Hidden Gems of Mobile Games

Back in January of 2022, Locally Sourced (our local Michigan gamedev group) put together a zine filled with articles and games by local devs. I had the chance to write an article for the zine, and since it's been a while, I'll share it here, too. If you want to see more & support our local group, please check out the zine here. There's physical and virtual copies! Grace Benfell wrote a nice little feature about it!

Hey there, it’s me, Lily V!

I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I haven’t been paying much attention to phone games recently. I found myself dismissing the massive mobile market as nothing but thoughtless ports with bad controls and slot machine fodder. That was pretty dumb! There are some incredible phone games out there, difficult as they can be to find. Especially as a developer working on her own strange mobile game, I wanted to break my own preconceptions and find out what I’ve been missing.

There ARE some standout mobile games I’ve tried over the years, almost always from the indie scene. This includes the fast-falling roguelike Downwell, the impossibly-shaped Monument Valley, and the gorgeous Florence. But with a million (more or less) games on the Google Play store, there has to be more, right? With the help of some friendly recommendations, I’ve found a few examples that really stand out. The following games have excellent mobile controls, are playable with just a one-time purchase, and contain no special currencies or gambling mechanics. Let’s talk about some mobile games you may not have heard of!

gif of Gun Rounds gameplay. The player is shooting bullets at skeletons.

First up is Gun Rounds by developer Blabberf, a personal favorite of mine. Gun Rounds has short arcade-style sessions that last 2 to 10 minutes, where you fight through a gauntlet of skeletons, mushrooms, and crabs. Each level is set up like a shooting gallery with a mix of enemies to defeat. Exchange shots with your foes, alternating between careful, tactical aiming and skillful dodging. You’ll find shops and treasure chests, giving you a wide variety of “guns” that inspire different strategies, like exploding bubbles or giant swords, plus other powerups and some hidden secrets. The game is tricky, but the quick sessions make it easy to play a round or two in a spare moment. You can find the game here!
Note: Look, I know I keep writing about Gun Rounds. I'm sorry. It's just really good, okay??

gif of Magic Survival gameplay. The player is a wizard shooting fireball and electricity at shadow monsters.

Next, the quiet yet intense arcade roguelike Magic Survival, by developer LEME. You play as a test subject traveling through an apocalyptic wasteland as sketchy spirits chase you ruthlessly. You begin each round with a simple magic blast, but as you gather magic orbs and defeat foes, you gain chances to choose new spells and upgrade your ability, and most rounds end with you unleashing simultaneous storms of fire beams, cyclones, blizzards, and lightning bolts. Your magic is fired automatically, leaving it up to you to dodge the constant swarms of spirits and position yourself to aim your havoc. The controls can feel a little loose at times but are playable with just one hand. Yet, amongst all this chaos is a noticeable ethereality. The game opens with a haunting, winding piano and the battles have little music but ambient rain and thunder. The sketchy art style is almost childish, but instead of being abrasive, it just adds to the unique atmosphere. You can find the game here!
Note: Since the writing of the original article, a similar game named Vampire Survivors has become a shockingly popular indie hit. It seems to have taken a ton of inspiration from Magic Survival, so if you were looking to play something similar on mobile, check this out!

still image of Golf on Mars. There is a golf ball laying on a quiet and serene Martian landscape.

Finally, there is Golf on Mars, by developer Captain Games. A minimalist, perpetual golfing game across the desert of the red planet. The gameplay is simple: pull back to aim the ball with direction and power. The objective is simple: get the ball into the hole. Keep doing it, because there are infinite holes to aim for. Mars is riddled with interfering doodads like water hazards and cacti that will interrupt you. However, no obstacle is more unforgiving than the winding hills and valleys that have the potential to feed you to your goal, but are much more likely to send you winding further and further away. Golf on Mars has a simplicity that fuses you to the game, as it presents you endless targets for you to casually tap for, without long-term goals, nothing to unlock, and not even a heads-up display to get between you and the ball. You don’t need those things. You’re here for the monotony. You can find the game here!

gif of Slice and Dice. The player is rolling dice to attack a party of enemies.

Oh! Also! Very recently I became totally obsessed with a game called Slice & Dice, by developer Tann. It's a game about rolling dice and strategically fighting enemies while thinking several turns ahead. Your goal is to take your classic adventuring party as far as you can into a dungeon, and hoping the dice fall in your favor. The battles are always changing, as enemies parties become more complicated and your tactics are changed by your party's growth and items you find. Despite the sharp difficulty curve, the game feels very forgiving - most actions are reversible, so you can test out strategies to see which benefit you most. The UI is easy to understand - if your strategy is going to get a party member killed, you'll know. The controls are perfect for mobile. Finally, there's a plethora of extra content & bonus modes - I had a great time testing my luck in the endless Cursed mode. If you want a slow, strategic roguelike you can play in the bathroom, here it is! You can find the game here!
Note: Slice & Dice wasn't actually featured in the original article... it was so good I had to add it here. Consider it a bonus!

These games have been wonderful little adventures, and I’m really recognizing how many games I must have missed over the years. I’ve tried out quite a few others I’d recommend as well, such as the math-puzzler Threes and the roguelike Krumit’s Tale. The mobile market gets treated as an afterthought by a lot of developers - indies included - but now I can’t help but think what a waste that is! Mobile gaming has a lot of issues to tackle for players and creators alike. Stores are strangled by highly restrictive distribution and promotion, and developers must consider a huge variety of devices. Beyond those problems, though, mobile still has so much potential! I’m hoping to find a place for my own work within that space. If nothing else, I hope these mini-reviews serve as a reminder that there are some wonderful games out there that can be found with just a little digging.

Lily Valeen is a Michigan game developer who makes games that will make you cry. She’s currently working on Bossgame: The Final Boss is My Heart, a lightning-fast boss gauntlet about two girlfriends who must fight devils to pay the rent.

That's the end of the zine article! I may be writing more for Locally Sourced in the future, so I'll be sure to post anything new here, too!