Android Police's bi-weekly roundups have covered more than 750 games this year. That's a hell of a lot for a site that's not specifically about gaming, and picking out the top five is no small task. Before you read any further, take note of the following: I had a few criteria that games had to meet before being included in the following selections.
One, it needs to be a mobile game. There's nothing wrong with porting a Steam title over to Android, or reviving a decades-old RPG or point-and-click adventure title for the Play Store. But the best and brightest new ideas shouldn't be overshadowed by older properties, however popular they might be. Games that release on multiple platforms around the same time are fine. Second, games in this roundup don't feature manipulative in-app purchase structures. Small IAPs for bonus content or getting rid of ads are fine, but asking $100 for ten thousand fake rubies is a big faux pas. (Yes, that disqualifies a lot of mobile games.)
Third, the games below are available for Android phones and tablets in general, with no exclusives. That isn't to say that some of the games for SHIELD hardware or the new Daydream VR titles aren't deserving, we just wanted this particular guide to be useful to as many people as possible.
Most pinball video games try to faithfully replicate the arcade games of old, with perhaps a few digital animations or power-ups. PinOut takes the core concept of pinball and combines it with endless mobile runners, something that's just not possible with a conventional table. The core concept is faithful to the game and hits the same buttons in your brain, but the always-changing stages makes stages feel constantly refreshed.
It doesn't hurt that PinOut's neon-soaked aesthetic is gorgeous. This is future pinball as imagined by a coke-fueled graphic designer who time-warped to the present from 1983. Stages are stark but amazingly well-lit, animation is smooth and helps the eye track the ball, and the synth-pop music brings everything together nicely. PinOut is free, with a single $3 in-app purchase to save your progress.
Pinball reinvented by the award-winning developers of Smash Hit and Does not Commute. Race against time in a continuous journey through this mysterious canyon of pulsating lights and throbbing retro wave beats. The classic pinball mechanic remodeled into a breathtaking arcade experience. PinOut is playable at no cost and free from ads. An optional premium upgrade is available through a one-time in-app purchase that will enable the ability to continue from checkpoints.
Deus Ex GO - Puzzle Challenge
Square-Enix has been releasing mobile tie-ins for its big console franchises for a while now. But rather than go the easy route with an IAP grind-fest or a pixelated throwback, they've engineered a smart board game system that brings elements of the console games into a turn-based mobile title that works well with touch controls and limited playtime. Lara Croft and Hitman have had GO variants, but Deus Ex is something even more special.
The game challenges players with stealth-based tactics and spatial puzzles, offering multiple paths through levels that tell tiny encapsulated stories about Adam Jensen's futuristic battles. Low-poly graphics are simple but engaging, and the game includes both a full story campaign and a level editor for shareable challenges. Deus Ex GO is normally $5, but it's discounted to just $2 for the holidays, with in-app purchases for level hints (not currency) topping out at $8.
Challenge all-new turn-based logic puzzles and solve a futuristic mystery in Deus Ex GO, the next tactical board game from the makers of the award-winning HITMAN GO and LARA CROFT GO. Puzzles in Deus Ex GO challenge you to utilize a mixture of stealth, espionage and raw intelligence as you guide secret agent Adam Jensen across a visually stunning storyline. Sneak, hack and fight your way past enemies, and augment Adam with futuristic upgrades to solve the GO series’ most intricate puzzles yet.
Real-time strategy is hard to manage on a mobile screen, which might be why base-builders like Clash of Clans (with their asynchronous multiplayer) dominate on the platform. The original Auralux got around the limitations of the platform by keeping things simple: resources and units are the same thing, and planetary bases are all the same. It boils down to pure time and energy management. The sequel expands on these principles with a ton of new levels and obstacles, better graphics, and more platform support - hitting all the right buttons for a sequel.
Auralux: Constellations earns a spot on this list for offering so many ways to play. In addition to launching with full Android TV compatibility, it comes with Google Play Games support for online multiplayer, local multiplayer for devices that can support it, and 4K graphics. Auralux is difficult to master, but those looking for deep strategy based on simple principles will be thrilled. The game is free to download with in-app purchases for level packs that don't exceed $10.
