Apple Arcade probably isn’t going to suck. Maybe you already assumed that because you’re an Apple fan, or because you recognize that $5 for a selection of thoughtfully curated games could be a good deal. But questions have lingered about the service since Apple first announced it last spring. After a couple of hours playing through some of the biggest titles for the service ahead of its September 19th launch, I’m tentatively excited.
I say tentatively because a couple of hours is hardly enough time thoroughly test Apple Arcade. The demo games I played had potential, but they could all end up being stinkers on a full play-through—or they could end up being the only good games that ever appear on the service.
Either way, Apple’s model for Arcade is unprecedented. For $5 a month, Apple curates a list of over a hundred titles that don’t have any of the little annoyances we’ve come to expect from mobile games. There are no microtransactions, no weird in-game currencies that require you to spend real-world money, and no characters or storylines you can only experience by spending a few extra dollars. There’s none of the nickel and diming that’s otherwise rampant in modern mobile games. Instead, you just get over 100 titles that you download and play whenever you want. I played six of the eight games Apple made available to a small group of journalists: Finji’s Overland, Annapurna’s Sayonara Wild Hearts, Capcom’s Shinsekai Into the Depths, RAC7's Sneaky Sasquatch, and Skate City and Where Cards Fall—both from Snowman.
You find the games in the App Store under a new tab, Arcade. Click on the tab, and you get that typical App Store experience, like download suggestions.
The subscription covers downloading games to any Apple device—from the iPhone to the iMac. The games themselves are designed to work with both the touch displays found in iPhone and iPads and the myriad of controllers that the Apple TV and macOS support.
How well the games support the different playstyles depends, at least in my experience. Finji’s Overland, a strategy game set in a procedurally generated post-apocalyptic wasteland, was created for consoles initially and played well with a controller, or even with a mouse. Other titles, like Snowman’s Skate City, a side-scrolling Tony Hawk Underground-like affair, felt a little clunky with a controller but was wonderfully intuitive on the phone. That makes sense as Snowman is a mobile app developer first, having already created popular iOS games like Alto’s Adventure and Alto’s Odyssey.
Across the board, most of the games were a drag on the iPad. Quite a few of the games like to use the device itself to mimic a controller when played on touch devices. That works with a phone, which is roughly the same size as a controller from Sony or Microsoft. But using the iPad as a giant controller was really uncomfortable. My hands were too damn small to pretend a 10.2-inch iPad had joysticks on either side of the display.
Apart from the discomfort of playing games on the iPad, my other hesitation is that many of the games looked really similar. Overland, Skate City, and Where Cards Fall, all shared an aesthetic I’ve come to associate with high-quality iPhone games. It’s the one shared by titles like Alto’s Adventures, Lara Croft Go, and Monument Valley. A little cartoonish, extremely simple, but surprisingly attractive.
None of the developers on site could explain why so many titles shared a similar look. It could just be a trend (and in the case of Snowman, which had two games available for play, it might just be an in-studio aesthetic).
Not all the games shared the look. Sayonara Wild Hearts, a racing game where you switch between running, driving, and even gliding across the screen on a card, is an incandescent extravaganza even if its core style embraces a similar simplicity. The bright colors pop on screen and seem to pulse with the catchy soundtrack.
Capcom’s Shinsekai Into the Depths also stood apart. The game is set entirely underwater and similar to games like Metroid or Castlevania (the genre combining puzzle platformer and action is often called Metroidvania). You slowly become more powerful and can backtrack to other points in the game to access areas you couldn’t at the start.
Capcom’s game looks like something you’d find on a PS4 or Xbox One. The graphics are sophisticated and go for a realism rarely found on games intended for Apple’s platforms. The sound design is outrageously good too, with every hiss of your character’s oxygen, or blurp of bubbles escaping your character’s suit resonating good and loud.
But more important than the looks of the games or how their controls worked across a myriad of devices is whether or not they’re fun.
They’re really fun.
I found myself sucked into Shinsekai and Where Cards Fall in particular. The former comes from a genre I love, while the latter is a cool puzzle game where you resize houses of cards to navigate maps. I lost track of time trying to solve the puzzle on each level, and I found myself thinking about how easily I could see spending $5 for Where Cards Fall or Shinsekai alone.
But the deal could change. The rest of the 100-plus launch titles for Arcade could suck compared to the small collection Apple made available. Or even worse, those could be the only good games the service ever provides. At launch, Arcade will likely be worth it for the handful of games I’ve already played. They’ll undoubtedly last me for a few months of entertainment, and given they’re only playable via a subscription, I’ll be locked in for however long those games give me joy.
But the question of Apple Arcade’s value won’t become significant until months down the road when the early crop of games is exhausted. If Apple can’t maintain a steady stream of new content, $5 a month may stop feeling like a deal and more like another subscription headache.