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It turns out you only need a single digit to play games, whether you’re into racers, puzzles, blasters, or blissed-out golfing weirdness
When the iPhone got an App Store, people dismissed its potential as a games machine. After all, it had no traditional controls. How could it compete with Nintendo or Sony portable hardware? But developers circumvented any perceived limitations, taking advantage of the touchscreen and accelerometer, creating unique and exciting multi-touch experiences along the way.
Another approach, largely pioneered by the classic Canabalt, was to strip everything back. Mobile gaming was often about short-burst entertainment, and this required controls that were intuitive. What could be simpler than reducing everything to the use of a single digit?
That might sound limiting, but as developers subsequently proved, only allowing you to prod or drag on the screen with your thumb unlocks all kinds of potential. For this round-up, we scoured the App Store for the very best in one-thumb gaming; it’s an A-to-Z of excellence that includes something for every kind of iPhone gamer, whether you’re into frenetic blasting, thoughtful puzzling, or holding on to your hat during a blustery evening constitutional.
$1.99/£1.49 • 37 MB • v1.0.9 • 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.
$1.99/£1.49 • 73.3 MB • v1.1.1 • Snowman
At its heart, Alto’s Adventure is a game about grace and freedom. Alto and friends snowboard across gorgeous alpine landscapes, their journeys taking them through villages, woodlands and abandoned ruins. Along the way, you can capture llamas, grind rooftops, outwit elders, and perform spectacular mid-air somersaults, all under the direction of a single thumb.
$3.99/£2.99 • 170 MB • v3.0 • 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.
Beat Sneak Bandit
$2.99/£2.29 • 75.9 MB • v1.0 • Simogo AB
Duke Clockface has stolen all the clocks and the world is in chaos! Anti-hero Beat Sneak Bandit must get them all back. Only this single-screen platform puzzler comes with strict rules: you should move on the beat (with single taps), and must avoid the gaze of guards and automated security systems. This one’s original and satisfying right to the final showdown.
$2.99/£2.29 • 22.6 MB • v2.31 • Last Chance Media, LLC
It’s long in the tooth now, but we couldn’t do a one-thumb round-up without the game that kickstarted the genre on iPhone. In Canabalt, a desperate figure attempts to flee a city’s destruction by huge alien robots. Tap to leap across rooftops and through windows, getting as far as you can before your inevitable death through plummeting to the ground or smacking into a wall.
Free • 73.2 MB • v1.3.2 • Hipster Whale
Essentially an endless Frogger, Crossy Road has you tap and swipe to guide your little character across rivers, through traffic, and safely over train tracks. The simple gameplay is infused with plenty of character — and, indeed, characters. Collect coins and you can try your luck with a one-armed bandit that dispenses new protagonists, some of which dramatically affect Crossy Road’s visuals and even its gameplay.
£1.49/$1.99 • 0.6 MB • v1.11 • 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.
$1.99/£1.49 • 11.5 MB • v1.4.1 • 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.
$2.99/£2.29 • 21.7 MB • v2.10 • 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!
Food Run HD
$2.99/£2.29 • 40.6 MB • v1.0.8 • Kevin Ng
You’d think platform games might be beyond a single finger, but Food Run HD suggests otherwise. This jolly title has you guiding a doughnut through vibrant levels full of hazards, leaping about, finding friends, and collecting gold coins. And let us be clear: you’ve not seen anything in gaming until you’ve watched a doughnut, egg and hot dog wall-jumping like ninjas.
$1.99/£1.49 • 3.2 MB • v2.0 • Nyarlu Labs
This mash-up of several classic arcade games manages the rare trick of besting them all. You roam mazes, eat flowers, blast anything that moves, and then grab a key and make for the exit. But what makes Forget-Me-Not best-in-class is how alive everything feels — each maze’s inhabitants merrily battle each other rather than just you. Before long, you’re fighting for survival in a tiny retrogaming warzone.
$2.99/£2.29 • 98.5 MB • v1.1.6 • 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 recognisable 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.
Free • 5.0 MB • v0001.02.00 • Llamasoft
Although visually aping a 1980s single-screen arcade shooter, Gridrunner is a thoroughly modern blaster. You direct your little ship, weaving between bullet-hell, laser-fire, and waves of worm-like droids, bombs and spaceships. Regular power-ups provide brief respite in the best and most exhilarating game of its type on iPhone.
Lara Croft GO
$4.99/£3.99 • 416 MB • v1.0.47768 • Square Enix Inc
The notion of a turn-based Tomb Raider that can be controlled with a single finger might surprise, given Lara Croft’s console-based exploits. But Lara Croft GO nails the tension, atmosphere and sense of exploration in those early Tomb Raider efforts, while making everything perfect for mobile with bite-sized challenges and intuitive controls.
$0.99/79p • 22.3 MB • v1.6 • 3 Minute Games, LLC
Your iPhone receives a transmission from an unknown source: “Help me”. Canned responses are provided for you to tap and send by way of a reply. Over time, you learn astronaut Taylor is marooned. What follows is an engaging slice of interactive fiction that cleverly plays with time and modern communications, and that has surprising emotional clout when your choices direct Taylor into serious danger.
