Air Hockey Gold
There are plenty of air hockey apps in the App Store, but this one's free, simple, and very fun. Air Hockey is a pitch-perfect re-creation of the basement game, playable against a live player on the other side of the iPad, wirelessly in the same room, or via a computer opponent. The touch-based control is a perfect match for the iPad. This is a must-own and an excellent travel game for car rides.
Amateur Surgeon 3
If you ever owned a Nintendo DS, you might be familiar with "Trauma Center," a surgery-simulation game. Amateur Surgeon takes the same idea and Adult Swim-ifies it with a dark sense of humor and ridiculous characters. Multitouch gestures handle everything from stapling to cauterizing to chainsawing. Cartoon-gory and sharp-witted, you'll suffer the pop-up ads just to get to the next surgery.
Asphalt 8 Airborne
Like Real Racing 3, Asphalt 8 is another top-notch iOS racer gone free. The action leans to arcade-style, and the game’s menus can get pretty confusing (beware attempts to sell you things you don’t need), but the game offers tons of challenges that can be totally free as long as you take the time to earn your unlocks.
EA/PopCap's free-to-play speed-run variation on Bejeweled is immensely popular and crazily addictive, but it never had an iPad-friendly official universal version...until now. The translation to the iPad isn't perfect -- for instance, you can't orient the game in landscape mode -- but the recent graphic revamp is prettier and adds a more Bejeweled 3-type feel. Purchasing coins for extra bonus power-ups isn't necessary; be a purist and earn high scores the hard way. Trust me: you'll be prouder of your Facebook leaderboard status that way.
Over a hundred puzzles come in the cleverly designed Blendoku: take a palette of various colors and place them on various grids, forming the logical color progression. Logic and a subtle sense of colors pay off big-time.
Take Minecraft, turn it into a 2D side-scrolling affair, and make it free: that, basically, is Blockheads. Between crafting, earning resources, and buying new tools, there's plenty to do, and the worlds are randomly generated. It looks nice, too.
Is this a game? Well, there are challenges to fulfill. But a lot of Clumsy Ninja’s appeal is how much of it just involves playing around with a cuddly, ridiculous cartoon ninja. You’ll be surprised how much you end up actually caring about him.
Not so much a game as a social type of clever social art experience, DrawQuest offers a number of daily drawing challenges, like "Who's on the front of this dollar bill?" Draw your clever idea, submit it, and see who likes it. It's not as competitive as Draw Something, but it's fun to doodle with.
Draw Something Free
The App Store's overwhelming success as of spring 2012, Draw Something is like an online-enabled version of Pictionary. The full version costs only 99 cents, and really, there's no reason you shouldn't just buy that version right now. However, if you're a dollar cheapskate or are simply curious, the free version offers a reduced assortment of words to draw but a full-fledged online matchmaking system.
Fairway Solitaire HD
Combine solitaire and a golf course, and you have exactly what this strangely addictive casual card game amounts to. Additional club upgrades and "hazard" challenges add some spice to each card layout, which acts as a "hole" on a course that gets scored like a regular golf game. Fairway Solitaire -- like many App Store freebies, lately -- charges an additional $2.99 for a ton of courses, but the free version's got eight courses plus a tutorial that offers plenty of replay value.
EA’s biggest franchises have gone free to play this year. FIFA, perhaps the biggest of them, has too. What does that mean for you? Well, yes, there are lots of attempts to dangle in-app purchases in your face, but that’s happening in paid games too, lately. The good news here is that, like Real Racing 3 and Plants vs Zombies 2, lots of the game can be enjoyed for free with no compromise in how everything plays.
Remember text adventure games? Zork and its ilk relied on just you and your keyboard to imagine and discover a world described only in pure text. Frotz is a player for interactive fiction and text adventures. The player comes with 25 quirky and fascinating interactive pieces to explore, plus the software can browse the Interactive Fiction Database and download new software, although the process of doing so is a little confusing for newcomers. Minimalist? Extremely, but text adventures are an even better fit for the larger iPad keyboard than they are for the iPhone, where Frotz originally debuted. If you're a reader and like games, look no further. Another positive: the new iPad's Retina Display shows off Frotz's text even more crisply than before.
The perfect minimalist board game package: five easy-to-learn two-player tabletop games are included, designed to be seen from either side of the board at once. Play with a friend, or go against an AI opponent. It's the digital version of those magnetic games I used to play on long road trips.
Simple, flat, and musical: Halcyon, a former indie award-winner by the maker of SpellTower, has you matching like-colored triangles as they come at each other along parallel strings. The kinetic puzzle style's reminiscent of Nintendo's and Sony's downloadable art-house efforts. Get it.
