I recently saw a tweet by Matt Rix, creator of Trainyard, that got me thinking about iOS games and their, for lack of a better phrase, long-term stickiness. In my huge pile of literally hundreds of iOS games, I started to wonder which of those were the best long-term investments, the apps I found myself coming back to over and over again. I haven’t played every single iOS game out there, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Here are my criteria:

1) It has to be something that’s been on my device for at least a month or two.

2) These are games that stand out above the rest, the rest being either games in general or similar games in their genre.

3) If they aren’t games that I currently spend time on, they should be games that I’ve previously sunk way too many hours into (where I still look back on the experience fondly).

Why is that the criteria? Well, it’s easy to be excited or frustrated about something as soon as it comes out, so it’s probably not a good idea to make projections about longevity rather than assessing actual longevity. The tradeoff is that none of these games are bleeding edge new; some of them are indeed pretty old by iOS standards. What we’re looking for are games you can keep with you for a while and tell stories about when you’re done. I’m trying to find the best games that fit that description and actually stick with you, not the latest and greatest that are going to suck up a just few hours of time before fading from your memory forever.

Without further ado, here’s what I’ve got.

Canabalt (Universal – $2.99)

I originally bought this game for my iPod touch several years ago and it is still one of my most-played iOS games. There’s something both engaging and calming about the one-button appeal of this endless runner and its apocalyptic atmosphere and soundtrack that I can’t get enough of. I say if you get just one game for your mobile device, this should be it.

Spelltower (Universal – $1.99)

A game by Zach Gage, who’s done all kinds of other games, this is probably my favorite word game for iOS. I picked it up a few months ago and quickly found that it’s one of those games whose magical simplicity will unerringly rope in onlookers. What started as my mom taking a look at my iPad turned into several people all looking at the screen to play together and many of them downloading the game for themselves right then and there. When I want a quick linguistic exercise, Spelltower is it.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (Universal – $4.99, iPhone – $2.99)

Maybe it’s the fact that I keep forgetting to play during the right phase of the moon and therefore haven’t finished the game, maybe it’s the incredible Jim Guthrie soundtrack that I’ve listened to more than any other album in the last six months, maybe it’s the phenomenally good pixel art by Craig Adams, or maybe it’s the existentially satisfying “cure for acute soul sickness” gameplay, but I find myself always listing Sworcery in my top favorite iOS games. If we’re talking about games that will stick with you, I can’t find a better candidate that you can talk about later.

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (Universal – $4.99, expansion $2.99)

This one is an iOS version of the board game with the same name, designed by Magic: The Gathering champions who wanted to build a CCG-like experience without the collecting part. It’s the lovechild of Dominion and Magic where you build you deck from scratch over the course of each game, so it’s never quite the same game twice. There are tons of board games to choose from, but this is one I’ve often come back to. Pass-and-play and online multiplayer plus a skilled AI certainly help. Note: I can’t recommend the expansion pack enough. If you like the basic game, it’s a must-buy.

Carcassonne (Universal – $9.99)

This is another one. If you’ve played the physical board game, this version faithfully reproduces it and actually manages to improve upon it by making it easier to play, easier to keep score, easier to figure out legal moves, and significantly faster. Carcassonne is one of my favorite board games, so the fact that the iOS version is actually a better version is extremely high praise. Local, online, and pass-and-play multiplayer should seal this one as a keeper, but if you’re a solo player I’m sure you’ll find the AI to be plenty challenging.

Angry Birds (iPad – $2.99 , iPhone – $0.99)

Angry Birds Rio (iPad – $2.99, iPhone – $0.99)

Angry Birds Seasons (iPad – $1.99, iPhone – $0.99)

One of the reasons Angry Birds is such a popular series is because they are actually good games. There are lots of “throw this physics-based object into a series of structures to destroy them” games, but Angry Birds still stands out as one of the best, if not the best. I’m partial to Rio as I really like the characters and I think the visuals are more pleasing than the other two, but they’re all solid contenders and you really can’t go wrong with any of them.

