It turns out you only need a single digit to play games, whether you’re into racers, puzzles, blasters, or blissed-out golfing weirdness
The iPhone’s potential as a games machine was initially dismissed. It lacked traditional controls, so how could it compete with Nintendo or Sony portable hardware? But developers circumvented perceived limitations, taking advantage of the touchscreen and accelerometer. The result was a slew of imaginative, unique, exciting multi-touch experiences.
An alternative approach, pioneered by Canabalt, was to strip everything back. That game is controlled with a single thumb, tapping the screen to make the protagonist jump across gaps between rooftops. With mobile gaming often being about short-burst entertainment, Canabalt proved intuitive – yet its speed ensured it was also exciting and kept dragging you back for more.
You still might think reducing controls to using a single digit may feel reductive. But games creators have shown they can revel in such limitations. In this round-up, we’ve scoured the best in one-thumb games for iPhone. Our list offers something for everything, whether you’re the most casual of gamers, or someone who usually has their hands clamped around a gamepad but fancies trying something a bit different.
$2/£1.49 • 59.4 MB • v1.0.12 • Laser Dog
This one’s properly exciting. You belt along in a tiny spacecraft, weaving your way between airborne chunks of rock, and avoiding ragged, deadly cave walls. Lose concentration for only a moment and your craft will become so much spacedust in this breakneck, beautiful, brutal, compelling game.
$5/£5 • 144.6 MB • v1.0.5 • By Snowman
Like predecessor Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey is a game about grace and freedom. Alto sandboards across gorgeous desert landscapes, his journeys taking him through villages, jungles and abandoned ruins. Along the way, you grind rails, bounce on balloons, outwit angry wildlife, and perform spectacular mid-air somersaults, all under the direction of a single thumb.
$1/£0.79 • 224.5 MB • v3.4.3 • Frogmind
Coming across like a psychotic Flappy Bird, Badland finds little winged beasts trying to survive shortish trips through terrifying forests. You tap to fly and must navigate the hostile terrain, making use of multipliers to clone yourself, and other devices to expand or contract in size. Visually stunning, Badland now also includes a level editor for endless creative fun.
Free • 213.3 MB • v1.3.0 • By Lucky Kat Studios
Evil gangs are terrorizing your patch, and it’s down to you to free the city in this love letter to classic scrolling brawlers. Using just one thumb, you move, punch, kick, hurl dazed foes about, and sometimes unsportingly whack them with a baseball bat. But, hey, they’re the bad guys.
Beneath the Lighthouse
Free • 132.4 MB • v1.2 • By Nitrome
Bucking platform-gaming conventions, this nautically themed effort doesn’t have you running and jumping. Instead, you spin a wheel with your thumb to have the rotund protagonist roll about. But watch out: this lighthouse has plenty of secrets – but also walls and floors jam-packed with spikes!
Free • 137.2 MB • v3.5.2 • By IPSTER WHALE
This endless take on Frogger has guide a blocky character across rivers, through traffic, and safely over train tracks. The gameplay is infused with plenty of character — and, indeed, characters. Collect coins to try your luck with a one-armed bandit that dispenses new protagonists, many of which shake up Crossy Road’s visuals and gameplay. If you like it, also try Disney Crossy Road.
$2/£2 • 2.2 MB • v1.22 • Blinkbat Games
An artillery game stripped back to an almost absurd degree, Desert Golfing finds you in a minimalist landscape boasting a ball and a hole. Drag to aim, let go to swing and (with a little luck) pot and then move on to the next challenge. It seems endless and there’s no restarting, but it’s ridiculously moreish.
$5/£5 • 352.1 MB • v1.1.0 • By Annapurna Games, LLC
Most videogames want you to avoid plummeting down holes. In Donut County, you are the hole. As you roam, you’re first only big enough to gobble tiny objects, but soon you’re swallowing mountains. And if you think that’s weird, that’s not a batch on the underlying storyline.
Free • 17.1 MB • v1.6.8 • The Electric Toy Company
Dwarf Doug likes to dig. He also adores bling. You drag on the screen to guide him about, unearthing gems and avoiding getting flattened by cave-ins. As you dig deeper, monsters enter the fray, which must be spiked or avoided; there’s the odd power-up to discover, too, including an excellent golden spade for super-fast digging, which we reckon would be really handy in the garden.
$3/£2.29 • 35.4 MB • v2.21 • Mobigame
Edge Extended, like its predecessor, Edge, is a speedrun dexterity challenge set across dozens of minimal isometric worlds suspended in space. Guide your cube by drag-hold gestures, grabbing glowing gems, and reaching the finish line in the shortest possible time. And if you can balance on an edge, you’ll amass ‘edge time’ bonuses!
$3/£2.29 • 207 MB • v1.2 • Santa Ragione s.r.l.
Essentially Canabalt in 3D, with visual aesthetics from something like Tron, Fotonica has you leaping your way through surreal wireframe scenery. Shapes whirl, and recognizable elements occasionally appear, but mostly you’ll be concentrating on not falling into the abyss. Once you master the eight varied levels, there are three endless modes to pit your wits (and thumb) against.
