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Apple Arcade reviewed: our thoughts after two weeks

These days stores have become so stuffed that discovering great games can be hard work. And, on mobile specifically, the popularity of “free” games designed to keep players paying has made other types of games uneconomical for many developers. By funding artful games with no ads and no microtransactions, Apple has brought back that feeling of surprise and discovery. Of course, it remains to be seen if the system is sustainable.

Currently there’s something for everyone in the library; from puzzle, racing, farming and platforming games to deck-builders, narrative experiences, rhythm action games and turn-based tactics, and the overall quality is very high. Best of all, since you’re already paying for access, it’s easy to take a chance on something and be surprised.

The best of the bunch

This is entirely subjective, but having personally dipped into every one of the 71 games for at least a minute or two, here are the five that stood out to me most.

Grindstone is a great reminder of how good mobile puzzlers can be with no microtransactions.

Grindstone is a great reminder of how good mobile puzzlers can be with no microtransactions.

  • What the Golf: Taking the most basic of golf game inputs and finding a thousand ways to use it,What the Golf is a near endless succession of gags and surprise challenges with very little to do with the actual sport. You’ll fly rockets around the moon, knock cats over with a sofa, and putt through challenging sections paying homage to games from Super Mario to Superhot.
  • Grindstone: From Capybara, creators of the seminal mobile puzzle game Critter Crunch, Grindstone is the kind of game that rewires your brain so you’re seeing colour-coded paths and optimal floor-clearing strategies on the inside of your eyelids when you sleep. Hilarious monsters, a great loot grind and a steady ramp up in complexity make this an instant classic.
  • Shantae and the Seven Sirens: A loosely Arabian-themed Metroid-meets-Mega Man starring a ditzy half-genie — with mostly cute girls as enemies and heaps of fourth-wall-breaking fun — might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But Shantae is one of my favourite series, and Seven Sirens is (part one of) a true sequel to the 2017 reboot. A controller is recommended.
  • Assemble With Care: From ustwo, the developers behind Monument Valley, comes this meditative game / novella about fixing things. It follows a repairwoman and antiques restorer taking odd jobs while visiting a foreign town, and has you tinkering with peoples’ beloved old gadgets to get them (and their personal relationships) working again.
  • Cricket Through the Ages: I can’t believe a physics game this dumb, based around a single joke, can be this good. With support for two players on a single iPhone, you’re always holding and releasing to bat and bowl, but with rapid fire changes that might see you throwing rocks at a horse-mounted knight or receiving a thrown snake with an umbrella.
Shantae hasn't lost any of its humour or in its latest iteration.

Shantae hasn’t lost any of its humour or in its latest iteration.

Play your way

The iPhone, iPad, Apple TV remote and traditional game pads make for an extremely broad set of inputs, but most games do a good job of accommodating for how you want to play. Still, some work best with a touchscreen, some are better with buttons and a few don’t support the remote at all.

For controller games on the go I’ve been attaching my iPhone to a PS4 pad with a mount, but I’ve also been impressed with how competent a game console the Apple TV 4K has become thanks to its recent software update. Apple uses iCloud to sync your game progress online so that whenever you move to a new device you have access to your most recent data. When this works you get the ideal scenario; playing on your phone on the train home, and then sitting down with a controller and picking up where you left off on the TV.

Repairing a turntable in Assemble with Care.

Repairing a turntable in Assemble with Care.

But I’ve had a few instances where it hasn’t worked. iCloud is designed to be automatic and invisible, so when it fails (for example when Apple TV doesn’t recognise I’ve already put several hours into Shantae on iPhone), there’s really no way to find out what went wrong. Fortunately I haven’t actually lost any progress yet, but this is the sort of thing you’d like to have 100% confidence in.

The iPod lives!

Hear me out on this one. The 2019 iPod Touch is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, and I’d wager a few of you had no idea this device was still being made. It’s an adorably thin little guy with the tiny screen of an iPhone 5, a basic camera similar to the one on an iPhone 6, the still-powerful guts of an iPhone 7 and the latest iOS 13 software.

Though I find it hard to process that we all used screens this small seven years ago, services like Apple Arcade make the iPod a brilliant ultra-portable media machine if you don’t need (or want) an iPhone. Games that really need a controller and have finnicky touch controls are obviously even worse here, but I played a lot of games on the Touch and the overall experience was very good.

Arcade is already an attractive prospect for parents of gaming-age children, since the monthly fee includes five users and you know none of the games are going to expose your kids to ads or slow them down if they don’t use your credit card to buy stamina refills. At $299 I could see the iPod Touch making a great first gaming device.

You never know what you're going to be cricketing with next in Cricket Through the Ages, but England / the world usually depends on it.

You never know what you’re going to be cricketing with next in Cricket Through the Ages, but England / the world usually depends on it.

Questions still to be answered

Though the service is off to a great start, there are a few details I don’t think Apple’s quite ready to give satisfying answers to. First of all, how will games be added and removed going forward? Apple is promising a constant library of 100 games, meaning there are 30 or so more to come before any need to be removed, but what happens eventually if my favourite game leaves the service? Is there a grace period where I can still play it? Will there be a warning? Will it go to the regular App Store? Will I be offered a discount to purchase it? Might developers patch in ads or additional transactions?

Secondly, Apple has clearly spent a lot of money funding or acquiring games to launch exclusively into Arcade, but will it be able to keep this up in the future? Will we start seeing games that have previously launched elsewhere? Will Apple begin offering developers a cut of subscription revenue based on metrics rather than an up-front fee, meaning designers will have to compromise their creations to maximise income?

All that remains to be seen, but thankfully as Arcade is month-to-month it will be easy to hit the eject button if need be. As it stands the service is a great value, assuming you already have Apple gear, and could potentially grow to be a gaming destination with variety that matches any other platform.

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