Best free iPad games
So you've got an iPad, but have come to the dawning realisation that you've got no cash left to buy any games for it.
Have no fear, because the App Store offers plenty of iPad gaming goodness for the (unintentional or otherwise) skinflint.
- Haven't bought an iPad yet and not sure which is best? We've got them listed on our best iPad ranking - or you can check out thebest tablets list to see the full range available now.
Our updated pick of the best free iPad games are listed right here.
New this week: Dunkers
If you've experienced Colin Lane's deranged take on wrestling (the decidedly oddball Wrassling), you probably know what you're in for with Dunkers. In theory, this is side-on one-on-one basketball, but Dunkers is knowingly mad.
You only get two buttons, one of which dodders your player back towards their own basket, while the other lurches them into the air and in the opposite direction. All the while, their arms whirl like a hysterical clock.
You battle as best you can, grabbing the ball from your berserk opponent, fighting your way to the basket, and slam dunking victoriously. The entire thing is ridiculous, almost the antithesis of photo-realistic fare like NBA 2K; but we'd also argue that it's a lot more fun.
The Little Fox
An excellent example in how iteration can improve a game, The Little Fox was almost impossible upon release. But a reduction in speed and some restart points proved transformative, enabling you to immerse yourself in a sweet-natured, great-looking pathfinding arcade outing.
The titular fox is on a quest that takes the bounding carnivore through 13 varied lands. Pathways comprise hexagons littered with collectables and hazards, and at any moment you can only turn left or right or continue straight on.
At the original breakneck pace (still available as an in-game option), this all feels too much. But when slowed down, The Little Fox reveals itself to be a clever, imaginative, fun title, with surprises to be found on every planet the furry critter visits.
Rodeo Stampede - Sky Zoo Safari
It's hard to imagine a less efficient way of building and maintaining a zoo than what you see in Rodeo Stampede. Armed with a lasso, you foolishly venture into a stampede and leap from animal to animal, attempting to win their hearts by virtue of not being flung to the ground.
You then whisk beaten animals away to a zoo in a massive sky-based craft - the kind of place where you imagine the Avengers might hang out if they gave up crime-fighting and decided to start jailing animals rather than villains.
Despite overly familiar chunky visuals (Crossy Road has a lot to answer for), this fast-paced, breezy game is a lot of fun, with you dragging left and right to avoid blundering into rocks, and lifting your finger to soar into the air, aiming to catch another rampaging beast.
Super Stickman Golf 3
Much like previous entries in the series, Super Stickman Golf 3 finds a tiny golfer dumped in fantastical surroundings. So rather than thwacking a ball about carefully tended fairways and greens, there are castles full of teleporters and a moon base bereft of gravity. The Ryder Cup, this is not.
New to the series is a spin mechanic, for flipping impossible shots off of ceilings and nudging fluffed efforts holewards on the greens. You also get turn-by-turn battles against Game Centre chums and a frenetic multiplayer race mode.
The spendthrift release is limited, though, restricting how many two-player battles you have on the go, locking away downloadable courses beyond the 20 initially built-in, and peppering the game with ads. Even so, you get a lot for nothing, should you be after new side-on golfing larks but not want to pay for the privilege.
Apparently the national sport of Slamdovia, a country where blocky people look like they just stepped out of a Commodore 64, Wrassling is like wrestling combined with a dollop of sheer stupid.
You're dropped into the ring and must fling your opponents into the inky gloom before they do the same to you. Ridiculous controls (spin your arms with all your might!) and absurdly bouncy physics add to the game's oddball nature, which will put a smile on your face before it's promptly smashed into the canvas and then rudely hurled into the air.
With more than a hint of Fruit Ninja about it, Bushido Bear finds a sword-wielding teddy defending the forest against endless waves of evil demons. You get a brief warning about where your assailants will appear, and must quickly drag paths to move your bear about; it'll then get suitably slashy and stabby, hopefully not blundering into an enemy in the meantime.
It's a fast-paced affair, and you'll need swift reactions to survive. Over time, you unlock additional frenzied furry animals, each with their own particular skills. And, amusingly, when a bear is killed, its colleague can be thrown into the fray, ready for some angry ninja bear vengeance!
WGT: World Tour Golf
If you like the idea of golf, but not traipsing around greens in the drizzle, WGT: World Tour Golf is the closest you'll get to the real thing on your iPad. Courses have been meticulously rebuilt in virtual form, based on thousands of photographs, and WGT's control scheme is accessible yet also quite punishing.
There's no mucking about spinning balls in mid-air to alter your shot here - mess up and you'll know about it, with a score card massively over par. But this is a game that rewards mastery and perseverance, and you feel like a boss once you crack how to land near-perfect shots.
WGT is, mind, a touch ad-heavy at times, but this is countered by there being loads to do, including head-to-head online multiplayer and a range of tournaments to try your hand at.
In Clash Royale, two players battle online, sending out troops to obliterate their opponent's three towers, while simultaneously protecting their own. It comes across a bit like animated chess, if chess pieces were armed to the teeth and ranged from a giant robot with a huge scythe to an army of skittering skeletons.
The troops you have available come by way of cards you collect, from which you select a deck of eight. In matches, elixir gradually tops up, which can be 'spent' deploying said troops, forcing you to manage resources and spot when your opponent might be dry.
Clash Royale is very much a freemium game. You can spend a ton of real-world cash on virtual coins to buy and upgrade cards. However, doing so isn't really necessary, and we've heard of people getting to the very highest levels in the game without spending a penny. But even if you find yourself scrapping in the lower leagues, Clash Royale is loads of fun.
Uncharted: Fortune Hunter
Following in the footsteps of Tomb Raider and Hitman, Uncharted: Fortune Hunter has been squirted into your iPad in puzzle-game form. Hero of the hour Nathan Drake must nab loot by working out how to not-horribly die across dozens of grid-based puzzles. Fortune Hunter lacks the polish and atmosphere of Lara Croft GO and Hitman GO, but it's still worth grabbing.
