AppUnwrapper.com has been covering iOS games for nearly a decade now and, for the past few years, I’ve been listing my favorite games of each year. I started my Game of the Year (GOTY) lists in 2015, and continued with 2016, 2017, and 2018. 2019 has been another strong year for iOS games, even if you don’t count the addition of Apple Arcade. I also bought a Nintendo Switch this year, though I didn’t use it as much as I expected to. There were simply too many iOS games to play and only so many hours in a day. While I would love to go into detail about why I recommend each of these games, I’m limiting it to my top ten standalone iOS games, top five Apple Arcade games, and my top two Switch games. I’m still including a list of other favorites, along with links to reviews or coverage of them. Any games included in this list are worthy of your attention, even if they didn’t make my top ten. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to update my Recommended List in 2020 to reflect all these new games that are deserving of being on there. And as much as I hate to get into the business side of things, let me take this moment to thank all my current Patrons for their support and remind you that if you appreciate what I do here at AppUnwrapper, you can support me through Patreon. Every little bit helps and is more reliable than ad revenue. You can also help by whitelisting this site if you use ad blockers. But enough of that. Let’s get to the games!
GRIS – 2019 AppUnwrapper Game of the Year
I gushed about Nomada Studio’s and Devolver’s breathtaking puzzle platformer, GRIS, back when it released on iOS and, although there’s some stiff competition, I can’t think of a game more deserving of my Game of the Year distinction. Ever since I saw the announcement trailer, I hoped it would come to my preferred platform, but there was no word of it until shortly before its iOS release. Even then, I was thrilled but also worried about how the controls might be adapted to touchscreens. Having played a bit with a controller at PlayNYC and on my Switch before then, I knew that it was a platformer that required some precision, and onscreen buttons likely wouldn’t cut it. Thankfully, the developers put as much attention into the touch controls as they did every other aspect of the game, and I ended up preferring them over a controller. The floating joystick on the left is a fine substitute for a physical joystick, and the jump and other abilities are all performed through simple taps and swipes on the right side of the screen. It means you can focus the action in front of you and never have to look at your fingers to make sure they’re landing properly. Considering how gorgeous the game is, that’s especially important, because you don’t want to miss even a single frame of its stunning artwork. But GRIS isn’t just a pretty face. It combines that eye candy with a moving soundtrack by Berlinist, clever mechanics, and an emotional but wordless story. It even has iCloud sync so you don’t have to choose between your iPad and iPhone. So while the game is already a masterpiece on any platform, it’s the flawless adaptation to touchscreens that makes it worthy of being my 2019 GOTY and one of the best games I’ve played this year or ever. And that’s coming from someone who rarely enjoys platformers.
Sky: Children of the Light
My journey with thatgamecompany’s Sky: Children of the Light has been a rocky one. While I appreciated the gorgeous visuals and the flight-centric gameplay right away, I had some issues with it that I laid out in my review back when it released. Basically, I didn’t like that the game relies heavily on repeating the same areas over and over, both for cosmetics and to earn more flight power. Much of the game involves gathering light from its six main locations so you can trade that light in for cosmetics and expression upgrades. Both the cosmetics and expressions are, well, expressive, so you’ll likely want to collect them all. I was somewhat ok with getting them at my own pace, playing whenever the mood strikes me. But there are also seasonal events that last one to two months and offer items and expressions that you can only earn during that time or you lose out forever — at least, according to the current plan. This gives me a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out), so I’ve been making sure to log on every day and earn my necessary candles. Thankfully, even though the season pass does cost money, players can spend a little extra to buy a pack so they can share the pass with up to two friends. That, together with the fact that you can hold hands and lead each other around, is what sets Sky apart from so many other games. I love that it encourages generosity and cooperation instead of competition. And the community aspect is its strongest selling point, as just about everyone I’ve met through its social channels have been friendly, supportive and even artistically or musically talented. They’re the reason I find myself going back even after I already collected my seasonal candles, just to goof off with different expressions or stand around and chat. There are even fully functional musical instruments that players can entertain each other with. It’s pretty much become a chat room for me, but one my teenaged self would have killed for. So even though I don’t like being on a game’s schedule, I can’t deny that Sky has been one of the most impactful games for me this year. I spent more time playing it than any other game. It might feel light on gameplay elements, but it more than makes up for it with its social elements. Once you get past much of the grind, it becomes a place to just relax and mess around with friends. The piggyback emote between friends and silly ones like “Don’t Go,” which is basically crawling and begging, are some of my favorites. Another is the upgraded Faint, which has stars circling your head along with bird chirps, like in Loony Toons. And all of these are only so entertaining because of the massive amount of talent behind the game and all its animations. The developers also keep adding new areas to explore and also have a great sense of humor, like the dragon that used to come up from the toilet in the special Easter egg area that mimics thatgamecompany’s offices. So while I might not agree with all the choices they made, Sky is an incredible achievement, and one I feel extremely lucky to have in my pocket.