Into The Dead
Black-and-white zombie movie aesthetic meets endless runner in this simple, well-executed game. The concept's hardly complicated (move left and right to avoid zombies, get weapons, survive), but it's a lot more creepy than Temple Run. And the pay-to-play freemium parts stay largely well-hidden. It's not The Walking Dead, but it's a nice spiritual companion.
Last year, Halfbrick's addictive survival game cost money; it's since gone free. The main challenge -- survive as long as you can while collecting coins to unlock jet packs, power-ups, and more -- requires no money at all. Should you get impatient and want all the trophies and power-ups now, you can always pay for extra coins. There's no need to. Admittedly, Jetpack Joyride is a better iPhone game (the extra real estate isn't taken advantage of on the iPad, and the game doesn't use the extra-resolution Retina Display), but for free it's a steal.
The concept is simple: spell a word with as many letters as possible, claiming letters and blocking your opponent at the same time. Boggle meets Go, in a sense. The free version allows two online games to be played at once, but you’ll quickly want to pay up to unlock more simultaneous games, because turns go quickly.
Before Halo, there was Marathon. Bungie's classic alien shooter was once the Mac's answer to Doom. The original game is included with this app absolutely free, pixelated warts and all. A virtual analog stick and touch buttons offer reasonably good controls. For those who want a touch-up job, an HD version and a save-anywhere upgrade are available for a dollar each, but we're perfectly happy with the free game as is.
NFL Kicker 13
There are a million flick-'em games in the App Store, but this NFL-themed kicking contest is beautifully rendered, surprisingly addictive, and a fun freebie for hard-core fans. All the real team logos are included.
This recent discovery is a great example of a tabletop-type board game for the iPad, perfectly suited for one-to-four-player action. Each player picks a corner of the board and controls a little ship with a single button, spinning around a black hole and collecting points. Decelerate too much, and it's game over. Imagine Hungry Hungry Hippos for the iPad generation, with bold, colorful graphics that give it an arcade flair.
A turn-based strategy game with lots of cool, colorful cartoon characters, Outwitters is a two-player game that feels a little like a classic Nintendo title. You can unlock extra characters and maps for more money, but the basic game will cost you nothing.
Activision's free-to-play update to its classic Atari-age game feels more like Pitfall-ified Temple Run, and purists will cry out that the original classic Pitfall game was good enough without the revamp. Still, give this freebie a try: the graphics look better in person than in a screenshot, and with its extra challenge modes, it's arguably a better game than Temple Run ever was.
Plants vs. Zombies 2
The sequel to PopCap's blockbuster Plants vs. Zombies is -- shocker -- free to play. That sounds like a dangerous combination, but the beautiful part of this time-traveling sequel is that those pay-to-unlock extras don't feel shoved down your throat. In fact, you can play all levels and enjoy the game fully without spending a dollar, with no forced waiting periods like Candy Crush Saga. It's a little bit magic, and easily the best free iPad game in the App Store.
In the spirit of many weird 8-bit Nintendo games and the hit Jetpack Joyride, Punch Quest is a ridiculous punch-mashing journey through dungeons filled with dragons, trolls, laser-shooting velociraptors, and bosses impossible to describe. There are plenty of upgrades to hook you in, and you can earn a bunch of them just by playing many times...which you’ll have no problem doing.
Real Racing 3
The decision to turn an already excellent racing franchise into a freemium sequel is controversial, but the truth is that EA's new socially connected racer looks like a console game, shows off the graphics of new iPads fantastically, and offers a lot of fun without having to pay a dime. Of course, we’re not saying you won’t be tempted to pony up a dollar or two sometime. Read our review.
Rise of the Blobs
Good, addictive free puzzlers are always worth stocking up on, and the rotate-and-drop block-clearing style of Rise of the Blobs gets addictive and quick, fast. Downside: lots of confusing menu options. Just click through and play for free.
Robot Unicorn Attack 2
Make a ridiculous rainbow-trailing metal unicorn fly through landscapes stolen from '80s rock albums. In terms of its structure, it's an "endless runner" where you survive as long as you can. Do we need another endless runner? No. But this has metal unicorns, and it's free. Don't complain.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out
Remember FarmVille? EA's "The Simpsons"-themed game is a direct parody and, yet...it's also FarmVille. And that's actually OK, when it's this smartly done. There are extras you can buy into as much as you like, or you can build up Springfield the slow, free way. What’s awesome about Tapped Out is the sense of humor, "The Simpsons" in-jokes and otherwise.
