Where the hell are all the good games for Windows Phone?

There’s every chance that you found this article by searching Google for the phrase ‘Where are all the good games for Windows Phone?’. That’s why I called it that – so you would find it, on Google, the only search engine that anyone ever uses ever. Obviously I added a mild swear to the title, but that’s because… well, seriously, where the hell are they?

If you just want the answer to that question you can skip to the bold bits near the end. But I’d rather you didn’t, so just hear me out for a moment first, okay?

When I first got my Windows Phone, one of my primary priorities was, naturally, games. I even set the ‘Games’ tile to be one of the big ones, even though this adds nothing to the experience except that my Xbox Live avatar dances at me and then points at the screen in a threatening manner at the end, as though he was dancing to decide who to murder in their sleep and then incorporated picking me into his final flourish.

Murder aside, the problem I found is that when you first browse the store everything is either rubbish-looking from the off or ‘Mobile Standard’. You could get a tower defence game if you wanted, but they’re all just… mobile tower defence games, like you played a bit on another platform and then realised was too samey-samerson. You could get Puzzle Quest 2, if you actually want Puzzle Quest and don’t mind paying over the odds to drastically reduce your standards.

The good thing about Microsoft approaching their mobile store as though it were an extension of their Xbox store (which it sort of is – it shares and integrates with the Xbox very well) is that they have maintained their insistence on demos (trials, if we must use their terminology) which is extremely welcome. This is one Microsoft policy which every downloadable store should enforce, particularly those which encourage indie offerings where the player may not have any prior familiarity with what they are about to download. So even though everything on the storefront looks uninviting, there’s no harm in trialling anything vaguely interesting to get a true hand’s-on impression.

That makes it easier to find the good games, but it still doesn’t make it easy, as you won’t find any of said games to trial unless you dig deep through the pile of generic clones and cheap money-grabbers.

I took to the internet, using Google (obviously) to search for the most highly recommended list of Windows Phone games. I might as well have Googled a list of most famous mobile games. Some of the sites I went to included in their lists games which don’t actually exist. A few of them I became interested in, searched for them in the Store, and found nothing. Further investigation revealed that some lazy journalists didn’t even realise some games on their exhaustively-researched lists are iPhone and Android exclusives. It is rare that I can claim any kind of moral high ground on anything related to my meagre internet publishings, but this I promise: Not only have I played all of the games I’m mentioning in this article, they actually exist and everything.

So, popular mobile games then. Apparently, according to The Internet, these are the best games that your Windows Phone can offer you. What I think Windows Phone is good at is casual games. Quick, snappy, in-out casual games. The screen and interface of the platform is good; it’s receptive and smooth, so there are no problems there. When a game is the right fit for the platform, it’s actually a really good device. The thing is that there aren’t currently that many games which do fit the platform, and the ones which do exist are very hard to find.

Of course it couldn’t hurt to own Plants vs. Zombies again, even though there’s every chance you own it on a home games console, a PC, your iPad and the Android phone you just upgraded from. But the thing is, the Windows Phone doesn’t excel at ‘full’ games. It doesn’t let you jump in and out of things the way other mobile devices do. You can’t play a game where a level may last 30 minutes unless you’ve definitely got 30 minutes to spare because you can’t leave it running in the background and you can’t quickly pick up where you left off later. Everything has to load for ages, and nothing saves when you just quit out – hitting any of the softkeys is the equivalent of Alt-F4ing anything you’re currently running.

Few third-party developers seem that interested in Windows Phone as a platform, except for those who will always release that game that they do on every single platform in the world; your Angry Birds and your Puzzles and your Quests and your Plants and your Zombies and so forth. And the first-party Microsoft efforts, well, they’re big ol’ behemoths that are too big for the phone and too small for the Xbox, the latter of which is where their heart really lies despite being pulled somewhere between the two by business demands.

You don’t really want to play anything where the levels aren’t over quickly because the chances of your fingers brushing a softkey accidentally are extremely high, and when you do it’s game over. The existence of the ‘Windows Key’ is fine and all, it’s useful to have a take-me-home button. That’s why iPhones and Android phones have them. They are, of course, physical buttons on those devices, to ensure you don’t press them by accident. Anything else would just be silly.

However, I take particular and significant umbrage at the existence of the Bing button. Why in all the unholy rivers of effluence would anyone ever need an immediate right-the-fuck-now web browser button on their phones when they already have an immediate right-the-fuck-now Home button, from which they can then access the internet within a couple of seconds? Is it that important? Why not have a button for switching off the phone immediately, and a second button for switching off the phone provided the user accepts the ‘Are you Sure?’ prompt first?

(Spoilers: Because if one exists the other is redundant, and the only one which should exist is the one that gives you options despite taking one second longer to take you through the process.)

