Best free iPad games: From 'Pac-Man 256' to 'Sky Force 2014'
Best free iPad games: Pac-Man 256
From the creators of Crossy Road comes this new - if broadly familiar - take on one of the most famous arcade games of all time. Just as in the original Pac-Man, the yellow dot-muncher has to roam a maze, eating dots and avoiding ghosts. Here, though, Pac-Man's propelled beyond the infamous level 256 glitch, which has transformed into a relentless muncher itself, devouring everything in its path. Our rotund hero must therefore keep moving ever upwards through an endless maze, keeping ahead of the glitch and avoiding getting killed by wandering ghosts.
Pac-Man 256 on iPhone works nicely, but it's better on iPad. The graphics shine on the larger display, but the device's aspect ratio is also beneficial. The iPhone's narrow display meant you either can't see far ahead (in landscape) or the entire maze's width (in portrait); the squarer iPad screen makes for a slightly easier and more rewarding game. That said, you'll still often find yourself fleeting from a frankly unsporting number of ghosts, trying desperately to reach the next power-up that'll give you a fighting chance of getting a high score. Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: Pianista
If Guitar Hero and videogames were around in the time of Chopin, this is the game you might have ended up with. It offers typical lane-based gameplay, with notes winging their way towards your face. Tap in time to the music, and you string together combos and get a massive score. Only here, it's not pop and rock music blaring away in the background, but classical music.
Along with freshening up the genre, Pianista's use of such audio brings a sense of clarity sometimes missing from this kind of game. It's always obvious what notes you should be matching, and any special moves (tap-holds and swipes) are very clearly labelled. However, the difficulty level - even on normal - is quite severe, and missing a note abruptly and loudly makes a sound akin to your forehead being smashed into the piano.
Still, practice makes perfect, and with an iPad flat on a desk, Pianista is one of the most pleasing games of this type we've experienced on Apple hardware, even if - as we outline below - its freemium underpinnings are a tad irksome. Craig Grannell
Pianista has a fairly baffling freemium system involving three (!) virtual currencies. Jewels can be spent on coins to buy songs or music points to add to the plays cooldown. For our money, individual songs are overpriced, but you can get plenty from the game by playing the free mode, occasionally using the 200-coin shuffle to switch tunes, and grabbing the odd song when you've accumulated enough bling.
Best free iPad games: Pico Rally
One of the perceived problems with gaming on mobile is the lack of tactile controls. Although some developers have got around this with clever use of tilting, swiping and virtual D-pads, others reduce everything down to players prodding at the screen. One-thumb controls might seem reductive, but in the hands of canny creators, this system has breathed new life into a range of genres.
One-thumb racing games, though, remain thin on the ground, and yet Pico Rally shows how a single digit provides plenty of command as you belt around a track. Here, your car automatically steers, and you press the screen to slam your foot down on the accelerator. You must time this carefully, so as to navigate the track efficiently, zoom ahead of rivals and take the chequered flag.
The overall effect is a lot like classic slot-car racing, except your car isn't rigidly restricted to a single lane. Instead, cars in Pico Rally jostle for the lead, not least when you're careening along being pursued by cops more interested in beating you to the finish line than pulling you over for speeding.
There's plenty of variety within the 60 tracks - in terms of hazards and also course design - and the physics feels suitably solid, yet keeps you on your toes as new surfaces arrive. The two-player mode is disappointing (no split screen, meaning you often find cars vanish off-screen), but there's loads here to keep the solo racer engrossed. Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: Planet Quest
At some point, a legion of plastic guitars and boring rock stars sucked all the imagination out of rhythm action games, but it never used to be this way. Planet Quest harks back to the genre's quirkier and more colourful days, with an eye-searing, head-bobbing tap-based experience that involves quite a lot of alien abductions, along with people grooving to the music while wearing animal costumes.
It turns out that you are the alien, tapping the screen to match beats you've just heard. Get this right and you beam up the dancers; get this almost right and you beam up their costumes; get it wrong or accidentally beam up a flower and you lose a life. (Maybe the alien's a big fan of botany.) Fortunately, Planet Quest is generous, rewarding you with a replacement life for every successful abduction, and half a life when you merely snag some clothes.
With the colourful graphics, a manic camera that zooms in and out, and an hour of music, Planet Quest is a must-have for any rhythm-action or arcade fan. It's a lot of fun and you always feel the game really wants to be played; it also gives skinflints something to strive for - top the leaderboards and you unlock the ad-free version! Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: Pyro Jump Rescue
Pyro is a flame on a mission in this sweet-natured one-thumb platform game - and it doesn't involve setting fire to anything. Instead, Pyro's determined to save his friends, which are being held prisoner by the nefarious types that hold cute videogame characters hostage. The blighters!
The world Pyro inhabits is on the dangerous side. In fact, quite a few hazards helpfully have the word 'danger' written on them, in case their massive spikes and angry spinning faces weren't enough of a hint. Unfortunately, instead of unleashing fiery doom, all Pyro can do is jump a bit. You therefore leap from spinning platform to spinning platform, occasionally being belted about by bumpers and sliding along rails. All the while, you collect coins that can be used to unlock restart points.
