/Hands on: Hands on: Apple Arcade review

Hands on: Hands on: Apple Arcade review

At the same event where Apple revealed its iPhone 11 series, the company finally announced the pricing for Apple Arcade: $4.99 per month after a one-month free trial. That was one of the final pieces to the puzzle for the gaming subscription service, which goes live on September 19. 

The other piece, of course, is what sets its games library apart – what Apple Arcade has to offer – that can convince consumers to sign up. After hands-on time with a handful of titles, we’ve got a much better idea of what Apple Arcade is: a service for folks to play games that may not have been created under any other circumstances.

That’s a lofty ambition, and we’ll see if the conditions Apple has created for developers – including professional expertise, marketing, and an unclear amount of financial assistance during development – will actually produce experiences consumers can’t get elsewhere. 

What we do know is that the half-dozen titles we played were diverse, novel, and had vibrant art, exactly the kind of charming sample enticing us to recommend the service outright. 

(Image credit: Future)

So…what is Apple Arcade, really?

Here’s what Apple Arcade isn’t: an alternative to Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Now or any other game subscription or streaming service. You likely won’t see a AAA title show up, especially graphics-intensive games that would be tough to get working smoothly across Apple’s device ecosystem.

Instead, Apple Arcade is an argument for enjoyable, rich, lower-spec games that prioritize ease of pick-up-and-play in an all-inclusive package – it’s Apple’s no-stress-walled-garden philosophies brought to games. 

After hands-on time and the lower-than-expected subscription cost, we’re more convinced that there’s room in a lot of consumers’ budgets for this kind of no-frills, all-inclusive service.

Sure, Apple has its work cut out for it, especially with so many entertainment subscriptions causing service fatigue among consumers. But there are demographics to which this will appeal, from parents (thanks to the explicitly family-friendly lineup) to folks who just want an interesting slate of games every month they know will work on every new-ish Apple device they own. 

Some things are still confusing. Apple Arcade isn’t a standalone repository where you can access the service’s games – it’s a tab in the App Store where subscribers can download titles to their device’s home screens. Yes, you’ll have to download each game to play it, meaning you can only store as many as you’ve got storage space to spare, though there’s no limit on that. 

But the service is actually easy to use – as is playing the same title on different devices. In our short time with the half-dozen games, we loaded up the underwater side-scroller Shinsekai on both Apple TV (controlling with a PS4 DualShock 4) and an iPhone 11 Pro Max, which had been adapted with in-screen buttons. It was understandably a bit harder to control on mobile than a traditional gamepad, but performance didn’t suffer. 

We did the same with Skate City, and found both titles ran smoothly, though we didn’t get a chance to switch from one platform to another – in theory, the service lets you continue playing on a different device from the last cloud state save. 

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Sneaky Sasquatch (RAC7)

Sneaky Sasquatch (RAC7)

(Image credit: Apple)

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Shinsekai: Into The Depths (Capcom)

Shinsekai: Into The Depths (Capcom)

(Image credit: Apple)

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Chu Chu Rocket! Universe (Sega)

Chu Chu Rocket! Universe (Sega)

(Image credit: Apple)

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Skate City (Snowman)

Skate City (Snowman)

(Image credit: Apple)

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Hot Lava (Klei)

Hot Lava (Klei)

(Image credit: Apple)

Games and features

Apple Arcade Games List

Here are all the games that have been officially confirmed for Apple Arcade:

Atone: Heart of the Elder Tree 
Ballistic Baseball
Beyond a Steel Sky
Box Project
Cardpocalypse
ChuChu Rocket Universe
Doomsday Vault
Down in Bermuda
Enter The Construct
Exit the Gungeon
Fantasian
Frogger in Toy Town
Hitchhiker
Hot Lava 
Jenny LeClue – Detectivu
Kings of the Castle
Lego Arthouse
Lego Brawls
Lifelike
Little Orpheus
Mr Turtle
Monomals 
No Way Home
Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm 
Overland
Pac-Man Party Royale
Projection: First Light
Rayman Mini
Repair
Sayonara Wild Hearts 
Shantae 5
Skate City
Sneaky Sasquatch
Sonic Racing
Spidersaurs
Spyder
Steven Universe: Unleash The Light
Super Impossible Road
The Artful Escape
The Enchanted World
The Pathless 
The Bradwell Conspiracy
UFO on Tape: First Contact
Various Daylife
Where Cards Fall
Winding Worlds
Yaga 

Apple has been very coy about its criteria for adding new titles to Apple Arcade, but adheres to these basic guidelines: game candidates must be in development (no already-released titles), they must be family-friendly, and they must work across the Apple device ecosystem. 

It’s clear that Apple is curating a select list, adding an uncertain number of titles every month to its early catalog that will rise to 100 titles in the weeks following launch. Of the games we tried, what set them apart from the typical is how shaggy they were.

Shaggy, as in not lean – as in, including features that would have probably been cut in order to get the game out the door. 

Sneaky Sasquatch, an Apple Arcade launch title from studio RAC7, is a good example: you play the titular cryptid, creeping around campsites stealing food and getting up to hijinks (an early tongue-in-cheek title: Metal Gear Sasquatch). But if you pass by a poster with a slice of pizza on it, the ‘squatch will stare longingly at it as you mosey around. 

It’s a quirk that would’ve likely been ditched before a typical launch, but the feature made it into the game thanks, in some part, to the security of Apple Arcade. In theory, if developers are less burdened than they would be if they relied on in-game purchasing mechanics or ads, and freed from having to pursue business development deals, they can focus on their games. 

Without the monetization schemes that are typically shoehorned into games, Sneaky Sasquatch feels freer to deliver its odd, fun flavor of gameplay. Players aren’t pressured into buying anything at regular intervals; instead, they roam around uncovering new map areas, accepting sidequests from mischievous foxes, taking a driver’s license test to get cleared for track racing…all the oddball activities that make the game seem like it’s had the freedom to sprawl into its own territory rather than rigidly adhere to convention.

You can see this in other Apple Arcade titles, too – like Hot Lava by studio Klei, which takes the titular childhood game and adds in a ton of fun accoutrements (like a full-length Saturday Morning-style cartoon) to what’s essentially a linear obstacle course. It’s overproduction in the best way. 

That’s the dream of Apple Arcade – games you wouldn’t get elsewhere, in a family-friendly catalog (and playable by up to six family members) that includes all regular and DLC content for a simple monthly fee.

(Image credit: Future)

Early verdict

It’s tough not to think of Apple Arcade as a dressed-up mobile gaming experience, especially since its lineup of launch titles include plenty that have that mobile game “look” – stylistic art, singular gameplay concept, and slower (often pensive and puzzle-based) action. 

On one hand, that perspective sells the service’s potential short. On the other, however, it’s not untrue: one of the service’s launch titles, Where Cards Fall by studio Snowman, was designed as a smartphone and tablet game before the opportunity to release it in Apple Arcade serendipitously arose. Making games to chase the iPhone and iPad consumer base feeds nicely in to Apple Arcade’s potential subscription base, which seems like a game design feedback loop. 

Of course, we’re only seeing the first generation of Apple Arcade games, including those which were already building games for mobile. It’s entirely possible that the next will feature games built expressly for the service that break out of the mobile gaming mold. Whether Apple Arcade lives up to its promise after the honeymoon phase will only be clear in the weeks and months after launch.