As we close out another great year at Download.com, we've been putting together several end-of-year software collections. Just like last year, Jessica Dolcourt and I have split up the iPhone apps of the year into two groups. Jessica has put together the iPhone Starter Kit that's perfect for grabbing the best productivity apps to make your life more...productive. My job is quite the opposite. I went through my favorite games of 2009 (and quickly realized I had too many), and was able to narrow it down to 17 of my most played games. If you're looking to waste some time, this collection was made for you!
I tried to make a collection of games that would have something for everyone, so I included quick casual games along with strategy, tower defense, first-person shooters, word games, and more. Obviously, I recommend every game in this list, but hopefully you'll be able to find a genre you like so you have something to play over the holidays.
Without further ado, here are my favorite games for 2009.
Orbital is a game that starts out with a very simple concept, but after you spend some time with the game, you'll realize it's much more than it seems. The object is to shoot orbs onto the playing field and to hit them three times with subsequent orbs in order to score a point and make them disappear. As your playing field fills up, you'll need to make increasingly precise shots to lower your orbs' hit count and hopefully keep the orb you shot in an area that doesn't block later shots. Obviously, it's very confusing to explain, but once you play for a few minutes it will all become clear. You can also play multiplayer on the same device with a player on each end--great for an across-the-table match. Overall, Orbital is an excellent pick-up-and-play type of experience, with slick yet simple graphics, great for a quick game wherever you are and challenging enough to keep you coming back for more. I highly recommend this game.
Though Harbor Master wasn't the first line-drawing game of its type (Flight Control was first and remains a great game in its own right), the variation in gameplay and continued attention from the developer put it at the top of its class. The object of the game is to direct boats to open berths where they can offload their cargo, and then to draw a path for them to leave the playing area. There are several maps to choose from, all with unique features to make the game more interesting; some require that specific colored cargo be dropped off at appropriate berths, while others challenge you to blow up a pirate ship that harasses your boats. There are several maps already available, each with its own challenges, and the developer continues to improve and add more content for free.
The original Geodefense became known as the thinking man's tower defense game, requiring players to work out a strategy for harder levels (and they were very challenging). GeoDefense is still one of the best tower defense games in the iTunes App Store, and its much-hyped follow-up, Geodefense Swarm, offers more of the same insanely challenging gameplay, but with a twist. GeoDefense Swarm has 30 playable levels split between Easy, Medium, and Hard categories, all offering the same vector-based graphics, pixel bursts, and warp effects found in the original. But Geodefense Swarm does away with the fixed path concept in Geodefense, and adds tiles that speed up and slow down creeps, a new tower called the Thumper, and several increasingly challenging maps to play. With no fixed path, you'll need to create your own using towers in creative ways to maximize damage on creeps as they travel to their goal. Overall, GeoDefense Swarm is an excellent follow-up to the original game, but just like the original, might be better suited to those with a lot of experience in the genre or at least a high threshold for frustration.
Homerun Battle 3D lets you participate in a home run derby to beat your best score or challenge other players online. The control system is excellent: tilt your iPhone or iPod Touch to adjust where you will swing in the strike zone. When the pitch crosses the plate, touch the screen anywhere to swing. It takes some practice to be able to line up your bat with different types of pitches, but you get the hang of it fairly quickly. The challenge is in hitting several home runs in a row, which you'll need to practice if you plan on trying your luck against other skilled players online. The system for online matching with other players is superb, letting you start playing almost immediately. As you play, you can even see how your opponent is doing with a picture-in-picture display in the upper right part of your screen. If you'd like to hit a few out of the park, this home run hitter is an excellent choice with good-looking 3D graphics, customizable uniforms, great controls, and seamless online gameplay.
Modern Combat: Sandstorm is a first-person shooter that might be the best one available at the iTunes App Store. The game is set somewhere in the Middle East, with mission objectives in dry sandy locales. You have three different types of control schemes to pick from, with variations of onscreen joysticks and touch-screen actions. Whether you're gunning through the missions or take the game online against other players, Modern Combat: Sandstorm provides great shoot-'em-up action and great gameplay. Along with the great gameplay, the game also has great audio, with explosive-sounding guns, and good voice acting in-game and during cut scenes. Overall, if you're looking for a solid first-person shooter with good single player to come to the iPhone, Modern Combat: Sandstorm is an excellent choice with exciting gameplay, challenging missions, and a control scheme that's fairly easy to get used to. The new addition of multiplayer is only icing on the cake.
