2019 has been one of the weirdest years in mobile gaming yet. With Apple Arcade emerging alongside other game subscription services like GameClub and Playond, it feels a bit like the wild west again. I’m not exactly blown away with any of these services so far, but it’s nice to see folks attempt to create spaces on the App Store for quality games to thrive.
Speaking of quality games, I played quite a few of them this year. By a rough count (I try to keep a list every year), I ended up playing over 350 mobile games in 2019. I wish it was a little harder to cull that huge list down to ten favorites, but it honestly wasn’t. The ten games you see below are my favorite games from 2019 by a country mile.
Astrologaster is my favorite narrative experience of 2019. This adventure game about Simon Forman, a very real and very terrible doctor that diagnosed people's illnesses using the stars. There isn’t a whole lot to the gameplay, but the writing, presentation, and voice acting in this game are so charming and funny that it doesn't matter.
Backfire is an arena shooter on mobile that actually works. And I don’t mean “works if you have a controller” or “works well enough for a mobile game.” I mean it truly delivers an intense, arcade experience that feels perfectly natural to play on a touch screen. Go get it. Play it. You’ll die a lot, but then you’ll thank me.
The first Apple Arcade title appears! Guildlings is a fantasy rpg that cares about genre conventions only to the extent that it can subvert them, and that makes it all the better. This game is colorful, charming, original, and feels like magic as you play it on your phone. This game makes me wonder why everyone hasn't already been making mobile rpgs like this forever.
7. Card of Darkness
I made a mistake when starting my Apple Arcade trial. The first game I played was Card of Darkness, not realizing it is the best game on the service. This card-based roguelite has a set of mechanics that feel completely unlike any other game in the genre, and a degree of variety and challenge that few other games have. To top it off, it’s super well designed as a mobile game so you can play it for almost any amount of time and have fun with it.
I really liked Xenowerk Tactics when it initially released, but I fell in love with it after the November update that added a hard mode to the game. This real-time strategy about blasting extraterrestrial bugs always tried to create a sense of danger through its various interlocking systems, but it wasn’t until you started facing off against aliens that can teleport or explode on death that this actually happened. These challenges then made it so you could actually lose troops or experience your own stories of survival, and this element of risk catapulted Xenowerk Tactics way up on my list of favorite games from this year.
When people celebrate Monument Valley as some major achievement in mobile games, I’m always left scratching my head. This is doubly true now that Path of Giants exists. This game takes the basic traversal puzzle format of Monument Valley and builds it into its own unique thing that is both more interesting and more pleasant to play than just about any other game of this style.
Starbeard is a weird and wonderful puzzle roguelite about space gnomes who are protecting their precious gardens from space bugs. Everything about this game is odd, but that’s why I love it so much. It also has this really restrictive-feeling base design that you can subvert through particular powers and board manipulation tricks that feels similar to Into the Breach in the best of ways.
Playing Ordia feels like you’re playing a living thing. This fling-based platformer hums and purrs in response to all of your inputs in a weird way, and it’s super satisfying. Add to that some nice bright visuals, a super smooth frame rate, and some clever level design, and you’re looking at one of the finest platformers in iOS, and definitely the best one of 2019.
2. Void Tyrant
Void Tyrant is the game I probably spent the most time with this year. Its “what if you made Blackjack into a roguelite” concept is executed better than I could have ever imagined, and its got a surprising amount of depth and variety that kept me coming back to it time and time again. Just make sure that if you check out Void Tyrant, you pay the $4.99 to unlock it. The free-to-play version is a vastly inferior experience.
There are a lot of reasons why Star Traders: Frontiers shouldn’t be on this list, much less listed at the top of it. I don’t care, though. No other game stuck in my consciousness like this one did. The sheer amount of possibilities it presents as an open-world space game always had me thinking about new characters to create, what their personal goals should be, and how they should handle the game’s story quests (of if they should pursue them at all). In this way Star Traders: Frontier was a game I could (and did) play even when I wasn’t actually sitting in front of a screen. I can’t say that about any other game on this list or any other game I played this year, which is why it’s my personal game of 2019.