I've been a gamer for over thirty years now, a die-hard console player for the majority of that time, but over the last few years, I have seen an intense personal transition in my gaming tastes towards dedicated mobile gaming, as a player and a developer. 2013 has been amazing for mobile games, as far as I'm concerned, with some real gems that I personally feel represent the best that the smartphone and tablet game space has to offer. Seeing how my iPad has become my platform of choice for about 90% of my gaming nowadays, though, it would be rather impractical for me to cover all of the iPad games I've thoroughly enjoyed over the last year. In that respect, I've chosen to shine the spotlight on the few that just seemed to touch my very soul, burn themselves into my memory, and leave me smiling until my face hurts (when you have residual nerve damage from Bell's Palsy like I do, this can be rather therapeutic, actually).
Here you go.
Crush by Radiangames
This puzzle game by Radiangames (one my favorite mobile devs) is just too slick for its own good. The presentation is hands down one of the best I've ever seen, clean and legible, with an extremely simple and intuitive interface (LOVE the minimalist, techy style). The game is deceptively simple, as a neverending wall of different colored blocks slowly scrolls by, the player is charged with eliminating as many like-colored blocks as possible at a time, preventing the wall from reaching the far edge of the screen. Of course, though, the more blocks you eliminate, the faster the wall starts trying to crush you. It's almost like some kind of mutant offspring of Tetris and Klax (read: why didn't I think of this?!). The power ups earned by clearing blocks and performing combos, and well-nuanced feedback mechanisms make for some surprising depth: the better you get, the better you NEED to be (just the way any well designed game should be). Even the skewed angle at which the game is displayed feels like an integral game design decision as much as an aesthetic choice. I actually don't know that I'd personally recommend playing it on a phone (might feel a little claustrophobic on the smaller screen), but it's beyond thoroughly engaging on an iPad (with crazy replay value thanks to all kinds variant gameplay modes).
Slayin' by FDG Entertainment
Slayin' has a lot going for it. First off, I'm a sucker for pixel art. Second, any game that so lovingly pays homage to the platforms of my youth the way Slayin' does is definitely going to get played a lot by me (even the app's icon is a cartridge!). From its simplistic motion-graphic intro, chiptune audio, and ultra-focused gameplay (literally just point left, point right, and jump), everything about the game is a terrific exercise in design constraint. Multiple classes to play as (each of which plays differently enough from one another without requiring new control schemes), loot to collect, upgrades to purchase, classic RPG enemy archetypes, and great boss fights that suprisingly create a nice variety of gameplay despite the player's limited movement and abilities, the game has all the meat and potatoes of any of the great 8 or 16-bit gems that have inspired it. Slayin' simply puts it all in a blender and pulverizes it into the RPG equivalent of a smoothie. It's the way the game focuses on what's important and abandons what's not, yet finds small ways to at least include elements like the Tavern or your personal Graveyard as part of the game's front end and not necessarily "in-game" that totally helps the game still feel like a full-fledged RPG, even though in reality the game is an insanely fast-paced, arcade-style, one-button hack'n'slash with permadeath (how's that for a hardcore RPG, right?). This has become one of my go-to titles for quick fixes when I just can't make up my mind on what to play or even the occasional three-hour marathon that only ends once I beat my personal best or finally finish one of the fairly challenging "quests" the game throws at you in the form of various gameplay feats.
Kairo, a game by Perrin
I'm one of those escapist gamers you may have heard tell about once or twice, a lifelong champion of single-player interactive entertainment experiences. I play games to get away from the stresses of life, its tediums, its superficiality, and mostly the ever-looming presence of other people (no offense). Imagine the dream-like euphoria that latched onto my brain and started sucking the soul right out of me the first time I sat down with Kairo, one of the most unique first-person game I've ever played on any platform. Wow. I instantly fell in love the game's surrealism and near total abstraction of environments. Subtle nuances in color, lighting and audio were all completely integral to understanding where you were, what your objectives were, and what needed to be done to finish those objectives. The game is completely devoid of any HUD, weapons, gadgets, power-ups, maps (!), or in-world text. It's one of the most focused exploration games I've ever played, with great Myst-like puzzles and set peices that come to life as you make progress. It can be played almost like an open-world game, with relatively non-linear "level" progression as you make your way through the eery, lonely, haunting maze-like temples/dungeons/alien landing sites and corridors. At times, you find yourself reminiscing about other great first-person titles you've played, like Metroid Prime and Halo, and probably not by mere coincidence. The game finds such simple methods to really hone the great sense of exploration and intrepidation so often felt in Samus Aran's adventures, or the mystery and anticipation of Master Chief the first time he ever walked among the hallowed ruins of Halo. I found myself playing for hours at a time, totally entrenched in the game, into the wee hours of the morning, iPad in one hand and a pen jotting notes or sketching maps in the other. Talk about player engagement! Kairo is a masterpiece in atmosphere and ambiance, with intelligent implementation of wonderfully subtle visual and audio cues being the player's only real guides in a world without any explanation or context (nor does it need any), and simply being its own reward for playing.
