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The most iconic mobile games that helped shape the industry
There are an endless number of debates online about the best gaming platform. However, in terms of popularity, mobile gaming sits atop the throne, at least for the time being. The biggest reason is accessibility. People already buy smartphones, and gaming is something you can do on just about any smartphone. In fact, there’s a whole category now for gaming smartphones. It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. However, the platform has its fair share of iconic mobile games that helped drive the industry forward in its early days.
This list was exceptionally difficult to put together. Early mobile gaming had a smattering of games that definitely helped push the envelope, but we’re currently in a golden era of mobile gaming, so there are a lot of great games in the middle of their run that’ll likely be on this list someday. Here are some of the best and most iconic mobile games of all time.
The most iconic mobile games of all time
The undisputed king of early mobile gaming.
Price: Free / Premium / Free to play
- Angry Birds was the first mobile game to hit one billion downloads, which it did back in 2012.
- The franchise as a whole is the first to hit five billion downloads, which it did in 2022.
- Despite not being popular for years, it still sits atop the pantheon of the most-played mobile games ever.
Everybody knows that Angry Birds goes on this list, so let’s get it out of the way first. Angry Birds dominated mobile’s early gaming history, easily overshadowing most of its competition. The original Angry Birds hit its one billionth download back in 2012, and was, by far, the first mobile game to do it. The entire series was the first mobile gaming franchise to reach over five billion downloads, which it achieved in 2022.
What made Angry Birds great? The first thing is the game itself. Flinging birds into buildings and pigs to clear levels was fun. The controls were simple, it was family-friendly, and early games were cheap to get into and play. It also came out in an era where its competition wasn’t super heavy. Sure, we had notable hits like Doodle Jump and Fruit Ninja, but Angry Birds was one of the great early mobile puzzle games, whereas the other two were great arcade games. You can’t talk about iconic mobile games without Angry Birds.
Call of Duty: Mobile
One of gaming’s most popular shooters hit mobile running and hasn’t stopped yet.
Price: Free to play
- With 100 million downloads in its first week, Call of Duty: Mobile holds the record for the largest mobile game release of all time.
- Its 148 million downloads in its first month is also the highest of all time, with Pokemon Go’s 130 million coming in second.
- The online multiplayer shooter continues its franchise’s proud tradition of quality and popularity.
Call of Duty: Mobile is relatively new, but it’s already a staple in the gaming community and one of the best mobile games ever. It has over 500 million downloads as of this writing, and that’s coming off of a record-breaking 100 million downloads in its first week. Yes, growth has slowed, but the game continues to get high ranks, new content, and solid player numbers. It’s Call of Duty, but on mobile, and we all know how much people like Call of Duty.
The first-person shooter genre is a lot more crowded than some other genres, but Call of Duty: Mobile fits right in. Its success stems from doing just about everything right. There are multiple game modes, excellent graphics, very good controls, above-average social features, and plenty of things to do. There are more popular FPS shooters like Mobile Legends Bang Bang or Garena Free Fire, but neither had the immediate impact that Call of Duty: Mobile had.
Candy Crush Saga
The all-around popular game that dominated the mid-2010s.
Price: Free to play
- One of the most popular mobile games of all time, with 245 million active players at its peak. Everybody knows about Candy Crush Saga.
- Love it or hate it (we hate it), it was one of the first successful examples of the free-to-play model.
- Continues to be one of the highest-grossing and most-played mobile games of all time.
Candy Crush Saga began life as a Facebook game, but it may be better known as one of the world’s most popular mobile games. The match-three game didn’t blaze any new paths, but it was one of the earliest and most successful examples of free-to-play mechanics that many mobile gamers negatively associate with the mobile gaming genre. The game had hundreds of millions of players at its peak and has generated well north of $1 billion.
It didn’t break any records that we could find, but when you’re talking about a game as ubiquitous as this one, it doesn’t need a place in the record books. King has yet to replicate the success of Candy Crush Saga. However, to be fair, few other developers have ever had that success to begin with. That’s why Candy Crush Saga is one of the most iconic mobile games.
