Perhaps you’ve just bought an iPad, or just been given one for the first time. Or maybe you’re thinking that your Apple tablet is old and boring and there’s nothing fun left that it can do.
Well, friend, you’re entirely wrong. Fortunately, the App Store offers loads of gaming greats for you, even if you’ve forked out your last bit of cash to buy the iPad itself.
Our lists cover the best free iPad puzzle games, racers, platform games, and more, split into categories (one on each page) for your perusing pleasure.
Plus, check back weekly for our free iPad app of the week, where you’ll find that below as we look at new titles all the time.
Free iPad game of the week: Pocket Cowboys
Pocket Cowboys is an online slice of multiplayer strategy that smartly marries immediacy and depth. It features gunslingers fighting it out on battlefields comprising hexagonal grids. Turns are taken simultaneously, with each player choosing between moving, shooting, or reloading.
The result is a bit like rock/paper/scissors, but with a tactical injection: sometimes you can second-guess what an opponent is going to do, and line up your shot accordingly. Further strategy and curveballs come from your upgradable gang (each gunslinger having their own unique abilities), and environmental hazards like dust storms and horses.
On iPad, the game works really well. The visuals look superb, and when making a move there’s much less chance of you prodding the wrong spot on the larger display.
Best free iPad arcade games
Our favorite iPad arcade games, including brawlers and fighting games, auto-runners, party games, pinball, and retro classics.
Williams Pinball brings a selection of classic pinball tables to your iPad, and then adds animated remastering – at least, if you’re prepared to work for it.
Initially, you just get to unlock one table for unlimited play. (Pick a good one – Attack from Mars, The Getaway, or Medieval Madness – because you’ll be playing it a lot.) Through daily challenges, you’ll then slowly acquire the parts to gradually unlock other tables – unless you fancy splashing out on IAP to buy them outright.
This probably sounds a bit awful, but the truth is you’re ‘grinding’ by playing pinball. Also, the challenges often give you unlimited balls, so you can learn the tables. Stay the course, and eventually you can boost these already top-notch recreations with tough pro-level physics and animated components.
Fly THIS! echoes early App Store hit Flight Control, having you draw paths for planes to follow. But whereas the older title was an endless test that relentlessly ramped up the panic, this newer game feels more strategic and bite-sized.
The planes are fewer in number, but the maps are more claustrophobic. Also, you’re not just making planes land – instead, you ferry passengers between airports. Further complications come in the form of weather, and massive mountains you really don’t want to fly planes into.
Because each level has a set points target, Fly THIS! is great for playing in short bursts as well. In all, it’s a smart reimagining of a long-lost iPad favorite, which in many ways is more appealing than the game that presumably inspired it.
Skullgirls is an impressive tappy brawler – akin to Street Fighter II reimagined for touch, by someone very much against the concept of virtual joypads.
This means swipes and taps are the order of the day, swift finger movements being used to duff up opponents. Buttons merely exist to fire off special moves, or tag in a team-mate when you’ve been punched in the face one time too many. It all works very well for the game’s fast pace.
Visually, Skullgirls dazzles, too, recalling an amped-up take on classic 1940s cartoons and manga. Character design – bar questionably skimpy clothing choices here and there – is especially impressive: one fighter’s Lovecraftian hair has a life of its own; another is a humanoid brass instrument that transforms into a massive French horn that mows down foes. Parp!
The controls remain the same – tap left or right to ‘flap’ in the relevant direction, moving in an arc as you do so. But multi-screen levels and a lower concentration of enemies makes for an experience that has space for exploration and unearthing secrets, rather than solely being an ongoing frantic dash for survival.
That’s not to say Super Fowlst is easy – far from it. The boss battles in particular are extremely tough, and it will take you some time before you can last a dozen levels. But this one feels like anyone has a crack at becoming ‘super’ rather than only gaming gurus.
Train Party is a multiplayer game for between two and twelve people. In cooperative mode, you all work as a team, trying to keep a train going for as long as possible. You lay tracks for it to chug along, move wildlife from its path, and deal with a renegade track bomber. In competitive mode, Train Party gets added bite, the winner being the last person to survive without wrecking the train.