The Gardens Between
The Voxel Agents’ The Gardens Between is another console game that I jealously eyed from afar, hoping to one day play on my iPad. That wish was fulfilled this year when they not only ported it over, but made it feel like it was designed for mobile from the very start. All I knew was that I loved the art style, but managed to avoid learning anything else about it. But it quickly won me over with its unique mechanics that involve time manipulation. It feels perfect on a touchscreen, since the controls are simple and almost all of it can be completed at your own pace, without worrying about perfect reflexes. But simple controls don’t mean all the puzzles are easy. There are plenty of tricky parts, and even though the game isn’t long, I didn’t speed through it. But most of all, everything is clever, innovative, and playful, like the couch perched on top of an island with popcorn flying about. There’s also a bittersweet story that manages to get its point across without words. Once again, I’m overjoyed to see iOS getting these quality ports, even if it’s a bit later than other platforms. The developers took great care to make it feel perfect on a touchscreen, and even went so far as enabling both landscape and portrait orientation. So you can play the game comfortably on your iPad in your lap, or with one hand on your iPhone. I always appreciate when iOS ports get this kind of attention to detail, and especially so when it’s a game that seems destined for the platform. So if you haven’t played The Gardens Between yet, please do so now. You can also read my full review here.
Nyamyam’s Astrologaster is a musical comedy loosely based on the story of Simon Forman, a “Doctor” of Astrology and Physick in 1592 London who claims to have found a cure for the plague. Patients come to him with all sorts of problems, some medical but others about relationship or financial advice. After hearing a person describe their problems, you consult the stars and give them advice. Each time someone visits, they’re introduced with a song, which alone makes the game worthy of being on this list. The comedy is spot on, eliciting quite a few chuckles from me throughout my playthrough. Katharine Neil did a superb job with the writing, capturing both the horror and humor of the characters’ situations and actions. I went into much more detail in my review, so I don’t want to repeat myself. But if you like narrative-driven, satirical games, Astrologaster is one you must experience. I was also impressed that the developers listened to my feedback and added both iCloud sync and a way to see your case history with different patients if you forget what you told them between sessions. A game like this comes around so rarely and deserves to be played by as many people as possible.
When I first started playing beyondthosehills’ minimalistic puzzler, reky, I was confused. I bounced off it pretty quickly, but later came back to it to give it another chance. I started to enjoy its puzzles, but there were some design choices that made it nearly unplayable. I went over them in detail here, but the gist of it is that the lack of an undo button and a move counter made it a frustrating experience not worth sticking with. Then shortly after, the developers released an update that added those two features. That instantly made it a puzzler I couldn’t put down. The undo button allowed me to work out the puzzles without worrying about messing up, while the move counter made me strive for perfection once I figured out the solution . Since you get extra points for solving a puzzle under par, I ended up in a competition against another player for the top spot on the leaderboards. It was fun while it lasted, but I eventually had to accept my place as second best and move on. But I thoroughly enjoyed solving all the puzzles and finding the most efficient solutions. With those small changes, the game became one of my favorite puzzle games of the year, and one I would easily recommend to other fans of the genre. It’s also perfect for single-handed play anywhere, which is one of the top features I look for in my puzzlers. You can read my full review here, but if you’re a puzzle fan, just grab it.