That last bit's quite important, because once Pyro's extinguished, you restart from the beginning. The game nudges you towards IAP, although you won't need it if you're careful regarding checkpoint usage (don't buy every one), fine with grinding a bit for extra coins, and have a bit of patience when it comes to jumping about. The old cliche 'look before you leap' is rather apt here. Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: RAD Boarding
This snowboarding game will feel more than a little familiar if you've ever played Tiny Wings. You zoom along a hilly landscape, prodding the screen when careening down slopes, and then letting go as your little boarder hurls themselves into the air. Beyond that, there's also the 'RAD' element, which is all about showing off. When in the air, rather than merely feeling the wind on your face, you flick the screen to perform all manner of speed-boosting stunts; these must be carefully timed so the 'border is upright before returning to earth, rather than faceplanting in an inelegant and painful manner.
This isn't just a matter of bruised pride (and actual bruises), because there's a tiny snag regarding the landscape this sporting hero's decided to blaze through: a volcano is belching quite a lot of lava in your general direction. Dawdle and you're done for.
RAD Boarding is perhaps lacking in originality, and it's not the deepest of games. Nonetheless, it has a lot going for it. The visuals are slick, with some smart zooming effects and exhilarating sections when you find lava hot on your heels as you speed through areas with barely any lighting. There are also decidedly odd boss battles against the stunt-loving Tiny the Bear. Impress the giant furball and he'll generously decide against devouring you, giving you a shot at a long and healthy life - or at least an extra few minutes before board and boarder alike are inevitably deep fried in a volcano's ejections. Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: Rush Hour: Subway Sliders
It turns out that in a world of strange sentient cartoon tellies with bunny ears and top-hat-wearing green pyramids, making a mad dash for a train is still a thing. In each level of Rush Hour: Subway Sliders, you see some colourful commuters waiting on a platform before a train arrives and opens its doors for a few brief seconds. Your mission is to quickly drag and flick everyone into the carriage, lest they be left behind and subjected to the sheer horror of waiting for the next train. (Said sheer horror is, apparently, enough to end your go should even a single commuter not make it on board.)
This is another of those casual games that's extremely easy to grasp, but tough to master. Even the odd obstacle on the platform - a bin or a bench - can be enough to scupper the most dextrous flick-based technique, and you'll curse when a blue blob in a silly hat rebounds in just the wrong way, thereby sadly face-planting against closing train doors.
You do get the odd bit of help - clock characters on boarding add a few precious seconds to the countdown timer - but otherwise this is relentless arcade madness that will leave you happily exhausted after battling through a dozen platforms. (That said, if you spend your days mired in commuting hell, Rush Hour: Subway Sliders might be a little too close to home!) Craig Grannell
FREE | Download Rush Hour: Subway Sliders
Best free iPad games: Rust Bucket
Nitrome has a habit of fiddling around with a genre's core mechanics and coming up with something special. With Rust Bucket, you're dumped in a dungeon for turn-based roguelike larks; but really, this is an endless - and tough - puzzler, where survival is determined by your ability to think ahead and respond to threats appropriately.
Visually, the game's a delight, Nitrome's pixel-art style and penchant for colour making the dungeons a vibrant treat rather than a journey into drabness. The dungeon's inhabitants, from your wandering helmet to skulls, pigs and ghouls littered about the place, are full of character, making it slightly less irritating when you make a wrong move and get horribly killed.
And you will get killed - and often, at least at first. Rust Bucket can be punishing, with you only a few steps from death at all times. But put your best chess hat on, consider every move you make and how enemies are likely to respond, and you'll find a cracking mobile take on turn-based strategy; there's enough depth here to engage, but short enough games that you can have a session or two of dungeon crawling while the bus pootles along. Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: Sage Solitaire
Developer Zach Gage asks why, when you have a mobile device that's not the size of a table, most traditional solitaire efforts ape the typical Klondike and FreeCell layouts, using tiny cards (in order to fit them all on the screen) and overly familiar strategies. His answer: a three-by-three grid, quite a bit of poker, and a virtual trip to Vegas.
In the basic Sage Solitaire game, you score by removing poker hands. The better the hand, the more points you get. Strategy comes by way of a rule that states you must use cards from multiple rows for each hand. With the stacks at the top of the screen being taller than those at the bottom, the latter's cards are best used sparingly. In addition, a randomly allocated suit is set as a multiplier, bestowing double points when one or more of its cards is used in a hand, and two 'trashes' exist to remove individual cards; one is replenished after each successful hand.
The Vegas mode, unlocked on clearing the entire board three times, gives you a virtual bank account, awards cash prizes only when using the multiplier hand, and ups your overall payout multiplier on clearing piles from the top two rows. Subtly different strategies are required for success, hence the initial lockdown - it's very easy to otherwise burn through your limited funds. But once you crack Vegas and hit $800, you can try your hand at True Grit. There, once your in-game money's gone, it's gone for good.
