Action games have never been the most obvious fit for mobile, what with the lack of greasy buttons to mash with your sweaty thumbs when stuff gets real. But, somehow, year after year, developers find a way to nail it.
Many of the games in this list are ports from other platforms, with physical controls seamlessly converted to on-screen buttons and gestures. Others were built from the group-up for mobile. Either way, they turn your smartphone into the greatest portable console in the world.
Though it came to PC, Switch, and PS4 before arriving on Android, Juicy Realm is the perfect kind of action game for mobile: a colorful, accessible, and addictive twin-stick shooter. The setup is that fruit and vegetables have evolved to take over the world, and you need to send them back to the bottom of the tree of life where they belong, making use of a variety of characters and weapons.
Another PC and console port, Dead Cells is described by developer Motion Twin as a “roguevania”. If you lack the lingo to know exactly what that means, it means each attempt takes place in a randomly generated world, and all your progress is lost when you die. But it also means you’ve got a world to explore that gradually opens up as you acquire new powers by occupying any corpses that you happen to find lying around.
As tributes go, Pascal’s Wager is pretty shameless, looking so much like a spinoff of Dark Souls or Bloodborne that it could be described as a “spiritual successor”. But Tipsworks has done such an excellent job that it doesn’t matter. This gloomy action-RPG captures the maddening, exhilarating difficulty of Dark Souls, as well as its haunting atmosphere, to create one of the most polished and substantial action game offerings the mobile platform has seen.
Door Kickers: Action Squad should by rights have appeared in a list of the top strategy games of 2020. That’s because its predecessor, Door Kickers, was much more of a tactical affair, with a top-down perspective and an emphasis on planning. This radical sequel takes the side-scrolling 2D route, and keeps the strategy to a minimum – while keeping just enough of it to make the gut-busting action interesting.
What is it about sci-fi and the wild west? Ever since Marty McFly found himself in the lawless nightmare of 1885 California, entertainers have been forcing cowboys and robots into the unlikeliest of unions, and Space Marshals 3 is the latest example. It’s a winner, too, continuing the series’ perfectly balanced combination of stealth, tactics, and all-out gunslinging action in a gameworld that unites cacti with laser guns.
If you don’t already know, bullet hell is a subsection of the top-down arcade shooter genre that aims for total sensory overload, filling the screen with an apparently insurmountable quantity of colorful ordinance and challenging you to find a place to hide among the criss-crossing death rays while hopefully firing off a few rounds of your own. Bullet Hell Monday Finale is a superb example of the genre, with a unique and hypnotic visual style and a surprisingly accessible difficulty curve.
If you were to ask the people who transport precarious piles of logs through the Siberian wasteland in a giant unwieldy truck whether they’re happy with their lives, we’re not sure they’d say yes. But that’s exactly the life that MudRunner Mobile gives you – and it’s an absolute blast. With 15 different open world environments to explore, 16 different vehicles to master, and a solid physics engine that makes everything feel gratifyingly real, MudRunner Mobile is undoubtedly better than the real thing.
Butterscotch Shenanigans proved itself to be one of the best indie developers around with Crashlands, the multiple award-winning survival game released in 2016. Levelhead is a worthy follow-up. The game casts you as an employee for a futuristic delivery company, designing courses to train a delivery bot. It’s a neat setup for a LittleBigPlanet-esque platformer built around user-created levels – though there are 90 hand-crafted stages put together by the developers to get you started.
Though it looks a lot like Punch-Out!!, the primitive, eccentrically punctuated NES boxing title, Prizefighters 2 is a much more sophisticated beast. In fact, it’s one of the most authentic and comprehensive boxing games around, improving on its predecessor with more moves in the ring and a career mode that takes everything into account, from the age of your fighter to the timing of their training.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is known in the gaming fraternity as the spiritual successor to the Castlevania series. This is a huge boast, of course, but if any game deserves to make that boast, it’s this one. Developed by Koji Igarashi, a Konami veteran who worked on the Castlevania games, and set in a sprawling gothic castle full of secret areas and hidden passages, Bloodstained,: Ritual of the Night is about as close as you can get to the real thing without vanishing into a black hole of litigation.
Despite Rayark’s reputation as a purveyor of rhythm-action games pretty much exclusively, the studio has somehow managed to put out one of the best platformers of the year. MO: Astray is a gorgeous, challenging puzzle-platformer that sees you playing as a blob that’s attempting to escape from a sinister abandoned laboratory (like there’s any other kind).
There’s retro and then there’s retro. Plenty of games attempt to mimic the aesthetic of vintage games to stimulate the nostalgia glands of older gamers, but they rarely take it as far as Pixboy, which makes ZX Spectrum games look like rainbow-hued technological marvels by comparison. Gameplay-wise, Pixboy is simply a well-crafted platformer complete with four worlds, four bosses, 150 secret rooms, and a rad chiptune soundtrack.
There’s retro and then there’s vintage. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night may be the spiritual successor to Castlevania, but guess what: Castlevania IS Castlevania. This mobile remake of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is unmissable because the game was always unmissable, from when it appeared on PS1 in 1997 through every subsequent port and up to right now. In case you don’t know, it sees you exploring Dracula’s castle. Just play it.
Before Dark is a perfect example of the aphorism that less means more. The thing Before Dark has less of is jumping – in fact, it doesn’t have any at all. Instead, you can launch your little neon ball through the air by interacting with your environment in various different ways. This challenging but manageable speed-based platformer sees you navigating a series of stages using only the forces of gravity and momentum while you race against the clock.
If you think about it, few animals are as warlike as the tortoise. They’re basically organic tanks. War Tortoise 2 is an idle shooter that follows this logic to an absurd and enjoyable extreme. It sees you plodding through a variety of nicely rendered environments as a giant, heavily armored tortoise, blasting away at crabs, rabbits, and other animal adversaries (don’t worry – they’re heavily armored too). It sounds stupid, but this action-packed shooter gets the balance of idle and active just right.
Cookies Must Die is the kind of action game that mobiles were made for. Channelling Halfbrick’s legendary Barry Steakfries games, it sees you charging, leaping, and somersaulting around in a series of 2D levels like a murderous acrobat, shooting at sentient food. It could all be a bit too frantic if it weren’t for the super-slick controls and the ultra-satisfying, Max Payne-esque time-slowing mechanic.