In either mode, this is a fun game, and it works particularly well on iPad. The larger display means even the sausage-fingered can play with an excellent degree of accuracy. Also, an iPad is a much weightier device to whack a chum with should they get a bit cocky after their fifth Train Party win in a row…
Shadow Fight 3
Shadow Fight 3 is a side-on one-on-one brawler set in a world of shadows that stands on the edge of a great war. In gaming terms, though, it’s mostly an excuse to whip your sword out, slice up your opponent, and then give them a few kicks and punches for good measure.
The fighty action works especially well on the iPad. The large screen provides plenty of space for the lush visuals, and your thumbs don’t cover anything important up while they battle with the surprisingly responsive virtual controls.
Your ongoing mission is a bit grindy at times, with an underlying RPG-lite mechanic of upgrades, but the brawls are great, whether you’re mastering a new weapon, unleashing shadow powers, or figuring out how to get the odd punch in when you’ve lost your sword and an opponent is moving in for the kill.
Dancing Line is a rhythm action game controlled with a single finger. You help a wiggly line carve its way through isometric worlds. Its survival is down to you tapping the screen at opportune moments, to make the line change direction rather than smack into a wall.
If that was it, Dancing Line would be easy to dismiss, but beautiful design ensures it’s a winner. One level features a piano, with keys moving to the soundtrack’s notes; part-way through, you’re suddenly inside the instrument, hammers raining down all around you. Elsewhere, you blaze through gardens and a savannah at sunset.
The game can frustrate when you fail near the end of a minutes-long level, and its ad-heavy freemium trappings can grate, but if you’ve a sense of rhythm, and a penchant for great-looking games that marry immediacy and elegance, Dancing Line is well worth a download.
Slide the Shakes
Slide the Shakes recreates the bartender slide, where a beverage is sent to a patron at speed – only in Slide the Shakes, the bars have been built by a maniac. They’re full of humps and gaps, set on slopes, and often covered in sticky goo and slippy ice.
In each level, you’re tasked with sending a milkshake to several precise destinations. Fall short and the game generously gives you another shot (albeit at the expense of a perfect score); smash the glass and you must start that round again.
This is a bright, breezy, immediate game, with intuitive catapult controls. It also avoids the irritating randomness of an Angry Birds, because the pull-back mechanism affords you plenty of accuracy. Just as well when you’re confronted with bar-top designs akin to motocross tracks.
Beat Street is a love letter to classic scrolling brawlers, where a single, determined hero pummels gangs of evil-doers and saves the day. In Beat Street, giant vermin are terrorizing Toko City, and will only stop when you’ve repeatedly punched them in the face.
On iPhone, Beat Street is a surprisingly successful one-thumb effort, but on iPad you’re better off playing in landscape. With your left thumb, you can dance about, and then use your right to hammer the screen (and the opposition).
The iPad’s large display shows off the great pixel art, but the fighty gameplay’s the real star – from you taking on far too many opponents at once to gleefully beating one about the head with a baseball bat. It turns out they do make ’em like they used to after all.
Up the Wall
Up the Wall is an auto-runner with an edge. Or rather, lots of edges. Because instead of being played on a single plane, Up the Wall regularly has you abruptly turn 90-degree corners, some of which find you zooming up vertical walls.
The speed and snap twists make for a disorienting experience, but the game’s design is extremely smart where, most notably, each challenge is finite and predefined. Up the Wall isn’t about randomness and luck, but mastering layouts, and aiming for that perfect run.
It nails everything else, too. The game sounds great, and has sharp, vibrant visuals, with imaginative environments. It’s not often you’re frantically directing a burger in an abstract fever dream of milkshakes and ketchup bottles, nor a skull in a world of flames, lava, and guitars.
San Giorli is a strange arcade game set in a neon city that’s seemingly been deserted. Mostly, it involves you plugging things in (or unplugging them), which doesn’t sound terribly exciting – but trust us on this one.
The levels scroll horizontally, and at any given point bits of cabling are strategically positioned. You must connect cables to activate machines that clear the way forward for your ship – which often requires careful timing and plugging/unplugging in a specific order. Also, your character rotates around your ship, attached to it by a cable, rather than having free movement.
It’s the limitations and the game’s slightly unusual nature that make San Giorli work – and especially on iPad. It’s tense when you need to perform a bunch of actions in order, spinning this way and that, your little hero’s head missing nearby scenery by a whisker.
