Apple Arcade is…surprisingly good?

Or why the mobile market isn’t the devil you know. 

I probably shouldn’t sound so hesitant in the title…but, for a long time I happily went to Nintendo, Playstation and PC as my platforms of choice and completely ignored the mobile realm. In fact, prior to last month, the only games I remember playing on my iPhone/iPad were Monument Valley (very therapeutic) and some of the golden oldie Shall we Date otome titles (anyone remember Heian Love?). And, yeah, that was about seven years ago! 

I don’t consider myself a gaming snob and I certainly don’t distinguish primarily mobile gamers as ‘casual’ or anything silly like that (‘match-3 games are not real games’ can go sit in the same ridiculous pile as ‘walking sims/VNs are not real games’ 🙄)  but truthfully I’ve probably sidestepped the mobile market without much thought. After all, it’s a saturated and difficult marketplace to navigate (literally tens of thousands of gaming apps with worse discoverability than the usual PC storefronts) caught between the eternal depreciatory battle between interest and time. Then, there’s the fact I have to perform twister-lite contortions with a small screen and avoid predatory gacha practices to keep my wallet intact. However, the main reason I’ve avoided what counts for almost sixty percent of revenue for the entire gaming industry (let that sink in…) was probably ignorance. I’ve missed out on a ton of mobile offerings because I just didn’t really know what was available.

Now, I discover there’s every genre under the sun, a gratifying number of one-off payment types (if you’re prepared to look), indies galore, and so many affordable ports, some of which can be difficult to find original copies of. Final Fantasy Tactics! Professor Layton! Ace Attorney for less than a pound! It’s almost sacrilege how cheap some of the stuff is. So yeah, mobile gaming has come a bit further than I expected. I only wish there was a better way to organise and filter the App Store so I could more easily sift through the masses!

This is probably still accurate

Anyway, that’s a bit of background on how I’ve fallen down another rabbit hole. What did I find on the other side? Apple Arcade. After downloading Monster Hunter Stories and Layton Brothers: Mystery Room in quick succession, I stumbled upon the Apple Arcade tab in the App Store. I vaguely remember that Apple was establishing its own subscription service a few years ago but I wasn’t particularly interested until I had a nosey about and saw three games that had been languishing on my wishlist for a while within their line-up. One would be a coincidence, two lucky, but three? Sign me up (on a free trial!)

Fast forward to the present. It’s been a month and I’m pleasantly surprised. Enough to write about it and renew my membership at the end of the month at any rate. I’ll be going into my thoughts about whether this subscription is for you in a bit but first let’s go through the basics. 

What is Apple Arcade?

Apple Arcade is a subscription service for a collection of curated ‘premium’ games, playable seamlessly without any pesky ads or microtransactions. The cost is a monthly payment of £4.99/$4.99 with the first month free. Apple Arcade is available in the Apple One bundle, which also includes Apple Music, Apple TV+, and iCloud [Apple News+ and Apple Fitness+ in the Premier tier). 

The Good 

It’s all about the games
There are honestly some great games on offer here, over 180 according to Apple’s own site, of which quite a few were released on PC relatively recently, such as Alba: A Wildlife Adventure and Cozy Grove. Most games are well reviewed within the App Store and a wide variety of genres are available. I went through the list of games and roughly categorised them. The stats came out like this: 

Platformer/Action Adventure: 42; Puzzle: 39; Adventure: 25; Simulation/Casual: 21; RPG: 12; Strategy: 12; Arcade/Racing: 10; Multiplayer/Party: 10; Sport: 9; Card: 3; Rhythm: 3

I worked on a basis of best fit here as well as how they were identified on the App Store so some of the categories are vague. As expected, Action and Puzzle games form the majority, although the criteria for these genres were very broad. ‘Puzzle’, for example, includes simple word games, physics games, puzzle adventures, and various kinds of perspective/tactile experiences. I noticed that there was a lack of traditional visual novels, although there were a sizable number of narrative-focused adventure/VN hybrids, which I counted under Adventure. Some visual novels or choose your own story games might be nice additions considering interactive fiction seems fairly popular in the mobile market and a staggered approach would suit episodic series.

More broadly, there is a diverse selection of ‘moods’ amongst the games. Tonally, games range from the very silly and bright to sombre and sentimental. Likewise, most games will appeal to all ages, although some are clearly targeted more towards children. Some games are very much pick up and play in a spare moment while others suit longer sessions. I should also note that Arcade has a few intriguing exclusives to entice you but the majority of the line-up are also available on PC/mobile. 

Good things in portable packages
If I can play a game curled up in bed, that’s what I’ll do. Being able to play on the go is a big thing for me – it’s probably why most of my playtime is on the Switch – and I truly believe a smaller screen is better for certain games and situations. Rhythm, puzzle or narrative-focused adventures all benefit from a streamlined and portable set-up and I’m far more likely to finish a game on handheld in my personal experience. I’m not sure whether mobile gaming will eventually push current boundaries with fresh experiences but if Apple continues to gather and fund games that make the most of a portable, tactile system, they’ll be heading in the right direction. 

