In the earliest days of phone games, comparatively primitive technology was a real bottleneck. Only the simplest text-based and puzzle games were possible until fairly recently, but now, smartphones can run games almost as beautiful and complex as those you can play on PCs and consoles. In some cases, you can even play exactly the same games on your phone!
In this short but sweet list, we’ve highlighted six of the best games that you can get right now, today, on the smartphone that you already carry around everywhere. We made sure to include something for everyone, from puzzle games to sprawling RPGs. Let’s get to it, shall we?
#1 Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Originally released for the iPad and iPhone way back in 2011, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a snazzy indie adventure game that makes great use of hardware unique to smartphones, like their accelerometers and gyroscopes. In the game, you control a lone warrior by tapping on the screen to move, and by tilting or rotating the phone to perform other actions.
There are two worlds—a real world and a dream world—and you can shift between them by allowing your character to go to sleep. Interestingly, the actual time of day is a factor you’ll need to consider, because certain in-game events can only happen if the moon is out in real life.
The story is vague and open to interpretation, and the game world itself is strangely fascinating. Initially, the unnamed warrior is out to find a fabled spellbook for reasons that aren’t perfectly clear. You’ll find it early on, but there’s much to do afterward. Some sort of perpetual magical thunderstorm has fallen over the land, and you’ll need to awaken a number of mythical creatures in order to dispel it.
The motion-sensitive controls are slightly janky on newer phones and moderately janky on older ones, but once you get used to them, they become an interesting and generally unobtrusive mechanic. The game is short by PC and console standards, but rather long by phone game standards, clocking in at around 5 hours. There isn’t much of a reason to replay it after you’ve finished it once, but for less than $5, it’s a superb adventure game.
#2 The Room (Series)
Escape rooms are exploding in popularity right now, and for good reason. Well-designed escape rooms are super fun, but they can also be expensive—and you have to get to them, of course. The Room is a franchise that currently spans four games, each of which allows you to solve slightly creepy puzzles without going anywhere, and for far less than what an escape room costs.
The core concept of the Room games is simple. You’ll find yourself in an attic that’s definitely haunted (in the first game—the others span different locations), along with a strange box. As you examine the box by poking and prodding at it, you’ll eventually discover hidden keys, combination locks, and intricate mechanisms that relate to one another and must be unlocked in a certain order.
If you can solve all the riddles, you’ll uncover the mystery of the box and (presumably) escape the attic. In each of the four games, the puzzles are intricate and challenging, but not so obscure as to be overly frustrating or nonsensical. There’s a persistent subtle horror vibe throughout the series, underscored by eerie soundtracks that make it just a little bit harder to focus on what you’re doing.
There is an overarching story connecting the four games, but it’s fairly minimal at first. Beginning in the second game, a more distinct plot starts to emerge, and you’ll discover that the secret of the mysterious puzzle boxes is much less… earthly than you first assumed.
If these games have a particular weakness, it’s that they have low replay value. There’s little reason to replay the first two once you’ve solved all the puzzles. The third and fourth games, though, have multiple endings that can only be unlocked by discovering and solving bonus puzzles that are creatively hidden, so there’s more of an incentive to play through them multiple times.
All in all, The Room games are great for passing time on a road trip or as short brain exercises. They’re reasonably priced, too—you can pick up all four of them for $13. If you like puzzle games and/or engaging in mental warfare with ancient horrors, you should definitely pick them up.
#3 Command & Conquer: Rivals
Command & Conquer: Rivals is a free-to-play (and in some respects, a pay-to-win) PvP real-time strategy game. The object is to destroy your opponent’s base, and to do so, you’ll build a variety of units from infantry to tanks.
You can send your army to directly attack your opponent’s units or base, or you can try to capture nuclear missile silos that are initially neutral. The missiles you can launch from them deplete half (!) of the enemy base’s health, so there’s always fierce competition to gain control of them.
To build up your army, you’ll need to mine Tiberium, the series’s trademark resource. Tiberium deposits slowly regenerate over time, but sooner or later, you’ll end up fighting your opponent for control of them. As is usually the case in PvP RTS games, there’s a persistent fog of war that covers most of the map, so you can’t see what your opponent is up to until you send your own troops out to explore, which is always a risky endeavor.
Although Rivals is a solid RTS game—better than most, if not all of the ones currently on the mobile marketplace—its blatant microtransactions do get pretty annoying. The leveling and progression system is based heavily on upgrades that can only be found in loot crates which can be earned through normal gameplay, but at higher levels, you’re pretty much forced to buy them in order to keep up.
This basically mandatory money vacuum turns an amazing PvP phone game into just a pretty good one. If nothing else, you can get by for a few dozen hours on the free loot drops, and simply stop playing if you’re not willing to start spending money at that point.