Tick Tock: A Tale for Two
I do most of my gaming solo, as the friend who lives nearby doesn’t really have much interest in them. But once in a while a game comes around that makes me wish I had the opportunity to play more co-op experiences. This year, I had the pleasure of playing Other Tales Interactive’s cooperative adventure game, Tick Tock: A Tale for Two. It’s meant to be played by two people in the same room using different devices hidden from each other. The idea is that each player sees different clues on their screen, so you have to communicate and tell each other what you see, then work out the puzzles together. I didn’t have anyone to play with in person, so I played remotely with a developer I only knew through social media. We used voice chat to communicate and, aside from some connection problems, it was such an enjoyable experience that I was sad there aren’t more games like it. It was especially nice playing with a fellow puzzle fan so we were on the same wavelength. Tick Tock was unlike any other game I played this year and I highly recommend it to any couples or friends who can coordinate a playthrough. You can also read my full review here.
I’m probably not the target audience for Playdeo’s “playable TV” game, Avo!, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely. It’s a silly game where you control a sentient avocado named Avo and go on adventures with the young scientist, Billy, who brought him to life. There’s time travel, puns galore, dad jokes and top-notch acting. I was especially impressed how the actress who played Billy managed to make me believe she really was talking to an avocado friend. The gameplay itself consists mostly of drawing a path for Avo to follow, picking up jellybeans and any objects Billy needs for her experiments. The game itself isn’t too difficult, but there are also hidden objectives that can be tricky to find. Overall, the narrative, ridiculousness, and seamless way it combines full motion video with interactivity are its main selling points. I reviewed the game back when it released and had a few minor complaints, mostly related to the way it was monetized. I was turned off by having to buy beans to then unlock the chapters instead of simply buying the chapters outright. But the developers have since updated it to change that. They also added costumes for Avo, some of which can only be earned with cash, and I’m not too thrilled with that in a game aimed at kids. But at least they’re only cosmetics, and the game can otherwise be completed by purchasing the chapters. Overall, I think the good far outweighs any negatives and would recommend Avo! to kids of all ages.
I don’t usually gravitate to Ian MacLarty’s arcade games, as I tend to prefer less stressful, more relaxed experiences. But his fast-paced grid-jumper, aptly named Jumpgrid, hooked me almost immediately. I like how the main level-based game requires fast reflexes, but each level is short enough that I only have to stay on top of my game for a few seconds at a time. If my muscles start to get tired, I can take a break and try again. There’s also somewhat of a puzzle aspect to it, since each level is hand-crafted and you need to plan out a strategy. Each time you fail, you have a bit more knowledge to help you beat it. I never actually got through the entire base game, but I got a lot further then I expected. What really earned its place on this list, though, is the endless high score chasing mode. It uses the same controls, where you simply swipe in the direction you want to move. But the hazards are randomized, and the idea is to pick up as many nodes as quickly as possible, lasting as long as you can without hitting a hazard. The scoring system means you have a ton of room to grow as you improve your skills and work in fancier finger work, but can still do pretty well if you play it safe. I put many hours into it and really felt like the game was training me to do better as I played both versions of it. Even though it originated on PC, Jumpgrid is another great example of a game that was ported so perfectly that it seems designed specifically for mobile. But instead of me gushing about it all over again, just go and read my full review here.
Pipe Push Paradise
Yes, Corey Martin’s Pipe Push Paradise is another PC port, but again one that has been redesigned from the ground up to fit the platform. It’s a puzzle game that will often break your brain, but it’s so exciting when you finally solve a difficult level. As the name suggests, you’re pushing pipes around to get them in place so the water can run through them. The puzzles have been adjusted to fit in portrait mode for one-handed play, which I’m grateful for. The controls consist of drawing a path, which takes a bit to get used to but then feels perfectly natural. And if you mess up, the unlimited undo button comes to the rescue. Several levels unlock at a time, so you’re rarely stuck hitting your head at the same puzzle for days. There’s also some very bizarre humor to top it all off. Pipe Push Paradise is a great example of how a PC puzzle game can be ported to iOS by someone who truly understands the platform and cares that it feels right. If you’re a puzzle fan, this is one you shouldn’t pass up. You can also read my full review here.
