Pocket God (Free) - Here's the granddaddy of casual games on the App Store. In fact, this one might not even be called a game -- it's more of a simulation, where you can summon and play with little pygmies on the now-classic desert island. The best thing about Pocket God these days is that despite having one of the most popular apps on the App Store, Bolt Creative continues to update it with new, free content. Gamers of all ages will love this one no matter what they do, so it's a great download to start with.
Above ($1.99) - I think Above is one of the most underrated iOS releases of the year. It's a Canabalt-style running game, but instead of running horizontally, you send a little guy in a red necktie jumping up a series of platforms as he runs back and forth across the screen. The style is terrific, and the gameplay is simple enough that anyone can do it, but addictive enough that it keeps you coming back for more.
The Incident ($1.99) - I've heard The Incident called overrated before, but I disagree. While the gameplay is simple (just tilt and jump to keep a little guy from being buried by lots of random falling objects), there is a ton of brilliant design work in this title, from the amazing variety of objects to the solid animation and pixel art. The soundtrack is terrific, and full Game Center integration plus a recent update for TV out adds a nice bit of longevity as well.
Ninjump Deluxe ($0.99) - Backflip Studios has done so well with its ad-supported Ninjump title that it released this deluxe version with updated graphics, new enemies and new levels to play through. You play as a little ninja whose only move is to jump back and forth across the screen, but the game is so well balanced that you'll be playing again and again trying to climb even higher. Excellent game, and this is the most excellent version yet.
StarDunk (Free) - If I only have a few minutes to burn on my iPhone, StarDunk is usually the app I turn to. It's a free-to-play 2D basketball game that only asks you to line up every shot at exactly the right angle, scoring points for every shot you drop in the basket. But the game opens up from there. Not only are there lots of different balls with various attributes to unlock and earn, you're also playing live against a worldwide audience on Game Center, charting points on a game-by-game and global leaderboard. And unless you want in on the in-app purchases, the whole shebang is free.
Sushi Cat ($0.99) - Sushi Cat was originally a Flash game that made its way to the App Store, and I love it. It's a version of Plinko starring a raw fish-loving, very flexible cat who bounces down the screen eating as much as he can and growing fatter by the bite. Very cute game for kids, and older gamers will eventually get into the combo scoring, which rewards you for eating as much sushi per drop as possible. No matter how well you do, the game's cute story (about the cat's search for his sushi cat romance) will charm everybody as well.
Astronut (Free trial, $1.99 in-app purchase for full) - Astronut is Iconfactory's original take on the Doodle Jump style, featuring a cartoony astronaut flinging and boosting himself up from planet to planet, moving past aliens while he collects stars. The gravity factor gives the title a really original, errrr, spin, and the various goals in each level mean you'll want to replay them quite a bit. The in-app purchase model ironically makes it a little less accessible for casual players (you'll have to walk them through making the purchase), but it's worth it.
Doodle Jump ($0.99) - Speaking of Doodle Jump, here's the king of casual games on the App Store (Angry Birds could probably fight for the title, but I think Doodle Jump is more fun, so there). Just tilt to jump back and forth through tons of updates and lots and lots of gameplay in a super simple and accessible package. This Apple Design Award winner has already earned its place in the App Store pantheon, but there's almost no better title to introduce an iPhone or iPod touch to a new gamer.
Zen Bound 2 ($0.99) - Finally, this one might leave some casual players scratching their heads. But as my Dad demonstrated to me last Christmas, even casual gamers will understand the central mechanic, which involves wrapping a string around a 3D model to try and paint a certain percentage of it. The game is very calming and very zen, and by the time you reach the top levels, your casual gamer might be ready for something a little more hardcore, too.
There's a good start for someone looking for casual games. For more great gift recommendations this holiday season, stay tuned to TUAW all week long.