Sorry, I’m not done with this point yet. Bear with me. They dedicated a whole button to Bing and then put it in the place where your thumb prefers to rest when you are playing a game? Why? Now I will type that word six more times without any spaces to represent my confusion on the matter. Whywhywhywhywhywhy? And that is not to mention the fact that, of all the websites on the internet, why would it go to Bing? It is scientifically proven that it takes longer to go to Bing in order to search for Google than it does to go to Google in the first place, so why does Bing even exist?

Bing

Anyway, it’s not my place to judge someone somewhere for making an abhorrent decision which is bad in all ways and good in none – that is for their friends and families to do.

What it is my place to do is tell you about some of the good games for Windows Phone. I’m going to ignore the bigger games under the assumption you can find them yourself, and just go through the hidden gems you might have missed.

Let’s start with Everlands, a turn-based strategy board game from one-to-watch developer Hexage. The storyline and art style is of a kid’s cartoon series level – you play the Good Animals as you defend your homeland from the Evil Animals (by removing the curse that makes them misbehave of course – no animals were hurt in the making of this battle).

Games take place on a small hexagonal board which you can see on-screen in its entirety, and involve placing animal counters from your pre-made deck into tactical positions. Each animal has health and attack values, attack and defend directions, and a unique special ability which can be utilised by both teams. The game ends when all spaces on the board are filled, and the winner is the player with the most animals.

Whilst not genre-defying Everlands does what it does extremely well, and its battle system has enough depth to give repetitiveness a wide berth – the special abilities in particular add a lot to the proceedings, and thinking two or three moves ahead quickly becomes vital to survival. Its crowning glory is the vicious enemy AI. The computer does not take it easy on the player, nor does it often slip up or waste moves. All this means that when you craft a series of moves that traps the AI the resulting feeling of satisfaction, and possible maniacal laughter, justifies the headaches that out-thinking the relentlessly solid enemy assault can provoke.

Everlands

If you don’t have a Windows Phone but fancy picking the game up anyway, it is a very generously priced offering on Android, iPhone and Baba (?) as well.

Next we have an enjoyably difficult physics/puzzle/timing hybrid Shuriken Ninja. Initially appearing to be of the Angry Birds, Pithy Squirrels, Filthy Wizards etc. school of game design, Shuriken Ninja is actually a fairly novel idea. The player has a set number of different shuriken types per level which they can throw, with the stage only completed when each possible target has been hit. There are various different surfaces and elements within the levels to slide, stick, bounce and skip your ninja star from, and levels are over in two seconds once you get it right – but can take a lot longer than that whilst you’re getting it wrong.

There is a fun flow to levels. First and foremost, you need to work out how to do it. This is easier said than done as the levels can be quite fiendish, often appearing entirely impossible until you make that wonderful discovery that opens the stage up to you. Were the latter elements of the level removed it would still be an accomplished puzzle game. However, working out what to do is just Phase 1. Phase 2 is executing your strategy, which is a test of quick aim and timing instead. This is where the game gets much harder (for me at least, I’m sure other players would say the reverse is true), but again, mastering the art of the shuriken is deeply satisfying and the pleasure of discovering the next level is an excellent motivator to try the current one as many times as you need to finally put those targets down.

Shuriken

The game is currently free and supported by unobtrusive adverts on the score-screen, rather than during actual gameplay – so no excuse not to at least try it.

Remember earlier when I was rude about tower defence games? Well, that’s only because there are thousands of bad ones on every mobile platform. There are also a few surprisingly good ones, such as Castlemine (or Castlemine Free if you’d rather have adverts in your face than part with your cash).

The principle of the thing is that your castle is built on top of a hellmouthy evilly portally monsterbob, and your job is to dig down beneath it to clear it of beasties. You can dig in whatever direction you want, but smart digging is a key strategy. Here is the best thing about Castlemine: you invent your own level to play on as you go, balancing your decision to mine certain items (money, materials, or skulls which increase your EXP but also Enemy Power) with your desire to craft a route which benefits you and hinders the enemy. Each square that you dig up releases an enemy swarm for you to murderise, until you reach the portal at the end of the level which activates the boss battle.

Other than this element you have a fairly standard tower defence experience, however it’s one which keeps itself involving by offering a small but tactically diverse and relevant range of unit types for you to build with, and keeps the levels tightly paced and balanced. This ‘damning with faint praise’ hardly matters though, as I can’t stress the important difference the free-form digging element makes – you are strategising on two separate fronts which both work wonderfully in tandem with each other whilst also feeling entirely different. It’s an engrossing and more-ish experience.

Castlemine

That’s all for now. There are other good games available for the platform – trial them and see. Just be prepared to wade through some muck in the process. And be wary of incorrect bloggers giving you bad recommendations, particularly if you found them on Bing.