HolidayBuyer's Guide

49 iPhone games that would rock with a controller

With a slew of iPhone game controllers on the horizon alongside iOS 7, CNET's rounded down some of the top games that would just play better with a real controller.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's opening up iOS 7 like nothing before it, allowing and even encouraging the use of game controller hardware that will finally bring physical buttons to iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

This has been done before, of course, but not with Apple backing those efforts. Companies like Ion Audio and its iCade have brought hardware add-ons, though they required developers to tweak their games in order make those things work. This new option from Apple also requires that, but aims for a standardized set of controls that developers can plug into their software, and that come baked into Apple's iOS and OS X software development kits.

We've rounded up a list of 49 games for the iPhone and iPod Touch that we think would play better with physical controls. Some already have support for the iCade, and other such solutions. Many are top sellers, and plenty of fun to play with touch controls. We've also broken them down by genre, from sandbox games all the way to endless runners.

CNET's Scott Stein helped curate this list.

Sandbox/Action games

Grand Theft Auto series - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

So many onscreen buttons, arrgh!Photo by Rockstar

The 3D iterations of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series was built for PlayStation controllers. In bringing it to iOS devices, Rockstar attempted to put the controls onscreen. The results are OK for early missions, but become frustrating on the more complex ones, making physical controls a welcome addition.

Gangstar series - $6.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Gangstar Vegas
Gangstar VegasPhoto by Gameloft

Gangstar Vegas, the latest in Gameloft's GTA-inspired series, is full of vehicles, fighting, and space. At nine times the size of previous Gangstar titles, this game is absolutely enormous, making physical controls useful just for getting around.

Max Payne series - $2.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by GameSpot

OK, another Rockstar game -- sorry about that. But Max Payne, like GTA, is heavy on the onscreen controls. Rockstar's rejiggered things a bit with nice big buttons. But the fact remains that Max Payne requires a ton of shooting with life or death situations where getting your fingers out of the way could be very useful.

Minecraft Pocket Edition - $6.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The pocket-size version of indie darling Mojang's Minecraft is a certified hit, but the controls can be tedious. There's no doubting that crafting and selecting items is much better with a touch screen, but when it comes to actually making your way around the terrain, and building things, physical controls would be quite nice. Case in point: the mobile version of the software first launched on Sony's Xperia Playbefore heading to other platforms.

Next: Platformers

League of Evil series - $6.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Ravenous Games

This deviously difficult platformer's primary goal seems to be to inflict pain on the player, but it's also quite a bit of fun. What's not fun is heading to your death because you misjudged the onscreen controls. To the game's credit, there are just four buttons, though they'd be better as physical controls.

Paper Monsters - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

This charming platformer actually has some of the tightest and most intuitive controls around, along with ways to change whether you even see any onscreen buttons. Some levels can be quite difficult, though, and would likely be easier with hardware.

Soosiz - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Touch Foo

Touch Foo's 2009 breakout platformer Soosiz has largely been abandoned at this point. There's no iPhone 5 or fifth-generation iPod Touch support, for example. But this mind-bending platform puzzler still holds up well, with tight controls. Better yet, to enjoy the game and its slightly smaller screen footprint without your fingers in the way.

Swordigo - $1.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Touch Foo took its great touch controls from Soosiz and brought them over to this platforming adventure game. Some tightly timed jumps and button tapping later in the game are well-suited for a controller.

Sonic The Hedgehog series - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Sega

Sega's Sonic series was one of the darlings of 16-bit platforming, and has made a graceful leap to handhelds both as episodes of Sonic 4, and revamps of classics like Sonic 2, 3, and CD. On some of the older titles, the lack of physical controls can be particularly maddening on the more difficult levels. Not to mention, revving up a spin dash is far more fun with a real button to mash.

Storm in a Teacup - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by GameSpot

Storm in a Teacup's difficulty ramps up well over its 40 levels, and is full of ways to end your life later on. Once again we've got some simple controls that would shine as real buttons.

Super Crate Box - $1.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Vlambeer

When we first played this, we weren't quite sure if it was a game or a psychological experiment to determine how long it would take before wanting to throw our iOS device across the room in frustration. To be honest, we're still not quite sure. This retro-inspired platformer is as unforgiving as it gets, and works very well with an iCade, making it a shoo-in for upcoming hardware.

The Incident - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Big Bucket Software

The Incident is actually a poster child for the benefits of accelerometer-based gaming, though the simple side to side and jump controls beg for a D-pad. You can actually use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a controller for this with the iPad version of the game, providing a tantalizing taste of how it could be with real hardware.

Badland - $3.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Frogmind

You only need one finger to play this game, but it's so downright pretty, it's a shame to cover any of it up. This game won a 2013 Apple Design Award for its looks, but it also turns out to be a very good game to boot.

Next: Racing

Real Racing series - Free (iTunes, GameSpot)

Real Racing 3
Photo by Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The Real Racing series began as an indie hit before its developers were snapped up by Electronic Arts. The latest, Real Racing 3, is arguably the best-looking of the series, though has attracted controversy for its use of in-app purchases. The gameplay itself, however, remains as tight as ever for a racing game, with plenty of ways to adjust the controls from accelerometer to onscreen buttons. With very pretty visuals, getting your fingers off the screen, even for braking, would be a welcome addition.

