Entering into the busiest video game season of the year, we didn’t exactly need Apple Arcade, nor did we really want it, given Apple’s mediocre stewardship of video games for the past decade. What a shock, then, that Apple Arcade is one of the best gaming launches we can remember, and that we can recommend it without making any apologies or exceptions for the stuff no one likes about mobile games. This thing is great.
The Apple Arcade service is an all-you-can-play offering of more than 70 new games that is available starting today for $5 a month, with a one-month free trial. It runs on iPhones and iPads now and will soon also work on iMacs and other devices including Apple TV.
Because of the way the games are being offered, there’s no need for the developers to include any of the aggravations typical of modern gaming. There are no timers designed to stop you from playing the game you’re enjoying unless you pay extra. There are no ads. There are no energy meters, and no microtransactions.
There are, simply, none of the manipulative systems that have contaminated nearly all of mobile gaming. Just imagine playing a puzzle game and not having to wait an hour for a timer to tick down before you can play the next level. Imagine playing a strategy game where you aren’t offered the chance to pay more to speed up the suspiciously slow building times. Imagine not being screwed with while you play mobile games. What a concept!
Freed of that, there is instead what will possibly prove to be one of the best gaming launch lineups in history. We say probably, because the biggest problem of covering Apple Arcade’s launch is the sheer amount of games, that all hit at once. The roster included about 50 new games when we started digging into a beta of the service earlier this week. It has grown to 70 today, and Apple says it will soon expand past 100. We therefore haven’t even had time to play all the games, let alone get very far into many of them.
What we have played has generally been impressive. The average quality of game here is high. Many of these games are from top developers, whose lack of recent output is explained by the surprise appearance of their games here. There’s a story-based game about fixing gadgets from the makers of Monument Valley, a game about cars and roads from the brilliant makers of the railway game Mini Metro, and a terrific underwater riff on Metroid from Capcom.
There are fun new word games, exciting sidescrollers, and challenging strategy games. There are original and exclusive games and multi-platform entries like Mutazione, Sayonara Wild Hearts and Overland. There’s a new Frogger, a new Sonic Racing, and a new Chu Chu Rocket. And there’s a game about being a Sasquatch who steals camper’s lunches.
Nowhere in this lineup is anything especially provocative or edgy, an early warning that Apple’s already restrictive approach to allowing games with politically-charged subject matter on the App Store will be at play here in a service where they have even more say-so in what is being offered. After all, Arcade is hand-curated and funded by Apple.
Apple Arcade nevertheless seems like a good thing at the moment. Its subscription model presents an opportunity for developers to give people who play on their phones and tablets more games that are great and fun and not compromised by gameplay that nickel-and-dimes the player.
The service is a no-brainer for anyone with a good enough device to at least test it for its free trial month. It does, we found, apply some not so subtle pressure to upgrade to newer devices or ones with more storage. After all, there are just so many games to download and play.
In the past few days, we’ve tried as many games on Arcade as we can. We still need to try more. So, with apologies to the makers of Jenny LeClue, the Pinball Wizard, Hexaflip and so many more, here are our favorites of the dozens of games we have been able to try:
Agent Intercept would be a hard game to recommend on its own, and yet it works well in a subscription service. It’s sort of a modification of the classic Spy Hunter game, putting the player in control of a car that’s in pursuit of a highway full of enemy vehicles, with the twist that the car can also turn into a boat. The game is fast-paced, looks great, and is divided into missions, only one of which seems to be available per day. That’d make the game hard to recommend on its own but allows it to work well as an impressive daily snack of fast-paced action.
Assemble With Care
The creators of the legendary Monument Valley show up to Apple Arcade with something a bit more intimate. Assemble with Care tells the story of Maria, a traveling antique restorer, who explores the personal lives of the people of a small town while putting their possessions back together. The gameplay sees Maria unscrewing, connecting, gluing, and assembling a series of objects, starting off simply and getting more complex as the game progresses. It’s a melancholy adventure in stuff repair.
Card of Darkness
The prolific mobile developer Zach Gage offers a bedeviling game for Apple Arcade. You’ve got a grid full of stacks of cards and the need to remove them so you can move through the grid to an exit. Cards can be helpful or harmful. They might give you a sword or a spell to attack enemies or might be one of a menagerie of foes whose distinct behaviors pose challenges to your meager pool of health points. Clear stacks of cards to clear paths, while dealing with the pros and cons of each card. Half the strategy is deciding whether to clear a given stack—there might be good stuff in there—or ignore it, since it might be too full of enemies. There are twists, the main one being that your weapons and the enemies all have damage numbers associated with them, and attacking an even-numbered enemy with an odd-numbered sword (or vice versa) will break it. The art is by Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward.
A treat for trading card game fans, Versus Evil’s Cardpocalypse is a hand-drawn take on Hearthstone-style battles. Cards and rules change as the game progresses, and the story is a charming school-based affair with a young wheelchair-bound protagonist. Like many Apple Arcade games, this one will be on PC soon as well.
Cricket Through the Ages
Cricket Through the Ages is a comprehensive history of the sport of cricket, from the days of cavemen and dinosaurs to the far future. It’s also a wonderfully silly showcase of wonky physics framed as a completely serious documentary.