PopCap Games has been making its games freemium of late, and the simple but incredibly addicting Solitaire Blitz sums up the formula perfectly. It's a timed speed-run of basic solitaire action, augmented with earnable/buyable coins that give power-ups. Weekly Facebook score challenges keep you coming back for more...and more.
For a free online co-op Diablo-type fix, Solstice Arena by Zynga looks great and plays well, too. Tap-to-explore and battle plays a lot like Diablo, but don't expect the same level of depth. Unlocking new characters takes time to build up currency (or, you can always pay), and the free characters are available for limited amounts of free-play time. But it's worth trying out at least once.
Forgive the weird plot: as some sort of odd lovelorn astronaut, you have to rescue lost space females and send them off on starships. But the actual game, which involves gravity-based planetoid-hopping, is addictive and fun. Yes, there an in-app purchases, but they’re not terribly intrusive.
Sudoku (by Finger Arts)
Last decade's puzzle craze is this decade's iPad freebie. A clean interface and endlessly generating puzzles -- along with a time-based bonus system -- will keep Sudoku fans entertained for hours in Finger Arts' app (there are a lot of games called Sudoku, so make sure you note the publisher). Harder levels unlock as you play. In case of uncertainty, players can also pencil in their possible guesses for squares. Ad support via small banners on the bottom keep this game free, and they're not overly intrusive. It all adds up to a perfect waiting-for-a-train diversion.
Temple Run 2
The formula hasn't changed at all since the first massively successful Temple Run, but the equally meteoric sequel features more obstacles, mine carts, and markedly better graphics. In case you're one of the few people who aren't familiar with the Temple Run formula, here it is: you run and jump across pathways, bridges and valleys, collecting coins and trying not to die. Upgrades can be earned slowly, or you can pay to get extras faster. Payment isn't necessary to enjoy: in fact, purists might be offended. Heck, consider it an excuse to start grinding achievements all over again.
Tilt To Live HD
The goal is simple -- tilt your iPad around to keep your tiny arrow-shaped ship away from the bad red dots -- but the result is incredibly addictive. Pay an extra $5 and you get a wealth of extra playing modes, but the original basic game included in the free version is more than enough entertainment -- and achievements are included. Arcade addicts will be tempted to pay for the upgrade.
A "freemium" cult hit, Tiny Tower is a universal app for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad that involves building and populating an ever-growing highrise. Much of the game involves waiting for stores to restock and construction to finish (you can pay in-app for extra "tower bux" to speed up processes, or simply wait), but it all somehow becomes far more addictive than you'd expect: a pixelated, retro-looking variant on FarmVille. Games sync between iPhones and iPads, allowing you to continue your well-invested progress. Best of all, the game counts your absences as time spent in-game: return several hours later, and that extra floor you bought might finally be completed.
Odds are you never actually owned the wonderfully weird collector-chic tabletop '80s game system Vectrex. Never fear: the Vectrex and its vector graphics have been lovingly emulated in this app, which includes one original game (MineStorm) and four indie-developed games in the free base version. For an extra $6.99, you can unlock more than a dozen other games in the Vectrex library. The graphics are dated and the onscreen controls are quirky, but this app works marvelously with the iCade arcade cabinet, if you have one, to complete the Vectrex experience.
Words With Friends HD Free
While we do like EA's official version of Scrabble, the unofficial Words With Friends has been just as good for Facebook and mobile users alike. A pay version omits ads, but the free ad-based Words With Friends is nearly as good an experience. The app uses the whole iPad screen as the game board with minimal design clutter, and asynchronous play with Facebook friends means you can keep multiple games going at once over weeks at a time. Bottom line: this is basically free Scrabble with online multiplayer, or something incredibly close to it.
Zen Studios, makers of Pinball FX and other classic pinball re-creations, has published its own iPad app to compete in the increasingly crowded iOS pinball landscape. Zen Pinball has in-app table purchases including Captain America and Wolverine themes, but the free game that's included -- Sorcerer's Lair -- is good enough to warrant the whole download. Spot-on ball physics and a complex table will keep you coming back.
We've sunk hours -- and we mean hours -- of our lives into Zynga Poker's online rooms, where players can enter tournaments or table play with virtual chips. No actual money changes hands, and Zynga offers a small bankroll of chips each time you play. Play well, and you can rise up through the ranks. Extra play chips can be bought for real money, but take our advice: be a smarter poker player and learn to play with the free bankroll, craftily beating real worldwide opponents and Facebook-connected friends. The new iPad-ified interface is crisp and easy to use.