Puzzle Quest & Puzzle Quest 2

(PQ1 iPad – $3.99 , PQ1 iPhone – Free + $2.99 IAP unlock, PQ2 Universal – $4.99)

Ah, Puzzle Quest. Several years ago, I got hooked on this one for PC and sunk dozens of hours into it. Since then, it has spawned iterations on almost every platform, some of them significantly better than others. Puzzle Quest is a perfectly faithful port of the computer version, mostly improved with touch controls and is one of those better versions. Puzzle Quest 2 started out as being horribly plagued by slowness, awful loading times, and lag, but received a godsend of a patch shortly after release and was completely fixed, making it even better than the original in my opinion. If the phrase “battle-based match-three RPG” gets you excited, these will certainly keep you occupied. Did I mention there’s multiplayer?

Dragonvale (Universal – Free)

A freemium, social/management game? What? I’ve played several of these, including We Rule, Tiny Zoo, Tiny Tower, Pocket Frogs, and Trade Nations, but Dragonvale is the only one where not only do I still play, but I actually enjoy doing so. Almost every other management game became a chore, but Dragonvale respects the player by simply presenting you with things to do and not giving you a countdown clock in which you have to respond or else everything falls apart. Nothing spoils, there are no objectives that require any timing for completion, and there’s a great balance of having enough to do without feeling like there’s too much maintain. If you want a management game to take care of from time to time and you love colorful, crisp visuals and/or dragons, try this one out.

Death Rally (Universal – $0.99)

There are tons of racing games on the App Store, but this one is the one I’ve spent the most time on (although Reckless Racing comes close and I have yet to check out its sequel). It’s a top-down racer where you purchase new vehicles, upgrade them, and add weapons. It’s metered enough that you’ll find yourself coming back repeatedly but it’s diverse enough that it takes a long session before it feels grindy and repetitive. I clocked in lots of time on this one and that was before they added multiplayer, so I’m willing to say it’s probably still a safe bet as a keeper.

Kingdom Rush (iPad only – $2.99)

The iPad is, in my opinion, the perfect venue for tower defense games, which is probably why you see so many of them. In a sea of clones and unoriginal garbage, Kingdom Rush stands out as everything a TD game should be. There are enough base units and upgrade paths to keep things interesting, the maps are challenging without ever feeling impossible, and the gameplay is crisp and engaging. On top of that, the soundtrack is great and the unit voices are as fun and memorable as anything from Starcraft or Command & Conquer (probably because they’re so laced with pop culture references). When a game keeps you involved as long as a well-established title like Plants vs. Zombies, it certainly warrants attention.

Plants vs. Zombies (iPad – $6.99, iPhone – $2.99)

My first iPad game and one that I’ve played ad nauseum, Plants vs. Zombies has tons of staying power. It’s tower defense that doesn’t look like tower defense, it’s accessible by everyone from hardcore players to casual gamers like my mom, and it has audio/video character by the bucketload. Plants vs. Zombies definitely has staying power, as evidenced by fan demand for a sequel.

Honorable Mentions

Infinity Blade 2 (Universal – $6.99)

Why it didn’t make the cut: Infinity Blade 2 is a gorgeous game and improves on the original in every way, but it’s essentially an hour of game looped into dozens of hours of play time. Whereas other games on this list make repetition fun, Infinity Blade 2 eventually felt boring to me after fighting the same enemies for the 30th time. It’s certainly worth a purchase, as it’s one of the best-looking games on iOS, probably moreso with the 3rd generation iPad update, and those first few hours of gameplay are excellent, but as a long-term game it failed to keep my interest. It also crashes on my 1st generation iPad constantly.

Assassin’s Creed: Recollection (Universal – “Free”)

Why it didn’t make the cut: Frustration with microtransactions. On even ground when the game first game out, it was lots of fun. The game was still brutally hard when playing against better-prepared opponents (read: opponents who spent money to buy cards), but that was less common. Now the AI challenges are fiercely difficult and it feels like almost everyone has a better deck. I desperately wanted to love this game, as I think it’s a great game, but the microtransaction-dependent ecosystem poisoned the overall experience for me.

This article was not endorsed by any 3rd party. The author purchased all of these apps for his own device and was not paid to review any of them.