Apple Arcade Shows What Mobile Gaming Can Be When Freed of Microtransactions

Curtesy of Apple
Clockwise from top left: Apple Arcade titles 'Shinsekai: Into the Depths,' 'Projection: First Light,' 'Snek,' 'Sneaky Sasquatch'

The tech giant's new subscription service is already an extremely promising sampling of how mobile gaming can truly innovate when not bound to the all-consuming constraints of money-making.

Mobile gaming has fallen into a familiar rut over the last few years: match-three puzzlers, Battle Royale shooters, augmented reality Pokémon Go copycats, tower defense games that push card-collecting mechanics on unsuspecting users (and parents' bank accounts). Amid the same old routine, truly ambitious mobile titles have been few and far between, further convoluting a market that feels more watered down with each passing year. 

The majority of these issues stem from developers looking for a good way to monetize their games. Most mobile titles are either free or only cost players a few bucks upfront (or a few hundred bucks over the course of a game's lifetime in the case of free-to-play titles). Apple Arcade, Apple’s game-centric subscription service meant to fit right in between its Apple Music and Apple TV+ services, aims to change that.

Debuting alongside iOS 13, the new service is an all-you-can-play, buffet-style selection of games available for a set monthly price. It’s also one of the best things to happen to mobile gaming in years. 

For just $5 a month, Apple Arcade is extremely affordable. It's the cheapest option out of any play-what-you-want gaming subscription service currently on the market, such as Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass or Apple's PlayStation Now. You can even opt to share access across multiple family accounts to stretch your dollar even further. That allows up to six individual users to share a single account. For the frugal among us, you can also test it out for your first month with a free trial. 

Games accessed via the service can then be played across iOS devices of your choice, such as the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and Mac. At launch, the service boasts around 75 games, most of which were indicative of high-quality, console-style games. Having tested at least a modicum of the 75 games currently available on launch, it's safe to say that Apple has a massive amount of quality titles on its hands. 

If you're looking for shorter, casual games, you'll find them scattered throughout in titles like Dinosaur Polo Club's Mini Motorways, which finds you painstakingly working to transport people from home to work and back again by creating networks of tunnels. It's a lot more complicated than it sounds but also extremely rewarding. Similarly, RAC7 Games' Sneaky Sasquatch is a hilarious game featuring a selection of mini games that are meant to be played in short bursts as you take on the role of a furry, coordinated Bigfoot. 

But the true crown jewels are the service's platformers, such as WayForward's Shantae and the Seven Sirens, Rayman Mini and ambitious journeys like the survival strategy game Overland or futuristic Neo Cab. Oceanhorn 2 is a sprawling, gorgeous game that rivals full-priced console odysseys like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Similarly, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a dreamy, surrealistic "playable pop album" that's absolutely breathtaking — a must for music lovers. 

The catalog features a healthy mixture of familiar franchises, like Sonic the Hedgehog and Frogger, as well as a heaping helping of new IPs and sequels. The classic Dreamcast franchise ChuChu Rocket! has been revitalized in the form of ChuChu Rocket! Universe, and Sega has debuted a new Sonic-themed racer, instead of a speedy platformer, in the form of the aptly named Sonic Racing. Free of what would undoubtedly be a litany of microtransactions for the same games on other services, these colorful Sega franchises are left to shine on Arcade, offering fun, bite-sized play with familiar characters. 

Several titles are exclusive to Apple Arcade, though a handful, such as Sayonara Wild Hearts, Neo Cab, and Overland, are available on other platforms should you want to play them elsewhere. But considering a digital copy of Sayonara Wild Hearts alone is $12.99 on Switch, it would be unwise to purchase it on another platform, unless you just wanted to pay the tax that comes with truly calling a game "yours."

The sheer variety of titles on the service is mind-boggling, and it'll take you some time to sift through all the options available. In fact, that’s part of the fun. Think of it like receiving a monthly subscription box when you first sign up. Downloading and exploring every part of the catalogue is something of a “game” in itself, because, for the most part, you’re going in blind. 

Unfortunately, those looking to dig into some of the most picturesque games on their Apple TV will have to wait a bit longer, as Apple Arcade is only currently available on iPhone. It's set to officially debut on iPad, Mac and Apple TV on Sept. 30, though some reports indicate that it's currently available on all three devices, or that it’s up for grabs on iPhone and iPad, but nowhere else. Right now, however, mirroring games like Neo Cab and Sayonara Wild Hearts worked beautifully using an iPhone X and Apple TV 4K unit, so there's a workaround in place for the time being, should playing via set-top box be more your fancy. 

On the iPhone or iPad, you can opt to pair a controller with your iOS device, including MFi controllers or even those from your favorite console, like Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Some titles were clearly meant to be played with controllers and don't fare well with touchscreen virtual joysticks, but, alas, such is the nature of mobile gaming. Luckily, most of the games don’t suffer from these issues. 

One of the only true downsides to the service is the fact that, at least for now, you can't purchase any of the games featured in Apple Arcade for a one-time fee separate from the $5 subscription option. This means you'll need to continue paying the fee for the long run. Luckily, the entry fee to play 100 high-quality mobile games at your leisure without the constant threat of advertisements or being coaxed into spending your hard-earned coin for microtransactions or being assaulted by frustrating timers is low enough to lessen that sting. 

Apple Arcade is already an extremely promising sampling of how mobile gaming can truly innovate when not bound to the all-consuming constraints of money-making. These games are the result of what can happen when developers focus on putting time and attention into their work without scrambling to figure out a viable free-to-play revenue model. And while it’s already chock-full of some excellent titles that feel nearly like a crime to charge just a fiver for, this is just the beginning. It’s probably going to get even better from here.