#4 Pokémon Go
If you’ve never heard of Pokémon Go… well, that’s basically impossible, right? Everyone’s at least heard of Pokémon Go by now. Politicians and helicopter parents love to complain about video games contributing to obesity. Maybe that’s true in some respects and in some cases, but nobody can say it about Pokémon Go. You simply have to move around—a lot—to play it.
If you live in a rural area, you may have trouble catching many Pokémon, but if you’re in the city or suburbs, there should be plenty of pocket monsters to capture and many other players to team up with. When you find a Pokémon, you throw a Pokéball by swiping your finger forward on your phone, but there’s more to it than that.
You’ll have to account for your target’s distance, as well as its elevation if it’s significantly higher or lower than you are. What’s more, some Pokémon can fly or swim, and others can deflect Pokéballs, and in each case, you’ll have to use special equipment or adjust your throw accordingly.
Fittingly, you’re more likely to find water-type Pokémon around water, grass-types in forests, and so on. Crowded urban areas are more likely to be designated as gyms, which is where you can battle AI trainers. Some of them are quite difficult to defeat, but grinding your squad up to ridiculous levels isn’t the only option. Less experienced players can team up and work together to whittle down powerful gym leaders.
Another nice feature of Pokémon Go is that scarcity isn’t a concern. Rare Pokémon are rare because they don’t show up very often, not because there are only a small number of them. Once a rare Pokémon does appear, any player who gets there before it disappears can try to capture it—it won’t be unavailable just because 10,000 other people already bagged it.
To get the most out of Pokémon Go, you should be willing to travel a lot. Whether it’s driving 20 miles from home, biking to the other side of town, or just walking a few neighborhoods over, you’ll be rewarded for exploring areas you don’t normally spend a lot of time in. Pokémon Go is a fun video game, and it’s also a great way to meet new people and get in some extra exercise.
#5 Stardew Valley
Farming in real life is grueling work, and it rarely pays well. A farming/fishing/mining/dating RPG sounds a lot more fun, especially if you can take it anywhere without having to lug around a console.
In Stardew Valley, you begin as the proud owner of an overgrown vacant field. Start by clearing the weeds and chopping down a few trees, and soon enough you’ll be able to build a modest hut and plant a few basic crops. While they’re growing, why not go check out that nearby cave that horrible monsters periodically come out of? Assuming you survive, you can mine valuable ore and find useful treasure in there.
Over time, as your farm grows, you’ll make a name for yourself in the community and eventually be asked to participate in seasonal festivals. You can do quests or fill orders for other villagers, and who knows, maybe you’ll find someone to settle down with in the process.
Stardew Valley is a simple game, but that’s one reason it’s so appealing. It’s easy to learn and relaxing to play, but not so basic that it gets boring. You can easily spend 50 or more hours on a single playthrough, so for $7.99, it’s a great deal.
#6 The Witness
2016’s The Witness, from the same guy who made Braid, is one of the best puzzle games of all time. Reminiscent of nothing so much as an updated version of Myst, it’s a bright, eerily silent trek around a remote island crammed full of mysteries.
You, an unidentified mute protagonist, wake up in a dark cave and emerge into sunlight. You find yourself in a lush courtyard, but there’s a huge gate blocking the exit. After experimenting with some power cords and simple interfaces, you manage to open it and continue on. From this moment on, you can (theoretically) go anywhere on the island at any time.
Without doubt, there’s an intended (or at least most efficient) order of progression in The Witness. Certain areas of the island are “hard-locked” behind doors or puzzles that are impossible to bypass until you’ve solved different puzzles in other areas, whereas other zones are “soft-locked,” meaning it’s possible to solve their riddles right away—if you can figure them out without having finished easier versions elsewhere.
The most beautiful part of The Witness is its elegant design. At no point does any character, note, or on-screen block of text tell you where to go or what to do. Every last puzzle merely waits in silence for you to figure out what it wants. For example, one set of electronic panels near a sandy coastline seems to be malfunctioning, because any circuit you try to complete just doesn’t work—the line you’re trying to draw between two points won’t even appear.
At some point, you’ll realize that if you stand in a certain place and look at the panel from a certain angle, trees on the shore across from you cast reflections in the water that form a pattern.
Once you go back to the panel and trace a line that mirrors the reflections, suddenly the circuit completes and unlocks a nearby boathouse. Now that you know that some puzzles will involve trickery with background objects and viewing angles, you’ll be on the lookout for that going forward.
The Witness plays wonderfully on mobile devices; it helps that very few puzzles are heavily dependent on precisely moving your character. (By the way, there’s also a super-secret ending that’s extremely well hidden right out in the open. Good luck finding it.) For some reason, the Android version is significantly more expensive, but both versions are well worth the price.
As much as we love all six of these phone games, if we could only install one, we’d have to go with The Witness. Granted, it’s the most expensive game on the list, but contrary to the tired old bromide, the best things in life are rarely free. The game offers up a great mental workout layered on top of a vague but intriguing story that takes some real work to uncover.
What other great mobile games are you guys playing that we didn’t mention this time? Let us know in the comments!