Note that there's no horrible IAP to refill your virtual coffers. The game's sole IAP (£2.29/$2.99) exists purely to unlock two further modes (Double Deck and Fifteens), remove the (unobtrusive) ads, provide stats tracking, and give you achievements to aim for. Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: Shooty Skies
"A giant beaver is approaching!" warns Shooty Skies, as your DJ cat in a biplane prepares for battle.
The beaver begins spewing spinning axes and giant acorns, any of which would bring instant death. You drag your finger to make your plane deftly weave between these projectiles, admiring the beaver's surprisingly awesome firepower - and, frankly, its ability to fly in the first place. Occasionally, you pause to charge your super-weapon, which lets rip the second you move. The beaver defeated, you mull over the fact that this strange scene isn't even close to the weirdest you've experienced within this very flight.
Shooty Skies, then, is a shooty game set in the sky. Think: old-school vertically scrolling blasters. But this one has a decidedly oddball bent. Strange cartoon characters in biplanes are attacked by memes and angry technology (arcade games that fire joysticks; enraged cassette decks; demented robots). The aforementioned super-weapon mechanism adds a dash of risk-versus-reward (you're vulnerable when stationary, but can clear the screen with the weapon's superior firepower). And everything's wrapped in a gorgeous if familiar visual style you'll recall from Crossy Road. (The teams for both games had lots of crossover, note - this isn't some third-rate knock-off!)
As in Crossy Road, you can unlock characters using a prize system or real cash. But there's nothing at all here that will ever pressure you into spending money. Shooty Skies is a generous and instantly playable game. Craig Grannell
Best free iPad games: SHREDD
Addictive in the classic 'just one more go' sort of way, striking-looking if not classically handsome, expertly honed and unapologetically simple, SHREDD (formerly known as dEXTRIS) tasks you with... making two coloured squares follow a never-ending corridor without bumping into the jagged shapes in your way. There are only four possible 'moves': leave the squares to sit in the middle (press nothing); send them both to the left or to the right (press on either the left or right side of the screen); or split them, as in the screen image below (press with both thumbs at once). And then things simply get faster and faster.
There are in-game adverts, which are mildly annoying, but the gameplay is strong and there's a lovely old-fashioned feel to the way you'll find yourself chasing high scores; in no other iOS game have I found myself so obsessed with the rankings on Game Center. David Price
Best free iPad games: Sky Chasers
We've no idea where you get the kind of cardboard box Sky Chaser protagonist Max owns, but we want one - it has thrusters and can fly! We are, mind, substantially less jealous of the predicament Max finds himself in: lost in a massive jungle full of dead ends, deadly creatures and locked passageways.
Visually, Sky Chasers is a treat. There's an old-school pixel art charm, but this isn't a game of sharp edges threatening to poke your eyes out. Instead, backgrounds, characters and environments have been precisely crafted, and they look gorgeous on the iPad's screen.
The controls, too, are spot-on. You hold your device and tap on the left or right of the display to activate the related thruster. You do, however, have limited fuel, and so cannot blast about the place willy-nilly. This is even more apparent as you progress and find yourself faced with corridors of twisted branches packed with huge thorns and rotating wheels with giant spikes nailed to them.
Fortunately, you refuel by collecting hovering bling, and there are regular restart points where you can rest up and also restart if you later blunder into a death-trap. Unlocking checkpoints does cost coins you've collected, but you can alternatively activate one by watching a video advert. As freemium goes, that's one of the least obnoxious approaches we've seen, but if you find it distasteful yet love Sky Chasers, a £2.29 IAP gives you free checkpoints forever. Regardless of whether you intend on splashing out or not, this is a game you should chase down immediately. Craig Grannell
FREE | Download Sky Chasers
Best free iPad games: Sky Force 2014
Sky Force 2014 is a good example of why gaming characters shouldn't get cocky. Blasting everything to kingdom come in a souped-up spaceship, the protagonist is brought down to earth by a villain with a penchant for insanely massive lasers. Some deft parachuting staves off disaster, but the pilot suddenly finds himself in the next mission flying something akin to an airborne peashooter.
Your aim, then, is to work your way back to the point where you can have a second crack at the big bad. This is done by tackling a range of gorgeous levels, blowing up anything that goes for you, and collecting stars, used for buying upgrades.
For a shooting game, Sky Force 2014 is oddly grindy. Levels are locked unless you win enough badges, and these come by way of achieving objectives, such as rescuing stranded comrades, avoiding getting shot and downing every enemy. Additionally, upgrades are pricey and have timers, and you need several runs through early levels to make your ship suitable for later stages. You can of course skip ahead somewhat via IAP - this is a free game, after all - but the nature of Sky Force 2014 is really more tactical than most shooters. It's all about learning formations and level layouts, properly honing your skills before taking the next step, rather than blazing ahead like a maniac. Craig Grannell
Still looking for more games? We've got lots more brilliant freebies for your delectation. Turn to the next page for more great free iPad games.