Putting together a mobile game holiday guide isn't the easiest thing to do. First, there are hundreds upon hundreds of games released to the marketplace in any given year. Second, they're often split between iOS and Android devices in less than clear ways, with delayed releases on the opposing platform or occasionally no release at all. Third, some games appear great, or can only be great, when excessive amounts of time or even money are invested. I'm talking about microtransaction crap, of course. Sorting through the nonsense is one of the main reasons so many people find mobile gaming so exhausting and lacking in real value in the first place.
The truth is, however, that there are many, many great games available on iOS and Android devices. Games that are great whether you play them for five minutes or fifty. Games that are great if you spend $5 up front or $20 over three months. That's the direction I decided to focus on with the guide: great games, period. Some of them have up front costs, some of them have microtransactions, and some others have gameplay-limiting time-based resources, but they're still great games.
That's not to say that your favorite mobile game is bad. Angry Birds, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush and Kim Kardashian's game are all swell in their own way, I'm sure. However, they've also got their fair share off bull****. That's why games like that aren't on this list. The games that were included more than make up for the others' absence.
Have a happy holiday everyone! Remember that no matter who you visit or where you go, mobile gaming will always be with you. That's actually kind of a creepy statement.
Mobile's Best Exclusives
Monument Valley (iOS only)
Likely the best mobile game of 2014, Monument Valley is beautiful, mysterious, and a joy to play. It's a puzzle game of sorts where players traverse M.C. Escher-esque maze structures that loop back on themselves or don't make sense in ways one wouldn't expect. As high quality games tend to do, it's not just the simple but enjoyable gameplay that makes the game excellent. It's the mix of clever storytelling, ambient music and -- again -- drop dead gorgeous visuals that make Monument Valley outstanding.
- Who it's for: Art lovers, fans of atmosphere, puzzle addicts, guys named Rory Young
- Also consider: Mountain, Windosill, Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP
It's the best Hitman title that Squar Enix has developed in years - heyo! What happens when you strip the Hitman formula down into simple board-game mechanics? An Agent 47 token moves pre-set lines to assassinate various enemy tokens by strafing or backstabbing them, all while striving to capture intelligence in a specific number of moves. It's straight forward, it's dastardly challenging, but particularly clever and rewarding. Plus, free DLC maps!
- Who it's for: Snipers, Agent 47, hopefully the team at IO Interactive are playing it, strategists, perfectionists
- Also consider: Deus Ex: The Fall, CounterSpy, Shadowrun Returns
The Kingdom Rush franchise may be the best mobile tower defense brand available. I say may, because there are so many of the damn things on phones these days. I truly doubt many, if any, are as good as Kingdom Rush Origins, however. The fantasy setting of elves and their spirit/nature-backed allies against an evil force of orcs, spiders and.... evil elves sets for a solid story for battle after battle of towers against mindless waves of foes. The mechanics could be a bit tighter, but the room for error makes for fun custom strategies.
- Who it's for: Defenders... of towers, button mashers, Warcraft III fans, Tolkien nerds, haters of elves and spiders
- Also consider: Plants vs. Zombies 2, Anomaly 2
Device 6 (iOS only)
Device 6 may be one of the smartest mobile-focused games available. The largely text-only is scrolled through by the player, who solves small compelling puzzles as the story splits and twists as the player interacts. Rarely do games come along so keenly aware of how its platform is used -- the touch-based tapping and scrolling that pulls modern mobile users into the device's screen. The mixture of audio and visual queues within Device 6 create an experience unlike any other.
- Who it's for: Those looking for something different, story fans, readers
- Also consider: Year Walk, Blackbar, Kairo
I think every gamer has at one time encountered an in-game situation where they're locked in a room and must discover a way out. The Room Two expands on that idea, spreading it into an entire game (and sequel). Tasked to go room to room, solving puzzle after puzzle only to unlock the next room. Piece by piece the player solves the larger mystery, but what waits ahead? Are their answers? Or just another room?
- Who it's for: Hidden object gamers, fans of mystery and intrigue, folk looking to escape
- Also consider: The Room, realMyst, Machinarium
While Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake isn't necessarily an extraordinary game, it does create a high-quality puzzler like several other titles on mobile devices. The difference being it doesn't ruin that experience with microtransactions and time-based limitations. The player can explore Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake to their pleasure, which is what the designers made it for. It's positively brilliant what a small puzzle game feels like on a mobile device when the designers want you to solve their puzzles -- all of them! As you please!