The puzzles are smartly designed, and ideal for mobile play, taking only a few minutes each to solve. And if you own the latest PS4 Uncharted, some of the iPad achievements can benefit Drake on your console (even if said benefits might only be a natty new hat).
Disney Crossy Road
Tie-ins between indie game companies and major movie houses often end badly, but Disney Crossy Road bucks the trend. It starts off like the original Crossy Road — an endless take on Frogger. Only here, Mickey Mouse picks his way across motorways, train lines and rivers, trying to avoid death by drowning or being splattered across a windscreen.
But unlock new characters (you'll have several for free within a few games) and you open up further Disney worlds, each with unique visuals and challenges.
In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz dodge tumbling building blocks, whereas the inhabitants of Haunted Mansion are tasked with keeping the lights on and avoiding a decidedly violent suit of armour.
Elsewhere, Inside Out has you dart about collecting memories, which are sucked up for bonus points. And on the iPad, the gorgeous chunky visuals of these worlds really get a chance to shine.
Forget-Me-Not is a distillation of the very best classic arcade games. A little square mooches about procedurally generated mazes, munching flowers, and shooting anything that gets in its way. When the flowers are gone, you grab the key and make for the exit.
It's a simple concept (as are all the best arcade games), but what makes Forget-Me-Not memorable is how alive everything feels. Varied maze inhabitants regularly beam in, some doddering about while others wage all-out war, with the demented vigour of the most psychotic videogame characters.
The net result is a frenetic neon mash-up of Pac-Man, Rogue, Wizard of Wor and a half-dozen other 1980s classics, but one that manages to match or surpass all of them. That it's entirely free (of price tag and IAP) makes it iPad gaming's biggest bargain.
This smashy endless arcade sports title has more than a hint of air hockey about it, but PKTBALL is also infused with the breakneck madness associated with Laser Dog's brutal iOS games.
It takes place on a tiny cartoon tennis court, with you swiping across the ball to send it back to your opponent. But this game is *really* fast, meaning that although you'll clock how to play PKTBALL almost immediately, mastering it takes time.
In solo mode, the computer AI offers plenty of challenge, but it's in multiplayer matches that PKTBALL serves an ace. Two to four people duke it out, swiping like lunatics (and hopefully not hurling the iPad away in a huff, like a modern-day McEnroe, when things go bad).
As ever, there are new characters to unlock, each of which boasts its own court and background music. Our current favourite: a little Game Boy, whose court has a certain famous blocky puzzle game playing in the background.
At first glance, Looty Dungeon comes across like a Crossy Road wannabe. But you soon realise it's actually a very smartly designed endless dungeon crawler that just happens to pilfer Crossy Road's control method, chunky visual style, and sense of urgency.
You begin as a tiny stabby knight, scooting through algorithmically generated isometric rooms. You must avoid spikes and chopping axes, outrun a collapsing floor, and dispatch monsters. The action is fast-paced, lots of fun, and challenges your dexterity and ability to think on the move.
As is seemingly law in today's mobile gaming landscape, Looty Dungeon also nags at the collector in you, offering characters to unlock. But these aren't just decorative in nature — they have unique weapons, which alter how you play. For example, an archer has better range than the knight, but no defensive shield when up against an angry witch or ravenous zombie.
It's not every day you get to become a robot superhero, protecting the public in the retro-futuristic Helsinki. But future Finns should be thrilled Byteman is about, because their capital city appears to be chock full of burning buildings, robbers, and villains escaping in helicopters.
Your task is to fly about, using your radar to swoop in and be all heroic, without slamming into a building while doing so. The controls are straightforward (move with your left thumb and 'speed boost' with your right), and there's a handy radar to figure out which cases to prioritise.
It all comes across a bit like a robot superhero Crazy Taxi, albeit one where the valiant android must occasionally head above the clouds to recharge its solar panels. (We bet Captain Marvel never had that problem.)
Traffic Rush 2
In the tiny isometric world of Traffic Rush 2, traffic lights are seemingly anathema to the general public. Instead, dangerous crossings are manned by the kind of people who need the steely nerve of an air-traffic controller. Cars rush in, and each can be temporarily stopped with a tap or given a boost with a swipe. Your job is to keep the traffic flowing and avoid a hideous pile-up.
Of course, a hideous pile-up is inevitable, not least when you're dealing with an increasing number of cars coming from all directions, driven by people who we're pretty sure have never taken a driving test in their lives.
Fortunately, wreckage is instantly cleared with the tap of a button, enabling you to have another go. Additionally, as is seemingly law these days, Traffic Rush 2 has you collect coins, receive 'rewards', and grab prizes from a machine. These enhance the game, adding new vehicles to the mix, and making the crashes a bit more colourful.
Endless 3D avoid 'em ups have been a mainstay on the App Store ever since Cube Runner arrived way back in 2008. Geometry Race, like the older title, is keen on you learning a fixed course over repeat attempts, rather than battling your way through semi-randomised landscapes. Unlike Cube Runner, though, Geometry Race is a visual treat.
For reasons unknown, your spaceship finds itself zooming through worlds packed full of geometric obstacles, such as huge toppling letters and marching cubes. Beyond not colliding with anything, you must grab fuel to recharge your ship and coins that can be used to unlock better spaceships and additional worlds.
The lack of variety may eventually dent the game's own long-term survival on your device, but for a while Geometry Race is bright and breezy fun.
Hectic Space 2
Although Hectic Space 2 looks like it's been wrenched kicking and screaming from a 1980's 8-bit console, this is a thoroughly modern bullet-hell shooter. You slide your finger vertically on the left side of the screen to move your ship and the sole aim is survival, which involves avoiding projectiles while your ship's automatic weapon blasts anything in your path.
The gaudy graphics oddly prove beneficial, making it easy to spot enemy fire (red — so much red), and are occasionally dazzling when facing off against inventively designed bosses.
You know you're not sitting in front of an old Atari when a giant skull bounces around the screen, or a bunch of Space Invaders changes formation, becoming a massive gun that fires countless bullets your way.
