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Wasting Time With iPhone’s Top Free Games

image_preview1The iPhone has brought a lot of unique features to portable gaming -- a large, multi-touch screen, a tilt sensor and significant built-in storage among them. But one of the iPhone's most revolutionary features is its large library of instantly accessible free games. Every previous portable system required at least a little bit of money, effort and forward planning to buy a game and take it along, in anticipation of future gaming on the go. Now, with the iPhone, you can download any one of thousands of free games the moment you find yourself with some free gaming time.

The question, of course, is whether any of these free games are worth your time. To find out, I thought I'd put the App Store to the test by downloading the top 25 free titles from the "All Games" category (based on number of recent downloads as of July 17, 2009), and playing each one for as long as it could hold my attention. The only caveat was a 15-minute time limit for each game -- because if a free game holds your attention for at least 15 minutes, that's pretty good!

With that said, let's dive right in to the top free games:

1. "Wooden Labyrinth 3D Lite"

I had a love/hate relationship with my old tabletop "Labyrinth" game as a kid. I loved the concept, but I hated how much I sucked at manipulating those little knobs to guide the ball past the holes. The iPhone version, with its simple tilt controls, makes things more enjoyable. I'm surprised how accurate and realistic the physics is, and I love the way the 3-D perspective shifts as you tilt the unit, making the screen feel like a window into an alternate world. The randomly generated levels in this "Lite" version are hit-or-miss, but the variable difficulty ensures lot of replay value.

Time wasted: 15 minutes

2. "Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles Free"

The sprawling next-generation experience of "Assassin's Creed" takes quite a few hits on its way to the iPhone. Notice the blocky, grainy 3-D graphics and nearly empty streets. The gameplay has been also simplified to the point of stupidity, with a big green arrow pointing the way, ridiculously frequent checkpoints, and battles that amount to jamming the attack button as fast as possible. Add some horrible voice-acting and writing (Actual quote, from Altair: "I should kick this post so the platform will collapse!") and you get a game I was happy to put down when the "Thanks for Playing" message stopped me at the 10-minute mark.

Time wasted: 10 minutes.

3. "Rope'n'fly Lite"

"Touch on a building to throw a rope. Touch again anywhere to release the rope. Try to swing and fly as far as possible before crashing on the ground." Simple enough, but in practice the physics of swinging seem just so slightly off. Flying through the air is fun, but the rope has a bit too much slack, and the swinger will often hang in place at weird angles if you don't time the swings just right. It only took me five minutes to survive the Lite version's 30-second timed mode. I could try to best my own high score, but I don't find myself exactly relishing the thought.

Time wasted: 5 minutes.

4. "Tic Tac Free"

It takes me one try each to beat the iPhone on Easy, Medium and Hard modes of this barebones tic-tac-toe game. I wonder how many of the doubtless thousands of downloads of this game were deleted within five minutes.

Time wasted: 1 minute.

5. "Paper Toss"

Only after I load this up do I realize I used to have a minor addiction to the Web version of this game. Throwing a wad of paper into a wastepaper basket is made surprisingly addictive by variable wind speeds and a streak-based scoring system. (The satisfying "clang" sound when you swish a shot might have something to do with it, too.) The iPhone version has some nice, flick-based controls and a clean, simple interface. While Easy mode was pretty simple to master, and Hard mode is way too tough, I had a great time wasting 15 minutes on Medium.

Time wasted: 15 minutes

6. "World War"

With a title like "World War," I'm expecting an action game or at least some sort of strategy simulation. Imagine my surprise when I'm confronted with a game that seems to be completely menu-based. I click a button to "Fend off enemy attack," which immediately rewards me with a "Mission complete!" message and a bunch of virtual money. Wow, war is easy!

In other menus I can buy new units, recharge my health and energy, and battle against what I assume are real people playing the game. But there's no drama to clicking a button and getting "You win" or "You lose." I can see how some people could get hooked on advancing their stats, but I'm just not feeling it.

Time wasted: eight minutes.

7. "SpongeBob Tickler"

The complete "SpongeBob Tickler" experience: tap "Hellooooo, it's SpongeBob SquarePants!" tap "What'cha doin?" tap "Hahahahah!" tap "What'cha doin?" tap "Ay, caramba!" tap "What'cha doin?" tap "Hellooooo!" tap SpongeBob winks tap "Hello friend!" tap "Hola!" Tap the home button to quit to the iPhone menu.