Stranger Things: The Game
Stranger Things: The Game is a rarity: a free tie-in videogame that’s not rubbish. In fact, it’s a really good old-school action-adventure that should delight old-timers and also click with people who follow the TV show.
The idea is to figure out what’s going on in Hawkins, Indiana, where things have gone deeply weird. You start off playing Officer Hopper, who scowls and punches his way about, but soon find kids to join your crew, including Lucas and his wrist rockets, and bat-swinging Nancy.
Occasionally, the game echoes old-school fare a little too well, with set-piece sections that are tough to crack (although you do get infinite attempts) – and the map is if anything too big; for the most part, though, Stranger Things: The Game is a clever, engaging, and compelling slice of mobile adventuring.
Silly Walks is a one-thumb arcade game, featuring wobbling foodstuffs braving the hell of nightmarish kitchens (and, later, gardens and gyms), in order to free fruity chums who’ve been cruelly caged.
The hero of the hour – initially a pineapple cocktail – rotates on one foot. Tapping the screen plants a foot, causing him to rotate on the other foot and changing the direction of rotation. Charitably, this could be called a step, and with practice, it’s possible to put together a reasonable dodder.
And you’ll need to. Although early levels only require you to not fall off of tables, pretty soon you’re dealing with meat pulverizers, hero-slicing knives, and psychotic kitchenware in hot pursuit.
It’s admittedly all a little one-level – Silly Walks reveals almost all in its initial levels – but smart design, superb visuals, and a unique control method make it well worth a download.
Transformers: Forged to Fight
We shouldn’t encourage them, really. Transformers: Forged to Fight is packed full of horrible free-to-play trappings: timers; gates; a baffling currency/resource system. And yet it’s a horribly compelling title. Much of this is down to how much fun it apparently is to watch giant robots punching each other in the face.
If you’re unfamiliar with Transformers, it’s based around robots that disguise themselves as cars and planes as a kind of camouflage – and then they forget about all that, transform into bipedal robots, and attempt to smash each other to bits.
This game has various Transformers universes colliding, which for fans only increases the fun – after all, old hands can watch with glee as old-school Optimus Prime hacks Michael Bay’s version to pieces with a massive axe. But for newcomers hankering for one-on-one Street Fighterish brawls on an iOS device, it’s still a freebie worth grabbing.
Silly Sausage: Doggy Dessert
The world’s stretchiest canine’s found himself in a world full of sticky desserts and a surprising number of saw blades. His aim: get to the other end of this deadly yet yummy horizontally scrolling world. The snag: the aforementioned blades, a smattering of puzzles, and the way this particular pooch moves.
In Silly Sausage: Doggy Dessert, the canine hero doesn’t pootle along on tiny legs – instead, you swipe to make his body stretch like an angular snake until he reaches another surface, whereupon his hind quarters catch up.
The result is an impressive side-scroller that’s more sedate puzzler than frantic platformer – aside from in adrenaline-fueled time-based challenge rooms, which even Silly Sausage veterans will be hard-pressed to master.
Magic Touch: Wizard for Hire
Touchscreens have opened up many new ways to play games, but scribbling with a finger is perhaps the most natural. And that’s essentially all you do in Magic Touch, which sounds pretty reductive – right up until you start playing.
The premise is that you’re a wizard, fending off invading nasties who all oddly use balloons to parachute towards their prize. Match the symbol on any balloon and it pops, potentially causing a hapless intruder to meet the ground rather more rapidly than intended.
Initially, this is all very simple, but when dozens of balloons fill your field of vision, you’ll be scrawling like crazy, desperately fending off the invasion to keep the wizard gainfully employed.
Frisbee Forever 2
With almost limitless possibilities in videogames, it’s amazing how many are drab grey and brown affairs. Frisbee Forever 2 (like its similarly impressive forerunner) is therefore a breath of fresh air with its almost eye-searing vibrance.
There’s a kind of Nintendo vibe – a sense of fun that continues through to the gameplay, which is all about steering a frisbee left and right, collecting stars strewn along winding paths. And these are a world away from the parks you’d usually fling plastic discs about in – here, you’re hurled along roller-coaster journeys through ancient ruins and gorgeous snowy hillsides.