The original iSlash came across a bit like a thinking man's Fruit Ninja combined with arcade classic Qix. Each challenge involved slicing off bits of a wooden box, carefully avoiding the shuriken bouncing about within.
iSlash Heroes is more of the same in freemium form, albeit with revamped graphics, a load of new levels, bosses that muck about with the board as you play, and some infrequent irritating social gubbins that occasionally blocks your way for a bit.
Despite some niggles, it remains a smart, engaging arcade effort, which works especially well on the iPad, given that the large screen enables you to be a bit more precise when slicing off those final slivers of wood required to meet your target.
Rocket Ski Racing
There's a bold bluntness about Rocket Ski Racing that actually makes it rather endearing. Unlike most iOS freebie racers, it doesn't muck about with freemium coins, timers, IAP, nor even, frankly, a difficulty curve.
Instead, you're dumped into a tough competition across 24 icy courses, pitting your wits against ten computer controlled opponents.
The main aim in every battle is to keep to the racing line and not crash. That's easier said than done, because Rocket Ski Racing is fast, and the tracks rapidly ramp up in difficulty, introducing loops, inconvenient walls of ice, and moving gates you must pass through.
On your first go, you'll probably languish at the foot of the league table, but perseverance reaps rewards.
This block-merging puzzle game is based on dominoes, where you place pieces on the board, and when three or more identical tiles sit next to each other they're sucked into a single piece with a larger number.
Should three or more sixes merge, they create an M. Merge three of those and they obliterate a three-by-three section of the board, giving you temporary breathing space.
The claustrophobic nature of Merged! means you must think carefully when placing every piece, and try to create cascades that will quickly increment tile values. It's a bit too random at times, and has some distasteful freemium trappings, but otherwise this is a fine puzzler for your iPad.
Here's another great example of how plenty of polish can transform even the simplest iOS game into a classic. Dashy Crashy pits you against an endless challenge, where you swipe to change lanes and increase your score as you overtake cars all heading in the same direction on a suspiciously straight road.
We've seen it all before, but not quite like this. Dashy Crashy's visuals are dazzling — cartoonish vehicles, a stunning day/night cycle, and colourful, varied backdrops.
But it's the game's sense of humor that cements a recommendation, with emoji speech balloons appearing above cars you overtake, and high-score attempts being derailed due to police chases and alien invasions scattering traffic across your intended path.
At some point, developers will run out of new ways to present endless runners, but that moment hasn't yet arrived. Surfingers tries something a bit different, marrying the genre with a kind of stripped-back breakneck match puzzler. You must line up the blocky wave you're currently on to match whatever's coming next, lest your surfer abruptly wipe-out.
At first, this is leisurely and simple, with you swiping up and down, avoiding maniacs in low-flying hot-air balloons, and collecting stars. But before long, you're two-finger swiping to get past massive rocks and buried spaceships, surfing across snowy mountains and sand dunes, and thinking a dip in the shallows might have been a smarter move. And it turns out even being an ice-cool crocodile riding a rubber duck won't save you if those shapes don't line up.
Magic Touch: Wizard for Hire
Touchscreens have opened up many new ways to play games, but scribbling with a finger is perhaps the most natural. And that's essentially all you do in Magic Touch, which sounds pretty reductive - right up until you start playing.
The premise is that you're a wizard, fending off invading nasties who all oddly use balloons to parachute towards their prize. Match the symbol on any balloon and it pops, potentially causing a hapless intruder to meet the ground rather more rapidly than intended. Initially, this is all very simple, but when dozens of balloons fill your field of vision, you'll be scrawling like crazy, desperately fending off the invasion to keep the wizard gainfully employed.
Into the Dim
The first thing that strikes you about Into the Dim is that it transforms your iPad into a giant Game Boy - at least from a visual standpoint. Its chunky yellowed graphics hark back to handheld gaming's past; but to some extent, this is also true of Into the Dim's mechanics.
It's a turn-based RPG, featuring a boy and his dog exploring dungeons, outwitting enemies, and uncovering a mystery. But whereas most modern mobile fare offers procedurally generated levels, Into the Dim's dungeons have all been carefully individually designed. It rewards planning, strategic thinking, and patience; and although the game's finite nature means it can be beaten, doing so will make you feel like a boss, rather than a player being put through the 'random mill' time and time again.
Taking the most famous video game character of all and shoving him into an endless freemium title could have ended disastrously. Fortunately, Pac-Man 256 is by the people behind Crossy Road - and it's just as compelling.
In Pac-Man 256, our rotund hero finds himself beyond the infamous level 256 glitch, which has become an all-consuming swarm of broken code that must be outrun. Pac-Man must therefore speed through the endless maze, munching dots, avoiding ghosts, and making use of power-ups dotted about the place.
And there aren't just power pellets this time round - Pac-Man can fry ghosts with lasers, or implement stealth technology to move through his spectral foes as if they weren't even there.
Routing cabling in the real world is a source of fury, and so it might not be the smartest procedure to make into a game played on a device with a glass screen. But Aux B turns out to be a lot of fun, routing INs and OUTs, across increasingly large and complex patch boards, striving to make music blare forth.
There are 80 levels, although towards the end, you wonder whether someone should have a quiet word with the gig organiser and suggest a set-up that's a wee bit simpler. (And once you're done with the 80, the game continues randomising levels forever, placing you in a weirdly entertaining mixing desk 'purgatory'.)
Cally's Caves 3
Very occasionally, free games appear that are so generous you wonder what the catch is. Cally's Caves 3 is rather Metroid, except the hero of the hour is a little girl who has pigtails, stupid parents who keep getting kidnapped, and a surprisingly large arsenal of deadly weapons. She leaps about, blasting enemies, and conquering bosses. Weapons are levelled up simply by shooting things with them, and the eight zones take some serious beating — although not as much as the legions of grunts you're shooting at.
Coolson's Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet
It's always the way — you're looking for work, armed with your useless degree, and all that's available is a job in a sweltering chocolate factory, under the watchful eye of an angry penguin overseer. At least that's the story in Coolson's Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet, which hangs an absurdly addictive word game on this premise. Sort chocolate letters from a conveyor belt into boxes with slots, creating words while doing so; make your boss slightly less angry by spelling out seafood whenever possible; and don't let too much chocolate fall into the trash!