(The game is also available on Steam or directly from the developer's website, http://kairo.lockeddoorpuzzle.com/)
Deep Dungeons of Doom by Bossa Studios, LTD.
Deep Dungeons of Doom is a delightful and rather entertaining tribute to old-school PC adventures, with wonderfully executed pixel art and focused, but deceptively deep (no pun intended) gameplay with simple controls (only two buttons) and a surprising amount of variety. The game even has a well-crafted story surrounding the three playable characters, which branches based on which classes you have unlocked and in your travelling party (though you never actually see your party in combat), told through great looking old-school cinematics. The dungeons are vertical in nature, played one room/floor at a time (some go up, some go down). Each room is a single combat encounter of some kind, or a boss fight, or a treasure room, or a healing shrine, or sometimes a mysteriously empty chamber which may only reveal its secrets should you be in possession of just the right item or perform just the right way in a previous chamber or be playing with just the right class. There's all kinds of hidden secrets tucked away in the game, and a great deal of them are actually hinted at by NPCs, etc. in clever ways through the game's classic storytelling and writing. Dungeons are selected from an overworld map that you slowly progress across, with new dungeons being exposed as the story unfolds. There's a huge unlockable inventory of power-ups and weapon upgrades to purchased from forges found on the map, and even a beastiary that fills up as you encounter each of the game's plentiful types of enemies. Combat consists of the player and an enemy facing one another in a chamber. There's no movement, just attacks and defensive postures (a little like Punch Out! maybe, but without any footwork). The player can block or attack at will, but must be mindful of the enemy's blocking and attacking timing. All moves carry a cooldown or response time penalty of some kind (which can be improved as you level up, along with your typical assortment of basic RPG stats), making every combat decision quite meaningful. There's something almost "pinball-like" in the way combat plays out sometimes, which I personally found very rewarding indeed. The game technically has a permadeath mechanic, though there are items and tricks to ressurecting in-game so as not to lose your progress (you only lose your character's levelling and progress in the specific dungeon you die in, not your overall world-level progress, which is a nice balance) every time you die. The game can have a steep difficulty sometimes, and I've heard more than one complaint about the game's monetization for ressurecting, but I've found that you can certainly clear the entire game without actually spending any cash beyond the game's purchase price, though it's not an easy feat. Personally, though, that's probably what helped keep it such a rewarding experience for me.
Kid Tripp by Michael Burns
If the title of this game isn't some kind of play on words, I don't know what is. I felt like a kid and I felt like I was tripping the whole time I played this pixelated love-letter-to-my-childhood. This game manages to capture virtually every important mechanic from the entire 8-bit platforming genre and cram them into a tight, incredibly fast-paced, lushly colored homage to some of the greatest 2D games ever made. The game's influences can easily be identified in great franchises of yore like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog, and even Adventure Island (though Kid Tripp never has a skateboard). The game is an autorunner/platformer, the player having no directional controls for the character, only a jump button and a rock toss button (which doubles as a "sprint" button when held down), the latter used to clear the path ahead of animals like pinching crabs or banana-throwing monkeys. The levels are short, fast, and vicious little obstacle courses with staple hazards like pits, spikes, gaping bridges, and a few variations on the moving platform theme. The shortest levels can be completed in around fifteen seconds, the longest in around thirty, if you know what you're doing. Memorization and timing are everything as you jump and run through each level, without being directly able to stop or change direction. You collect coins and stomp on enemies if you can, although sometimes choosing to do so may cost you time as you try to beat each level. Perfecting techniques like bouncing off of flying enemies to achieve a double-jump effect to clear larger gaps or even intentionally getting stopped by a stairstep to wait for a passing enemy or moving platform or hazard of some kind are key to beating a lot of the later levels. The game's difficulty is fairly relentless from the get-go, and downright "how in the hell am I supposed to get past that?!" in the final levels, which was something rather welcomed for by someone who grew up playing Kid Tripp's progenitors endlessly.