Auralux: Constellations features a slow, graceful feel, easy to learn mechanics and vibrant minimalistic graphics, all pulsing to the rhythm of ambient music. This game is designed to provide a relaxing, cerebral experience yet will challenge even the most experienced RTS fans. Every choice matters, and the only path to victory is through clever strategy. It’s Real-Time Strategy, deconstructed.
I wasn't expecting this incredibly simple single-player card game to grab me when I covered it, but I found it hard to put down for weeks. You're a king of a low-poly kingdom, and each decision you make is a simple yes or no affair. But those decisions impact your kingdom, and the four factors that keep it in balance: the people, the church, the army, and the royal treasury. Keep one group from getting too powerful and too angry, and you'll live. Tip the scales for any of them, and you start over as the next king.
The brilliance of Reigns is in creating a complex story and world while giving the player only the simplest possible action to take at every turn. It's practically a meditation on causality - but don't think it isn't also a lot of fun to play. Strategy and a bit of practical wisdom are required to keep the factions in check, and there's no small amount of humor spread through the text-based prompts. Reigns is $3 with no in-app purchases.
Sit on the throne as a benevolent (or malevolent) medieval monarch of the modern age and swipe your royal fingers either left or right to impose your will upon the kingdom. Survive the seemingly never-ending gauntlet of requests from your advisors, peasants, allies, and enemies while maintaining balance between the influential factions of your kingdom. But beware; each decision you make might have implications and unfortunate consequences down the road that could put your reign and family’s dynasty at risk.
AirAttack 2 won't blow you away with any particularly groundbreaking ideas: this sequel to the popular top-down shoot-em-up features standard gameplay, boss battles, and the occasional turret shooter section. What's remarkable about this game is that every aspect of the over-the-top premise is executed to perfection. From the insane alternate history planes and enemies to the detailed 3D graphics to the sweeping soundtrack, everything feels just right. Support for gamepads, Android TV, and even Sasmung's S-Pen doesn't hurt.
The game gets a bonus multiplier for its in-app purchase setup. In addition to the usual coin doubler/ad-free option for two bucks, AirAttack 2 lets you buy in-app purchases... but only one dollar at a time. Not only is that more than reasonable (and pretty generous, given the game's upgrade system), it doesn't come with the implicit suggestion that the designers think you should spend $99.99 on IAP for a mobile game. It actually - gasp! - respects the intelligence of the player without enabling ridiculous whale behavior. Well done.
Sequel of Award Winning next-gen top down air combat shooter with stunning 3D graphics and amazing orchestral soundtrack. Enjoy the classic atmosphere of WW2 arcade shoot-'em-ups in modern rendering. Prepare your plane and destroy the axis of evil with Flamethrower, Tail Gunner, Bombs... Show your friends no mercy in the daily events.
Now I know what you're thinking: Michael, where's that one game? You know.... that game. The one that's still grabbing headlines months after release. Why isn't Britney Spears: American Dream anywhere on this list?
Just kidding, we're talking about Pokémon. And while the meteoric rise of Pokémon GO as a cultural phenomenon is worth discussing, its merits as an actual video game are somewhat lacking. Though hundreds of millions of people downloaded and played Pokémon GO, including what must have been a lot of adults new to the decades-old franchise, a spotty launch and poor developer decisions have left it as something of a mediocre note in 2016's gaming world. The decision to cripple the tracker (one of the game's core augmented reality features) only weeks after launch was a huge let-down. The typical $100 in-app purchases aren't encouraging, though in all fairness they're not necessary for core gameplay or even competing in gyms.
Niantic has improved Pokémon GO quite a lot lately, finally rolling out a new (if not improved) tracker and expanding the game with more creatures and features. Retail partnerships are starting to crop up, meaning that the augmented reality game is probably sticking around for another six months at the very least. So while Pokémon GO is probably the most notable mobile game of 2016, and maybe even 2017 if Niantic continues to improve the title, it just doesn't deserve a spot in our top five picks.
We'll continue to cover new games for the last couple of weeks of the year - in fact, there's a fairly huge game roundup coming on Monday. If you still want more, check through our weekly app and game roundup archive here.