20. Lara Croft GO
Hitman GO was a crowd-pleaser, and its successor, Lara Croft GO, really is every bit as good as they say it is. It’s prettier and more action-packed than Hitman—in other words, it’s better in almost every regard—all while refining the turn-based puzzle/action design template that made Hitman GO so successful. Mimicking Agent 47’s ‘stealth’ sequences, Lara now has to sneak up on snakes to shoot them—okay—but Lara’s world is so much less static than Hitman GO’s was. With Lara running and jumping and clambering up cliffs with such vigor and life, you might forget that this puzzle game is entirely turn-based. It’s all quite a feat, especially given that, on a mobile phone, Lara is a centimeter tall.—Jenn Frank
Grindstone borrows RPG elements and a few roguelike concepts (although you don’t really lose anything when you die, thankfully) and injects them into a color-matching puzzle game; your character has to slice and dice his way through a grid covered in enemies of different colors, but can only chain together kills with creatures of the same color. If you can kill 10 or more enemies of the same color in a single chain, a special gem will appear on screen, which will let you chain kills from your current color to one other color, opening up the possibility of massive chains that can reshape the entire board in a single move. It has a simple set of rules that it explores in exhaustive detail across 150 different stages, steadily forcing you to rethink your approach as new enemies and new obstacles are regularly introduced into the mix. I can’t think of anything in any other game I’ve played this year as satisfying as running through a massive chain in Grindstone, slashing through 30 or more enemies in a single move while also knocking off some of the stronger special monsters or cracking open a treasure chest along the way. Grindstone is a thoroughly confident game that understands exactly what a certain type of player is looking for from mobile experiences, and then goes above and beyond all expectations to make that a reality.Garrett Martin
Word game Letterpress is a shining example of minimalist game design that is incredibly easy to pick up, but deeply layered in strategy. Players take turns choosing from the group of 25 randomly-generated letters to create words. When you make a word, the tiles you use turn light blue, adding points to your score. As players claim the board for their own, deeper levels of strategy arise. Resources become increasingly scarce and competitors are forced to become more and more creative in their word-making. It’s as different from Scrabble or any word-puzzle game as could be, while still keeping the knowledge of a large vocabulary at the center of the game’s required skillset.—Luke Larsen
17. What the Golf
What the Golf finally makes golf tolerable by turning it into the most surreal and least predictable sport of all time. It regularly obliterates whatever expectations you might have from decades of legitimate golf videogames, preserving nothing from the real sport except for the basic concept of getting an object to a hole with a flag in it and a heavily abstracted approach to the traditional golf course layout. Even those aren’t omnipresent, though, as many of its dozens of holes eschew anything even remotely connected to golf. I don’t want to give too much away, as surprise is What the Golf’s greatest gift, but here are just two examples of what you can expect. Imagine what looks like a typical golf game, with an on-screen character holding a club at the tee, staring down a fairway that leads to the green. You touch the screen and pull back in order to control the power and direction of your swing. When you let go, instead of the ball soaring towards the hole, the character itself is flung deep into the fairway—or even the arrow that appears on-screen to represent the angle and strength of your swing. What the Golf pulls both of those pranks very early on, and then somehow consistently comes up with new, unexpected jokes throughout its surprisingly long run time. With bite-sized levels that each have three increasingly difficult objectives, and dozens of them in total to play through, this is yet another mobile game perfectly suited for either short, pick-up-and-play sessions, or long marathons. There are also entire clusters of holes that cheekily reference games like Super Mario, Super Meat Boy, Superhot, and even some games that don’t have the word “super” in their title. What the Golf is the rare game that tries to be funny and actually pulls it off, hilariously defying expectations with puckish glee.Garrett Martin
