A modern iPhone is capable of running sophisticated, exquisitely-rendered games that rival titles on current-generation consoles. However, there is some value in classic video game titles, whether you grew up playing games on the Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Genesis or not.
While there emulators out there that allow you to play original game ROMs on mobile devices, intellectual property owners continue to rake in revenue with ports, remasters, and reboots of the originals. And those are the games we'll highlight; our favorite ones in the iOS App Store, which bands emulation gaming apps anyway.
We've covered a few classics before, such as NBA Jam and Golden Tee, as well as reimaginings of classics in Retro Bowl and Prizefighters, in our look at our favorite mobile sports games. Now, here are some classic action, adventure, and puzzle games for those who yearn for a simpler time of gaming. Apps are presented roughly in chronological order based on the original games, from the arcade era through to the earlier generations of consoles.
App 1: Pac-Man 256
The little yellow chomper is almost synonymous with the golden age of arcade gaming, having come out in 1980. While the original game is available for iPhone, gamers old and new alike should opt for the Pac-Man 256 reimagining instead.
Pac-Man 256 takes the hero and familiar trappings of the original, including the mazes, ghosts, dots, and fruit, and converts them into an endless runner. Instead of closing out each level, players must outrun a "glitch" that consumes the game from the bottom, all while gobbling up dots and avoiding (or eating) ghosts.
- App Store Link: Pac-Man 256 (free)
App 2: Breakout Boost
While Atari has adapted many of its titles for iPhone, most of them are currently incompatible with updated versions of iOS. Breakout Boost, initially released in 1976, is one that has been updated for the modern iOS framework.
Breakout Boost follows the original premise of the game — to bounce balls, break bricks — with modernized graphics and convenient power boosts. Otherwise, it is what it was: a simple distraction.
- App Store Link: Breakout Boost (free)
App 3: Missile Command: Recharged
At the risk of revealing my true age, my first console was the Atari 2600. Missile Command, from 1980, was among the two handfuls of games that I had throughout the console's useful life. And now it's the latest title that Atari has revived for mobile devices.
The basic premise remains the same, as you are challenged to defend your base from descending missiles by aiming for a spot ahead of its trajectory. Atari has added some modern amenities, such as power boosts, to make things more interesting. There's even an augmented reality arcade that you can place in your physical space, but it's more of a neat trick than an improvement on gameplay.
- App Store Link: Missile Command: Recharged (free)
App 4: Q-Bert
While I've played many of the games on this list in their original versions, Q-Bert, stylized as "Q*bert" when it came out in 1982, is one of those that I certainly recognize but can't recall ever playing. But my son knows him from the Wreck-It Ralph games, so whatever.
The game plays like a Bizarro World version of Pac-Man. Instead of a yellow circle gobbling dots and dodging ghosts, you command a hopping and cursing orange ball with a horn for a mouth to color squares on raised platforms while avoiding... other things. Beware, this free game is loaded with unskippable video ads, but you can unlock the ad-free version for $2.99.
- App Store Link: Q-Bert (free)
App 5: Tetris
Since its original launch in 1984, Tetris has maintained its status as the best-selling video game of all-time in the mobile era, with approximately 500 million copies sold across platforms. Released in January, the latest official version of Tetris for iPhone replaces the edition published by Electronic Arts.
This edition of Tetris takes the game back to its basics, with the only bells and whistles being themes and avatars to customize the look of the game. Gone are the multitude of micro-transactions deployed in EA's version, with the only in-app purchase being a $4.99 option to remove ads. More importantly, the game can be played offline, a refreshing benefit in an era where games demand a persistent web connection simply to check for a game license.
- App Store Link: Tetris (free)
App 6: Super Mario Run
Nintendo debuted the world's most popular video game character on the iPhone in Super Mario Run. While not a direct port of the original NES game from '85 or subsequent SNES games, Super Mario Run takes the familiar characters and level designs from those games and translates them to an endless runner game.
Also, Nintendo has employed touchscreen gestures instead of an adapted gamepad, making it possible to play the game with one hand. As a bonus, you can switch between in-game music and your own music through a mini-player in the game.
The first taste of the game is free, but you'll have to pony up $9.99 to unlock the remainder of the game. As a bonus, if you decide to purchase the full game within the first 24 hours, you'll unlock Luigi as a playable character as well.
- App Store Link: Super Mario Run (free)
App 7: Mega Man Mobile
1987's Mega Man, at least in my mind, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Contra and Metroid among the great side-scrolling action games of the NES era (though I hold Castlevania in higher regard than all of them). However, while many of its peers don't have an official version on the App Store, Capcom has ported seven Mega Man titles.
