With tech companies dropping the Android OS onto anything that will hold a charge and heavy hitters like NVIDIA building dedicated gaming devices for it, the once red-headed stepchild of the mobile industry has flourished over the last few years, and Android gaming has gone along for the ride. The platform has in fact become a gold mine for some. Roll into this mix Android’s low threshold point of entry and a Wild West open market and you have a unique platform that to date has seen over 31 trillion downloads, about two trillion more than its only real competitor: Apple.
Unfortunately, for similar reasons most of these games blow chunks. Amongst their number, however, are hundreds of gems: ports of classic PC and console games, vibrant AAA tiles, made for mobile games, cross-platform games and the real diamonds in the rough: Android-only indies. These are the games made by one and two-man teams, the very best of which often possess what it takes to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big guys. They are, in essence, that which makes Android a platform with weight and heart.
But we are not citing The Ten Best Android Games of All Time here to convert anyone. At best, it’s a list for smartphone owners who are looking for an entertaining way to kill a few hours. And that, however you slice it, is the best thing that both this list and Hardcore Droid have to offer. So, you’re welcome, and enjoy.
Android gaming’s high per capita profits combined with its low-end hardware means that every indie title and its mother eventually gets ported over to the platform eventually. While a ton of these make the transition smoothly, cross-platform and Android-only indies represent a smaller pool of games, one which we feel better represents the present state of ‘Droid gaming than do straight console or PC ports. Among the best of this group few games compare with 2013’s superb Ridiculous Fishing.
Like the best indie games, Ridiculous Fishing creates a thoroughly satisfying video game by way of a unique gameworld and singular experience. The game’s premise is simple. You play a guy out fishing on his lonesome. As you reel in your line, the object is to try and attach as many fish to it as possible. Once your entire catch breaches the waterline the fish are cast en masse into the air, at which point you blast them out of the sky with your gat du jour. As the game progresses you acquire powerups and the stakes in terms of the number and type of fishies intensifies. As the difficulty level increases the game deftly skirts the line between casual and hardcore gameplay. Like the game’s simple woodcut-like artwork, the gameplay itself exemplifies sharp elegant design as its simple premise and gameplay coalesces into one of the most engaging and addicting gaming experiences you’re likely to encounter on ‘Droid.
The game that brought the point and click adventure game into the 21 century was a cross-platform title from birth and plays flawlessly on a touch screen. More importantly, however, is the reason that it single-handedly reinvented a genre. It’s an utterly superb title, replete with cool cel shaded graphics, finely balanced puzzles and a deftly written and engaging story that immerses the player in both game and story in a relatively new and inventive way. If you view gaming as a new mode of story-telling and show up with bells on when a game’s narrative is noteworthy, the Walking Dead is your game, as interactive narrative on Android doesn’t get any better than this.
If we’re going to be honest here, tower defense games have largely been a blight on Android gaming. There are just so many half-assed, poorly-made renditions of the tower defense formula that it’s difficult to like any of them at this point. And yet, in those rare instances when they work, they sometimes stand among the most satisfying Android games. In such instances they play like simplified RTSs. The Kingdom Rush series does TD right. What’s more, the game has just about everything you’d want in a real-time strategy title: compelling, fast-paced and tightly balanced gameplay; cool nuanced hero and enemy units that each bear the necessary rock paper scissors interrelationship. To top it all off, the game sports an elegant and satisfying aesthetic. Like the Warcraft RTSs of yore, every element is superbly well-crafted to create a whole that is likely the most enjoyable game in the entire tower defense sub-genre.
Finally, while all three Kingdom Rush titles are exemplary tower defense titles, prequel Kingdom Rush Origins, the last game to be produced in the series somehow manages to improve on every element that made each iteration of Kingdom Rush great while finding some small room for general improvements.
When first released, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas pushed the PlayStation 2 to its absolute limit, which is why it was at first hard to appreciate just how much bigger, badder and more detailed it was in comparison to its precursors. The initial PS2 release suffered from a ton of lag and endless load times. With the 2008 PC release the title came into its own and it became abundantly clear that we were dealing with a seminal iteration of an already brilliant franchise. On a high-end Android device, San Andreas plays just like the PC version. Everything that made Andreas such a vital chapter in the GTA franchise is present here in spades: from the superb storied missions of gang warfare to Andreas’ colorful cast of characters; from its vast open world to its always fun free-form gameplay, you will not find a better open world sand box game on mobile. Even the superb GTA: China Town Wars with its native touch controls is not quite as satisfying as this crime sim masterpiece.
Most of the Final Fantasy JRPGs and their various spin-offs could easily win a spot or two on this list, but only one of these well-written, beautifully drawn, finely balanced and masterfully crafted RPGs was an instant shoe-in.