Crazy Taxi - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Sega

Sega's classic passenger delivery game has made a graceful transition to portable devices, but can be frustrating if you miss a deadline because of a control misstep. Proper hardware controls for the side-to-side steering, gas, and brake would ease things up a bit.

Mad Skills Motocross - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

This motorcycle-racing game can be tough as nails, even if you have good controls. The onscreen buttons are actually quite good, but the PC and Mac version of this game prove it's already tuned for physical buttons.

Reckless Racing series - $1.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Polarbit

There are five different control settings in this game, and there's even a way to change both where on the screen and how sensitive they are, but an analog stick for steering would be mighty nice.

Bike Baron - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Mountain Sheep

Yep, it's another motorcycle game on this list, but instead of just being a racer, there's some platforming and strategy in this game that would make physical controls nice to have.

Slingshot Racing - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Another one-tap game on the list that makes it a hard sell for physical controls. But the need to tap at very precise times puts that into question.

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing - $1.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Sega

"Oh, not another Sonic game!" you're saying. Well, without Mario Kart on the iPhone, we've got this port of the 2009 console game. Like others on this list, the controls are a mix of touch and tilt, and could certainly be tightened up with some real buttons.

Need for Speed series - $6.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by EA

Same old spiel as before -- you're frequently going more than 120 miles an hour on rails. A D-pad and some buttons for brake and gas are nice.

Next: Sports

FIFA Soccer series - $6.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by EA

Touch screens can actually be quite good approximations for analog controllers, but when it comes to tapping action buttons, controllers are still tops. FIFA's virtual joystick and action buttons are context sensitive based on whether you have the ball, but it would translate well to physical buttons.

NBA 2K series - $7.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by 2K Games

NBA 2K13 for iOS -- the latest in the NBA 2K series -- is a great-looking game, but we found that the controls were often maddening in our play through of the game. Having played the series on consoles for years, it's clear things can be better with a real controller.

NBA Jam - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The onscreen controls for this port of the arcade classic stay pretty true to what you'd expect, with a virtual D-pad and action buttons on the bottom of the screen. The game is simple enough that this setup works well, but who wouldn't want a real arcade-style joystick and buttons to play with? You can read CNET's review of the iOS version right here.

Next: Endless runners

Temple Run series - Free (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Imangi Studios

Temple Run combines a rare mix of tilt and touch, putting it more in common with a racing game than many other endless runners. But at its core, the game is all about split second reaction time and strategizing one move after another. iCade support shows how good this can be in the original title:

Tiny Wings - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Another one-button game, this time one that pits your nearly flightless bird against an onslaught of procedurally generated hills and a setting sun. This game is maniacally simple and addictive.

Ski Safari- 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Defiant Development's Ski Safari is a standout in a sea of endless runners for its graphical look and gameplay style, both of which can be tweaked with a growing bunch of themes. The game began needing only one button to adjust the pitch of your skier "Sven," but subsequent updates have added power-ups you can hit midgame for boosts. All this is to say, a proper controller would be good for when things get hot and heavy.

Jetpack Joyride - Free (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Halfbrick

Halfbrick's Jetpack Joyride has ended up just about everywhere, but began on iOS. Subsequent versions made for the PSP, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita have shown the usefulness of having proper buttons in this one-button endless runner.

Canabalt - Free (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Semi Secret Software

Canabalt was one of the first "endless runners" on iOS, coming over to Apple's platform as a port from the Adobe Flash game. The game hasn't been updated since May of last year, so we're not holding out hope for a big update to work with the new controls. You can play the Flash version of the game for free right here.

Monster Dash - Free (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Halfbrick

Monster Dash was the spiritual predecessor to the aforementioned Jetpack Joyride, and even shares the same main character and some of the same game mechanics. There are a lot more weapons, bad guys, and some platforming, all things that would make physical controls a nice addition.

Next: Shooters

N.O.V.A. series - $6.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Gameloft's Halo-inspired first-person shooter series has onscreen buttons aplenty, though CNET's Jason Parker says he "quickly forgot about the controls once the game got moving." Still, anyone who's played a first-person shooter knows that an analog stick and some triggers are terrific.

Modern Combat series - $6.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Gameloft

Another shooter from Gameloft that's been quite popular. Its latest -- Zero Hour -- gets new content this week, and most certainly will have a sequel or two, making it a shoo-in for controller support.

Call of Duty: Zombies - $4.99(iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Activision

Wave after wave of Nazi zombies? I hate it when this happens. I hate it even more when I'm running all over the place trying to keep them at bay, and using onscreen controls. This game might be a tad easier with a controller.

Shadowgun series - $4.99(iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Madfinger's Shadowgun third-person shooter looks good, and plays well, too. Like others on this list, it employs a virtual thumbstick and buttons to fire off rounds and chuck grenades. In Rick Broida's CNET review from 2011, he notes that the thumbstick control "tends to block too much of the action," something that could surely be remedied with a real analog stick.