Crazy Taxi City Rush
The notion of a freemium on-rails Crazy Taxi must seem like sacrilege to Dreamcast fans. And yet although a serviceable port of the original arcade game exists, it feels a bit awkward on a touchscreen device. Surprisingly, Crazy Taxi City Rush manages to capture some of the original's spirit and madness.
You belt along city streets, picking up fares and dropping them off within tight time limits, all while cheesy rock music is hammered into your ears. There's more than a whiff of freemium, but if you're prepared to grind a bit and spend wisely on upgrades, you won't have to dig into your real-world wallet.
In a world of exploitative freemium gaming, Crossy Road shows an entire industry how things could be done. The basic gameplay is endless Frogger — avoid traffic, navigate rivers by way of floating logs, and try to not get splattered across the front of a speeding train. But the genius is in triggering people's collector mentality. During the game, you pick up coins, which can be pumped into a one-armed bandit that dispenses new characters. These often dramatically change how the game looks and plays. You'll want to collect them all. You can of course buy them outright, but Crossy Road is generous in flinging coins your way. Nice.
Does Not Commute
Time travel weirdness meets the morning rush hour in Does Not Commute. You get a short story about a character, and guide their car to the right road. Easy! Only the next character's car must be dealt with while avoiding the previous one. And the next. Before long, you're a dozen cars in and weaving about like a lunatic, desperately trying to avoid a pile-up. For free, you get the entire game, but with the snag that you must always start from scratch, rather than being able to use checkpoints that appear after each zone. (You can unlock these for a one-off payment of $2.99/£2.29.)
For a game that started as a joke, Flappy Golf has a lot going for it. A combination of Flappy Bird and Super Stickman Golf 2, it merges the controls of the former (although you can flap right and left) with the courses of the latter, challenging you to reach the hole using the fewest flaps. It's ridiculous, enjoyable, and a great means of experiencing the courses in a new way. There's also madcap online multiplayer, which has you speed-run to each hole.
With its numbered sliding squares and soaring scores, there's more than a hint of Threes! about Imago. In truth, Threes! remains the better game, on the basis that it's more focussed, but Imago has plenty going for it. The idea is to merge pieces of the same size and colour, which when they get too big explode into smaller pieces that can be reused.
The clever bit is each of these smaller pieces retains the score of the larger block. This means that with smart thinking, you can amass colossal scores that head into the billions. The game also includes daily challenges with different success criteria, to keep you on your toes.
Pool for massive show-offs, with the table's pockets removed, Magnetic Billiards is all about smacking balls about in a strategic manner. Those that are the same colour stick together; the aim is to connect them all, preferably into a bonus shape, whereupon they vanish. Balls of different colours must not collide, but can 'buzz' each other for bonus points; further points come from cushion bounces. For free, you get the 'classic' level set, with 20 tables. If you want more, a $1.99/£1.49 'skeleton key' IAP unlocks everything else in the game.
With iPads lacking tactile controls, they should be rubbish for platform games. But savvy developers have stripped back the genre, creating hybrid one-thumb auto-runner/platformers. These are entirely reliant on careful timing, the key element of more traditional fare.
Mr. Crab further complicates matters by wrapping its levels around a pole. The titular crustacean ambles back and forth, scooping up baby crabs, and avoiding the many enemies lurking about the place. The end result is familiar and yet fresh. You get a selection of diverse levels for free, and additional packs are available via IAP.
Having played Planet Quest, we imagine whoever was on naming duties didn't speak to the programmer. If they had, the game would be called Awesome Madcap Beam-Up One-Thumb Rhythm Action Insanity — or possibly something a bit shorter. Anyway, you're in a spaceship, prodding the screen to repeat beats you've just heard. Doing so beams up dancers on the planet's surface; get your timing a bit wrong and you merely beam-up their outfits; miss by a lot and you lose a life. To say this one's offbeat would be a terrible pun, but entirely accurate; it'd also be true to say this is the most fun rhythm action game on iPad — and it doesn't cost a penny.
The poor polar bear in Roller Polar is atop a massive snowball rolling down the mountain, and he can't stop. Actually, that's not entirely true: he can stop when something painfully wallops him off of said snowball.
Your aim is to stave off the inevitable for as long as possible, by helping the bear leap into the air to avoid rocks, trees, moose, and anything else the giant ball of snow scoops up along the way. It's simple and not terribly original, but the game's character and excellent graphics make it well worth a download.
A blocky take on classic vertically scrolling shoot 'em ups, Shooty Skies has flying-ace animals in biplanes battling endless squadrons of internet memes, flying robots, and deranged bosses. The controls are simple, but infuse the entire game with a sense of risk-versus-reward: drag to shoot, but stay still (and therefore instantly become extremely vulnerable) to charge a mega weapon. Fortunately, you can also grab gift boxes to gain a temporary wingman, which is essential when battling giant bosses like an ink-spewing headphone-wearing octopus, or an American Eagle that spits out nuclear missiles and 'patriotism' like they're going out of fashion.
Silly Sausage in Meatland
The sausage dog in Silly Sausage in Meatland appears to have fallen into the same radioactive sludge as a bunch of Marvel superheroes. He can stretch, seemingly forever, and stick to walks. This stands him in good stead for navigating horizontally scrolling landscapes full of spiky doom. Come a cropper and you go back to the start, unless you unlock restart points by using gems collected along the way. The game will also let you watch an ad, if you're running low on bling, which seems fair enough. (We've seen people grumbling you're later 'forced' to watch ads, because there aren't enough gems. That misses the point: Silly Sausage is about risk versus reward — not unlocking every restart point — and occasionally a dog sniffing its own behind.)
