Games have been a staple of app stores since the inception of smartphones. But back then, the most popular games were short and quick, not the in-depth adventures you’d find on gaming consoles. But times have changed.
Phones and tablets may not be quite up to par with PCs, Xboxes, and PlayStations when it comes to gaming, but high quality games you can sink your teeth into are becoming more common on mobile platforms. If you’re looking for something more console-like on your phone or tablet—i.e., not Angry Birds, Threes, or Hearthstone (as fun as those are)—here are some of the best mobile games that strive for console quality.
The Problematic State of Mobile Gaming
Mobile platforms may have the horsepower for quality games, but the ecosystem is in a tough spot right now economically. Once upon a time, you could find a lot of quality games for iOS and Android for less than $10 each. But lately, developers have shifted to a more controversial “free to play” model instead. Their games are free to download and play, but usually saddled with waiting times, high difficulty curves, or time limits to try and entice users to buy upgrades through in-app purchases. Strangely, this has proven to be much more profitable.
Some gamers claim it’s because developers are overly greedy, while others claim quality games at $6 a pop just weren’t sustainable (especially considering those same games might cost $15, $30, or even more on console and PC). Most people are resistant to paying money for mobile apps, especially if it costs more than a buck or two. So now companies draw you in with “free”, then when you’re hooked on the game, make you pay up to win.
Thankfully, all hope is not lost. There are still great premium games on mobile, you just have to know where to look. Many ports of old games are surprisingly good on phones and tablets, and newer indie games are often designed with touch in mind (even if they’re released on consoles as well). And, while many games are free to play, some may still have worthwhile single-player campaigns, or older predecessors that still carry the pay-once-and-play mentality. That’s what we’ll be focusing on in this guide.
Just know that you definitely won’t find many free games on this list—if you want something near console quality, you’ll have to pony up a few bucks, one way or another. Don’t be turned off: that’s a good thing, and the more you pay up front, the less “limited” a game will probably feel.
Mobile Ports of Console Games, Old and New
Some of the best console-quality games on mobile are…well, games that actually appeared on consoles. There are a ton of console ports on mobile, both old and new, and some work better on a touch screen than you’d think—though you can always buy a gamepad for a more console-like experience (provided the game in question supports gamepads).
Rockstar, for example, has ported quite a few games from the Grand Theft Auto series to mobile devices. GTA: San Andreas ($6.99 on iOS, Android) is probably the most popular of the bunch, though GTA III and Vice City ($4.99 each) are also available, among others. Bully ($6.99 on iOS, Android) is also a popular console title Rockstar has brought to mobile.
If it’s RPGs you’re after, look no further than classic BioWare games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic ($9.99 on iOS, Android), arguably one of the best RPGs of all time. You’ll also find the newer Jade Empire: Special Edition ($9.99 on iOS, Android) and the (much) older Baldur’s Gate series ($9.99 each*) on mobile, enhanced for the new millennium. RPG lovers might also check out the Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger ($9.99 on iOS, Android), and other games from Square Enix (though you may be better off emulating those old ones if you’d prefer to play without internet-connected DRM).
Plenty of newer indie games have also made it to mobile, and work surprisingly well on touch-based platforms—though many support gamepads if you prefer. Bastion ($4.99 on iOS) is top-down hack-and-slash game in which you rebuild a broken world. Think older Zelda games, but with modern graphics. Transistor ($4.99 on iOS) is a sci-fi turn-based RPG from the same developers, for gamers who like more complex combat. And if you’re more of an explorer, Terraria ($4.99 for iOS, Android) is a 2D side-scrolling sandbox—think Minecraft if it were made for the SNES.
Lastly, if you’re just looking for something with a solid story, TellTale games like The Walking Dead series (Free for episode 1, $4.99 for subsequent episodes on iOS, Android) are like interactive narratives that suck you in with great characters and voice acting. You might also like Device 6 ($3.99 on iOS) and 80 Days ($4.99 on iOS, Android), which combine deep narratives with a bit of puzzling for a fun interactive adventure.