I'm focusing on the original here. By all appearances, Mega Man Mobile is a faithful port of the NES version, right down to the chiptune soundtrack. The first six games run $1.99 each or $9.99 as a bundle, with Mega Man X costing $4.99.
- App Store Link: Mega Man Mobile ($1.99)
App 8: Double Dragon Trilogy
It didn't create the "beat'em up" genre of side-scrolling action games, but 1987's Double Dragon certainly helped popularize it via arcade and console. Punch, kick, and jump (or combos thereof) through the mean streets of the inner city as you disrupt the Black Warriors crime syndicate.
While this game costs real money, you do get three games in one, so that's a plus. In addition to supporting gamepads and co-op gameplay via Bluetooth, players can choose between Arcade and Story mode and three levels of difficulty.
- App Store Link: Double Dragon ($2.99)
App 9: Final Fantasy Dimensions
The Final Fantasy VII Remake isn't Square Enix's first attempt at cashing in on an old RPG title. In fact, the developer has ported or remastered many of the original games in Final Fantasy franchise (which kicked off in '87) for iPhone, ranging from $7.99 to $14.99 each or $69.99 for the first six bundled together with the 3D remake of Final Fantasy IV. Even Final Fantasy VII has made its way over to the App Store.
If Square Enix's pricetags for retreads seem a bit high, the developer has also published an original smartphone title, Final Fantasy Dimensions. The game has a very similar feel in gameplay mechanics, art, and bestiary to the original 16-bit Final Fantasy with a new story and controls built for touchscreens. The prologue is free, and if you choose to venture further, you can buy individual chapters as in-app purchases, but it's cheaper to pay $13.99 for the full game.
- App Store Link: Final Fantasy Dimensions (free)
App 10: Dr. Mario World
Among the vast universe of Mario-related games produced by Nintendo was Dr. Mario, a Tetris clone from 1990 that challenged players to eradicate viruses with like-colored pills. So, this is a highly appropriate game for the COVID-19 pandemic!
In general, puzzle games translate better from console to touchscreen than most action games. It's especially true with Dr. Mario World, where dragging the pills onto the screen and tapping to adjust orientation just makes sense. As a result, the game feels less like a Tetris copy. The game is free to play but offers in-app purchases.
- App Store Link: Dr. Mario World (free)
App 11: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Classic
There's renewed interest in Sonic the Hedgehog now that its film adaptation has broken box office records. As luck would have it, Sega has made many of the titles in the franchise, including the original Sonic the Hedgehog from 1991 and Sonic CD, available to install for free with an option to unlock an ad-free version.
However, I've always preferred Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which introduced the character Tails for two-player action. The mobile port capitalizes on that functionality, offering a two-person co-op mode via Bluetooth connectivity. You can also connect a gamepad, which does help in those areas where precision jumps are needed.
- App Store Link: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Classic (free)
App 12: Mario Kart Tour
This smartphone reboot has already made our list of must-have multiplayer games, but any collection of classic games would be incomplete without Mario Kart Tour.
In many ways, Mario Kart Tour is on-par with the 1992 original and its sequels that appear on every console and handheld that Nintendo manufactured, from the SNES to the Switch. Eventually, the game does push players into purchasing characters and equipment to progress further, but there's enough fun to be had on the free side with earned rewards to keep you entertained for hours on end.
- App Store Link: Mario Kart Tour (free)
App 13: Golden Axe
Compared to its peers, Sega is among the most active in porting its titles to smartphones, and the most generous, offering many of its games for free (with an option to dismiss ads for $1.99) under the Sega Forever banner.
Among the available titles are a group of side-scrollers with very similar mechanics but taking place in different fictional genres. Each game supports gamepads and multiplayer over Wi-Fi, has features to save gameplay (if you sign in) or rewind (at the price of watching a video ad), and comes with sticker packs for iMessage.
Golden Axe (which became a thing in 1989) places the player in a medieval fantasy setting, with three characters pulled straight from He-Man to choose from. The iPhone app actually bundles the trilogy of Golden Axe games into one, so there's plenty of sword-swinging, magic-wielding, beast-riding action to be had in one download.
- App Store Link: Golden Axe (free)
App 14: Altered Beast
Remix Golden Axe with the movie Clash of the Titans and monsters from Castlevania you get Altered Beast (which originally released in 1988). That may sound like an oversimplification, but the accuracy of that description becomes evident when you play them back to back.
As you punch your way through a haunted version of ancient Greece, you collect orbs to hulk out your character and transform yourself into a wolf, bear, tiger, or dragon (hence the title) with superpowers. OK, once you weave the creature comforts into the game, Altered Beast definitely holds its own.