Joel Rochon, aka GRYN SQYD, released the arena shooter, BACKFIRE, early in the year and it immediately grabbed me. I love the neon color palette, the creepy but cute monsters, and the hectic gameplay. The basic idea is that you’re a little ship that shoots from the back and you have to avoid enemies while also taking them down. It’s a game that could only work with a touchscreen — or a mouse, I suppose — because you tap where you want your ship to move. It still moves automatically, so if you don’t keep changing direction it will just slam into a wall and take damage. So you need to stay on your toes. But it’s not as frantic as something like Jumpgrid, so you do have a little room to breathe. The game saves between chapters, so if you die you only have to restart that chapter. You also get to keep any currency you earned, which you can use to buy upgrades. That means each time you die, you get a little stronger. Once I finished the game, I was sad there wasn’t more. But the developer recently added Purgatory, an endless high score chasing mode. It has new upgrades that aren’t available in the base game, and you can choose one of three after each wave you complete. You can earn some nice combinations, like vampirism together with poison touch. It’s basically the version of the game I always wanted. There’s only one down side, and it’s a pretty big one. The goal in Purgatory mode is to last as long as you possibly can, but it has no save states. So if you need to take a break for whatever reason, you lose your progress, as well as the score you had, if you didn’t end the game first. It’s a pretty big issue, and one that’s kept me from playing even when I so badly want to. The original game earned its place here, but I’m hoping it gets that much-needed update to make it a game I’ll keep coming back to instead of gathering dust on my screen. You can read my full review here, but I still highly recommend picking it up.
There are over a hundred Apple Arcade games now, but my absolute favorite is Amanita Design’s playful adventure game, Pilgrims. It reminds me of CHUCHEL in some ways, mainly its playfulness and all the funny results you can get by just trying different things. It takes some dark turns, too, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. I loved hunting down all the different achievements, as it’s easy to miss things if you ignore them. I loved Pilgrims so much that it’s the only Apple Arcade I reviewed properly. So rather than blather on about how great it is, just read that and then go play it, because why wouldn’t you?
I’m a big fan of premium match-three games and have even gone as far as making a list of my favorites. Most match-three games on the App Store are free-to-play and full of pay-to-win aspects like limited lives and power-ups you can purchase with cash. They’re also mostly uninspired rehashes of each other with new skins. Capybara Games‘ Grindstone has some aspects that could have fit a free-to-play model, but thankfully it’s part of Apple Arcade and there are no IAPs. The mechanics borrow from games like Dungeon Raid, where you draw a path between enemies instead of selecting groups of the same color or swapping two of them to make three in a row. The idea is to link same-colored enemies together to get a chain of at least 10, which will create a grindstone. The grindstone can be used to switch colors while creating a chain, enabling you to link more enemies. There are plenty of new mechanics added throughout its 150 levels to keep things from getting stale, as well as new equipment to help you survive harder challenges. I spent hours and hours playing through Grindstone and recorded my entire journey, which you can see here. I’ve also written more impressions in my weekly roundups here. The only real issue with the game is that there are no mid-level saves. So even though it feels perfect for on-the-go play, you’re much better off playing at home when you can devote some time to it. I’d like to see quicksaves added in the future, as well as an endless high score mode. But even without that, there’s a ton of content to sink your teeth into.
SFB Games’ Tangle Tower was one of the first Apple Arcade games I played and, even though I never played the first Detective Grimoire game, I enjoyed it immensely. The voice acting and writing are the high points for me, though the artwork, puzzles and soundtrack hold up on their own, as well. I didn’t have a chance to write a proper review, but I left a lot of impressions each week I was playing. The game features two snarky detectives working together to solve a murder that seems to have been committed by a painting. Obviously that makes no sense and there must be another explanation? The game fits touchscreens perfectly with its streamlined controls, but it’s also available on PC if you prefer to own it instead of playing on Apple Arcade. Either way, make sure you don’t miss this one!
Sirvo Studios have been working on Guildlings for several years now, but the first chapter finally released on Apple Arcade. I say “first chapter,” but it actually took me several hours to complete, so it’s not as short as it sounds. The game was designed with mobile in mind, as the characters all communicate through their magical smartphones. It’s an RPG at heart, but you level up your guild members not just by completing quests, but by making them happy. It’s a very feel-good game but also has plenty of quirkiness to it so it doesn’t feel overly sappy. There’s many questions left unanswered at the end of Chapter 1 — like why chunks of lands are floating up into the sky — so I’m looking forward to seeing where it all goes. There were some bugs when it first released, but the developers squashed them quickly. These are the same folks who made Threes!, so maybe it’s not too surprising that Guildlings is so good, but in case you needed another reason to play, there you have it. You could also see my weekly impressions here.