Here are some other console-to-mobile ports that are worth checking out:
- Crazy Taxi (Free with ads on iOS, Android): Drive a taxi and scare your passengers s***less with this fast-paced arcade game from Sega. Just as fun with touch controls as it is with a gamepad.
- XCOM: Enemy Within ($9.99 on Android): Aliens have invaded Earth, and you are tasked with defending it in this turn-based tactical game, heralded by many as 2012’s game of the year.
- Minecraft: Pocket Edition ($6.99 on iOS, Android): The mobile version doesn’t have quite as much as the PC version, but it’s getting closer. The bottom line, though, is that you can build worlds on the go with Minecraft on your phone or tablet.
- Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ($2.99 on iOS, Android): The now-classic, speedy side-scroller from the Sega Genesis plays surprisingly decently on mobile (and incredibly well with a gamepad). You can also get the first game (iOS, Android) and Sonic CD (iOS) for free with ads, or $1.99 without. Sadly, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are nowhere to be found.
- Monster Hunter Freedom Unite ($14.99 on iOS): Originally a PSP game, Monster Hunter is just what it sounds like: you set out on missions to kill large monsters. It’s a little slow, grind-y, and occasionally unforgiving, but it prides itself on being a premium game with no hidden costs, and fans of the franchise will probably enjoy it.
- Roller Coaster Tycoon Classic ($5.99 on iOS, Android): Relive your childhood and create your own massive theme park from nothing. Not to be confused with Roller Coaster Tycoon Touch, which is a more typical free-to-play mobile game. Yuck.
- Myst ($4.99 on iOS, $6.99 on Android): The classic puzzle adventure game is back with improved graphics for modern-day phones and tablets.
- The Bard’s Tale ($2.99 on iOS, Android): A humorous 3D fantasy hack-and-slash RPG from 2012, that mostly makes fun of fantasy hack-and-slash RPGs. Also includes the original Bard’s Tale trilogy from 1985, if you’re in the mood for a classic text adventure.
- Titan Quest ($7.99 on iOS, Android): Diablo fans, look no further. This is the closest thing you’ll find to your beloved top-down hack-and-slash on mobile, taking you through ancient Greece, Egypt, and China. It’s long, too, so the hours-to-dollars ratio doesn’t get much better than this.
- Legends of Grimrock ($4.99 on iOS): Based on 1987’s Dungeon Master, this first-person, grid-based dungeon crawler harkens back to a lot of classic puzzle-y dungeon games. There’s not a lot of story or dialogue, but there is a lot of fun to be had.
- Goat Simulator ($4.99 on iOS, Android): This game is more fun than its name would have you think. Imagine Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater mixed with The Incredible Hulk, except you’re a goat. Get it on sale and thank me later.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and you should browse around for even more games—SHIELD users in particular have a lot of ports available, including Portal ($9.99), Half-Life 2 ($9.99), and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance ($14.99).
Modern, AAA-Style Games Designed for Phones and Tablets
Despite a big move to free-to-play, there are still some great graphically-intense, console-reminiscent games designed for mobile platforms. That means they were made with touch controls in mind, though a gamepad may still be more comfortable for the games that support it. (Some of these were later released to PC and consoles, but all originated on mobile platforms.)
République ($1.99 for episode 1, $2.99 for subsequent episodes on iOS, Android) is a five-part stealth game developed by console veterans who worked on Metal Gear Solid 4, Halo 4, and other franchises, in an attempt to boost the standards of mobile gaming. It’s an indie game that feels like a big-budget title: you play a hacker helping a young woman escape captivity by watching her through security cameras, hacking computers, and distracting patrolmen. The story goes off the rails a bit in the last two chapters, but it’s the perfect example of what high-end mobile gameplay can and should be.
Fantasy fans can find similar solace in two games from indie studio Crescent Moon. Ravensword: Shadowlands ($6.99 on iOS, Android) and Aralon: Forge and Flame ($4.99 on iOS, Android) are both open world RPGs in the style of The Elder Scrolls series. There’s a main quest along with a large world to explore, side quests to keep you busy, and lots of skills to learn. Ravensword contains Skyrim-like real-time combat, while Aralon uses more semi-turn-based combat, à la Dragon Age.