Year Walk by Simogo
Okay, I don't even know where to start on this one. Year Walk blew my mind. This game did more successful interactive storytelling in the short three or four hours of gameplay it took me to finish it than what a lot of multimillion-dollar AAA cinematic-laden story-centric games seem to accomplish across an entire franchise's history. Year Walk is simply overflowing with atmosphere and emotional depth the likes of which I've never seen any other game on any platform ever come close to having in such a tight, self-contained package. The game's unique art style is so well executed and just so wonderfully tied into both the narrative and game design alike, that if you were to watch a direct-feed video of an entire play-through, and had you never played the game yourself before, you'd swear you were watching one of those Oscar-winning art films that you never hear about until they actually win the Oscar. I will admit, the game gets a little esoteric in a place or two, but there are some seriously powerful moments that more than make up for a few "okay, what do I do now?" moments. The puzzle designs are some of the most ingeniuous I've ever seen in a video game and always do a good job to keep the player actively engaged and not just clicking on "yes" or "no" buttons or something. I will admit, one of the puzzles nearly made me quit playing the game at one point because the solution I'd assumed to be correct based on the clues found in the game to that point, just didn't seem to work. Out of frustration, I kept repeating the solution, over and over and over. Little did I know that the repition was part of the solution, and when it clicked, I regretted it instantly in a moment of shear terror as the game did something I most certainly wasn't expecting (this was a good thing; the emotional rush I felt was absolutely unreal). This "unconventional action resulting in unexpected result" thing seems to be an overarching theme in the game, though, thoroughly and intelligently employed from beginning to end, really messing with your head in the process. This game excels at a certain kind of horror not often seen in games and is such a welcome trespass into relatively unknown creative territories and game design philosophies.
DEVICE 6 by Simogo
DEVICE 6 is not a game. I'm not even convinced it's software. As far as I can tell, it's actually some kind of complete and utter breakdown of the spacetime continuum itself, a universal unravelling of all logic and understanding of what we think makes a video game tick. This... this phenomenon called DEVICE 6 is something so unique, so different, yet made entirely of familiar parts and pieces, mechanics, and concepts, just employed in ways that most mere mortals simply can't percieve. But there they are. Working. Succeeding. Becoming something new, something wholly original, something most people just won't get. It's sort of like Albert Einstein having to explain quantum physics to the world when it only knew Newtonian physics. People thought he was crazy when he said things worked the way they did for reasons that were, for all human purposes, illogical and rather counterintuitive. DEVICE 6 does the exact same thing with many basic game design priniciples that we as developers and gamers so easily take for granted that we forget why they work the way they do. This game turned my iPad into a fully interactive toybox, bookshelf, and mad scientist laboratory that I was constantly having to rethink how and why I interacted with it as I played. The game's audiovisual presentation is probably one of the highest quality products available on the App Store. Every scrap of ingeniously written text becomes integral to establishing your reality and navigating an abstract virtualized virtual world (yes, that's how it messes with your head), every tick of sound becomes a symphony of data to be parsed through and analyzed for clues, and every image becomes an atlas and an entire world unto itself. The puzzles themselves are, quite simply, amazing feats of elegant design. This is one of those games where I played with the iPad in one hand and a pen making notes in the other. I've never played a video game in my life that made me utlitilize so much of my brain in such a relatively narrow timeframe the way DEVICE 6 did, and I liked it. A lot. I've heard complaints about the game's short length, to which I say, as if! The game's length is perfectly tuned to the game's design and narrative (which are practically the same thing here), so that the entire experience can still be fresh in your mind when it's over, like a film or a great short story. That concious memory of the game is important in making sure you really feel the full emotional impact of the game's story as you play through it, and especially as the climax is reached, loose ends get tied up, and your head left spinning by the epilogue. Bravo, Simogo. Bravo.
GAME OF THE FRICKIN' YEAR, IMO.