Friday the 13th Killer Puzzle
Free • 178.3 MB • v13.3.3 • By Blue Wizard Digital LP
You might have had your fill of sliding puzzlers, but this bloody take is something of an eye-opener (and, sometimes, gouger) and horror icon Jason Voorhees stalks and slays campers. Part Soko-Ban, part South-Park-style cartoon gore, is good exercise for thumb and brain alike. Try Slayaway Camp if you’d prefer a premium take.
Free • 118.9 MB • v2.7.7 • By RareSloth LLC
It’s tough being a bunny king when all of your bunny subjects are stolen and caged. Our hopping hero must therefore work his way through each tiny trap-infested level, figuring out the path to make a regal rescue. Feeling creative? You can even make and share your own levels.
Free • 315.1 MB • v1.94.5 • By Nitrome
Instead of scrolling horizontally, this platformer has you climb a tower. The golden hero sprints left and right, leaping when you tap the screen. Fortunately, the blobby chap can wall jump like a ninja, and grab fruit that can unlock restart points. Every day gives you a new level, too.
Look, Your Loot
Free • 17.4 MB • v1.15 • By Igor Suntsev
The distillation of dungeon crawling, this strategy game has a brave rodent move around a living grid of cards. It’s all about energy levels as you use chess-like thinking to plan several moves ahead, grabbing spells, duffing up enemies, and figuring out how to take down the big bad.
Free • 42.8 MB • v3.1 • By BeaverTap Games, LLC
In this fast-paced single-screen platform game, Mikey does indeed jump – but he also swings from ropes, and flies by way of jet-powered boots, as he aims to reach the exit. The one-touch controls might be simple, but surviving dozens of tiny levels in succession is a stiff challenge.
Free • 32.7 MB • v1.4 • By Raketspel AB
Asphalt 9: Legends gives you racing without steering, but a racer with a single thumb seems bonkers. Until you try Pico Rally, that is, which brings slot-racing bang up to date, having you drift around claustrophobic circuits packed full of twists and turns.
Free • 114.8 MB • v1.202 • By HIPSTER WHALE
The nefarious Doc Block is filling the world with shapes that are menacingly threatening to land, and then presumably do something evil. Blow them all to bits by firing strings of bouncy cats into the air, which ping about and obliterate everything in their path. It’s furry good! Grab it meow! And so on.
Reigns: Game of Thrones
$4/£4 • 218.3 MB • v1.11 • By Devolver Digital
This one mashes up one of TV’s most popular shows, Tinder-style swiping to manage your kingdom, and RPG-lite narrative branching. It’s ambitious, but extremely intuitive – even though it’s tough to balance the wishes of the people, army, bank, and church. Not hot on GOT? Try Reigns: Her Majesty instead.
Free • 257.8 MB • v1.2.1 • By Part Time Monkey Oy
Your fruity chums are about to be juiced, and only you can save them! Unfortunately, you’re also a bandy-legged pineapple cocktail that dodders one step onwards whenever the screen is tapped, in this comical arcade game featuring deranged kitchen appliances out for blood (well, juice).
Super Mario Run
Free + $10/£10 • 237.5 MB • v3.0.11 • By Nintendo Co., Ltd.
It’s-a-Mario! Only this isn’t your typical scrolling platformer. Instead, you direct Nintendo’s dungaree-clad mascot with a single digit. The concept horrified long-term Mario fans, but the level design here is first-rate, turning each into a combination of puzzle and choreography to crack should you want to grab all of the bling.
$6/£6 • 105.2 MB • v1.3.24 • Sirvo LLC
The best puzzler on iPhone finds you swiping tiles around a board, attempting to merge pairs to form ever-higher face values. The catch: every tile that can move will, and new tiles appear in empty slots where you swiped from. You must therefore engage your chess brain, thinking ahead, staving off the inevitable point when there are no more moves to make.
Free • 57.2 MB • v1.7.3 • By sotaro otsuka
Most overhead shooters are about reactions as you attempt to blow up all of the things, and weave through bullet hell unscathed. But in Time Locker, everything stops when you do, allowing you to plan your next room. Don’t dawdle, though – a world-eating void is in hot pursuit.
$2/£2 • 29.2 MB • v2.3 • Andreas Illiger
A sweet-natured one-thumb effort about the joy of flying, Tiny Wings has you control a little bird that slides down hills when you hold the screen, then hurls herself into the air on reaching the next apex. Careful timing is required to fly fast enough to outpace the setting sun. Further delights are found in the Flight School race mode, featuring the bird’s chicks.
Free • 196.4 MB • v1.4.0 • By ZPLAY
In a world of oddly violent cubes, a hero must bounce into the fray, to rescue a princess (who then partners you on subsequent quests, gleefully hacking bad guys to bits). Every prod of the screen lunges you forward – and also unleashes weapons you’ve collected, from axes to terrifyingly explosive rockets.