Developed originally for the Nintendo DS, Final Fantasy IV was built for a touch screen control. It also sports a singularly wonderful story, and is the first next-gen Square RPG to make it to Android that is aesthetically, technically and graphically a modern JRPG. At this moment in time FF IV has the distinction of being both the Best Android JRPG and one of the best Android RPGs of all time. If you have any interest in JRPGs, this is your first stop.
One interesting thing about this seminal cross-platform indie is that the unique half of its gameplay; that is, map travel combined with RPG-style combat, punctuated by a contiguous series of random encounters, resembles the thoroughly original Illyria series (listed below), the first of which was developed some time before The Banner Saga. True, that formula was lifted from the legendary Oregon Trail games, a game which has been copied and cloned elsewhere, but never elsewhere by a storied RPG.
It’s enough to say however that it does not matter whether the folks at Versus Evil lifted these facets of gameplay from Little Killerz or not as The Banner Saga boasts a number of deftly rendered facets you won’t find in Little Killerz critically acclaimed RPGs: One is the sumptuous 2D, comic book-like graphics, another is its elegant and satisfying tactical combat and last but in no way least, The Banner Saga sports a smart and wonderfully unique fantasy gameworld and a story that is one part Norse mythology and two parts mytho-poetic sci-fi loveliness. Elsewhere critics have referred to The Banner Saga’s rich, novel-like qualities and how playing the title on a tablet can be something akin to curling up in bed with a great book. We concur.
We were certain that at least one traditional Western-style RPG had to make the final cut; and choosing Little Killerz’ Illyria: Destinies for this distinction was a forgone conclusion. While Destinies’ narrative is obviously thus set in a somewhat typical medieval fantasy world, the game’s overarching story has originality and chutzpah to spare and the game itself is anything but typical. Like all the Illyria games, Destiny’s gameplay is a blend of Oregon Trail-style exploration and combat that plays like a cross between the Disciples games and an old school JRPG. Unlike its two predecessors, its gameworld is an open-ended sandbox world, which you could play around in for scores of hours without touching the game’s main quest.
Destinies’ various strengths jibe together almost perfectly. It’s the kind of game that could only be the product of an independent developer. Some might argue that the graphics are not up to AAA standards, and while this may be true, you could also argue that they can stand beside anything on the microdev market. More importantly, the gameplay is more nuanced and satisfying than the vast majority of mobile and AAA titles on any platform, which is why it handily made this list and is arguably the finest RPG on Android.
Even though developer, Harebrained Schemes, made the mistake of making the first two Shadowrun games available for Smart Phones, on which both are fairly unplayable, there’s no escaping the fact that on a high-end tablet Dragonfall, the second iteration in the series, represents what is for our money the finest role-playing experience available on ‘Droid. Dragonfall covers every facet that makes for a great RPG with excellence and style. From its novel-quality writing and tightly balanced RPG system to its sumptuous graphics and Xcom-light tactical combat, Dragonfall is a case study in how to make a superb RPG. That it was developed as a cross-platform title from the gate and plays flawlessly with touch controls is icing on the cake.
When we heard that the grandmaster of developers, Blizzard Entertainment was about to release a game on Android we were ecstatic. When it turned out to be a digital card game, many a Hardcore Droid writer looked up to the heavens and, with fists clenched, shouted, “Nooooo!” Others wept bitterly. However, shortly after Hearthstone’s release, Hardcore Droid editor Matt Byrd published a 4.5 star review of the game, and some of us naysayers grew curious. A few of us went as far as to begin dabbling with it. Those who did, were treated to one of the most elegantly designed digital strategy games they’d ever played, bar none.
At first glance, Hearthstone is a mano a mano deck building game. However, as one progresses through its entertaining and comprehensive tutorial, the game’s most fundamental strategic layer gets peeled back and the game’s deeper core mechanics fall into focus, which occurs at about the same time that you find yourself utterly engrossed in this subtly complex strategy game that is at its center as rich and compelling as the most complex PC strategy game. Like any Blizzard title, Hearthstone also offers up a host of multiplayer options and beautiful hand-drawn graphics. However, the most important Blizzard hallmark that Hearthstone brings to the table is that its excellence sets a new high watermark for both digital card games and mobile strategy in general.
Firaxes’ reboot of the original Xcom, a title that was oft considered the last word on tactical strategy, proved an amazing game on every system it graced. While Xcom’s gameplay suffers a hair on a smartphone’s tiny screen, its singularly excellent tactical strategic gameplay translates almost perfectly onto touch screens. While the graphics have been slightly downgraded for mobile, it’s barely noticeable on the smaller screen of a smart device.
Equally brilliant, standalone expansion Xcom Enemy Within’s many cool perks, like added customizations and a whole new category of upgrades, enemies, maps and missions, all make the trip to mobile intact. These two titles were the first games that came to mind when we began discussing this list. While they are not emblematic of Android gaming per se—as many of the games on this list are—they handily slide into the number one slot because they are one, aptly suited to touch-screen gaming; two, they boast unfailingly engaging gameplay, and lastly because they stand, by any measure, among the ten best games of the decade.