Time wasted: 1 minute.

8. "Brothers in Arms: Hour of Heroes Free"

I realize this game is doing its best to recreate a third-person shooter on the limited iPhone hardware, but I find myself horribly frustrated with the controls before the tutorial is even complete. The on-screen thumb pad is incredibly touchy, constantly moving me in a direction diametrically opposite to the one I want to travel. Turning the camera with finger-swipes is ponderous, and the stuttering frame rate doesn't help matters either. There were a few moments of decent action in there, but I can't see struggling with the system through more sustained play.

Time wasted: 6 minutes.

9. "Unblock Me Free"

A pretty basic concept: Slide blocks either horizontally or vertically to get the red block through a narrow opening. I blaze through the first few beginner levels, then find there are 600 different puzzles available in this free version! Ye gods!

Level 600 is definitely harder, but I still complete it after only a minute or two of fiddling. Sure, it took me 116 moves, and if I could waste hours finding the optimal solution, but I doubt I have the patience or interest. For a free puzzle game, though, it's perfectly fine.

Time wasted: 6 minutes.

10. "Fast & Furious: Test Drive Edition"

The title screen greets me with the message "Toca la pantalle para servir." Que? Apparently I've downloaded the Spanish version. As SpongeBob would say: "Ay, caramba!" I navigate through the menu using my high-school-level Spanish and jump into a race. My coupe accelerates as I tilt the iPod to steer around an incredibly empty track. Occasionally I tap the nitro button to jet ahead of two slower-than-dirt opponents. After a single race, I'm relatively sure the game asks me if I want to buy the full version. What's Spanish for "No"?

Time wasted: 4 minutes.

11. "Tap Tap Revenge 2"

This one's is a little unfair, since TTR2 was one of the first Apps I downloaded for my iPod months ago, and I've already played it for much more than 15 minutes. Still, I'll take any excuse to play for 15 more. You'd think the simple rhythmic tapping would get old quickly, but a large library of free downloadable songs (including the Jackson 5's "ABC," I'm surprised to find when I log in today) and some brutally tough note patterns in "Extreme" mode have kept me happily tapping away. It's hard to believe a game this polished, with this many available songs, is entirely ad-supported.

Time wasted: 15 minutes

12. "Chase the Dot"

Well, this game does deliver what it promises -- simply tap the white dot, then tap it again when it reappears somewhere else on the black background. The higher difficulty levels make the dot smaller and jumpier, but there's really not much more to it. I can try to beat my high scores, and I can challenge my friends to do the same, but I can't figure out why I'd want to do either.

Time wasted: 2 minutes.

13. "Bloons Lite"

What a charming little game. Who knew that making a monkey throw darts at balloons could be so interesting? It starts off pretty simple, but then they start throwing ice balloons and rubber blocks and glass jars and exploding-bomb balloons at you. By the end, some pretty precise aim is required to complete the increasingly strict level requirements. I get through the Lite version's 10 levels just as I hit the 15-minute mark and find, to my surprise, that I might be willing to pay for more.

Time wasted: 15 minutes

14. "iMob Online"

This is essentially is the World War game I played a few minutes ago -- only now there's a gangster theme to all the menus. Instead of fighting battles, I'm performing hits and other crimes. I just don't get why some players would be willing to buy "4,000 respect points for $99.99" in real money. It all seems like a rather pointless way to watch a bunch of numbers go up and up.

Time wasted: 3 minutes.

15. "Wild West Pinball"

The iPhone seems well suited to some portable pinball action, so I'm excited about this one. Immediately, I'm digging the nice sound effects and smooth 3-D graphics. The playfield proves to be incredibly basic, though, like it was designed in the 1950s. There are no ramps or spinners or multiball -- just a few bumpers and drop targets. The flippers feel a little too loose, as well, flying incredibly high every time I tap. Plus, the camera follows the ball in a close zoom, which means I can't tell which flipper to flip until it's practically too late. I think I'll stick with "Metroid Prime Pinball" on the Nintendo DS, but this was diverting enough for a free game.

Time wasted: 7 minutes.

16. BrainTeaser

Oh, it's Light's Out! I was addicted to my friend's Tiger Electronics version of this growing up. Basically, you tap a square on a grid to flip it and all the adjacent lights. This version mixes things up by asking you to match the grid to certain light patterns. It starts out very simple, but gets tough as more lights get added to the grid. The presentation is a little bare-bones, but the classic puzzle design has held up well over the years.