Lastly, while Gameloft may not have a great reputation—their recent titles are brimming with frustrating limits and in-app purchases—they have some of the most impressive games on mobile platforms. N.O.V.A. 3 (free with ads, $6.99 without ads on iOS*) is still a fun shooter with surprisingly good graphics for mobile, and the campaign doesn’t require any grinding or payments to complete. Call of Duty fans should check out the Modern Combat series (iOS, Android) and Madfinger Games’ Unkilled (Free on iOS, Android) Unfortunately, we recommend sticking with older titles from this Gameloft. Their newer games, like Dungeon Hunter 5 (a Diablo-like RPG) and Order & Chaos 2: Redemption (a World of Warcraft-esque MMO) are tougher to recommend thanks to their free-to-play nature, despite how impressive they look on the surface.
Got a hankerin’ for more graphics-heavy games? You might also like:
- Implosion: Never Lose Hope ($9.99 on iOS, Android): another attempt to bring console-quality gaming to mobile, this is a futuristic hack-and-slash action game with solid voice acting, great graphics, and no in-app purchases.
- Godfire: Rise of Prometheus ($2.99 on iOS, Free on Android): Imagine a hack-and-slash like God of War with slightly slower-paced combat, similarly set in Greek mythology, with some of the best graphics you’ll see on mobile. That’s Godfire: Rise of Prometheus.
- Galaxy on Fire 2 (Free on iOS, Android): Buy a ship, explore the galaxy, and fight space pirates in this open-universe adventure. The story is short, but when it’s done, you can spend forever exploring, trading, and doing side quests, or buy one of the many DLC stories for more direction. Avoid Galaxy On Fire 3, as it’s a free-to-play trap.
- Vainglory (Free on iOS, Android): If you’re a fan of MOBAs like League of Legends or DOTA, and want that same fun on your phone or tablet, look no further than Vainglory. It’s also a rare example of freemium done right.
- Oceanhorn ($7.99 on iOS, Android): An action RPG very reminiscent of Zelda. Open-world exploration, puzzles, chopping down plants to find power-ups, it’s all here. We don’t want to make it sound like an outright clone, but if you want something similar to Zelda on mobile, this is undeniably your best bet.
- Deus Ex: The Fall ($4.99 on iOS, Android): Much like its console counterparts, you guide an augmented action hero through a gold-brushed world with a deep, branching story—and you can choose to do it stealthily or guns blazing. It really is Deus Ex on mobile, and while it has its flaws, it should appease fans of the franchise.
- Call of Duty: Strike Team ($6.99 on iOS, Android): Instead of merely cloning Call of Duty for mobile, as Deus Ex attempted to do, Strike Team merges the best of console and mobile by mixing first-person shooting with third-person, XCOM-like real-time strategy. It’s a little thin on gameplay, but it should keep you entertained more than enough for a graphics-heavy mobile game.
- Assassin’s Creed: Identity ($3.99 on Android): Assassin’s Creed doesn’t translate perfectly to mobile, but it does feel like Assassin’s Creed—just a bit more cramped. Missions are quick and simple compared to its console brethren, but it’s quite pretty, and works well enough for an on-the-go fix.
- Shadowgun ($4.99 on iOS*, Android): A cover-based third-person shooter, à la Quake 2, for mobile. It’s a mostly mindless shooter, with the occasional puzzle here and there—but sometimes that’s exactly what you want.
- Iesabel ($5.99 on iOS*, Android): A very Diablo-like hack-and-slash RPG. It supports online play so you can adventure with your friends, and there isn’t an in-app purchase in sight.
These are definitely not the only AAA-feeling games on mobile, but they are definitely some of the best and most oft-recommended. Feel free to go searching for others, just be wary of anything free-to-play.