Yes, we’re using a Nintendo Switch trailer to showcase Earthlight, because it was in a Nintendo Indie Game Direct that Cleaversoft’s dragon apocalypse action game first caught our eye. Heroes Sydney and Stanley skydive through the stratosphere, landing on the backs of dragons and running to their heads for the kill. The music is a gorgeous mix of chiptune and traditional tracks. The art style makes the game feel like a playable prog-rock album cover. Imagine killing dragons.
Frogger in Toy Town
The folks at Q-Games can be relied on to make games look great, sound great, and play weird. Check their stellar catalogue of PixelJunk games for reference, or observe what they’ve done with the classic Frogger for Apple Arcade. They’ve given your frog the challenge of crossing floors full of motorized toys, propped-up books, and rolling balls, all operating with realistic physics. A trippy soundtrack and the added challenge of collecting little frogs helps make the most familiar of games interesting once more.
What more can be done with tile-matching games? Capybara demonstrates with Grindstone, a hack-and-slash puzzle battler. Our bloodthirsty hero traces paths through color-coded creatures, using stones to link attacks together and keep combos going. It’s got treasure and crafting and all sorts of goodness, wrapped up with a cool animated style.
One of our favorite mobile games of all time is Dinosaur Polo Club’s Mini Metro. It challenged players to connect an ever-expanding map of train stations with subway lines for as long as possible without making its virtual commuters irate. The dev team is back with Mini Motorways which features levels sprouting with houses and parking garages, while challenging players to lay down roads, bridges, traffic lights and more. It is Mini Metro with more wrinkles, which means it’s great.
Oceanhorn 2, sequel to the award-winning Zelda-like Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, was announced way back in 2016. The original was a top-down action RPG with stunning visuals. This one is a third-person action RPG with stunning visuals. Play this one with a gamepad for best results.
This very pretty town-building strategy game challenges plays to resolve small societal challenges while figuring out where to construct houses, sawmills and the like. It’s broken up into missions, each involving a new town, its leader, and some goals for the community. At first it seems easy, but then you’ll realize you didn’t stock up on enough food and everyone’s dead. Plan better and try again.
Shinsekai: Into the Depths
This one is a stunner. The Capcom-developed adventure is an underwater riff not just on Metroid games in general but on Metroid II, the Game Boy and 3DS adventure that had heroine Samus Aran gradually lower the level of poisonous liquid in a network of caverns so she could explore ever deeper down. In Shinsekai, we control a deep sea diver who can gradually upgrade their suit to survive more dangerous depths.
There are many Metroid-style trappings, what with the caverns to explore and the upgrades to collect, but Shinsekai exhibits a wonderful identity of its own. Its environment is a mix of underwater sci-fi (upgrade rooms shaped like nautilus shells, for example) and deep-sea disaster (an area full of sunken, junked cars, a collapsing ice cavern, and more). Dangerous sea life swims through the caverns you explore, attracted to your headlamp if you turn it on to detect the hidden gems needed for upgrades. Weapons consist of things like harpoons, and involve such distinct actions as reeling in one enemy to inject it with something that makes it bait to attract other nearby enemies. This is among the Apple Arcade games that’d feel natural on any traditional gaming platform.
Snowman, the studio behind the outstanding Alto’s Adventure series of endless snowboarding games, applies its talent for creating moody, atmospheric motion to the skateboarding genre. Free skate or take on challenges to unlock new courses. Skate City is a stunning 2D game with seemingly endless replayability.
Surprise, it’s a new Sonic Racing game! Loosely based on the recently-released Team Sonic Racing, players race as a member of a three-character team in short, bite-sized races, winning trophies and earning coins to unlock new power-ups.It’s an excellent example of a game that would be packed with microtransactions if it weren’t on Apple Arcade.
Only in a wacky 2D platform shooter from Wayforward would science ever dream of combining spiders and dinosaurs. Spidersaurus plays like classic Contra, only instead of aliens we’re fighting bad science and instead of commandos we’re a gung-ho police officer and a punk rock girl. This is Wayforward’s second Apple Arcade game, the first being chapter one of the latest Shantae game, which is also quite good.
Lykke Studios’ Tint is a tranquil puzzle game about blending watercolors to create different hues. It’s the sort of game best enjoyed with the lights turned down low and a glass of wine on standby.
Various Daylife is complicated. From the Square Enix team responsible for Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler, it’s a combination of turn-based role-playing game and time-management sim. The player character divides his time between performing off-screen jobs to earn money for equipment and upgrades and going on more involved missions with a party of adventurers. Quests involve the party moving automatically across the screen as a meter fills, facing off against monsters in random turn-based encounters. When the meter is full, the quest is complete. It’s perfect for playing in short sessions. Those hoping for a more traditional RPG experience will be confused, but possibly delighted.
Word Laces / Dear Reader / Patterned
There are some really chill games on Apple Arcade, including a few of intriguing puzzles. Word Laces has you tie clumps of letters together to make words. Dear Reader has you filling in the blanks from passages in an ever-expanding library of literary classics. So far, the most pleasant of all of these games is Patterned, which is a simple jigsaw game that involves placing pieces onto a board to fill out a repeating pattern.