Hearthstone dominated the first half of my summer in 2014. It sent me bounding, with a moronic smile on my face, into a labyrinth fraught with meta-games, saying the phrase “boulderfist ogre” in public, and even, briefly, podcasts. After that initial introductory period, I tried to approach Hearthstone the way I’ve approached activities like playing music, programming, or cooking: How much time did I want to invest in it? How good did I feel like I needed to be? How much of my life did I feel comfortable dedicating to it? It seemed like the sky was the limit. Whatever amount of time, money, or mental energy I felt like throwing at Hearthstone, Hearthstone could comfortably accommodate it without the guarantee of any ROI.—Joe Bernardi
15. Desert Golfing
I can go on about how Desert Golfing is a knowing deconstruction of the mobile game, how its series of simple and repetitive swipes boils the entire form down to its most basic parts, with barely any embellishment at all. I mean it looks like an Atari game, just a two-tone background with a white dot for a ball, blocky white numbers and a small yellow flag. I could talk about how it locks us into our failures, preventing us from restarting and replaying levels. About how it pretty much never ends. But in that time I could add like another thirty strokes to my total on hole 2000 and something, so I’ll just go do that instead.—Garrett Martin
14. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP
Sword & Sworcery’s most awe-inspiring moments take place when it allows us to forget about ourselves, our world, our iPad and our Twitter followers for long enough to take in the wonders that it presents. Danger feels imminent and foreboding, and the animal and plant life seem organic and ethereal. While performing the “Songs of Sworcery” our fingers seem to trigger magical wonders and beautiful music. The story itself is beautiful in its simplicity, and it is so effective because it lingers on implications rather than literalities.—Richard Clark
13. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
The greatest asset for videogames as fiction, one that it holds over other forms of media, is the immediacy with which you can identify with people and experiences that are not your own. While books and movies allow you to observe, videogames really allow you to be someone else. With each little tap on my tablet’s screen, I feel like I am closer to experiencing Mrs. Kardashian West’s world, though with less pressure, and the ability to turn it off. If there’s any reason or purpose for this game other than to put more money in Kimberly Noel Kardashian West’s pocket, it’s this: You want to know why Kim Kardashian is famous? It’s because she works.—Gita Jackson
12. Her Story
We realize Her Story has amassed its share of the glory, but it’s all well warranted. Simultaneously haunting and a little bit cheesy (this is an FMV game, after all), Her Story quickly goes from simple murder mystery to a surreal fairytale-gone-wrong.
It would’ve been so easy for designer Sam Barlow’s game to tonally miss the mark entirely; much of the game’s success or failure ultimately hinges on Viva Seifert’s performance, thank goodness, which is committed, subtle when necessary, and full of depth. At the same time, she sells her character like murderesses are going out of style; her performance-within-a-performance finally seals the deal.
If the mark of a successful game is maintaining a set narrative course even as it bolsters the illusion of players’ agency, well, that’s exactly the knack of Her Story. Mechanically, this FMV game is very simple—it’s almost perilously linear, if you look too close at it—but it encourages player exploration and experimentation like nothing else in years. And although the game relies on the player typing cues into a search bar, Her Story is nonetheless an unexpectedly good fit for tablet devices.
But back to Viva Seifert. If the pictures “got too small” for Norma Desmond, then the iPad’s frame is just a bit too restrictive for Seifert. Her scrumptious performance finds that exacting line between drama and melodrama; almost any other actor would’ve spoiled the entire game.—Jenn Frank
Reigns is a particularly innovative title, utilizing the right-swipe, left-swipe tool first made popular by dating service Tinder. However, if you’re like me, your decision to swipe one way or the other is much more effective inside this videogame than it is in the real world.
At its core, Reigns is almost unnervingly simple. You are a king, and it’s up to you to employ or deactivate various decrees. However, after you’ve spent some time with the game, you begin to understand that there’s a method to all the madness: you have to please members of the clergy, the people, and your fellow royals while maintaining your seat of power; this can prove to be quite tricky, to say the least.
The game is easy to pick up and has proven itself to be one of the best gateway videogames published recently. It’s hard to hate this beautiful creation.—Jacob Saylor