Tech

The best iPhone games 2021: From free apps to timeless classics

The iPhone is a highly capable gaming machine, but while the newest models can handle complex graphics, the very best iPhone games work on older phones and don’t try to replicate the experience of playing on a home console. They’re designed to be played in short bursts, on trains and on planes, while waiting for your toast to pop, or sitting in your dentist’s waiting room.

This quick and casual style of play has created a tremendous diversity in the types of games made for the iPhone, which include everything from addictive word puzzle games and arcade racing simulators to competitive multiplayer shooters, endless runners and full strategy titles.

The platform’s enormous reach and global audience has also made iOS a dumping ground for free iPhone games purely designed to extract cash from players through cynical in-app purchases and advertising. Even if you’ve never downloaded one, you’ll have seen these kinds of games promoted all over Instagram and other social media platforms.

Until the advent of Apple Arcade – a subscription service that filters out the garbage – finding something good to play on the App Store was like panning for gold. For £4.99 per month, iOS players can now access a curated selection of over 180 games without intrusive ads or in-app purchases spoiling the game. Apple Arcade games are designed to work across iPhone, iPad and Apple TV.

You can connect a wireless controller to your iPhone using Bluetooth, opening up a whole new way to play. Both the Xbox Series X controller and the PlayStation 5 controller can be paired with the iPhone to allow a more console-like gaming experience. Retailers also sell specialised mounts for these controllers so you can pop your iPhone in place while you play.

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Whether you’ve got the latest iPhone 12 Pro or you’re still rocking an older device, our list of the best iPhone games has something for you. Below, we’ve pulled together a collection of our favourite time-wasters, brain-teasers, action adventures and multiplayer iPhone games.

Included are timeless classics, iPhone games with great graphics that showcase the phone’s capabilities, quirky indie games, and one game that will have you traipsing across an industrial estate in dogged pursuit of a shiny Smeargle. You can probably guess what that last one is.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

Best iPhone games 2021

  • Best sports gameDesert Golfing: £1.99, Apple.com
  • Best free iPhone gamePokémon Go: Free, Apple.com
  • Best strategy gameLara Croft Go: £4.99, Apple.com
  • Best offline gameThrees!: £5.99, Apple.com
  • Best endless runnerAlto’s Odyssey: £4.99, Apple.com
  • Best multiplayer gameAmong Us: Free, Apple.com
  • Best open world gameMinecraft: £6.99, Apple.com
  • Best adventure gameFar: Lone Sails: £3.99, Apple.com
  • Best puzzle gameMinit: £4.99, Apple.com
  • Best racing gameGrid Autosport: £9.99, Apple.com
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Best: Sports game

Sometimes the simplest games are the most compulsive. Desert Golfing presents you with a two-dimensional patch of desert, a golf ball and a hole. Drag your finger to aim and launch the ball so that – as per the rules of golf – it goes in the hole.

Once successful, the screen scrolls to the right to reveal a new course, this time slightly different, and you repeat until hours have passed and you’re a few hundred holes across the desert.

A poetic exploration of the purest essence of the sport, Desert Golfing is unburdened by features and subtly enhanced by the aural soundscape of pitching and putting: the clack of club-on-ball and the rattle of ball-in-hole.

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Best: Free iPhone game

Remember the summer of 2016? iPhone in one hand, clambering through a thicket in Victoria Park in search of a Psyduck, running into another player and giving them a sheepish nod.

Niantic’s augmented reality monster hunting game was a bonafide sensation, briefly turning half the population into a strange breed of free-roaming zombies, as witless players strolled into traffic and wandered into military bases in search of virtual Pokémon to catch and train.

Five years later and Pokémon Go is still going strong. Almost unrecognisable from the version that launched, it’s piled high with new Pokémon from later versions of the handheld series of games, as well as new features focused on battling and special events.

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Best: Strategy game

This is Tomb Raider, but not as you know it. Rather than giving you total freedom to explore ancient crypts and do cool backflips into piles of old bones, Lara Croft Go is a turn-based puzzle game in which our grave-robbing hero moves around like a chess piece. Every level presents a new challenge, where boulder traps, pitfalls, poison darts and venom-spitting snakes must be strategically navigated.

The world only moves when you do, giving you time to stop and consider your next steps. Each level typically has a satisfying “aha” moment when everything clicks and the solution becomes obvious. Masterfully designed and littered with ephemera for Tomb Raider fans, Lara Croft Go is a highlight of iPhone gaming.

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Best: Addictive game

Threes! is the mental equivalent of those long evenings when you lie motionlessly on the sofa, shifting only to reach into a long-empty bowl, searching blindly for a corn-based snack as episode after episode of Married at First Sight Australia plays on the television which – oh no! – is now the only source of light in the room.