- App Store Link: Altered Beast (free)
App 15: Streets of Rage II
Sega fast-forwards to the mean streets of 1980s action films for the Streets of Rage series, which kicked off in 1991. The games borrow quite a bit from the Double Dragon series in terms of aesthetics and gameplay while handling a lot like Altered Beast and the Golden Axe series. Instead of swords and beasts, you can pick up bats and knives as you beat up punks and street toughs and combine attacks for special moves, like suplexes and drop-kicks.
Unlike the mobile editions of Double Dragon and Golden Axe, Streets of Rage and its sequel are packaged separately. If you only have room for one of these games in your life, opt for the sequel, as it just looks better.
- App Store Link: Streets of Rage II (free)
App 16: Crazy Taxi Classic
While Crazy Taxi debuted as an arcade title in 1999, I didn't play it until the redesigned version of the PlayStation 2 had been eclipsed by the PlayStation 3. Nonetheless, ever since the game made its way to the iPhone, I keep coming back to it. If I were ranking these games, I'd have this one as number one with a bullet.
Though the amusing product placements of Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Tower Records have been replaced with generic landmarks, the port is very much faithful to the original, including its infectious soundtrack of late-'90s punk rock songs from Bad Religion and The Offspring. You can play through the Arcade or Original course as well as a series of Crazy Box mini-games and save your high score in each.
Like the other Sega titles, Crazy Taxi is compatible with handheld controllers. However, I've found that it is actually easier to play with touchscreen controls. Go figure. Also, I'll lay down the gauntlet on this one and challenge anyone to beat my high score of $11,292.50 on the Original course.
- App Store Link: Crazy Taxi Classic (free)
App 17: Street Fighter IV
The Street Fighter series, which began in 1987, pioneered the concept of one-on-one button-mashing martial arts tournaments that gave players a choice from a roster of fighters, each with unique move sets. The game was popular enough for Jean-Claude Van Damme to star in its film adaptation.
Capcom has only ported over one of the latter-day sequels over to App Store, but if "HADOKEN" is a part of your lexicon, you probably won't have an issue throwing $4.99 at your iPhone for this one.
- App Store Link: Street Fighter IV ($4.99)
App 18: Mortal Kombat
Like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat (from 1992) helped set the standard for martial arts fighting games. Also like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat was adapted into a movie, with a reboot planned to arrive in 2021. In contrast to the cartoon aesthetic of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat took a darker turn with brutal gore, giving a whole new meaning to finishing move.
Mortal Kombat for mobile has more in common with the Injustice series fighting games than its originals, with players collecting (or buying) fighters and deploying them in three-on-three battles. But those who gave themselves carpal tunnel mashing buttons in the original will relish the opportunity to bring the same fighters back to their iPhones.
- App Store Link: Mortal Kombat (free)
App 19: 1945
This game embodies Capcom's series of arcade/console games from the 1990s (which actually started in 1984 with 1942), but if you didn't know any better, you'd think the game comes from the 16-bit era of gaming. And that's a good thing.
The vertical-scrolling game puts you in the third-person pilot seat of a fighter jet as you swipe to dodge enemy aircraft and artillery. It's another case where a retro game has better controls for touchscreen than it did in its original iteration, with swiping left to right on the screen, making flying look as natural as breathing.
- App Store Link: 1945 (free)
App 20: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Like Sega, Konami has benefited from Castlevania being adapted as a series on Netflix. Just in time for the release of season three last month, the developer surprisingly published its first port of a game from the Castlevania series for smartphones. And it picked a prime target in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, considered by many to be the best in the series, if not one of the best side-scrolling games ever (though I'll always hang my hat on Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse for nostalgia's sake).
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the iPhone is a direct port of the original PlayStation version from 1997, from game maps to graphics to soundtrack. While the game has adapted its controls for the touchscreen, you can also connect a gamepad, which, in this case, is highly recommended. The app also has an auto-save feature that lets you continue at your last milestone instead of the in-game savepoints, but this also means you start with the hit points you entered the stage with.
By the way, if you are a fan of the "Metroidvania" style, you should check out Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a spiritual successor to the Castlevania series, on console or PC.
- App Store Link: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ($2.99)
Honorable Mention: Crossy Road
Rounding out our list is a game that isn't exactly a classic title but is a suitable substitute for one. Crossy Road is essentially a modern remake of 1981's Frogger without using the original's title. The makers of the game also lent a hand in developing Pac-Man 256, so Crossy Road has the same endless level gameplay.
Also, players can earn rewards through gameplay in the form of character loot boxes. That lets you change out your character but also may tempt you into the realm of in-app purchases. Nonetheless, it's one of those games that can sink its hooks into you.
- App Store Link: Crossy Road (free)
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