There was a small window of time right after the launch of the iPhone that will always stand out to me in gaming.
Back in the mid-2000s while clamshell phones were still all the rage, the elusive iPhone had just been revealed by Steve Jobs, and was quickly taking the world by storm by putting a gorgeous screen in everyone’s pocket. Blackberries and their equivalents were antiquated nearly overnight, but for a hefty price and years of your life tied to an AT&T contract, having tiny buttons on your cell phone seemed about as cool as a cassette tape player in your Plymouth circa 1997.
Only months after the release, hacker geohot was able to jailbreak the device, allowing the installation of custom firmware and applications. There was a whole underground dedicated to putting together improvements to Apples iPhone operating system, based around people wanting to come together and make something so revolutionary even better. It finally reached a point where the “gray area underground” had its own app store before the real App Store. It was called Cydia, and it was awesome.
It seemed like a logical step for Apple to create a legitimate App Store environment to allow developers access to their software programming interfaces. And in July of 2008, that’s exactly what they did.
The App Store opened its doors with 500 apps ready to fly off the digital shelves, and “app” was introduced to every man, woman, and child’s vocabulary.
It was an exciting and confusing time when the App Store was first released. It seems crazy to think about now, but the term “app” wasn’t commonplace at all, at least outside of the developer community. Now you hear your grandma asking about “which app should I download” when she needs a slot machine fix but can’t get up to Atlantic City.
The initial app store launched 8 years ago with 500 apps, and in 2017, it is reported to have over 2 million. There are enough games for several lifetimes available to play, but the thing that most of them have in common?
They’re freemium games.
It’s arguable that In-App Purchases spelled the beginning of the end for cell phone gaming, speaking strictly in terms of quality, and that argument is one I would make myself. But before freemium games became a staple in the App Store, there were some incredible “pay-once” games available on these little devices. This article is a celebration of five of the best games not necessarily from the initial App Store grand opening, but just good ol’ games that have stood the test of time and are still worth a download today.
In the early days of the App Store, it was a confusing time, with developers trying their hardest to crank out whichever apps they could throw together, in order to fill needs in an emerging market. What do you get in a situation like this? A lot of fluff. Most of the games were pretty bad and the apps were mostly flashlights, that is, a big white screen and nothing more, to turn your phone into a makeshift torch.
In fact, the chart to my left is one of the first things I thought of when the name “Fieldrunners” popped into my head. When Apple hit 500 million iPhone App downloads, they made a big deal about it at one of their keynotes, understandably so, and at the time, Fieldrunners was still at the top of the charts. It was one of the very few high-quality games at the App Store launch, and in those early months, it was downloaded by just about anyone interested in gaming on their iPhones. But it was for good reason.
Fieldrunners was polished, fun, and literally endless. It was a typical turret defense game which were abundant on PCs in the form of Flash games, but on this fancy new device with beautiful graphics that you could carry around in your pocket. This was of course revolutionary at the time, and so it sold like hot cakes. Every person I knew with an iPhone spent hours on Fieldrunners.
In short, what made it special wasn’t that it was a turret defense game, it was that it was sleek and clean, portable turret defense game, in a very limited pool of games.
How does it hold up today? Extremely well! In fact, it’s still being supported, with the most recent update coming out only several weeks ago. While the game now has a sequel, both of which are host to some In-App Purchases, they only ask for money for extra levels, which goes to support what’s safe to assume is a steep drop in purchases, given the game’s age.
If you’re looking for one of the best aged and well-supported turret defense games on the App Store today, look no further than the vintage Fieldrunners!
For an early example of touch-screen puzzle perfection, look no further than Enigmo, a 2D puzzler where you control the flow of three different fluids: water, oil, and lava, in order to solve increasingly complex puzzles. Developed by Pangea Software and released originally in 2003, this hit was ported to iOS in the later half of the 2000s, jumping right into the top downloads on the new App Store. The use of multi-touch to navigate and control the game was revolutionary at the time, as the iPhone supported multi-touch from the get-go, but didn’t have many practical applications outside of games.
As this game was ported from its original release in 2003, the graphics are nothing to write home about, but the sleek, “open space” feel paired with satisfying audio “droplet” effects made for nothing short of addicting gameplay. The cacophony of liquids hitting objects as the levels grew in complexity was immensely satisfying to hear and only made me want to keep playing. It is the epitome of “one more level!”
How does it hold up today? Enigmo received subsequent updates up until late 2014, and thus it may not be playable for much longer on more recent versions of iOS. There was also a followup Enigmo 2 that was released shortly after the first installment – both hold their own very well and are worth picking up today. For $6.99 you can pick up the Pangea Puzzle Pack, which includes both Enigmo and Enigmo 2, as well as two other games that I have not played. Either way, I consider these two games great additions to anyone’s collection of mobile time wasters.
Speaking of mobile time wasters, there was a time in the late 2000s where the drug of choice for burning time was Jelly Car. What’s Jelly Car? Well, it’s exactly like what it sounds like. A 2D side-scrolling platformer, in which you attempt to drive a car made of jelly through various levels of increasing complexity. The game uses rudimentary assets, both in terms of audio and visual, giving this title a unique style that is packed full of charm. The sounds that your jelly car makes are human-created, that is, made by a man holding a microphone, and while it might sound absurd, it’s quite hilarious to crank the volume and just enjoy the madness that is the gameplay.
The common component to many of the games on this list, as you might be picking up on, is two-fold: charm and satisfaction. Jelly Car is a perfect example of a game that has both.