We imagine the creators of Smash Hit really hate glass. Look at it, sitting there with its stupid, smug transparency, letting people see what's on the other side of it. Bah! Smash it all! Preferably with ball-bearings while flying along corridors! And that's Smash Hit — fly along, flinging ball-bearings, don't hit any glass face-on, and survive for as long as possible. There are 50 rooms in all, but cheapskates start from scratch each time; pay $1.99/£1.49 for the premium unlock and you get checkpoints, stats, iCloud sync, and alternative game modes.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
The iPad has plenty of fast, playable racing games, but it took an awfully long time for a decent kart racer to appear on the platform. That was Sega's Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, and follow-up Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is even better. You race across land, sea and air, tracks dynamically shifting after each lap. It looks great, handles almost perfectly, and gives you loads to do. IAP does stink up the place a bit, notably if you want to quickly buy characters or burn through the game, but otherwise this is the best free racer this side of Asphalt 8.
One of the most innovative multiplayer titles we've ever played, Spaceteam has you and a bunch of friends in a room, each staring at a rickety and oddball spaceship control panel on your device's display. Instructions appear, which need a fast response if your ship is to avoid being swallowed up by an exploding star. But what you see might not relate to your screen and controls. Spaceteam therefore rapidly descends into a cacophony of barked demands and frantic searches across control panels (which helpfully start falling to bits), in a last-ditch attempt to 'set the Copernicus Crane to 6' or 'activate the Twinmill' and avoid fiery death.
Splish Splash Pong
Another one-thumb high-score chaser, Splish Splash Pong is worth a look because it's more devious than it initially appears. You bounce between two gates, collecting square coins. This would be easy if the water between them wasn't infested with killer whales. All you can do to avoid pointy teeth of doom is prod the screen to change direction. Naturally, the game's pace means you'll just as often instead tap the screen, and emit a yelp as you watch your little duck head in precisely the wrong direction and become a tasty snack — just like dozens before it.
A somewhat chessish two-player effort, Outwitters finds teams of angry sea creatures battling to the death, first helpfully arming them with surprisingly dangerous weapons. (It turns out crabs eschew claws when they've a mortar cannon to hand.)
Despite the cartoonish visuals, this is a deep and immersive strategy experience. Games are further complicated by a 'fog of war', which means units cannot see any further than they can move. This makes Outwitters tough to master but more rewarding on doing so and chalking up your first victories.
Super Stickman Golf 2
Golf is dull — it's pretty much people hitting a ball with a stick. But imagine if golf was played in massive castles. Or on the moon. Or inside a giant ice palace. And everyone wore strange hats that gave them magical powers.
Well, wonder no more, because that's Super Stickman Golf 2 in a nutshell, and it's a blast, whether you're playing solo, chipping away at your best scores, or delve into multiplayer. There, you can pit you skills against a friend in asynchronous two-player battles, or thwack away at breakneck pace in a demented online race mode.
The best puzzle game on mobile, Threes! has you slide cards about a grid, merging pairs to create ever higher numbers. The catch is all cards slide as one, unless they cannot move; additionally, each turn leads to a new card in a random empty slot on the edge you swiped away from. It's all about careful management of a tiny space.
On launch, Threes! was mercilessly cloned, with dozens of alternatives flooding iTunes, but 2048 and its ilk lack the charm and fine details that made Threes! so great in the first place. And now there's Threes! Free, where you watch ads to top up a 'free goes' bin, there's no excuse for going with inferior pretenders.
"Expect retro graphics and megatons of enemies," says the developer about this twin-stick shooter, adding: "Don't expect a story". With its vector graphics and Robotronish air, PewPew brings to mind Geometry Wars and Infinity Field, but without a price tag.
Despite being free, PewPew nonetheless boasts five modes of shooty goodness. These range from the aptly named 'Pandemonium', where enemies spin around the screen on dying, to the more thoughtful (but still manic) 'Chromatic Conflict', where you can only shoot foes whose colour matches your ship.
It turns out if you're a sheep that thinks the grass is greener, you should check out the other side of the fence first. In Flockwork, wooly heroes make a break for freedom, but end up immersed in a kind of ruminant hell. Your task: help the sheep escape.
The tiny snag is that all the sheep move as one, meaning you must use a combination of quick thinking, finger gymnastics and fast reactions to ensure they don't drown, get eaten by clockwork wolves, or end up getting stuck behind walls like wooly idiots.
Asphalt 8: Airborne
At some point, a total buffoon decreed that racing games should be dull and grey, on grey tracks, with grey controls. Gameloft's Asphalt series dispenses with such foolish notions, along with quite a bit of reality.
Here, in Asphalt 8, you zoom along at ludicrous speeds, drifting for miles through exciting city courses, occasionally being hurled into the air to perform stunts that absolutely aren't acceptable according to the car manufacturer's warranty. It's admittedly a bit grindy, but if you tire of zooming about the tracks in this game, there's no hope for you.
Air Hockey Gold
Air hockey games work much better on the iPad than the iPhone, simply due to the iPad's larger screen. Air Hockey Gold isn't the only free game of this type, but it was the one that felt best during testing, and the two-player mode works nicely.
Plants vs. Zombies 2
This is more like Plants vs. Zombies 2 vs. freemium grinding. But if you can look past the forced repetition of stages and irksome IAP, there's a lot to like in EA's horticulture/zombie defence sequel, including loads of new stages, a bunch of new plants, plenty of unique features, and a smattering of time travel.
Myriad physics puzzlers exist for iOS, but most are twitch-oriented games where you fling objects around, and repeat with slight variation until you succeed. TinkerBox is different, because it demands you carefully consider the task at hand and then construct machines and tools using engineering concepts. It's great for educating kids and also perfect for anyone who used to love the likes of Meccano.
QatQi starts off a bit like Scrabble in the dark, until you figure out that you're really immersed in a kind of Roguelike mash-up. So although the aim is to make crosswords from a selection of letters, you're also tasked with exploring dungeons to find score-boosting stars and special tiles.
This results in QatQi being a bit like a puzzler on top of a puzzler. You must balance the best works with the ability to move on, trying hard to not get backed into a corner. Undos soften the blow if you mess up, although you'll need IAP to buy more.
Tiny people in a tiny skyscraper need you to feed then tiny sushi and do other tiny tasks. Things can, inevitably, be sped up by not-so-tiny IAP cash infusions, but if you're a patient sort, and keen on micromanagement games, Tiny Tower is a charming, enjoyable title that will eat many tiny moments out of your day.