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree
What first attracted me to Wildboy Studios’ ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree was its art style reminiscent of Hyper Light Drifter. But I was met with an equally stunning soundtrack, an immersive story featuring Norse folklore, quality voice acting, and engaging gameplay. While I personally don’t like the rhythm battles, I appreciated that the game offers an invincibility mode that prevents you from dying. So I was able to enjoy the story, exploration and puzzles without dealing with the parts I wanted to avoid. ATONE tells a dark story in which people are possessed by a strange blue essence that makes them violent and uncontrollable. It means people die, and you also have to make difficult choices sometimes deciding whether to kill someone who’s trying to kill you or try to talk them down. This also means it’s possible to miss things on a playthrough, offering replay value for those who want it. I only played through it once, but recommend at least doing that. ATONE is unlike any other game I’ve played, and if nothing else the art and soundtrack make it worth experiencing. You can read more of my impressions here.
That’s all for Apple Arcade, but you can see all my Apple Arcade coverage here, including ratings to help you see which ones I liked most.
Baba is You – Switch 2019 GOTY
I bought my Nintendo Switch specifically so I could play Hempuli’s ridiculously creative puzzle game, Baba is You, without having to be chained to my PC. I figured it would be a good investment in order to play games that aren’t coming to iOS fast enough but that would still give me an experience closer to what I want, since it’s somewhat mobile. I did stick with the game on my Switch for quite a while, as it’s incredibly satisfying to solve each tricky level. I even reviewed it here, but I haven’t finished it yet. As much as I love the game, I ultimately lost interest in playing it on my Switch. This was partly because the Switch takes longer to get updates, so it was always behind the PC version. But mostly, as I got to the more difficult puzzles, I was less likely to take out my Switch to mess around with possible solutions. I would 100% play the game on my iPad and iPhone if it’s ever released on there, and I’m sure having it in my pocket would make me more likely to finish it. So I’m still hoping for that day. Meanwhile, I would still recommend it on any platform you can play it on, but I still think puzzle games are best when they can be accessed anywhere and anytime you think of a possible solution to try. Here’s hoping 2020 brings Baba to my pocket!
What Remains of Edith Finch
Another PC game I had been hoping would come to iOS is Giant Sparrow’s and Annapurna Interactive’s What Remains of Edith Finch. I managed to avoid knowing much about it, but was still very eager to play. Since it got a Switch release this year, I decided to play on there in case it never comes to iOS. And I’m so glad I did. One might call it a walking simulator, as you’re mostly walking around and interacting with objects, only solving very light puzzles. What makes it stand out is that each member of the Finch family has their own story and it’s told through a vignette in its own unique style. Part of the experience is actually figuring out the controls for each vignette, as the game never explains them. You simply try things to see what works. I’m curious to see how the controls will be adapted for iOS if it ever makes it over. But if you have a way to play it now, I highly recommend doing so. And it’s especially nice on a big screen. You can read my full review if you need more convincing, but it’s purposely light on details to avoid spoilers.
I didn’t get to play as many Switch games as I wanted to, and there were a few that I started and would like to continue. Perhaps in 2020 I’ll complete Return of the Obra Dinn and Untitled Goose Game. I would love to see Obra Dinn on iOS, as it seems like a perfect fit for iPad. I also know that She Remembers Caterpillars is supposed to come to iOS one day, and I’d prefer to play the rest on there. I’m also enjoying Kine and would like to carve out some more time for it if possible. I suppose that depends on how busy 2020 is for iOS games. 2019 was a strong year for gaming, and Apple Arcade was announced after I already bought my Switch. I hope 2020 comes in just as strong, and I hope to cover just as many games as I did last year. Thank you to all the amazing developers who still put their faith in iOS and bring us all these quality games. And keep an eye out over the next week or two for a massive giveaway to celebrate my milestone of 50,000 YouTube subscribers!