- Who it's for: Lovers of cute, fans of exploration and Zelda-esque games, cake eaters (so all of y'all), friendly monsters
- Also consider: Ittle Dew, Zenonia 3, Road Not Taken (PS4)
Magazine Mogul (Android only)
From the developers of GameDevStory comes their latest simulation game, Magazine Mogul. Like GameDevStory the player creates an office, staffs it with NPCs who perform different roles and then design magazines of assorted styles and genres. Put that magazine on the market and see how it performs -- now you've entered RPG territory! Time to build the office and boost the staff. One doesn't become a Magazine Mogul overnight.
- Who it's for: Office workers, aspiring... magazine... people?
- Also consider: GameDevStory, Pocket Academy, The Sushi Spinnery
Mobile's Top Ports
Hearthstone (iPad and Windows 8 only)
Blizzard's hit card game is tenuously now a mobile game. It's available on iPad and Windows 8 Touch devices currently, but Android tablet support is coming in December and phones should start seeing the game in early 2015. As for the game itself, imagine a card game like Magic: The Gathering in all of its complexity mixed with World of Warcraft in all of its accessibility and straightforwardness. It's a spectacularly fun game that anyone can dive into.
- Who it's for: Card collectors, World of Warcraft fans, Trump, eSports fans who aren't good at MOBAs or FPS games, the Blizzard faithful
- Also consider: Magic the Gathering 2014, Might & Magic: Duel of Champions, Heroes of Camelot
I have to start this out by saying that anyone who played the original Final Fantasy VI -- stay away. It hurts to see the game edited in even small ways, let alone the big visual and UI changes that had to be made to port this huge RPG to mobile. That said, everyone else should go out and get this game ASAP. Potentially the best JRPG with turn-based combat ever made is available on your mobile device. Don't turn that opportunity away.
- Who it's for: New JRPG fans, classic JRPG fans who are also blind, Kefka
- Also consider: Banner Saga, Battleheart Legacy, Final Fantasy IV, The World Ends with You: Solo Remix
FTL: Advanced Edition (iPad only)
One of my favorite games in recent memory, Faster Than Light, is now available on iPad. It's perfect for the mobile medium, because you can take a few turns as you please or pause when some other distraction comes up. Anyway, who doesn't want to play a cool tactical game where you fly a space ship away from supremacist rebel forces, equipping it with all sorts of gadgetry along the way. Only at the end of the journey does the player directly confronts the rebel alliance. Wait, is this Star Wars? Are we the bad guys?
- Who it's for: Space nerds, tactical gamers, rogue-like fans, those fighting against the Rebels
- Also consider: XCOM: Enemy Within, Frozen Synapse
Mobile's Most Addictive
Buy Threes. Don't even think about downloading 2048 for free. The creator of 2048 admitted to snagging the idea for his game from Threes and the rest is history. Threes, meanwhile, is a much more brilliant and well-designed game. Match cards by sliding them all either horizontally or vertically, matching similar numbers as they pair together as the sum of their pieces. The higher the number, the higher the score. Each match only takes a few minutes, so Threes is perfect for... all of the time. This is the definition of addiction.
- Who it's for: Folk good with numbers, folk who appreciate great and simple design, folk with only five minutes
- Also consider: SpellTower, Ridiculous Fishing
Tsum Tsum was the hardest to put on this list. Not only does it limit the number of times a player can play a game (one heart every fifteen minutes), but in order to unlock special abilities you have to play successfully, accrue a resource, and then gamble for a random Disney Tsum Tsum character power-up. Nevertheless, the game is positively exciting. You match alike Tsum Tsums by drawing a line with your finger. The real problem is you'll find yourself buying the stuffed animals in real life after playing.
- Who it's for: Disney crazies, match-3 gamers, collectors, folk with only five minutes
- Also consider: Eliss, Tetris
This is a relatively new title, so it's probably the one I'm most uncertain about including here. Nevertheless, it's just so much fun. Crossy Road, a play on the name Flappy Bird, is an endless Frogger. Mixing up the endless runner genre that has become so popular on mobile platforms with the classic Frogger arcade game is sheer brilliance. Also, it's probably a little morally grey. Nevertheless, hoping across streets, train tracks and so on as a random adorable animal is 2014's new addiction. I hope.