An unedifying waste of time, Threes! is somehow still more gratifying than any other experience you could possibly be having in this moment. It must sit somewhere near the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, between warmth and human contact. Flick the grid of numbers to slide them into one another so that they combine into larger and larger multiples of three, in an attempt to make the biggest number possible. Sounds pointless, and is pointless, but is utterly absorbing for reasons no psychologist can explain.

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‘Alto’s Odyssey’ iOS: £4.99, Apple.com

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Best: Endless runner

A game about sliding down the side of a mountain collecting coins, Alto’s Odyssey is an “endless runner” game with a luscious soundtrack and a calming, ethereal vibe. Simple controls and uncomplicated systems combine into something greater than the sum of its parts, as you leap over canyons, perform mid-air stunts, grind along bunting and bounce off the tops of hot air balloons.

The game is beautiful. Your character is silhouetted against an ever-changing desert backdrop, which seamlessly shifts between ferocious orange sunsets, breezy blue skies and purple-tinged star fields. Every run feels unique, and a dynamic set of challenges rewards players whether they’re dropping in for five minutes or 50.

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Best: Multiplayer game

A multiplayer game about deceiving your friends, Among Us exploded in popularity earlier this year when it became the latest darling of the Twitch streaming community. The idea is simple – four to 10 players must work together to complete basic tasks around a spaceship: odd jobs like fixing wiring, watering plants and downloading data. Unknown to the others, one player is the designated impostor and must blend in, avoid suspicion, sabotage tasks and murder crewmates.

The fun happens when a meeting is called and the accusations start to fly. Players have seconds to defend themselves before voting to eject a crew member out of the ship’s airlock, at which point they learn whether they got it right or were deceived. Best played with friends, and with your preferred voice-chat app running in the background.

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‘Minecraft: Pocket Edition’ iOS: £6.99, Apple.com

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Best: Sandbox game

Minecraft is a block-based sandbox game about punching trees and building tiny houses that, somewhere between launching and today, became a multi-billion-dollar enterprise and the bestselling game in history. The Pocket Edition brings the game to mobile phones and tablets, allowing you to build nether portals, annoy sheep and farm obsidian while out and about on your important business trips.

Minecraft: Pocket Edition is not totally compatible with the desktop and console versions. You won’t be able to play on multiplayer servers with friends who aren’t also playing the Pocket Edition, and the version is an afterthought when it comes to feature updates. Despite this, it remains an appealing proposition: the world’s most popular game in your pocket.

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Best: Adventure game

A bleakly atmospheric adventure game, Far: Lone Sails casts you as the lone pilot of a sort of landfaring boat, the component parts of which must be constantly maintained by your scurrying around inside, pulling levers, raising sails and venting exhaust fumes as your enormous metal home trundles across a mysterious and scorched wasteland. Occasionally you leave your ship behind for some mild puzzle-platforming, revealing more of the game’s world as you explore.

Far: Lone Sails enforces a bond between the player and their vehicle. Small upgrades make it faster, stronger, or add new abilities, so the more you play the better it gets. The relatively short playtime – you’ll finish it in a matter of hours – makes it an ideal experience for the iPhone.

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Best: Puzzle game

Minit is a top-down, high-concept adventure game lasting exactly 60 seconds, after which you have to start over again. Helpfully, certain actions you take during this window are carried over into your next game, so you progress a tiny bit more each time you play. Cut down a tree in one playthrough and it won’t be there the next time. Solve a puzzle and you can reuse the solution to save precious time.

The game’s simple graphics belie a lot of personality and humour. There’s an old sea captain who speaks so slowly you can’t get through his dialogue before the 60-second timer’s up, and dotted throughout the world are strange and inventive encounters with wonderfully written characters. A weird and imaginative little game.

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Best: Racing game

Motoring fans in search of the best racing game on iPhone need look no further than Grid Autosport. Unlike so many mobile racing games, this isn’t a dumbed-down, on-rails driving game dripping in cynical in-app purchases, but something approaching a premium console experience.

Touch controls are implemented well, and on higher-end iPhones the game looks stunning: car models are detailed and shiny, and frame rates remain silky smooth even when driving in the middle of the pack. Grid Autosport on iOS is an invigorating and uncompromised racing game.

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The verdict: Best iPhone games

The sheer diversity of iPhone games makes it almost impossible to pick an overall favourite – we’ll keep updating our list as new Apple Arcade games for iPhone are released. Analgesic time-devourer Desert Golfing should always be installed on your phone in case you’re ever at risk of being alone with your thoughts for three to four minutes. For zeitgeisty multiplayer fun with a bunch of trusted friends, Among Us is an entertaining social experiment.

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We also reviewed the best PlayStation 4 games you can play right now

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

Source: The best iPhone games 2021: From free apps to timeless classics

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