Sky Gamblers series - $4.99(iTunes, GameSpot)

A shot from the iPad version of the game, where there's a little more room for the controls.
A shot from the iPad version of the game, where there's a little more room for the controls.Photo by Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Atypical Games' Sky Gamblers air combat series is visually stunning, it's also chock-full of onscreen information, from gauges, radar, indicators for baddies, and -- of course -- control buttons. Even with several options to tweak and simplify the controls, there's just a lot going on.

Minigore series - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Mountain Sheep

This dual-stick survival shooter will have your heart thumping and maybe even leave your thumbs sore from holding your screen. Two real analog sticks would make this game even better.

Tilt to Live - $2.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by One Man Left

"But wait!" you're yelling at your computer screen. "This game is played entirely by tilt and doesn't even have touch controls!" You'd be right about that, but there's so much potential for an analog control stick, especially for some of the harder modes. This game's nearly 3.5 years old, and still going strong with updates.

Next: Beat 'em up

Soulcaliber - $14.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Namco's late-'90s fighting game looks very good on the iPhone and iPad, though the virtual stick and buttons are sure to grind the gears of any fight game aficionado. Namco actually tweaked the gameplay a bit to make it work. Here's a walkthrough of the game and the controls from GameSpot:

Slayin - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by FDG Entertainment

One look at the game (above) and you can tell where I'm going with this. This game was very nearly made to be played on a controller, and it can get devilishly hard in later levels. Considering the extra virtual faceplates you can buy with in-game currency, it's unlikely controller support is destined for this title.

Street Fighter series - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Capcom

Capcom's been pretty good about the controls of the Street Fighter games on iOS, including IV (pictured above). You can move them around on the screen, and set the transparency. But like Soulcaliber above, a true SF nut knows the line between a hadouken and a shoryuken is fine if your thumb goes astray.

Golden Axe series - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Sega

Like Sonic earlier on this list, this game is using a virtualized version of the Sega Genesis controller. This is fine except for the fact that the wrong button press can unleash the fury of your magical attacks if you're not careful.

Streets of Rage series - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Sega

Yet another classic game series that uses a virtual Genesis pad.

Next: Miscellaneous titles

Miscellaneous

Atari's Greatest Hits - Free (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Christopher MacManus/CNET

This almost needs no explanation, but Atari's jumbo collection of its hit games begs for an old-school joystick. Luckily you can already use one with the iCade, suggesting Atari would prep it to work with other third-party devices when iOS 7 hits.

See also: Namco Arcade (Free)

Lego Harry Potter series - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 for iPad.
Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 for iPad.Photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment

The popular Lego gaming series and "Harry Potter" worlds collide for this two-part game series. The result is a casual game that's made the transition to touch screen quite well, but could be even better with analog sticks and buttons.

Bastion - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The widely acclaimed Bastion has a few control methods, though having played it on Xbox and PC before it arrived on iOS, we're partial to the physical controls for this action RPG. CNET's Jason Parker says he eventually adapted:

I decided to use the gamepad style because I've played Bastion before on the Xbox 360, and while the touch screen is not as good as tactile controls, I was able to get around pretty well....It takes a while to get used to the controls, but after playing for a bit, it became second nature.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Final Fantasy series - $15.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Square Enix

We're somewhat torn on this title, because parts of it have adapted well to touch screens, like picking menu items during battles. But if you really want to spend hours playing this, it can be tiring and perhaps would be better with a physical controller.

Nimble Quest - $15.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

In what's been described as a Snake-like game for iOS (and now other platforms), Nimble Quest has you picking up heroes from around various landscapes, and making your way around while taking out bad guys.

Photo by Nimblebit

The game just keeps on going, eventually ramping up in difficulty. You're tasked with directing your "conga line of heroes" through it all. Like the aforementioned Slayin, this is a game where precision counts later on.

Tetris - 99 cents (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by EA

Never mind the stink Electronic Arts made when it pulled the old version of Tetris and replaced it with a new one, or that Tris -- the Tetris clone and early App Store favorite -- was pulled ages ago. This is Tetris, and it's here for now. The touch controls work just fine, but we want to re-create that Game Boy feeling again.

Worms series - $4.99 (iTunes, GameSpot)

Photo by Team17

Worms is one of those things that seems like it would work great on a touch screen vs. just a controller, but with roots in the PC world, there's plenty of reason a controller would come in handy. That includes making tiny little adjustments to aiming, as well as moving around the environment without accidentally jumping off a cliff or into a mine. There's still plenty of use for the touch screen here, but the game can just be flat-out better with physical controls, too.

Next: Wrap up

Wrap up

These are just a few of the many games in the App Store, and not meant to be a definitive list. If we've left any big ones, or your favorites, off the list, leave them in the comments.

It's also absolutely worth noting that a number of these games are unlikely to see updates to work with the new gaming frameworks headed for iOS 7. That means this is just a wish list. But many are also the latest in a series of titles that could get sequels.

iOS 7 is still a few months out, likely arriving in the fall just ahead of the next iPhone and maybe even new iPad. We'll have a much better idea of the hardware to expect, as well as some of the developers planning to support it, closer to the release.

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