Clash of Clans
The game that made Supercell a household name.
Price: Free to play
- A consistent fixture on Google Play’s and the App Store’s top downloaded and top grossing lists.
- One of the first mobile games with TV commercials, including one of the most-viewed Super Bowl commercials in history.
- One of only three games to cross $10 billion in revenue as of this writing.
Clash of Clans was a fixture in terms of popularity in the early to mid-2010s. It’s an addictively simple strategy game where you build a base, build troops, and attack other players. It’s a pioneer in the kingdom-building genre, and there are many strategy-oriented kingdom-building games that copy and paste its basic ideas even to this day. However, none of them have matched the popularity of Clash of Clans.
As mentioned in the accolades section, Clash of Clans had quite an aggressive marketing strategy. It had TV commercials, including a widely popular Super Bowl ad starring Liam Neeson, and strong word of mouth. It helped carry mobile gaming until the release of Pokemon Go, and people who have been mobile gaming for a long time definitely remember how many people played this game religiously. The game’s barbarian character is immediately recognizable to mobile gamers, and part of why Clash of Clans is one of the most iconic mobile games.
Five Nights at Freddy’s
The jump scare horror game that helped launch multiple YouTube careers.
- Best known as a favorite topic of YouTube personalities in the mid-2010s, including Markiplier, The Game Theorists, and Dawko.
- It’s still very well known as a PC horror game, but it was one of the first successful horror games on mobile, and it’s definitely the most impactful horror game on mobile.
- Scott Cawthon’s unique marketing tactics and storytelling made every game a sort of scavenger hunt for clues about the characters. This helped fuel its popularity in ways other games in its era didn’t.
People who don’t game may not know Five Nights at Freddy’s as well as Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds, but there were few games, mobile or otherwise, that captivated people as much as FNaF did in the mid-2010s. The game was a jump scare horror game where you kept watch over a restaurant that housed possessed animatronic animals. The gameplay was simple, worked well on mobile, and was genuinely scary. In terms of sales or download figures, the game was among the best horror games of its time.
What made it great was the community around it. It elevated the careers of prominent YouTubers like Markiplier, MatPat from The Game Theorists, and Dawko. People who didn’t even play the game would tune in to watch videos that talked about the game’s surprisingly deep narrative while YouTubers poured over clues that developer Scott Cawthon hid in the games and on the official website. Many of those videos had north of ten million views, and a few had over 100 million. In terms of iconic mobile games, few were as prominent on YouTube as FNaF was in its heyday.
The Escher-style indie puzzler everybody wanted to play.
Price: $3.99 with optional DLC
- It had one of the best launches for a premium mobile game, topping both Google Play and the App Store for almost its entire first month of existence.
- The game was part of a minor side plot in Netflix’s House of Cards, which vaulted it back to the number one spot on major app stores, and was also the inspiration for Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry.”
- Monument Valley’s method of storytelling through visuals is often copied by indie developers, especially in the puzzle genre.
Monument Valley is one of those games that you just knew was going to be good when you first saw it. The Escher-style puzzles were clever and fun to play with, and the game’s storytelling was unique for its time. Most of the story is told through visuals with few words. It came out of left field in 2014, rose to the top of the charts, and stayed there longer than almost every other premium game except Minecraft.
It’s also one of the few games to have a second peak. It was mentioned in the third season of Netflix’s House of Cards, which introduced the game to a new audience and sent the game back to the top charts. It’s the Grover Cleveland of mobile games. In any case, not only was the game the talk of the proverbial town for a few years, but it also influenced a variety of indie game developers. There was also a movie in the works for a while.
A worldwide phenomenon, and likely mobile gaming’s most iconic title.
Price: Free to play
- It was the former record holder for the most popular mobile game launch before Mario Kart Tour and Call of Duty: Mobile dethroned it years later.
- The game’s massive popularity and requirement to go outdoors caused portable battery sales to literally double.
- People committed crimes to play this game. Granted, most of them were misdemeanor trespassing, but it gives you an idea of how wild it was at the time.