Eliminate Pro is an extremely well-polished "free" game featuring smooth-looking graphics, onscreen controls that are fairly effective (no match for a controller or keyboard/mouse setup, but that's to be expected), a number of power-ups to improve your weapons and armor, and several playable maps. In-game kills and winning matches earn you credits you can use to buy new weapons and armor. There are eight armor types, five weapon types, and items to buy like armor designs (skins) to give you a new look. The best part is that you get to play an online FPS from wherever you are on 3G or Wi-Fi against your friends or against players from around the world. The game uses the Plus+ network, so you'll need to register your character before you start playing online. The only catch to this game is that once your energy bar is depleted, you will not earn credits for purchasing items, and will need to wait an hour for more energy or pay for more battery cells. But even with the pricing model, casual gamers will love this game for its smooth graphics and online multiplayer action.
What can I say about Scrabble? I hardly need to describe how to play this classic board game, but making it into an online iPhone game makes it better than ever before. When you play against an online opponent, your move is sent instantaneously to wherever they are in the world. You can challenge your Facebook friends, random players who love the game, or against a savvy AI for quick solo games. Perhaps best of all, you can play Scrabble with a relative (Hi Mom!) and have a pleasant long-distance connection through a classic game. A built-in dictionary, push notifications for when it's your move, and a "Teacher" that shows you the best word you could have used after your turn make this game a must-have for word-game junkies.
Alive4Ever is part survival shooter and part RPG in which you'll fight off zombies using onscreen joysticks and has more than a little resemblance to popular PC game, Left4Dead (even the name!). It's similar to iDracula: Undead Awakening (another great game), a survival shooter, but adds several new elements to make it even better. In Alive4Ever, you get to choose among four different characters with varying strengths and weaknesses and play through 30 missions of increasingly hard zombie-killing mayhem. When you're low on health or ammo, you can often fight your way to pickups to replenish your supplies. As you complete missions, you'll earn experience to increase your character's abilities and extra cash to buy new and more-powerful weapons. You can even play co-op multiplayer over Bluetooth with your friends. Overall, Alive4Ever is an excellent and well-thought-out app that combines good elements of two popular games to make one of the best survival shooters for the iPhone.
When I first saw Minigore I had trouble taking it seriously. There were already a few dual-joystick survival shooters available like Alive4Ever and iDracula (both linked above), so a similar game with a cute big-headed protagonist and fuzzy bad guys just didn't seem appealing to me. Once I played the game I realized just how special it was. Even with the cute graphics, Minigore manages to be one of the best games of this type I have played, with excellent sound design, genuinely funny voice acting, and an overall great gaming experience. Pick up and use several different types of weapons as the game progresses as you fight bigger and badder fuzzy enemies. The developer of Minigore continues to improve the game with new characters to play and new baddies to conquer using a wide array of devastating weapon types. Beginning and expert survival shooter fans will enjoy the challenge and polished graphics (even if they are cutesy) in this fun game.
Meteor Blitz is a challenging 2D survival shooter arcade game with smooth graphics, tons of cool power-ups, and great gameplay. Like many games of this type on the iPhone, Meteor Blitz uses dual onscreen joysticks, with the left one to move your ship and the right to fire your weapons. A double tap on the left joystick gives you a momentary burst of speed to help you get out of particularly sticky situations. Just over the right joystick is a button to switch between three weapon types: regular cannons, a flame thrower, and ice bullets, all of which can be upgraded by spending rings you collect in the game. Each weapon type is more effective against specific enemies (ice bullets for red meteors, flame thrower for ice meteors, etc.) so knowing how to quickly switch between them becomes part of the challenge as well. With two game types, real-time ranking as you play, and a nostalgic nod to arcade classics of old, Meteor Blitz might be my favorite game overall for 2009. It might be because I grew up playing games like this, but I think just about anyone who likes shoot-'em-up action will love this game.
Not looking for a hardcore shooter game? SkeeBall, from longtime Mac-gaming publisher Freeverse Software, is just like the bowling game you remember from your childhood, but uses your touch screen to throw a ball down the alley. Using crisp 3D graphics and a realistic physics engine, this game manages to capture what it's like to play Skeeball in an arcade. Each game you get 10 balls you can roll down the alley in an attempt to make them land in one of the seven cups of varying score values. Tilt your iPhone to add spin as your ball rolls down the alley. While playing, random cups will light up, and if you manage to land a ball in the cup, you get a score multiplier, which lasts until the end of the game. Hit another lit-up cup to increase your multiplier. At the end, you receive tickets--depending on your score--that you can use to purchase silly items in the store. Overall, this simple game is a great time waster that doesn't require expert hand-eye coordination, but manages to be a lot of fun.