As you can imagine, having a car made of jelly can afford you many things. First and foremost, the trait of being malleable. The car can be tossed and launched around in the soft-body physics engine, and so long as you don’t go out of bounds or get completely ripped apart, anything goes. When you save up enough energy and fill out your gauge, you can dramatically increase the size of the car, enabling you to monster-truck roll your way across large chasms and obstacles.
How does it hold up today? While I’m sure Jelly Car would do a great job getting people hooked on it’s charm today, it is unfortunately no longer for download on any platform. The current owner of the IP, Disney Interactive Studios, who employs the original creator, retired the whole series back in 2014, losing another digital-only game to the deep, dark Digital Abyss.
Galaxy on Fire
Here’s a genre I never thought I’d get into, and yet I spent countless hours flying around the universe in Galaxy on Fire. Setting the standard for 3D travel on the earliest iPhones, it cost a full $10 (absolutely outrageous by today’s standards, when people won’t even spend $0.99), but it was in-depth and complex.
You could upgrade your ship, mine for materials, and basically run your own economy. Within the game universe, you act as a mercenary, taking on jobs to eradicate space pirates, explore new planets, and mine materials. You can then sell these excess materials to other pilots at space stations and make bank.
One of the coolest aspects of this game comes after you played it for a while – once you learn which resources are the most abundant in each galaxy, you can exploit that by mining tons of materials in one galaxy, only to travel to another where it is impossible to find, and easily sell it for 10x what you could sell it for where you found it. Then you could go back and upgrade your ship parts so that you could mine faster, as well as mine more elusive substances.
Of course, besides the economy feature, the gratuitous space battles against pirates were a blast. It was challenging enough, and while some battles ended up being downright un-winnable, you could flee, do some mining, and level up your hardware.
How does it hold up today? Galaxy on Fire was a rare gem in the space travel genre – while the followup Galaxy on Fire 2 also did a tremendous job of improving everything about the first, it quickly was turned into F2P when the populace of the App Store collectively stopped spending any money. This is the sad state of it today – if you can even find the original Galaxy on Fire, it’s been changed since 2012 into a F2P mess, like so many others. Very sad, indeed!
However, there is still hope! If you’d like to experience this terrific game, look no further than Steam for the HD edition, on sale for only $8 – well worth the cost of admission to play on the big screen.
Around the end of the 2009s, I was still in the midst of a long break from gaming. I’d been very interested in computer programming throughout college and had taken a pretty big hiatus from the video game world. It wasn’t until the App Store launch that I took any interest in games, but after messing around with the offerings up to that point, I settled on a game called Zenonia, as the graphical style and description seemed like something pulled straight out of Zelda or early Final Fantasy.
And I was right! Taking nods to earlier top-down RPGs, Zenonia puts you in control of Regret, a young boy trying to figure out the reason for the death of his father. On this journey he takes part in dozens of sidequests and explores all manner of worlds in an attempt to uncover the evil that was responsible.
Released in 2009 by Korean game development company Gamevil, no expenses were spared for the development of this game. There are hundreds of in-game gear items, with Regret’s appearance changing as he swaps out pieces, which for me is one of the most rewarding aspects of a loot system. Seeing this capability on a mere mobile device and experiencing the sheer scale of this game blew my mind at the time, and it took me several months to complete, playing almost exclusively during train rides to work.
The action-RPG battle system felt great, even as Zenonia being one of the first to feature fully directional movement on a touchscreen D-pad. The controls were improved many times via software updates making the controls more customizable, and it really helped the gameplay. It’s fast paced, not unlike Zelda but more like the Ys series, as your character attacks in burst combos. The specials that you can unlock deal devastating damage, and help keep the gameplay fresh and interesting.
This is no barebones RPG. In addition to the great attention to detail, Zenonia has four classes that you can play as, with full skill trees for each to expand your attack arsenal. The game never gets stale, the boss fights were tremendously fun, and the world and music were beautiful and inspired you to explore for hours. Truly a gorgeous game with more variety than you can imagine in a mobile game in 2017. Simply put, they don’t make these kinds of games anymore.
The play time was reported at around 40 hours, and I would be willing to bet I got every last ounce of gameplay out of this one. It’s my absolute favorite game ever released on iOS, and no other RPG has held a torch to it.
How does it hold up today? It’s really a tragedy what Gamevil did to the franchise following the success of the first two games. While Zenonia 2 kept to the “pay once” model, Zenonia 3 and beyond turned into freemium cash grabs, perverting the franchise and dragging into typical mobile territory. It gets even worse, sadly. Zenonia and it’s sequel Zenonia 2 are no longer available to download anywhere, becoming two more victims to the Digital Abyss. Currently I think there are now six installments of the series, each one bastardizing more than the last.
If you have an Android device, there are some nefarious websites you may or may not be able to visit to find yourself a copy of the first two Zenonia installments, and if you spend a lot of time wanting to get into a great adventure, I wholeheartedly think you should seek it out and download it. It’s well worth the time investment!
The glory days of mobile gaming were very short, but they had a certain charm to them that we hadn’t seen since the N64/Playstation era. It was the beginning of an entirely new market, as more and more smart phones made their way into the pockets of the consumers, the early App Store was essentially one big test, at least during the first year or two of service. I miss those early days dearly and while I despise what the industry has become, we at least have the fond memories of them to look back on!
Were you in the iOS game back when the App Store first launched? What was your favorite game from the short-lived era? Let me know about it in the comments!
Zenonia looks Fab! Thanks for showing us this gem.
Played a whole lot of Fieldrunners. I had it on iPad too for the extra screen space. I’m glad it’s still getting supported!
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Fieldrunners was awesome! I’m glad they still maintain it – nothing makes me sadder than abandonware, especially when the platform is still alive and well!
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