Crimson: Steam Pirates
This turn-based strategy game comes complete with an engaging story and a healthy dollop of yo-ho-ho. You command pirate ships, setting their courses and then watching the action unfold. Crimson: Steam Pirates gives you eight free voyages and further adventures can be bought via IAP.
With almost limitless possibilities in videogames, it's amazing how many are drab grey and brown affairs. Frisbee Forever is therefore a breath of fresh air with its almost eye-searing vibrance. The sense of fun continues through to the gameplay, which is all about steering a frisbee to collect stars strewn along winding paths. Initially, you explore a fairground, but soon you're soaring above the wild west and sandy bays.
Many free iPhone OS MMOs are dreary text-based affairs, so it's nice to see Spacetime Studios creating something a bit more ambitious with Pocket Legends, providing us with an iOS-specific 3D world populated by the usual motley collection of fantasy characters. As always with MMOs, the game demands you invest plenty of time to get anything out of it.
Tilt to Live HD
The basic aim of Tilt to Live is simple: avoid the red dots, either by cunning dodging and weaving or by triggering explosive devices in the arena. At the time, this wasn't especially innovative, and Tilt to Live has itself since spawned two (paid) sequels.
Even so, the game manages to appeal, largely due to its polish and sense of humour — the latter of which is especially handy when you miss your high score by moments during a particularly gruelling game and fancy flinging your device out of the window. You get the basic mode for free, and others can be unlocked by in-app purchase.
Doctor Who: Legacy
It's a case of timey-wimey-puzzley-wuzzley as Doctor Who: Legacy aims to show you that your iPad is bigger on the inside, able to house intergalactic warfare. The game itself is a gem-swapper not a million miles away from Puzzle Quest, but all the Doctor Who trappings will make it a must for fans of the show - or Daleks fine-tuning their tactics regarding how to finally beat their nemesis, mostly via the use of strategically placed coloured orbs.
10 Pin Shuffle Bowling
10 Pin Shuffle Pro Bowling smashes together ten-pin bowling and shuffleboard. Rather than hurling a heavy ball down an alley, you slide a massive puck towards the pins. Of that paid title's three modes, the best is 10 Pin Poker, which adds poker to the mix.
Get a spare or strike and, respectively, you're awarded one or two cards. At the end of the tenth frame, whoever of the two players has the best hand wins. And rather generously, this mode is given away entirely for free in 10 Pin Shuffle Bowling. Strike!
Fans of the ancient Pitfall series on the Atari might feel a bit short-changed, given that this comeback in the shape of a Temple Run clone diverges wildly from the platforming action of the originals. However, it's one of the best-looking endless runners on iOS, and if you persevere there are exciting mine-cart and motorbike sections to master.
The only snag is the usual freemium trappings, notably having to fling virtual cash at the game to pick up where you left off.
There's a touch of Angry Birds about To-Fu 2, at least if the birds were covered in something yucky that glued them to any walls they collided with. Said stickiness is the name of the game here, getting the squidgy hero to level's end rather than impaling him on the literally strewn spikes.
Much of the game's smarts comes from clever level design, which will challenge and frustrate in equal measure. You could say the game's quite sticky.
Choice of the Dragon
It's not the most interesting-looking game in the world, but luckily the magic of Choice of the Dragon is in its witty prose. Playing as a multiple-choice text adventure, akin to an extremely stripped-back RPG, this game is an amusing romp. It also, through a combination of stats and branching pathways with more than two options, boasts more depth than many more recent stabs at text-based iOS adventuring.
Grim Joggers Freestyle
When we think of extreme sports, jogging isn't the first that comes to mind, although it might be now we've experienced Grim Joggers Freestyle. The game's essentially Canabalt, but instead of one guy leaping across grey rooftops, you get a string of joggers trying desperately to survive in a surreal alien world.
Just that change from a single leaper to a string of nutters changes the game immensely. Not only is it tougher keeping multiple runners alive, but the more that survive to a checkpoint, the higher your score will be.
With Tiny Wings having spent a large amount of time troubling the App Store charts, we're surprised it took so long to make it to the iPad. All along, Pilot Winds was the next best thing, and it's free.
Instead of a fat bird sliding down hills, you're a daredevil penguin skier, and while the game's inspiration is clear, it has plenty of tricks of its own, such as alternate pilots to play as, and a time-attack mode that rewards combos.
A veteran of the iOS puzzle scene, Drop7 remains one of the best of its kind on the platform. It's based around dropping numbered discs into a grid. If a disc's number matches that of any discs within its column or row, those discs all explode. Grey discs are dealt with by twice removing discs next to them, finally revealing their numbers.
Three varied modes are on offer, each of which demands a different strategy, although success always requires serious brainpower and making the most of every drop.
It's hard not to love Frotz when you see its App Store description 'warn' that it involves "reading, thinking, and typing" and that if you "just want to blow stuff up", it's not the app for you. And that's very true, given that this is an interactive fiction player.
You load titles written for the Z-Machine format (such as the famous Zork trilogy), and explore virtual worlds by typing in commands such as 'go north' and 'put the long dangly bit into the Tea Substitute'. As you might expect, Frotz works particularly well on an iPad (rather than the smaller screen of an iPhone), and it adds a menu for common commands to speed you along a bit.
Trainyard Express is a puzzle game which tasks you with getting trains between stations of the same colour, by laying track. It starts simply, with you dragging a track between two stations only a few grid spaces apart. But the puzzles rapidly increase in complexity, adding colour mixing and obstacles that require you to fashion brain-bendingly complex snaking tracks.
In all, you get over 60 puzzles, and there's not even overlap with the game's commercial sibling Trainyard.
As the saying goes, there are few American sports that can't be improved by the impending threat of a banana, and that's X-Baseball. Hit balls! Hit bananas thrown by fans! Also, hit annoying birds flying overhead! Just don't 'not hit', otherwise your game will soon be over. It's just like the real thing! Well, if the real thing involved tapping a glass screen to time a shot, and lots of bananas.
