And it’s amazingly fun, even if the touch controls take a bit of getting used to. If you have an iPad, I’d recommend saving this one for the large screen.
Grab it here.
Anything with the words “100″ and “Exits,” “Floors” or “Doors” in its name
There was a brief craze a little while back for “room escape” games on the iPhone. This typically Japanese take on the adventure game/environmental puzzle genre generally flings players into a locked room and tells them absolutely nothing about what to do next. Through tapping, flicking, blowing, shaking, tilting and all manner of other things that make you look a right fool if playing on public transport, you have to work out exactly how to open the locked door before you that sits there, taunting you, laughing at your feeble attempts to creatively solve a very simple problem.
These games are generally highly infuriating, but if you have no problem with being highly infuriated by environmental puzzles that often defy logic, you should check some of these out — try 100 Floors, 100 Doors or 100 Exits. Note that 100 Rogues is neither free nor a member of this genre, but well worth your time and money.
Surviving High School/Cause of Death
Technically this is two games, but since they’re mechanically almost identical to one another they’re worth bundling together. Both are visual novels from EA that provide a considerable amount of content for free and then follow a very interesting episodic business model — each week, a new episode “airs” and is downloadable/playable for free, but past episodes must be purchased and downloaded.
Gameplay is very simple, but the appeal comes from the interesting unfolding stories and well-defined, well-written characters. Both pack a surprising amount of emotional punch at times, too — and the amount of free stuff you get just for downloading both of them shouldn’t be underestimated, though unlike other games on this list, they do contain some occasionally-obtrusive advertising, though not enough to spoil the experience to a significant degree.
FreePlay is Games Are Evil’s weekly column about games that cost you nothing to download and get started with, hosted by GrE’s managing editor Pete Davison. Follow Pete on Twitter here.