Our favorite free iPhone gem-swap, tile-match, and rhythm action games.
Sliding Seas (opens in new tab) doesn’t provide the best first impression, initially coming across as yet another colorful but grindy level-based match puzzler stuffed full of IAP, gunning for your wallet. And, to be fair, it is full of IAP, but you don’t need any of it. Once you realize that, Sliding Seas becomes a joy to play.
The premise is you’re rescuing people from the sea. By combining three or more colored tiles, deep water becomes shallower, and eventually turns into dry land. When you combine four or more tiles, you create rafts and shelters – vital to ensure the little folks don’t die from exposure.
There are hundreds of levels, and the game gradually adds new elements, such as exploding volcanoes and pirate battles. Even when you complete the lot, Sliding Seas isn’t done, at that point transforming into a challenging, compelling endless puzzler.
Tetris (opens in new tab) deserves its fame. Decades after the title’s emergence on PC – and subsequent mainstream breakthrough on the original Game Boy – it remains compelling. And it’s all so simple: rotate falling blocks to make complete lines, which then disappear, leaving you with more space. Over time, the game speeds up, until eventually the well is full.
With Tetris having been designed for platforms with keys or buttons, it can be a tricky proposition on touchscreens. But N3TWORK’s take is responsive, giving you a fighting chance at high scores. It’s also the most ‘retro’ iPhone Tetris we’ve seen in a long time, eschewing bells and whistles for a straightforward take on the game, with only a single optional IAP to remove the ads.
No marks for ambition, then, but this free iPhone game is a refreshingly streamlined take on a retro classic.
Sprint RPG (opens in new tab), with its black-and-white stylings and basic first-person maze, instantly transports you back to the halcyon days of retro gaming. Quite some way back, in fact, since it’s reminiscent of the ancient (yet terrifying) 3D Monster Maze.
Here, though, the aptly named Sprint RPG ramps up gameplay speed. Everything plays out against the clock, and you’ve mere fractions of a second to make decisions. When confronted by a monster, you need to tap the optimum sequence of actions to proceed. Get the order wrong and you’re dead.
Despite its RPG and speedrun trappings, then, Sprint RPG is effectively a match game – and one that feels very much suited to quick missions on an iPhone, obliterating gigantic spiders and skeletons until your overworked thumb begs for mercy.
Six Match (opens in new tab) is a match-three game with a twist. Rather than arbitrarily swapping gems, you control a character with the oddly literal moniker Mr Swap-With-Coins, and as the game’s name suggests, he has just six moves after every successful match to make another.
The game wrong-foots you from the start. Any muscle memory you have from the likes of Bejeweled evaporates as you figure out the most efficient way to make the next match. The result is a game heavy on puzzling and light on speed.
Just when you think you’ve got it worked out, Six Match throws new mechanics into the mix: diamonds you clear by dropping them out of the well, deadly skulls and cages that push entire lines of coins. The layered strategy should keep you matching for the long term, as you figure out new ways to crack your high score.
Tappy Cat (opens in new tab) is a rhythm action game, with you playing as a musical moggie. Your cat sits before a ‘tree guitar’, and notes head out from the middle of the screen along two rails. These must be tapped, held, or tapped along with another note, depending on their color.
This is routine for a rhythm action game, but it’s the execution that makes Tappy Cat delightful. It feels perfectly tuned for iPhone (your thumbs can always reach the notes), and there’s a cat-collection meta-game, rewarding you with new kitties when you totally nail a tune.
The only bum notes are a lives system (a video ad will give you five lives – although there is also a $2.99/£2.99/AU$4.49 endless lives IAP for those who want it), and the way in which a single major blunder ends your latest attempt at musical superstardom of the furry kind.
Finger Smash (opens in new tab) is more or less whack-a-mole with fruit - and a big ol’ dose of sudden death. You get a minute to dish out tappy destruction, divided up into seconds-long rounds.
In each case, you’re briefly told what to smash, and set about tapping like a maniac. Hit the wrong object, and your game ends with a flaming skull taunting you. (Lasting the full minute is surprisingly tough.)
This is a simple high-score chaser, and so there’s understandably not a lot of depth here. However, there are plenty of nice touches. The visuals have an old-school charm, and the music is suitably energetic.
But also, there’s the way you can swipe through multiple items, the bomb that ominously appears during the final ten seconds, and varied alternate graphics sets if you feel the need to squish space invaders, fast food, or adorable cartoon robots. Great stuff.
Minimal arcade game Higher Higher! (opens in new tab) is another of those titles that on paper seems ridiculously simple, but in reality could result in your thumb and brain having a nasty falling out.
A little square scoots back and forth across the screen, changing color whenever it hits the edge and reverses direction. Your aim is to tap a matching colored column when the square passes over it.
The snag is that the square then changes color again; furthermore, the columns all change color when the square hits a screen edge.
To add to your troubles, Higher Higher! regularly speeds up, too, thereby transforming into a high-octane dexterity and reactions test. Combos are the key to the highest scores and, as ever, one mistake spells game over.
Blokout (opens in new tab) is a furious, high-speed color-matching game that punishes you for the slightest hesitation. The initial mode plonks you in front of a three-by-three grid, and you have to swap colored squares, Bejewelled-style, to make complete lines, which then vanish.
The timer is the key to the game. A clock sits in the upper-left of the screen and rapidly counts down, giving you only a few moments to complete a line. If the timer runs dry it's game over; make a line and it resets, giving you another few seconds.
The intensity is therefore always set to maximum, nicely contrasting with the game's friendly, bold colors (which amusingly turn stark black and white the instant you lose); and if you stick around, you'll find further challenges by way of boosters and tougher modes.
Threes! Freeplay (opens in new tab) is a sliding puzzler with the same kind of compulsion loop found in the likes of Tetris. That might sound like a bold claim, but Threes! really is one of those rare games that’s easy to understand but that has enough depth and strategy to potentially keep you playing for years as you master your tactics.
It takes place on a grid, on which you slide cards. Those that match merge to create ever higher numbers, and new items appear on the side of the grid they moved from. Also, all the cards move as one. It’s clever stuff, which becomes apparent the more you play; as does the care and polish within, from the pleasant background ditty to the character and charm infused even into the very cards you move.
Triple Town (opens in new tab) is a think-ahead match game, where you combine trios of things to make other things. Three bushes make a tree, and three trees become a hut. Through careful positioning and a chess-champion’s ability to think ahead, you can chain moves together, thereby freeing up the space required to continue evolving your tiny town.
Then there are the bears. For some reason, the place is full of them. Some roam about the place in a semi-random fashion. Others are leapy ninjas. All of them need to be taken into consideration when laying down new objects. If you fancy a surreal, novel, challenging match game, then, this is definitely a game to bear in mind.
Groove Coaster 2
Groove Coaster 2 (opens in new tab) is a rhythm action game twinned with a roller-coaster. Everything’s on-rails, with you zooming along Rez-like vector pathways, all manner of colorful blocky pyrotechnics spinning and exploding beneath the track. All you need to do is get your timing right, tapping, swiping and rubbing when the icons tell you to.
Only it’s not that simple. The track flips and lurches, and the stages are designed to give your thumb a serious choreographic workout. As ever, perseverance reaps rewards, by way of massive score-enhancing chains, and, frankly, just the smugness that comes from knowing your prodding perfection means you’ve got rhythm.