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2011 Holiday Buyers Guide: iOS

Ben Gilbert
Ben Gilbert|@RealBenGilbert|December 9, 2011 7:00 PM
You'll forgive us, but we're banking on the concept of Aunt Eileen stuffing your stocking with iTunes gift cards rather than, say, a Zune Marketplace one. Perhaps that depends on if you've been naughty or nice? We're not quite sure how this holiday stuff works, but we're trying our best here.

Anyway, below the break we've compiled another year's worth of great games on both iPhone and iPad platforms that we hope you'll love as well. Even if you don't get those gift cards, these games should still be affordable -- even after buying all those presents. Good luck with the relatives!

Jetpack Joyride - $0.99 [iTunes]

The ultimate iOS game concept -- perma-running -- gets deeper than ever before in Jetpack Joyride. This game is a new standard alongside Angry Birds and Flight Control that you'd be silly to miss.

Tiny Wings - $0.99 [iTunes]

Artistically styled, engaging, simple, Tiny Wings is about a bird on a journey. That journey, unfortunately for him, involves many ups and downs. In the literal sense. We're also pretty sure this game was inspiration for the hit song "Chasing the Daylight." (Okay, it probably wasn't.)

Infinity Blade 2 - $6.99 [iTunes]

"It's like Punch-Out, but with giant swords and God Kings, and it's way prettier," we're told of the first Infinity Blade. So, what of its sequel? "[Infinity Blade 2] takes everything that was good and right about its predecessor and expands on it," Justin McElroy cooed over the sequel back in late November. That sure sounds like approval to us!

Another World 20th Anniversary - $4.99 [iTunes]

Another World may not be a brand new game, but its incarnation on iOS devices felt just as brand new as it did 20 years ago when we wrote about it earlier this year. It may still rely on (occasionally frustrating) trial-and-error gameplay, but it more than overcomes that by giving players a thrilling sense of adventure. Also, it's gorgeous, so there's that.

Quarrel Deluxe - $2.99 [iTunes]

Throw a rock on the App Store these days and you'll hit a word game, but Quarrel stands out -- partly because it uses spelling as the combat mechanic for a really solid strategy battle game, and partly because it's just so darn polished. Players' avatars make faces, cry, and cheer as the battle goes on, and all of the action stays clear and fun to follow along with (even when it's not your turn, you're given a chance to spell and earn rewards). The one big omission is multiplayer, but the developers have promised it's on the way in an update, so grab it now or try the free trial first.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

Dead Space - $4.99 iPad ($2.99 iPhone) [iTunes]

"Isaac Clarke's mobile adventure may be small on screen, but it's not short on scares!" is what we'd say if we were writing a goofy commercial for Dead Space. But EA deserves credit for taking the HD horror game and translating it very well to the small screen, with new weapons, a new Survival mode, and quality touch gameplay that earned it Apple's title of iPad Game of the Year.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

Scribblenauts Remix - $2.99 [iTunes]

5th Cell's iOS adaptation of the terrific DS title took a while to show up, but it was worth the wait: This is the best way to play with Maxwell and all of his objects yet. There are new levels to play with, iCloud syncing across devices in a universal build for iPhone and iPad, and a recent update allows the iPhone 4S to let you speak what you want to create. And at the cheapest price ever? You're a "blue pregnant antelope" if you pass this one up.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP - $4.99 [iTunes]

There may be no more sublime mobile gaming experience this year than exploring the weird world of Sworcery, developed by Capy, with art and story by Canadian artist Superbrothers, Inc., all based on music by composer Jim Guthrie. Playing this game on an iPad with headphones will show you very clearly just why iOS has become one of the most fertile breeding grounds for really incredible indie development.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

VidRhythm - $1.99 [iTunes]

VidRhythm isn't, strictly speaking, a "game," as much as it is a music/video application. More aptly, it's a bizarre music/video application, the likes of which we've yet to see duplicated on smart phones. It's also perfect for family gatherings -- what better way to freak out Aunt Eileen than with a terrifying video? Exactly.

Tiny Tower - Free [iTunes]

"Freemium" is a bad word for many gamers, usually conjuring up images of horse armor DLC and paying for health potions. But Apple's iPhone Game of the Year proves it can be done right, when a company like the two-person NimbleBit puts the gameplay experience front and center, and lets the in-app purchases prop things up behind. A great pixel art style and an addictive set of game loops means you'll be building and growing your Tiny Tower long after its little residents have posted on the in-game Facebook (cutely called "BitBook") that they're heading off to bed.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

Mage Gauntlet - $2.99 [iTunes]

We don't know where Rocketcat Games found a time machine that also transported them to an alternate universe, but that's really the only explanation for how they could have found a pitch-perfect action RPG from the 16-bit era like this one. With a charming story of a girl who can't do magic in a world full of it, excellent hack-and-slash combat, and a long and intriguing progression system (With hats! And pets!), Mage Gauntlet seems like a much-loved Super Nintendo game that never actually existed. Currently, it's only on the iPhone, but an update will bring universal compatibility with the iPad soon.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

Contre Jour HD - $2.99 [iTunes]

"Against the day" is what this title translates into, and it fits. This is an innovative and beautiful physics-based platform starring Petit, a little rolly protagonist who can move around a world you reshape and attach to eyestalks growing out of the gorgeous landscape. An amazing soundtrack makes this one extra immersive, and three chapters of sixty levels each, with their own unique aesthetic, mean there's a lot of content here, too.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

Gem Keeper - $.99 [iTunes]

NCSoft usually publishes PC MMOs, but this extremely polished and well-made tower defense game might just be enough evidence to convince them to switch platforms and genres. Tower defense itself is a pretty tired genre, but Gem Keeper makes it fun again, with colorful graphics, tons of levels, and a lot of really smart innovations in both level design and game balance. Whether you've built tons of frost cannons in your time or never upgraded a single tower, this is the TD game you've been looking for.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

iBlast Moki 2 HD - $4.99 [iTunes]

Don't let the name scare you away -- this is one of the most accessible and most innovative puzzle titles on iOS. Your goal in this one is to get "Mokis" home to a level exit portal, but you do that by putting bombs of various kinds in certain places, and then scheduling them out to explode at just the right time. The interface is complex but a thing of beauty, and the "paint bombs" (that lay down speedy or bouncy paint) make the puzzles akin to Portal. Plus, a make-your-own-level feature gives this one LittleBigPlanet-scale replayability. It's definitely one of iOS' best.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer - $4.99 [iTunes]

Despite the lack of Magic: The Gathering on iOS, there are still a lot of quality card-based games, including Hothead's great Kard Combat. But Ascension edges the others out in both production quality and game design. It's based on a real-life deckbuilding card game, so the goal is to use production and attack points to slay monsters, build your deck, and eventually earn more victory points than your opponent. There's a bit of a learning curve, especially if you've never played a deckbuilding game before, but once you figure it out (and play a few asynchronous games over multiplayer), there's lots of card-based fun to be had.

[Contributed by Mike Schramm]