Time wasted: 15 minutes

17. "Racing Live"

OH MY GOD, it's yet another one of these stupid, menu-based, online stat-fests. Is it too much to expect a game called "Racing Live" to have some actual racing instead of messages that amount to "You won the race!" or "You upgraded your car!" How have I run into three of these games in the top-25 free downloads already? Who is downloading this stuff? Are people really that bored?

Time wasted: 1 minute.

18. "Wizards"

With a title like that, I'm looking forward to some action-packed magical battles. Nope ... instead I get ANOTHER text-based menu game, this one with a swords-and-sorcery theme. "Tap on Magic Shop and buy Disarm," says the Tutorial. NO! I REFUSE! DIE DIE DIE!

Time wasted: 1 minute

19. "Brick Breaker Revolution 3D Free"

Finally, a proper game! It's basically "Arkanoid," with some passable 3-D graphics and a talking robot introducing things. I really like the Revolution mode, which lets me knock the ball through the top of the screen to another paddle above (and vice versa). I'm not a huge fan of the touch controls, though. I keep moving my paddle accidentally just by trying to grip the iPod. The few levels in this Free version run out just as my 15 minutes do, which is probably for the best. If the iPhone had a proper d-pad, maybe I'd feel differently, but the controls do this one in.

Time wasted: 15 minutes

20. "Crazy Penguin Catapult 2"

Well, the name has certainly set my hopes pretty high. It's an odd one, all right. First, I tap the screen in time to launch a bunch of penguins; then I tap again to make them dive-bomb a field of polar bears standing on icebergs. It's a bit like "Peggle," but with penguins instead of balls, and polar bears instead of pegs. Also, it's not nearly as well-designed and fun as "Peggle." Still, the animation and sound effects are endearing enough to keep me entranced for a few minutes.

Time wasted: 12 minutes

21. "Target"

I'm not really sure I'd have put this one in the "game" category. You tilt the iPhone to move a red crosshair across a black, body-shaped silhouette, then tap the screen to fire. It doesn't even keep score, or have a time limit, or any apparent point at all. I know it's free, but how did this make the top-25 downloads, exactly?

Time wasted: 1 minute

22. "Toobz-Free"

This reminds me quite a bit of 8-bit favorite "Pipe Dream," but with a little twist. In "Pipe Dream," you had to arrange a grid of pipes to get a continuous path of liquid that was as long as possible. In "Toobz," the water flows freely down branching pipe pathways, and any spills on the floor are punished with a Game Over. I find myself trying to build elaborate, screen-filling pipe structures when simpler ones will do. By the time I finally complete Level 3, I look up and 20 minutes have passed. Whoa!

Time wasted: 20 (!) minutes

23. "3D Roller Coaster Rush Free"

An interesting concept, to be sure: controlling the speed on a roller coaster by tilting the iPhone left and right. The bright, colorful graphics and smooth 3-D animation are nice, but the first two levels are way too simple. It's not until the third track that I have to slow down to prevent my passengers from bailing after some massive jumps. Of course, after that track, the Lite version is done. It was cute while it lasted, I guess, but not nearly deep or exciting enough for a purchase.

Time wasted: 5 minutes

24. "Kingdoms Live"

"35 Legend Points have been added to your account." Oh, no ... that can only mean ... ANOTHER MENU-BASED GAME! NO, NO, NO, GO AWAY!

Time wasted: 5 seconds

25. "Military Might"

"Tutorial 1/10: Tap on Barracks and Buy Marines." AIEEEEEEEE!

Time wasted: 2 seconds


Final Tally...

Total time wasted: 3 hours, 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Total money spent: $0


Final thoughts...

Based on this limited sample, free gaming on the iPhone definitely runs the gamut from awful to amazing. There is definite quality out there; I found at least five games I'd easily play for more than 15 minutes. Then again, with six nearly identical (and identically awful) menu-based stat hunts, the App Store is not immune to appealing to the lowest common denominator. And, any store that includes things like "SpongeBob Tickler" in "Games" could use a little weeding. But it's hard to complain when I didn't have to spend a single cent for the last three hours of extremely varied "entertainment." And all without even having to press the "Show 25 more" button once!


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