Our favorite iPhone games where you run, leap, board, and dodge your way to a high-score – or an abrupt end.
Townscaper lives in the App Store’s games section, but it’s more an open-ended meditative toy. Rather than tapping the screen to play sounds or trigger abstract patterns, you instead build island communities that sit atop an endless sea.
The controls are simple: tap to add a component and tap-hold to remove one. Townscaper deals with everything else, dynamically aligning buildings to its irregular grid, and upgrading or demoting building types, depending on how many blocks are added together.
This is delightful stuff and properly zone-out fare, from the splashy plop you hear on adding your first house to the way you can experiment with colors to create rainbow-like hamlets. Towns are auto-saved when you create a new one, and tools exist in a sidebar to move the sun, should you want an atmospheric night-time vibe when reworking your towns during the wee small hours.
Summer Catchers subverts and expands the typical endless runner formula. It features a little girl desperate to visit foreign lands, but she’s only got a rickety cart, and many miles of unforgiving terrain stand in her way.
Your job is to get her as far as possible, but instead of prodding the screen to leap, you instead trigger power-ups at precise moments, giving you the boost you need to escape an enemy or blaze up a hill, or a battering ram to smash through objects in your path.
Failure leaves the protagonist dragging her cart back home, where it can be upgraded and kitted out with more power-ups. It’s like juggling - exhilarating and rewarding when mastered. And over time, you will indeed find those new lands - but not before confronting tricky bosses lurking in the wilds.
Alto’s Odyssey is a side-on endless sandboarding game. Alto zooms across windswept dunes, frequently hurling himself into the air to perform speed-boosting tricks that then enable him to leap across vast canyons.
In gameplay terms, it echoes Alto’s Adventure, and long-time players of that title might get a sense of deja vu. However, stick with Odyssey and you learn it’s more than just a reskin.
Complete achievements and new elements are slowly revealed: additional biomes to explore, and – more importantly – a rock-wall ride move that can have you reach greater heights than ever.
The main mission remains a curious combination of heart-poundingly exhilarating (when escaping a frenzied lemur, or completing a jump by a hair’s breadth) and relaxing; if you hanker after the latter, check out the Zen mode, which removes scores, coins and power-ups. At that point, it really is just you and the endless desert.
Impossible Road is an endless survival game, starring a featureless sphere belting along a ribbon of road suspended in space. Gates are placed along the road at intervals, each of which bestows a single point when you blaze through it. As the road bucks and lurches, it’s all you can do to stop yourself plummeting into the abyss.
But Impossible Road is sneaky. It turns out that if you’re careful – or lucky – you can soar briefly into the air and return to the track, taking massive shortcuts that would perhaps be best referred to as ‘cheating’.
Amusingly, high scores are logged not only for the farthest gate reached, but also the most skipped. And although the App Store has freebie riffs on the Impossible Road theme, none have the class, style, polish and razor-sharp focus of this premium title – so stick to the original.
Canabalt popularized endless runners on the iPhone. Originally released in 2009, it strips back platform gaming to tapping the screen to make a little sprinting man leap over gaps rather than plummet to his doom.
You might wonder why such an ancient title is on this best-of list, but Canabalt is a classic that easily deserves a place. With a firm emphasis on speed, Canabalt’s breakneck pace makes it a pure adrenaline rush in a way that complex and slower rivals just can’t match.
The game hasn’t stood still for years, either. It’s optimized for modern iPhones and has eight variants on the basic theme. The aesthetics remain intriguing too – an ominous, urgent soundtrack accompanies a city’s destruction by massive machines, perhaps explaining why the leaping hero is so desperate to flee.
Sheep Goes Right
Sheep Goes Right is an auto-scrolling arcade game that features a sheep that goes right. And also up. But mostly right.
For reasons unknown, the heroic Sheepy has been challenged to pick his way through 100 levels of mayhem, packed with swirling maces and massive spiked balls. Hitting one is baa-d, sending you back to the start of the level, and wiping out one of your three gold stars. Fail too many times and the game assumes you’re rubbish and helpfully offers to let you skip the level, at which point you woolly feel like a failure.
The game looks crude, but proves compelling as you figure out which combination of rightward steps and upward jumps will get you to the end without being turned into a kebab.
A friendly whale beckons a shipwrecked pirate to leap on its back. So begins their joint adventures, in Run-A-Whale, which is perhaps the iPhone’s most gorgeous endless runner.
Really, endless swimmer is more like it, seeing as you’re a massive aquatic mammal speeding through the sea. You hold the screen to dive and release your finger to surface and leap, grabbing coins in a manner akin to Jetpack Joyride in reverse.
But Jetpack Joyride was never this eye-dazzling, and Run-A-Whale is packed with wonderful moments, from soaring through the air after being blasted from a cannon, to zooming along as a volcano erupts in the distance.
Occasionally, the game irks with its demands – obstacles in succession you have little chance of avoiding, or unskippable tricky missions – but for the most part this is a gem that’s not to be missed.
Slingshotting cartoon characters across your iPhone’s screen is a popular gaming pursuit. But if you’ve become bored rigid of catapulting miffed avians at kleptomaniac hogs (and, let’s face it, who hasn’t?), try Frutorious HD for something that’s somewhat familiar, but with far more spark and heart.
The story is that an evil skull’s turned all the protagonist’s friends into fruits, and so he must bound up vertically scrolling levels, making use of handy levitating platforms and cannons to collect fruit and avoid various nasties ambling about.
It’s a jolly, sweet-natured game with superb hand-made visuals that add plenty of character, and a slightly unhinged edge always lurking just beneath the surface.
You might have played enough automatic runners to last several lifetimes, but Chameleon Run nonetheless deserves to be on your device. And although the basics might initially seem overly familiar (tap to jump and ensure your sprinting chap doesn’t fall down a hole), there’s in fact a lot going on here.
Each level has been meticulously designed, which elevates Chameleon Run beyond its algorithmically generated contemporaries. Like the best platform games, you must commit every platform and gap to memory to succeed. But also, color-switching and ‘head jumps’ open up new possibilities for route-finding – and failure!
In the former case, you must ensure you’re the right color before landing on colored platforms. With the latter, you can smash your head into a platform above to give you one more chance to leap forward and not tumble into the void.
Super Hexagon is an endless survival game that mercilessly laughs at your incompetence. It begins with a tiny spaceship at the centre of the screen, and walls rapidly closing in. All you need to do is move left and right to nip through the gaps.
Unfortunately for you, the walls keep shifting and changing, the screen pulses to the chip-tune soundtrack, and the entire experience whirls and jolts like you’re inside a particularly violent washing machine. It seems impossible, but you soon start to recognize patterns in the walls.
String together some deft moves, survive a minute by the skin of your teeth, and you briefly feel like a boss as new arenas are unlocked. And although complacency is wiped from your face the instant you venture near them, Super Hexagon has an intoxicating, compelling nature to offset its mile-long sadistic streak.