Graphically Un-Intense Platformers, SIMs, and Puzzlers That Feel At Home on Mobile
If you’re willing to stretch your definition of “console-like” just a little bit, you will find a ton of truly great games on mobile. These may not have the greatest graphics or be first-person 3D romps, but they are some of the best games you can play on mobile right now—and many of these hybrids of retro and modern are also available on other platforms.
Some Indie console games feel even more at home on mobile than they do on PC. Papers, Please ($7.99 on iPad) is a fascinating and occasionally soul-crushing game in which you approve or deny immigrants into a fictional country. The Room (prices vary on iOS, Android) is a series of Myst-like puzzle games that really show how perfect touch controls can be for certain genres. And if you’ve ever wished you could experience a Star Trek-like space battle, yelling commands to your crew to keep your ship intact, FTL: Faster Than Light ($9.99 on iPad) is the roguelike for you. It can be punishingly difficult at times, but it translates to touch beautifully.
No discussion of mobile gaming would be complete without mentioning Monument Valley ($3.99 on iOS, Android) and Monument Valley 2 ($4.99 on iOS), and while it’s definitely a game designed for mobile, it’s reminiscent of more console-like indie titles. Think Fez meets M.C. Escher: an incredibly relaxing puzzler with great sound design that just feels perfect. (Oh, and speaking of Fez, it’s now available on iOS for $4.99 too.) If you’ve already played Fez and Monument Valley, you should also check out Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP ($3.99 on iOS, Android), which has a similarly relaxing feel.
If you want something from a more AAA studio, Super Mario Run ($9.99 on iOS, Android) and the Rayman series (Price varies on iOS, Android) are great platformers that feel a lot like their console counterparts. They may be a little watered down for mobile, but they’re still lots of fun, and are more than good enough for on-the-go gaming. You can pick them up and play for a few minutes, or you can sit down and really dig in.
If quality, modern, 2D platformers are your thing, you should also try:
- Wayward Souls ($6.99 on iOS, Android): Make your way through procedurally-generated dungeons in this 16-bit-style roguelike adventure. Things are a little different every time you play, and there are zero in-app purchases—even for the hats (yes, there are hats).
- Limbo ($3.99 on iOS, $4.99 on Android with a free demo): Chances are you’ve heard of Limbo, the eerie puzzle platformer that shook the gaming world in 2010. If you haven’t played it yet, well, now you can play it on-the-go.
- Leo’s Fortune ($4.99 on iOS, Android): A smooth, physics-based puzzle platformer designed for touch. Think Rayman meets Limbo.
- Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Free for first 3 chapters, $9.99 for the rest on iOS): In this story-focused point-and-click adventure game, you play a ghost with no memory of who he was when he was alive. By possessing different objects throughout the world and manipulating time, you can solve the mystery of your own death.
- Goblin Sword ($1.99 on iOS): A simple, retro-style platformer in which you fight monsters to save a fantasy world. You won’t find anything particularly inventive here for 2017, but if you like classic SNES platformers, you’ll probably dig this.
- Shadow Blade ($1.99 on iOS, Android with a free demo for Android): You are a ninja in this cartoonishly gory series of platformers that’s all about timing your jumps and attacks perfectly. Each level has different objectives, so things don’t get stale too quickly, either. If you like it, the sequel Shadow Blade: Reload is $4.99 on iOS and Android.
As I mentioned earlier, this is far from an exhaustive list. There are a lot of surprisingly good games on mobile, you just need to sift through a lot of crap to find it. Consider this list a starting point—then, when you’ve played all the games you want to play, you can go back and browse the App Store, visit the web sites of the developers you like to see what other games they offer, or check out communities like /r/iosgaming and /r/androidgaming on Reddit. Let people know what games you liked and ask for other similar games—you’d be surprised what you might find. Don’t forget that you can stream games from your PC to your phone or tablet with Moonlight, too.
*Games with an asterisk have not yet been updated for iOS 11, and may break/disappear permanently when you upgrade. If you still have iOS 10, they may be available or playable, at least until they disappear completely.