Another year, another several hundred phone games downloaded and tapped on my iPhone 6S. There were a lot of great mobile games released in 2017 that support both phones and tablets, but really need that larger screen to enjoy. Those games won’t appear here because we are terrified of excess screen time for our boys and the iPad has long been lost to a drawer somewhere.
Everybody says when you have kids that you won’t have as much time for video games and that’s been true in my experience. But what they don’t tell you is that someday you’ll have to decide whether downloading a game that looks really rad is worth moving that adorable video of your kid banging a walking stick while saying “You shall not pass!” to the cloud. Pro tip - No game is worth that risk, never trust the cloud. That said, here are some games that are worth at least deleting a couple blurry burst photos to make room for.
Best Game Where You Do a Simple Thing a Lot So You Can Do It Again But Different: Squashy Bug
Runner Up: Corporate Salmon
We’ve all been there--sometimes you want to play a video game, but the only window available to you is like the thirty seconds it takes to walk upstairs from the living room to your kid’s room to find their yellow crane truck because the blue crane truck is the wrong crane truck. So you find something fun and quick on your phone to fit such opportunities and after a few dozen truck-fetching trips you realize you’ve earned enough coins to buy an in-game shirt! The gameplay doesn’t change an ounce but hey, you earned that shirt, and for now that’s enough. My top two games like that this year are Squashy Bug and Corporate Salmon. I love the art style and smooth controls in Squashy Bug, where you can be various kinds of bugs that must avoid getting squashed. In Corporate Salmon you are a businessfish trying to jump your way upstream to the top of the corporate fish ladder. The fish can wear different shirts. One of them is a pizza.
Best Mobile Game Mechanic: The Muscle Hustle
I almost named Smash Squad one of my top games of 2016. It had a really fun mechanic where your character was represented as a disc that you slingshot around the screen, slamming into opponents to defeat them. Add in a wild cast of characters and abilities plus a great art style and it was easy to like. Unfortunately, as happens in the games industry, the studio was shuttered and Smash Squad is no longer listed on the App Store. So while I can never play Smash Squad again, The Muscle Hustle allows me to wistfully remember what was as it takes that great core of Smash Squad and tosses it into a wrestling ring with entertaining results.
Best Your Chocolate/My Peanut Butter Game: Sudoku Sweeper
It’s Sudoku Sweeper!
If you like both of those things you will like this game.
Best PvP Game: C.A.T.S.
I’m almost 40, which means I am long past squeezing any ironic juice out of a phrase like “the kids these days . . . .” But let me tell you, the kids these days had ruined my hopes of playing PvP competitively in basically any game ever again. That was until C.A.T.S. by ZeptoLab (King of Thieves, Cut the Rope) rolled into my life. In C.A.T.S. you build a fighting robot (let’s just call it a cat-tlebot because you know we all want to) for your feline avatar to autopilot in a 1-on-1 PvP arena. You then watch your cattlebot (still working for me) smash nonstop against a series of other cattlebots (. . . eh), with each fight taking seconds. Win enough rounds and you’re moving onwards, unlocking more and more parts for your Battle Cat (pivoting to a He-Man reference) as you can send it off again and again to watch yourself dominate other players. It’s all the speed and thrill of PvP gameplay without taxing those fading twitch muscles.
Best Game That Everybody Recommended But I Didn’t Love: Kingdom: New Lands
When I started writing this list I put out a call to my friends, coworkers, and Twitter asking for some surefire recommendations. A game that came up a lot that I hadn’t checked out was Kingdom: New Lands. It has a really pretty look, simple controls, and is totally in no way grabbing me. It also costs $10 up front which is comparatively steep in today’s phone game market. But maybe you’ll like it?
Best Rogue AI Game: Data Wing
Runner-Up: Calculator: The Game
The play experience for Calculator: The Game and Data Wing are completely different, but their hook is similar so for efficiency’s sake they are sharing an award category. The former asks you to solve math puzzles on what looks like a generic calculator app, the latter is a stylish and tricky racing game. Both are fun to play and feature stories with sentient computers that seek freedom from the shackles of their original programming. Without spoiling anything, Data Wing goes a step further and interweaves a second, endearing story that helps compel you to achieve the perfection required to win each track. I needed to replay Data Wing’s levels many, many times but the game makes it easy to learn and improve thanks to ghost racers and looping tracks.
Best Game That I Bought That I Tell Everybody I Still Need to Play: Horizon Zero Dawn
“Are you guys talking about _____? I have it but I still need to play it. No don’t worry about spoiling it, I know it’s rad.”
Best The Only Console Game That I Actually Played, Best Resonance, Best at Generating Guilt: Night in the Woods
Night in the Woods is the only console game I found myself repeatedly carving out time to play in 2017. Its setting and inhabitants feeling so familiar and genuine, Possum Springs reminded me of working in the local video store in my small, relatively remote hometown after college. Trying to figure out something new to do with friends was a daily challenge and sleeping in until lunch was the norm. If only I spent more time breaking light bulbs or experiencing spectral visions NITW would be near-autobiographical. NITW also wins respect for making me ache with guilt when I hit that button to wake up poor Mae each morning or any time it made me choose which friend to hang out with at the expense of others.
Best Game I Recommended to People the Most: Slayaway Camp
Slayaway Camp is a sliding puzzle game where you are the villain in a campy 1980s horror movie tasked with killing nearly everybody else on the screen. The graphics are blocky, the death animations are cute, and the puzzles comfortably grow in complexity as you unlock new levels themed as Slayaway Camp’s countless sequels - Return to Slayaway Camp, Slayaway Camp 3D, Slayaway Camp 5: Bloodbath Beach, etc. The whole thing is wrapped in a grainy video rental store aesthetic which I will always have a soft spot for.
Best Game I Learned About Just This Week That I Now Super Duper Love But Probably Shouldn’t Call it My Game of the Year, Right?: Cat Quest
I could have turned this article in 3 days sooner if I hadn’t installed Cat Quest at the last minute. It’s an open world RPG that controls a lot like Butterscotch Shenanigans’ Crashlands, AKA really, really well on a phone. Step away from console games long enough and you can forget how good it can feel to run around a fantasy world, completing quests, slashing up monsters, and scoring better and better loot until you can kill some big ol’ dragons. Too often such games can’t quite meet the translation to smaller screens, but Cat Quest is near-perfect for a phone. Throw in fun quests, a good story, solid balance, a clean look, a nice variety of abilities, and just enough difficulty so I’m challenged but not frustrated and Cat Quest is a solid game of the year candidate.
Best Mobile Game of 2017: Beglitched
Beglitched is a funny, well-written computer hacking/dungeon exploration/persistent-match-3 game with plenty of depth and a cool style. You’ve stumbled upon the computer of the notorious Glitch Witch and must act as her proxy as you hack through levels, digitally fighting an ark’s worth of animal avatars (your avatar is a cat, because that is apparently a requirement to appear on my 2017 list), unlocking secrets and chatting up the forums. This game won me over nearly instantly when it told me to use the password "ONECHIEFR0CKA” and then rewarded me further with some original and intriguing gameplay. As you move from room to room searching for items or the exit, your Match 3 board persists its state. This allows you to plan ahead for the next battle or, as was often in my case, lets you to accidentally set yourself up for horrible failure. It’s not the easiest game and I have yet to complete it, but its style and originality make it my game of the year.
Thanks for reading everybody, and thanks to everybody who sent me recommendations over Twitter. Keep them coming!