One game I think touches upon this is Assemble with Care, which was released in 2019 on Apple Arcade (2020 on Steam) and is simply perfect as a handheld experience. In this game you play as an antique restorer who tinkers and fixes more than just objects in a sunny but fractured town. The mix of heartfelt narrative and chill tactile puzzling is a great combination and a rare example of a game actually elevated by playing on an intimate system like your phone. 

Assemble with Care

Talking practicalities, you can play Arcade games on your phone, tablet, laptop or TV (via Apple TV) so there are different options there as well and since data is shared on iCloud, you can play across your preferred devices. On a similar note, many games are compatible with a controller, if you’re not a fan of touchscreens. 

Cheap and cheerful
The subscription touches the sweet spot of just under five pounds and frankly for the price of an indulgent coffee that’s not bad value for the line-up on offer, especially considering the first month is free. Several of the traditional PC/console games retail for a lot more on other platforms. So far, I’ve had a good go with five or so games and dabbled with another four all for the price of nothing. Of course, like most subscription-based services, you can cancel anytime. If you’re the type of person that likes to pass around/leech on subscriptions, you’ll also be happy to know that’s cool here and one subscription can be shared with up to five people with Apple’s Family Sharing feature. 

A steady stream of new games…
This one comes with a ‘but’. The service initially launched with around 70 games and while Apple has done good on their promise to increase their line-up over time, games are released somewhat sporadically despite their claim to ‘add new games and content updates’ every week. If you have a look at the release schedule (scroll all the way down the Apple Arcade tab on the App Store to ‘See All Games’), you’ll see a whole wad of games were released at the start of April and a couple across each month before. Since then, only one new game has dropped at the end of May and only three games are featured in the Coming Soon section. Hopefully this doesn’t signal a dry spell but I guess when it rains, it pours?   

The Bad

Potential for jank
Personally I’m not too bothered about playing on less than optimal settings considering I regularly sacrifice good graphics on my Switch. That said, if this matters to you, most multi-platform games available might be better played elsewhere. Some ports are not great according to reviews and you should expect some bugs and inopportune crashes. Of course, this is not specific to mobile games and any port is up to developers to fix and update – whether that happens quickly or not is another matter. I should add that the majority of games appear to run fine and I’ve only had a handful of crashes across all the games I’ve played, although my phone ends up doubling as a hand warmer after a while. 

Would you like a cliffhanger with that? 
One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the ‘bigger’ games have been released in an incomplete state and I discovered this mostly from reading reviews rather than in their official descriptions. This is the case for some of the more spotlight titles, such as Shantae and the Seven Sirens, World’s End Club, and Fantasian. Of course, I can understand why this happens. It makes sense to split up a big game and encourage subscribers to hang on for the conclusion but it also gives developers more time to work on a new game and make adjustments following feedback. Still, I’m not too keen on ‘See you in Part 2!’ intermissions, especially if they come as a surprise. 

Knowing in advance about a staggered release and having a tentative update schedule would make fragmented games much more palatable but this is potentially a big drawback for people who want to play with no frills or updates. The time it takes to update a game is also a significant factor to consider. For Shantae, it took Wayforward about six months to publish the second half. World’s End Club, which was initially released in September 2020, has been recently updated in the last week. I am unsure whether it is now complete but this would line up with the Switch release date of May 28, 2021. The first half of Fantasian, which has a runtime of about 15-20 hours by itself, came out in April 2021 with the second part to follow at an unspecified date in 2021. Save data appears to be stored on iCloud, so at least you shouldn’t have to keep the app installed to preserve save data while you wait (likewise, Apple states that you should still be able to access gameplay data if you cancel and resubscribe). 

When the Final Boss is coming ‘soon‘ (from Fantasian)

Up to p(e)ar? 
Okay, there’s no way around this one… Arcade’s selection is a bit lacking compared to some of the more popular subscriber services such as Xbox Game Pass for console and/or PC or Playstation Plus, which cost comparable prices and offer other benefits such as store discounts. The games on Arcade target a very different market than that of traditional consoles and Microsoft and Sony’s services offer much more involved, complex and longer titles that simply aren’t possible on mobile. If both time and money are on the table, you’ll definitely get more ‘bang’ for your buck elsewhere. 

Final thoughts

Well, judging from a quick look around Google, other reviews reach a similar consensus: i.e. cautiously positive. While Apple has not disclosed any numbers, I assume it’s doing well enough since its launch in late 2019. Do I like Apple Arcade? Yeah. Will I continue to subscribe? Maybe – depending on how long Arcade’s games distract me from the Big Bad Backlog. Is it for you? Well, that really depends on the kind of games you enjoy. At any rate, I suggest having a scroll through what’s on offer and trying the free trial, if you’re interested. I’ve found some absolute gems in the meantime and I’m planning on writing about some of my top recommendations, so look forward to that soon! 

What do you think? Are you a fan of mobile games? Have you tried Apple Arcade and do you have any recommendations for the backlog?

Thanks for reading!

Published by nonplayergirl

Long-time lurker turned blogging newb. Lover of all things otaku but especially JRPGs, anime and manga. Always adding something to the backlog. Probably descending into K-Pop hell right now.

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