iPhone gaming: Three underrated gems

As we head into December, two things happen: A lot of people will be given an iPod Touch or iPhone, and lots more already own an iOS device but want a distraction from the holiday grind. Inevitably that leads to a lot of iPhone game downloads (the majority of the App Store), many of which are uneven experiences at best.

In response, below I’ve compiled three varied and underrated games well worth your attention. Each has gotten heavy usage from time to time on my daily commute. My criteria were simple: The game had to be cheap – under $4. It also had to be approachable, with rules understandable under a minute. Finally, I only considered games outside of the top 100 game downloads on the App Store; I like highlighting smaller, independent developers that otherwise get little attention.

Piyo Blocks 2

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Bejeweled, the insanely popular “match-3” (match three similar symbols in a row by shifting or swapping them on a grid) puzzle game remains one of the most popular downloads on any device. Yet years since the initial release, with just tiny improvements and changes, the basic game has gotten a bit stale.

Piyo Blocks 2 takes the core match-3 mechanics that have made Bejeweled so popular and adds its own twist: Additional matches can be made during special transition periods, and extra wild card symbols can strategically remove much of the board at once to rack up combos. There’s also a huge complement of game modes, from timed games to a hyper colored and randomized “disco” mode. When you’re bored of solo play there’s wifi multiplayer, along with integration with Apple’s growing Game Center service.

Strengths aside, Piyo Blocks 2’s most noteworthy feature is its unique personality; the graphics look like something out of a mid 1980s Japanese game import, with blocky 8-bit sprites and perky, offbeat bleeps to complement.


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The “survival genre” where a player that has to avoid other moving enemies onscreen as long as possible is a very common iPhone trope, but Spirit remixes that concept into something original and fun. Spirit’s gameplay has the player flying a ship around, avoiding and encircling enemies fast enough to trap them in a kind of virtual lasso (it’s easier to understand in the promo video.) For an iPhone action game, control is fluid and intuitive, and the game keeps things moving with little slowdown. The graphics don’t slouch either: Everything on screen is derived from simple, neon-colored lines, giving it all a cool Tron or Space Invaders kind of vibe.

The Incident

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The Incident’s main platforming idea is easy to grasp: There’s an infinite drop of eclectic, random objects (e.g. telephone poles, footballs, boxes), and it’s the player’s job to avoid the falling mess while jumping and climbing up as far as possible. Like with Piyo Blocks 2, the game has an sprite heavy, 8-bit-era style to its graphics, along with plenty of level randomization to keep things interesting. That said, for me the game’s highlight lies in its superb controls. In particular, movement is controlled by tilting the iPhone back and forth (sensitivity is adjustable, an especially helpful setting when on the train or bus.) with a tap anywhere to jump. Something about the jump heavy control setup’s responsiveness and simplicity reminds me of classics like Super Mario Brothers, a very good thing.