Pokemon Go hit the ground running in 2016, but it remains one of the best mobile games to this day. It garnered over 100 million downloads in its first month and is one of only a handful of mobile games to ever do so. What’s more, the game’s unique playstyle had people going outside and walking around looking for Pokestops and Gyms, which means the streets were flooded with people searching for Pokemon. It was such a huge thing that it was covered in the news almost daily for months.
The game had quite a cultural impact. Naysayers were concerned about privacy since the game tracked your location in real-time. People were getting in trouble for trespassing on private property. Additionally, the developers were pressured to put safety features in, like not letting players play while driving. It is also, to date, one of the most popular augmented reality games on any platform. The game had a short resurgence in popularity during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic after Niantic made the game more playable at home, where people could safely social distance.
The winner of the battle royale shooter fight and is gaming’s most popular battle royale shooter.
Price: Free to play
- It is currently the third most played mobile game and the second highest-grossing mobile game of all time.
- The game launched in 2017, the same year as Fortnite. Despite dozens of copycats and competitors, none of them ever came close to PUBG Mobile’s popularity.
- It helped contribute to PUBG being the world’s most popular game on any platform.
PUBG Mobile is a force to be reckoned with. The game launched in 2017 and handily beat Fortnite in terms of popularity. From there, it just continued to get more and more popular. The game has north of a billion downloads and is likely to be the fourth game to reach $10 billion in all-time sales. We know that popularity and sales don’t necessarily make a game iconic, but when you’re in the top five on both lists, it paints a pretty clear picture. It’s especially impressive, considering the game was temporarily banned in India, one of its most popular markets.
The game got there with its addictive gameplay. You drop onto a progressively shrinking battlefield with 99 other players. The winner is the last one standing. Most of its in-app purchases are cosmetic, so players can’t buy their way to a win, which makes a win actually worth something. The game is popular in the US, but most of its player base hails from Asia, particularly South Korea, China, India, and Japan. It’s still going strong to this day.
Puzzles & Dragons
The godfather of gacha RPG games saw some ridiculous sales figures and popularity.
Price: Free to play
- It was the first mobile game to cross $1 billion in sales, which it did in 2014, and was the highest-grossing mobile game until Monster Strike surpassed it in 2018.
- The game architected what we consider to be the modern gacha RPG, which includes diverse party builds, fusing summons together to get better characters, shifting meta, and special event banners with special summons.
- For better or for worse (we think it’s worse), Puzzles & Dragons helped popularize the use and monetization of things like stamina bars and game-over screens. If you play a game with a stamina bar, chances are that you can thank Puzzles & Dragons for it.
Puzzles & Dragons isn’t one of the most iconic mobile games in the US. However, it was such a huge deal in Japan that it broke records without having anything resembling a strong US presence. The game was the first truly successful mobile gacha, and it was the first mobile game to break $1 billion in sales. It also held the record for highest sales until 2018, when it was overtaken by Monster Strike. It’s a masterclass in monetization, as it was the first to incorporate a lot of modern strategies. The game also managed to do so without angering its loyal players.
In terms of gameplay, it wasn’t anything too unique by today’s standards. It’s a gacha RPG that uses match-three puzzle elements in its combat. It relied on a mixture of luck, skill, and monster strength to get players through dungeons. Dungeons rewarded currency that players could use to continue after a game over, reset their stamina, or summon more monsters. These elements are more or less commonplace now, but they weren’t back then. This game’s success is why you have a stamina bar in almost every free-to-play game.
Say hello to mobile gaming’s most popular game. Yes, really.
Price: Free to play
- Simply put, Subway Surfers had more game downloads than any other mobile game in the 2010s. It was the decade’s most popular game.
- Angry Birds was the first mobile game across all mobile platforms (and iOS specifically) to hit one billion downloads, but Subway Surfers was the first game to do it in just the Google Play Store.
- It is currently the number two most downloaded iOS game of all time, following only Candy Crush Saga.