One More Dash
Free • 64.5 MB • v1.1 • SMG Studio
Although plenty of games on this list are rather more ambitious in what they enable you to do with a single thumb, we’ve time for focussed arcade fare like One More Dash. The aim: survive by tapping to dash from point to point. The snag: said points are frequently surrounded by whirling barriers, many of which have extremely sharp spikes.
$2.99/£2.29 • 21.2 MB • v1.4.1 • bitforge Ltd
In Orbital, you fire orbs into an enclosed space, which grow until they hit something, before acquiring numbers. These numbers decrease whenever orbs are hit; on reaching zero, orbs explode, freeing up space. Over time, the arena becomes crowded, forcing you to carefully aim and create chain reactions, while ensuring no orb ever crosses the ‘death line’.
Free • 84.4 MB • v1.0.4 • Bandai Namco
This endless take on Pac-Man takes the rotund dot-muncher beyond level 256’s infamous kill screen. He must survive for as long as possible, outrunning the all-consuming glitch, eating dots, avoiding ghosts, and snagging the odd power-up. This isn’t your father’s Pac-Man — this one’s armed with lasers!
Free • 36.0 MB • v1.2.2 • Nitrome
Capturing the essence of classic platformers and making it work on mobile is no easy feat. But Platform Panic is a success, having you swipe to direct your little hero through dozens of screens full of traps, lasers, spiked balls, and angry robots. But one hit and you’re done. This is a game where 12 points is a pretty good score!
$0.99/79p • 13.5 MB • v1.01 • Crescent Moon Games
This clever auto-runner platform game is all about timing. Hold the screen and the miniature Indiana Jones wannabe pauses, enabling him to avoid being spiked, eaten or killed in some other horrible manner. Death merely results in restarting the current mini-stage; but a timer relentlessly ticks down, and if our hero reaches the golden idol too late, it’ll transform into something far less valuable!
Sausage!! Sausage!! Sausage!!
Free • 11.4 MB • v1.0.0 • Poppy
Developer Poppy is one of the unsung heroes of the App Store, creating weird and wonderful simple games. In Sausage!! Sausage!! Sausage!!, you must catch falling sausages in your bun. Miss one and temporary sadness engulfs the hero of the hour. Wait until he realises there’s no ketchup! (Although you can try your hand at the condiment side of the sausage-delivery industry in Poppy’s Hotdog Panic.)
Free • 71.4 MB • v1.001 • Mighty Games
From some of the people behind Crossy Road comes this vertically scrolling blaster, which combines single-finger shooty action with oddball takes on internet memes. Rather than downing jets, you’re attacking flying laptops lobbing icons in your general direction, deranged arcade machines, and ‘freedom eagles’ spewing fast-food fries and missiles. Drag to move or lift your thumb to recharge a super-blaster — but beware, because sitting still leaves you vulnerable!
Sky Force 2014
Free • 161 MB • v1.38 • Infinite Dreams Inc.
A rather more conventional take on classic arcade shooters, Sky Force 2014 has you blowing away waves of aggressors, only temporarily pausing from the wanton destruction in order to pick up stranded comrades. It’s a visually stunning game, and although the level-unlock procedure is a mite grindy, replaying levels is no hardship when they look this good.
$0.99/79p • 49.0 MB • v220.127.116.11 • Crescent Moon Games
The idea of a one-thumb racer might seem strange, but Slingshot Racing is as good as any title with more conventional controls. You gain speed and overtake by using grappling hooks to hurl your steampunk sled-on-ice about frozen circuits. The innovative but simple mechanics are effective, and there are plenty of tracks to master and tournaments to win.
$0.99/79p • 37.6 MB • v1.5 • James Gamble
Risk versus reward is the heart of SpikeDislike3. You control a bouncing ball, and the screen scrolls whenever you press down. The aim is to reach the finish line as quickly as possible, avoiding collisions and without lifting your finger (thereby pausing) too often. Varied themes now and again force a tactical rethink, such as when tackling changes in gravity, or racing a speedy sheep.
$2.99/£2.29 • 72.2 MB • v1.3 • 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.
$0.99/79p • 12.8 MB • v2.1 • 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.
$1.99/£1.49 • 39.4 MB • v1.0.6 • Jonathan Topf
If you think you’re some kind of sports star on successfully flinging a ball of paper into the trash, check out Trick Shot. Over 90 levels, you try to nail perfect shots across challenges that become increasingly tough. Crack level 90 and you get to start again, in a mode that demands even more precision.
Free • 12.2 MB • v2.2 • Monster and Monster
This endless title isn’t obsessed with speed or flashy graphics. Instead, it features a hatted gent out for an evening constitutional, chatting to himself as he goes. But it’s blustery, and whenever it gets a bit too blowy, you must hold the screen to stop his hat flying off. It’s very simple but one of the most charming mobile titles we’ve played.
Zen Bound 2
$2.99/£2.29 • 194 MB • v2.6.0 • Secret Exit Ltd.
The idea of wrapping rope around sculptures probably doesn’t fill you with excitement, but Zen Bound 2 is nonetheless a wonderful iPhone game. You use a finger to rotate the object, thereby directing the rope that ‘paints’ whatever it touches. The aim is to maximise your coverage percentage but use the least possible rope — easy at first, but tricky (if still relaxing) once the shapes and challenges become more complex.
Hi! Thanks for reading. This post looks better in our award-winning app, Tips & Tricks for iPhone.