BIT.TRIP Beat Blitz
The love-child of Pong and a drug-fuelled hallucination, BIT.TRIP Beat Blitz has you deflecting hundreds of balls, in time to crunchy industrial-style dance beats. This is dazzling and pure but demanding arcade gaming, with long, tough levels. Miss too many beats and you're plunged into Nether, a soulless black-and-white realm where you must chain multiple beats to escape from.
For free, you get a taste of the full game; and if you enjoy having your eyes punched into your skull, you can unlock the full 24 stages with a single IAP.
In Triple Town, you have to think many moves ahead to succeed. It's a match game where trios of things combine to make other things, thereby giving you more space on the board to evolve your town. For example, three bushes become a tree, and three trees become a hut.
All the while, roaming bears and ninjas complicate matters, blocking squares on the board. At times surreal, Triple Town is also brain-bending and thoroughly addictive. Free moves slowly replenish, but you can also unlock unlimited moves via IAP.
Pinball HD Collection
If you're a fan of spanging a metal ball about, Gameprom's iPad pinball tables are as good as they come. Pinball HD Collection is the freemium incarnation of the company's output, giving you the option of demoing and later purchasing any one of the ten included tables.
However, entirely for free you get the simple but playable Wild West, a fast-paced old-school table built for immediacy and racking up high-scores. Yee-haw!
There are many endless running games for the iPad, but in Temple Run you're being chased by deadly evil demon monkeys! It's your own fault really, what with nicking that priceless trinket from a temple.
The tilty swipey gameplay's been much copied since this game first appeared, but the original's simplicity shines through against more modern rivals that try to do too much. And while Temple Run is perhaps a tad tiring after a while of holding up an iPad, it's great in short bursts on the larger screen.
The clue's in the title — there's a quest, and it involves quite a lot of punching. There's hidden depth, though — the game might look like a screen-masher, but Punch Quest is all about mastering combos, perfecting your timing, and making good use of special abilities.
The game looks superb, too, marrying old-school pixel art with lashings of character. The in-game currency's also very generous, so if you like the game reward the dev by grabbing some IAP.
Bejeweled Blitz is the online incarnation of PopCap's hugely popular gem-swap game, and it looks fab on the iPad's screen. As a freemium title, there's a whiff of IAP (either grind or buy coins to unlock power-ups, or you've no chance of topping the high-score tables), but you'll still be addicted all the same.
Magnetic Shaving Derby
"Use the magnet to attract the razor to shave the face!" explains Magnetic Shaving Derby, presumably having first hidden any safety instructions from view. And that's precisely what you do. Drag the magnet around, and the razor follows. The aim is to shave fast-growing hair and avoid slicing open anything that really shouldn't be sliced open.
The result is an experience best described as completely bonkers, with a side order of "don't try this at home, kids, unless you enjoy the sight of blood".
Fairway Solitaire is a perfect example of what happens when you marry simple gameplay with a bit of character. On its own, the basic card system would be fine: unlock face-down cards by selecting those one higher or lower than the current one in the draw pile. But the addition of golf scoring and a crazed gopher out for blood turns this into a surprisingly enjoyable and original title.
X-Motorcycle happily offers two video game cliches for the price of none: the speeding hero (this time on a motorbike), who cannot slow down, and inexplicably giant fruit that appears to be an immensely important currency. All you need to do is help the hapless rider change lanes to avoid crashy disaster.
The result is a fast, playable game reminiscent of old-school thrills filtered down to their essence and squirted into your iPad.
Pinball games tend to be divided into two camps. One aims for a kind of realism, aping real-world tables. The other takes a more arcade-oriented approach. Zen Pinball is somewhere in-between, marrying realistic physics with tables that come to life with animated 3D figures.
Loads of tables are available via IAP, including some excellent Star Wars and Marvel efforts. But for free you get access to the bright and breezy Sorcerer's Lair, which, aside from some dodgy voice acting, is a hugely compelling and fast-paced table with plenty of missions and challenges to discover.
Word Solitaire HD
With a game called Word Solitaire, you might expect a kind of solitaire game that has you form words rather than use standard cards. And that's exactly what you get here - sorry, anyone waiting for a huge surprise. However, this is not a bad thing, because Word Solitaire HD is a relaxing, entertaining title.
The basic campaign mode has a huge 250 levels to try, and you can also compete against other players worldwide in a daily puzzle, or configure one-off solo sessions in Quick Play mode.
In Royal Revolt the king is dead and his siblings have stolen his kingdom while the prince was at school. Unfortunately for them, he was studying magic and is now out for revenge. The game itself is a real-time-strategy effort with some seriously cute and well-animated graphics.
There is, admittedly, some grinding if you want to reach later levels. But we found with some careful upgrading of your troops, you needn't dip into your wallet. (Do, though, avoid the not-great sequel.)
Who knew you could have such fun with a five-by-five grid of letters? In Letterpress, you play friends via Game Center, making words to colour lettered squares. Surround any and they're out of reach from your friend's tally. Cue: word-tug-o'-war, last-minute reversals of fortune, and arguments about whether 'qat' is a real word or not. (It is.)
Snuggle Truck HD
This one had a dubious start, initially named Smuggle Truck and featuring immigrants being smuggled across the US border. One swift rejection by Apple later and the game swapped immigrants for cuddly toys, which is significantly funnier anyway.
The game itself is a side-on Trials-oriented title, with you traversing increasingly tricky terrain, trying to keep your cuddly toys from spilling out of the truck and getting lost forever. It's very silly and lots of fun.
Frisbee Forever 2
With almost limitless possibilities in videogames, it's amazing how many are drab grey and brown affairs. Frisbee Forever 2 (like its similarly impressive forerunner) is therefore a breath of fresh air with its almost eye-searing vibrance.
There's a kind of Nintendo vibe - a sense of fun that continues through to the gameplay, which is all about steering a frisbee left and right, collecting stars strewn along winding paths. And these are a world away from the parks you'd usually fling plastic discs about in - here, you're hurled along roller-coaster journeys through ancient ruins and gorgeous snowy hillsides.