Subway Surfer was kind of a surprise to me when I researched this list. I expected a lot of games to top the list as the most popular mobile game of all time, but not once did I expect it to be Subway Surfers. The game is a highly polished endless runner where you run from a security guard after you get caught tagging a subway with graffiti. There are coins to collect, boosts to use, and you can hover on a hoverboard.
What makes this game weird is that it doesn’t really stand out all that much from many of its competitors. Sure, it’s highly polished, but it doesn’t really have any unique mechanics to set it apart from other endless runners. As far as we can tell, it’s just a polished game that a lot of people like. It’s even the most popular speedrun game in the world right now. We’re not sure why exactly, but people love this game, and its numbers show it.
Here are some additional titles that, despite not being the most iconic mobile games, shaped mobile gaming in their own, special way. This is not an all-inclusive list, but these definitely stick out more than others.
- Among Us — Among Us had one of the largest peaks of any mobile game during the COVID-19 pandemic. The world needed a distraction, and Among Us was that distraction. It’s a multi-platform game, so its impact wasn’t mobile-focused, but a lot of people played it on mobile.
- Fruit Ninja and Doodle Jump — Fruit Ninja and Doodle Jump were fairly iconic in their day. They are fun little arcade games with impressive download numbers in an era where mobile gaming wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now. These two titles, and several like them, held up mobile gaming’s earliest days until better titles could come along.
- Genshin Impact — It’s tough to gauge how iconic Genshin Impact will ultimately be because it’s still right in the middle of its run. Rest assured, though, this modern classic has console-quality graphics and gameplay. Yes, some of its mechanics are borrowed from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but nobody seems to mind. Its sustained success is a rarity in mobile gaming, and it just seems to keep going.
- Honor of Kings (Arena of Valor) and Monster Strike — We didn’t list these games above, but these two games hold the distinction of being the number one and two highest-grossing games, respectively, as of this writing. They also make up two of the three mobile games in history that have over $10 billion in total sales, with Clash of Clans being the third.
- Minecraft — Minecraft has spent so much time on the top paid game charts for both Google Play and the App Store that we can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. It’s one of the most popular games in history, and the mobile version continues that tradition. However, most of Minecraft’s iconic impact is on gaming as a whole, and it hasn’t done as much to shape mobile gaming as some other entrants on this list, so it’s an honorable mention.
- The old shooters — Before PUBG Mobile and Call of Duty, the mantle of best FPS games on mobile belonged to a group of FPS games that we think all deserve a mention. They include N.O.V.A., Modern Combat, Dead Trigger, and Shadowgun. These classics held up the entire mobile FPS genre for years, and would still be there if AAA developers hadn’t come in with big-name titles from existing properties.
- Plants vs Zombies — Plants vs Zombies is the grandfather of tower defense on mobile. It launched in 2013, and its existing popularity on PC helped make it successful on mobile as well. The memes and jokes made the game even more fun. Mainstays like Bloons TD 6 carry the torch for the tower defense genre now, but we’ll always remember Plants vs Zombies.
- Mario Kart Tour — Not all iconic mobile games are iconic for good reasons. Mario Kart Tour had a short tenure as the most successful mobile game launch before Call of Duty: Mobile took the crown. However, Mario Kart Tour’s aggressive monetization strategies, the long time before its multiplayer release, and other factors caused most players to abandon the game less than six months after launch. It, along with Super Mario Run, are among mobile gaming’s most iconic flops.
- Temple Run — Temple Run is only down here because Subway Surfers is hilariously popular. However, the OG endless runner not only sparked a whole genre based on its mechanics but was also pretty popular and successful in its own right. The gameplay was unique for its time, and veteran mobile gamers fondly remember a simpler time when Temple Run was one of the kings of the mountain.
- The Room — This one is a bit of a personal pick. It launched in 2012 and at that time, was one of the most beautiful mobile games ever produced. It showed that mobile games could have excellent graphics, and the puzzle-within-a-puzzle mechanics were genuinely fun. It won a handful of gaming awards back when mobile games didn’t win awards, and it’s still one of the best examples of good graphics in early mobile gaming.
If we missed any iconic mobile games, tell us about them in the comments.