In amongst all the hype surrounding smartphones and touchscreen interfaces, 2009 has been a quietly impressive year for ‘traditional’ mobile games.
In fact, far from being a stagnant platform this year’s Java offerings have shown unmistakable signs of improvement and innovation, and a commendable level of consistency that just can’t be found on the newer platforms.
As such, whittling our year end best-of list down to a mere ten titles has been tough - agonizing even. There are many, many games that could justifiably have made the list.
Notable mentions should go out to EA for managing to successfully revamp not one but three classic series, subtly shaping them to be more suitable for mobile gaming. Step forward and take a bow, Space Invaders Evolution, Tetris Revolution and Puzzle Bobble Evolution.
Then there’s I-play and Firemint, who in Fast & Furious turned a fairly mediocre film property into arguably the finest mobile racer of the year. Nicely played, chaps.
Konami, meanwhile, managed to win a prestigious prize of its own. PES 2010 fended off the considerable efforts of FIFA 10 and Real Football 2010 to win the title of Best Mobile Footy Game of the Year.
It was tough, then, but we’re happy with the following list. What were your favourite mobile games of 2009? Comments below.
Top 10 best mobile games of 2009
Chuck Norris: Bring on the Pain
Like one of our Chuck’s roundhouse kicks, this one came out of the blue and left us dazed on the floor. Bring on the Pain resurrects the scrolling beat-‘em-up on your mobile by injecting generous amounts of variety and humour into proceedings.
Controlling the ginger-bearded one, you can use firearms, your bare fists, and even pick up jeeps in order to take out the bad guys. Yes, it’s deeply silly and really very funny.
With plenty of unlockables and upgrades to access en route, not to mention the ability to take pictures of your friends and plant their faces on the enemy soldiers, Bring on the Pain was perhaps the most riotously good fun title of the year.
California Gold Rush
Publisher: Digital Chocolate
Developer: Digital Chocolate
After another year of almost universally excellent titles, this list just wouldn't be complete without a Digital Chocolate game.
We've gone for this little gem, because it combined a quirky, genre-spanning concept with near-faultless execution (not to mention DC's customary level of polish).
It's your job to dig your way to the titular treasure, taking into account the likelihood of cave-ins and your own dwindling resources.
There wasn't another game quite like California Gold Rush in 2009. We hope there's more like California Gold Rush in 2010.
Right at the beginning of the year, Gish slid quietly from PC onto our mobiles, adjusting to the unique demands with a minimum of fuss.
Which is appropriate given the game's premise: you're a black blob of goo who must slither through levels, morphing to meet the demands of a hostile environment.
You could describe it loosely as a platform puzzler, but it bears little to no resemblance to such genre staples as Tetris or Sonic. In fact, it's closer in spirit to like-minded oddities such as LocoRoco and SolaRola.
But Gish stands out even from that niche crowd, thanks to its ingenious level design and bravely gloomy aesthetic.
Galaxy on Fire 2
Developers appear to have all but abandoned 3D engines for their mobile games, a decision which appears justified when you glance around this list. But one company is sticking to its guns - and what beautifully rendered guns they are.
Fishlabs's sequel to Galaxy on Fire felt as fresh as the ambitious original - mainly because they occupy a field of two. How many other open ended 3D space sims have you played on your humble mobile?
It would all be for nought if the game played poorly or the 3D visuals didn't move at an acceptable rate, but Galaxy on Fire 2 succeeds on both scores. Truly an exceptional game from a truly exceptional developer.
Developer: Progressive Media
How do you make a game that’s both boldly innovative and an affectionate nod to the past? No idea, other than to say that Mystery Mania pulled off just such a trick earlier in the year.
At its heart a tribute to the kind of point and click adventure-puzzlers we used to enjoy almost 20 years ago, Mystery Mania manages too come off as the freshest mobile game of the year. It’s all about the style and the way it’s been designed to suit mobile play.
While most games in the genre are sprawling, time-consuming affairs, Mystery Mania breaks the puzzling up into bite-size, self contained rooms. Moreover, its clean lines and unique 3D engine make the fairytale world jump out of the screen, as well as lending the game a charming slapstick physicality. A true star.
Developer: Mr Goodliving
While there’s a rich seam of inspiration lurking in the PC and console world, making such concepts work on the mobile platform is a tricky proposition. In truth, it’s something that rarely succeeds without considerable compromise.
Step forward Tropical Towers - a shining example of condensed magic. Taking the physics-based premise of casual PC and WiiWare hit World of Goo, the game asks you to build a series of precarious structures to facilitate the progress of a bunch of monkeys.
The controls are faultless, the presentation charming and the challenge meaty. It’s a truly stunning achievement.
Pac-Man Championship Edition
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Speaking of console conversions (were we? - ed), Pac-Man Championship Edition took the direct approach. Rather than tweak and change this stylish Xbox Live title to suit the mobile platform, Namco has brought it across as it is.
That’s how it appears, anyway, such is its extraordinary fidelity to the original gameplay. You guide the yellow gobbler around an assortment of mazes, gobbling dots and dodging ghosts.
Sounds like the same old Pac-Man? It’s not. Mutating arenas, strict time limits and stunning neon visuals push the ancient mechanics kicking and screaming into the 21st century, while managing to retain everything that hooked an entire generation all those years ago.
Possessing a level of depth usually reserved for fully fledged console games, the Townsmen series has always been a leading light for mobile games seeking to mix it with the big boys. Where they really succeed is in remaining eminently playable on a mobile thumb-pad.
Townsmen 6 is no exception. Set during the French Revolution, it’s up to you to amass a force among the proletariat capable of taking on the domineering aristocracy.
If that sounds like meaty material for a mobile game, it is. But HandyGames pulls it off with customary aplomb, making the sixth edition the best Townsmen - and hence the best mobile strategy game - yet.
Go! Go! Rescue Squad
The level of polish and of all-round excellence Connect2Media achieved with Go! Go! Rescue Squad was such that even they appear to be struggling to top it. The recently released sequel, while a fine game, simply isn’t able to offer an improvement on this stunning original.
The premise is reminiscent of the classic Lemmings, as you strive to rescue a bunch of imperilled dimwits from roasting. This time, though, you’re represented by a team of fire fighters, who have the ability to throw stuff - from fire hydrants to people - over great distances.
From modest beginnings, Go! Go! swiftly turns into a stern test of co-ordination and timing as you strive to unlock each clock-work puzzle.
Assembling this best of 2009 list was a tough task, such was the volume of games with a justifiable shout for inclusion.
Picking the number one, though, has been less tough. For while each member of the PG team has his personal favourite, only one game has received our Platinum award this year.
Zombie Infection sailed so far beyond our expectations of what a mobile action game could offer, we (and the rest of the mobile games industry) are still coming to terms with it. Anyone who tells you that a mobile game can’t offer a gripping narrative, smartly told from multiple persepectives and with sky high production values, needs to look at Gameloft’s effort.
Of course, this is no mere interactive story - Zombie Infection’s action is beautifully handled, allowing for precision gunplay despite its zoomed-out fixed perspective. There’s also an RPG-like upgrade system, encouraging you to scour for loot amidst the apocalyptic carnage.
No other mobile title in 2009 offered such a fully fleshed out console-like experience. We’ll be interested to see if anyone (even Gameloft) can top it in 2010.