There's a point in chess where you sometimes wish your knight would just give your opponent's bishop a thoroughly good trampling. Sadly, few chess games do such things (the ancient Battlechess being an exception), but Hero Academy takes the idea and runs with it. It's primarily a turn-based two-player effort, where you wipe out your opponent's tiny army or smash their crystals to bits.
There's plenty of depth, due to the varied boards and teams that find wizards attacking knights, and demons defending their turf against samurais. And for solo play, the game bundles a bunch of puzzles to try your wits at.
Shadow Era: Dark Prophecies
Proving that great ideas never die, Shadow Era brings trading cards to life on the iPad. What you lose in not being able to smell the ink and manually shuffle the deck, you gain in not being able to lose the cards or have them eaten by the dog. It's all very swords-and-fantasy oriented, and just like in real life you can also buy extra cards if you feel the need.
A game about blending colours, which doesn't feature an Old English Sheepdog barely avoiding tipping paint everywhere? Missed opportunity! Still, what you're left with in Blendoku is a beautifully minimal game that tasks you with putting coloured squares in order. It starts off simple, but the level design will soon have you sobbing into your crayons.
Into the Dead
You know, if infinite zombies were running towards us, we'd leg it in the opposite direction. Not so in Into the Dead, where you battle on until your inevitable and bloody demise.
The game's oddly dream-like (well, nightmare-like), given that you meander left and right, almost floating through the hellish landscape. Still, perseverance at least rewards you with new weapons, such as a noisy chainsaw. VVRRRMMM! (Splutch!)
Score! World Goals
Score! takes the basic premise of a million path-drawing games and wraps it around classic footie goals. The combination works really well, with you attempting to recreate the ball's path in the best goals the world's ever seen. Failure results in a baying crowd and, frequently, improbable goalkeeping heroics.
The game's since had a sequel, but we prefer the original, which is less aggressive in its freemium model.
Lost Treasures of Infocom
"You are standing in an open field west of a white house." If you're of a certain age, you're already downloading Lost Treasures of Infocom, which gives you classic text adventure Zork entirely for free. IAP enables you to buy further titles by Infocom, the masters of interactive fiction, and they all work wonderfully on the iPad.
Super Monsters Ate My Condo
The original Monsters Ate My Condo was like Jenga and a match-three game shoved into a blender with a massive dollop of crazy. Super Monsters Ate My Condo is a semi-sequel which takes a time-attack approach, shoe-horning the bizarre tower-building/floor-matching/monster-feeding into a tiny amount of time, breaking your brain in the process.
Essentially, you aim to manage like-colored apartments in a single-column tower, flinging unwanted floors into the maws of flanking beasts. Lob gems their way and they'll power-up in a suitably odd manner. Give them the wrong colour, and they'll have a massive tantrum, potentially destroying all your hard work.
Tactical war-games tend to work well on a touchscreen device, and RAD Soldiers is no exception. The turn-based action has you take on chums or the single-player mode, and the cartoon styling gives a palatable face to leaving an enemy soldier as a pair of smoking boots. Just watch out for the IAP.
Cubed Rally Redline
Argh! That's pretty much what you'll be yelling on a regular basis on playing this endless racer. Cubed Rally Redline shouldn't be difficult. You can go left or right on five clearly defined lanes, and there's a 'time brake' for going all slow-motion, Matrix-style, to weave through tricky gaps; but you'll still be smashing into cows, dinosaurs and bridges before you know it.
You'll persevere if you're particularly bloody minded, or just to see what other visual treats the developer's created for hardcore players.
Flow Free's quite sneaky. It looks simple enough, tasking you with connecting like-colored blobs via pathways that cannot cross. And indeed it is at first, despite you also having to fill the entire board to proceed. But once you're on larger grids, trying to figure out snaking pathways, your ears will be shooting steam.
Color Zen appears to be noodly central - a game where you match coloured shapes while pleasant sounds massage your ears. But there's a devious puzzler lurking underneath, with later levels being tricky to solve. There's no timer, though, and so it's the kind of game you can put down and return to at any point, rather than wanting to hurl your iPad out of the window in frustration.
Sid Meier's Ace Patrol
Nyeeeeooowww! Daggadaggadaggadagga! It's biplane o' clock in Sid Meier's Ace Patrol - a Civ-like take on World War I dogfighting. You and the bally enemy take it in turns to climb, dive, roll and shoot, as you aim to turn the tide of the war and ensure it'll all be over by Christmas. The game is also one of the few we've seen that understands the concept of micro-transactions, for example enabling you to spring POWs for 69p/$0.99 a pop.
The Tiny Tower devs take to the air in game form, with Pocket Planes. In this management sim, you take command of a fleet of planes, aiming to not entirely annoy people as you ferry them around the world. Like Tiny Tower, this one's a touch grindy, but it's a similarly amusing time-waster.
At first, Letris looks like yet another bog-standard word game, albeit one that's rather visually swish, but it regularly tries new things. The game's based around creating words from falling tiles, but it keeps things fresh by adding hazards, such as debris, ice and various creatures lurking in the letter pile. If you're feeling particularly brainy, you can even play in two languages at once.
Dots looks and feels like the sort of thing Jony Ive might play on his downtime. A stark regimented set of coloured dots awaits, and like-coloured ones can be joined, whereupon they disappear, enabling more to fall into the square well. The aim: clear as many as possible - with the largest combos you can muster - in 60 seconds.
Plenty of additional modes and themes are on offer if you want to buy some IAP. Avoid sequel Two Dots, though, which doubles down on freemium to an irksome degree.
In Smash Cops, you got to be the good guy, bringing down perps, mostly by ramming them into oblivion. Now in Smash Bandits it's your chance to be a dangerous crim, hopping between vehicles and leaving a trail of destruction in your wake. Smartly, this can all be done with a single finger, which is all you need to steer, drive and smash.
The game also amusingly includes the A-Team van and a gadget known only as the Jibba Jabba. We love it when a plan comes together!
If you liked this, then make sure you check out our best free iPad apps roundup!