Real Racing is my favorite of all the racing games with excellent graphics, different camera views, more than 40 cars in four classes, 12 unique tracks, and five game modes--most of which you will unlock as you win races. You also can sync your best times against other players online and even join a league to rise up through the ranks against people across the globe. Excellent goal-oriented gameplay (new cars and tracks) keeps you playing, and an online component that's more than just a high-score list makes you want to get better. But what makes me like this game over all other racing sim-type games for iPhone are the sensitive, but realistic feeling controls, including an autobraking system that helps you learn the ropes to become a better racer. If you like racing games, there are a lot to choose from at the iTunes App Store, but Real Racing offers the most polish and excellent gameplay.
There have been a few good off-road racing games in the iTunes App Store, but none had the polish and natural-feeling controls of ATV Offroad. With amazing graphics and excellent physics, the gameplay involves racing through challenges and multirace competitions to unlock more tracks. There also are freestyle, quick race, and multiplayer modes, but you'll need to be on the same Wi-Fi network to race against your friends. ATV Offroad sets itself apart from other racing games the second you hit the track with smooth-looking graphics and excellent accelerometer-based controls. You can even pull off huge tricks while in the air by hitting onscreen trick buttons. You can choose between three skill levels, though I found even the medium skill level to be very hard to beat. If you don't like the look of your racer, you can easily switch between multiple ATV designs and different-color leathers with a swipe of your finger before a race. If you like off-road racing, I highly recommend this game.
Jet Car Stunts is a stunt-racing game that runs surprisingly smoothly on first-gen iPhones on up to the 3GS. Beyond the beautiful graphics, the driving-control system is excellent, using the accelerometer for steering and onscreen controls for gas and brakes. What make the game stand apart from other racing games are the controls for your rocket boost to complete big jumps, and the braking system that works both on the ground and in the air. You can choose from two different game types including Time Trial and Platforming. In Time Trial, you race five laps around a track with corkscrew twists, tight turns, and huge jumps, to qualify for bronze-, silver-, or gold-medal times. Platforming has no time limit, but instead records the number of tries it takes you to complete difficult tracks--and they get very difficult in both game types. Overall, the unique gameplay and smooth graphics on all iPhone models make this an easy pick for best of 2009. If you like to go for "big air," this is the game for you.
Backbreaker Football is not a "complete" football game like Madden NFL 10 or NFL 2010; it instead focuses on the challenge of running around defenders to make touchdowns. Control your runner by tilting your phone, forward to run, and left and right to turn. Onscreen buttons give you a variety of moves to make defenders miss including right and left juke moves, spin moves, and a turbo button to break free for the touchdown. There's also a showboat button so you can high-step into the end zone. Each move has a certain point value and when you string moves together (or showboat for more yards before the end zone) you get more points to add to your score. The great thing about Backbreaker Football is that it doesn't take an enormous amount of time to play a few waves (running the distance of the field), so it's easy to get some quick playing time in wherever you are. Overall, if you're looking for an American football game minus the need to play an entire game or sift through giant playbooks, Backbreaker Football offers enough football action to be a lot of fun.
HookChamp is a fun (and funny) platform type of game where you swing through caves carrying stolen treasure using your trusty grappling hook to get to the exit. The game offers fairly simple graphics and reminds me of older console platform games. The control system is extremely easy to pick up and understand, but takes some practice before you'll be able to swing smoothly through the caverns. Along the way, you'll need to pick up gold coins, some of which require you to be creative with your high-flying grappling techniques. As you progress in levels, the action gets more difficult, as you'll be chased by a giant unnamed ghost-like creature with large teeth. Some of the most exciting parts of the game are when you're on the run, trying to swing your way to safety. HookChamp is not going to dazzle you with modern graphics, but the game concept is solid and the controls translate well to the touch screen, making this an excellent choice on the iPhone or iPod Touch.
N.O.V.A. - Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance just came out, but might be the best first-person shooter yet, so I decided to add it at the last second. Using much of the same controls as Modern Combat: Sandstorm (reviewed above), N.O.V.A. challenges you to unravel the mystery of several attacks on orbiting installations. The smooth graphics remind me of the Halo games visually, and the sound effects are excellent, with the notable exception of the voice acting, which is not so great. You can play a huge single-player mission across several levels or take the game online and play death-match games with other players. Overall, N.O.V.A. just might unseat all others as the best FPS for iPhone and iPod Touch, so I just had to add this one to the list.
What do you think? What are your favorite games of 2009? Any glaring omissions? Let me know in the comments!
Also, this is the last iPhone post I will be doing this year, so check back on January 8 for the first iPhone apps of the week for 2010.