- Who it's for: Frogger, retro fans, endless runner fans, roadkill, those with only five minutes
- Also consider: Tiny Wings, bit.trip.run, Punch Quest
Hooray! There's no need to write up a conclusion detailing bundles, because mobile devices don't have them! The good news is most mobile games are so cheap that no bundles are necessary. The bad news is phones and tablet devices are ridiculously expensive. Instead of listing a few bundles like we did with the major consoles in our gift guide, let's go over some of the big phone and tablet releases from this year. I'd recommend Googling holiday sales prices.
- iPhone 6 Plus - Apple finally announced and released their 5.5-inch phone in 2014 and it's a beauty. While certain Android phones may have as good of or even better hardware and screen resolution, nothing can compare to Apple's style and excellent iOS. The things practically run themselves.
- Samsung Galaxy Note - Samsung's big phone has been growing in popularity, which is one of the reasons Apple decided to get into the business. It's bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus (5.7 inches), powerful in its own right, packs in a stylus for writing, and has a screen to-die-for. This is the big phone to buy, with it's only flaw being that it doesn't have the Apple brand.
- Google Nexus 6 - Like the Note, this thing is big. It's 6-inches big, which makes it a bit harder to handle for most. Still, it's super powerful and has a beautiful screen. If the iPhone is for the celebrity and the Note is for the lawyer, the Nexus 6 is for the engineer.
- iPhone 6 - Like the Plus, but with a 4.7 inch display, Apple's standard phone is thinner and lighter than ever. With its largest screen yet, the iPhone 6 is an outstanding phone with beautiful visuals and it fits in your pocket too.
- Samsung Galaxy S5 - It's ages old at this point, released in February, but Samsung's latest Galaxy phone is still a powerhouse option.
- HTC One M8 for Windows - That's right, it's a Windows phone, and it's great! It's powerful, beautiful and now features the AI voice of Cortana just for Halo fans.
- Sony Xperia Z3 - Another great phone of standard size. Sony's Android phone puts the fire to Samsung this holiday.
- Motorola Moto X - Not a powerhouse. Not the cusp of phone technology, but one of the best all-around, every day smartphones you can get in 2014.
- iPad Air 2 - This year's iPad Air comes with a much more powerful processor than the previous model, which means movies load faster and run smoother. If you've got your own tablet already, there's little reason to upgrade. If you need a new tablet, however, it doesn't get much sexier than the iPad Air.
- Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 - Here's everyone's powerhouse tablet. It's sporting the biggest screen of the lost, sharing the highest resolution, and even has MicroSD access. It's also the most spendy of the bunch, but it'll play anything you can put on a tablet as best as anything else.
- Google Nexus 9 - It's a bit smaller than the iPad and the Galaxy but it's also $100 cheaper. Certainly the best middle-man option for larger tablets, especially considering the Kindle Fire HDX runs for around the same price.
- Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 - Again, Amazon's here offering a cheaper, smaller and less powerful alternative to the big guys. It's an inch smaller than the iPad and almost two less than the Galaxy, but it'll save you $100. Maybe if you wanted the smaller Fire 6 it'd be worth it as an alternative, but at this size you're going to find better options that have better specifications and features all-around.
- iPad Mini 3 - The exact same size and the exact same power as the iPad Mini 2. Do yourself a favor and save yourself $100 -- if you need a smaller tablet and want and iPad Mini, just buy an iPad Mini 2.
- Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 - In terms of screen size (and prize) this guy is as close to the bigger tablets as it is to the smaller. Still, if you prefer something a bit smaller and built on Android then the Galaxy Tab S is beautiful.
- Amazon Fire HD 6 - The smaller Fire is scaled back in just about every way, but it's also ridiculously cheap compared to every other tablet on this list. If all you want to do with your tablet is stream movies for yourself, check social media and browse the internet then why spend more? Without access to Google Apps or a processor built to handle much stress, this won't be much of a gaming tablet.
That's a lot more than I wanted to write! Oh well, hopefully everyone is able to find the device of their dreams for the holiday. It's one of the best year's for mobile technology in recent memory, largely because the hardware can support so many types of outstanding games now!
Have a great holiday everyone. Good luck shopping and please let me and everyone know of any mobile games you believe just must be included in everyone's must-haves for 2014.