Sorry for the want of paraphrasing Mariah this festive season in the headline there. Let me more accurately rephrase that – all I need for Christmas is Apple Arcade.
While all eyes often turn to Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass (and not without reason) when the discussion turns to gaming services, Apple Arcade has had an enviable 12 months. The mobile gaming buffet continues to grow at a steady pace, increasingly adding ambitious games and casual titles alike, as well as a smattering of mobile classics.
At pocket-change prices for a monthly subscription, it’s totally upended the way I play games. And, paired with ever-more powerful iPhone and iPad hardware and a growing market of iOS game controllers to link them with, after many years of trying Apple finally offers a legitimate alternative to rivals like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Yes, your first console should be a Switch, PS5 or Xbox Series X. But your second? With Apple Arcade, it should be the iPhone in your pocket.
Here’s a look back at the relatively-short history of Apple Arcade, and how the past 12 months of excellent additions to its library have made its presence on my Christmas wish list a dead cert.
A new challenger emerged
It’s hard to call a company as big as Apple a ‘challenger’ in any market it looks to enter, but when it comes to gaming, that’s exactly what it is – to the hardcore gamer at least. The doomed Pippin aside, it’s never put itself in the same console space as Nintendo, Microsoft with Xbox or Sony with PlayStation, and so you can be forgiven for forgetting the very capable games machine it has put in your pocket in the shape of the iPhone.
As a result, there are millions more people playing games than would be without the Cupertino smartphone, and the App Store is one of, if not the biggest gaming library out there. It just deals in games of a different scale – the kind you come back to again and again for five minutes at a time when there’s nothing else to entertain you but your phone.
Apple Arcade then represented the company’s first big attempt in decades to position itself as a name gamers of all creeds could congregate underneath. Not just those that wanted to fling birds at pigs in castles, but those also that wanted to engross themselves in large-scale adventures by some of the biggest development names in gaming. And these were set to be exclusives too – on mobile, at least – further incentivizing players to get on board with the new five-buck-a-month service.
The initial response to the subscription’s September 2019 launch was resoundingly positive. The library was well stocked with inventive and classy games from big-name brands, working well across Apple’s four core device categories: phones, tablets, Mac computers and the Apple TV set top box.
But then there were the signs of a stutter. A Bloomberg report in June 2020 pointed to developer funding being pulled on in-development titles, with the company alleged to be focussing more on games that encouraged long-term engagement than the curios that had largely made up its initial catalog. There was the sense that the eccentricities that had made Apple Arcade so compelling, from broken gadget simulator Assemble with Care to short-but-sweet fairytale deck builder Pilgrims would be lost in favor of more Candy Crush clones.
Thankfully, that’s not been the case. Apple Arcade has had its best year yet.
Arcade’s stellar year
Apple made good on its commitment to make regular drops of new additions to its store, and continued to reveal inventive, visually creative games throughout the year at a rate that made that monthly subscription fee feel like a steal.
Kicking things off in January was Oceanhorn Chronos Dungeon, a smart multiplayer roguelike dungeon crawler with gorgeous pixel art. But things got much more interesting at the end of January with NUTS: A Surveillance Story, which was something like Firewatch with sinister squirrely and a unique filtered art style to carry through its light photography-based puzzles.
March brought us Cosy Grove, somewhere between Stardew Valley and Don’t Starve, a survival crafter that looks like a picture book, and has since proved a hit on PC and Nintendo Switch (where you’ll pay $/£ 15 for the privilege to play it.
My personal favorite of the year is Wonderbox: The Adventure Maker, which launched in March. It’s a gorgeous adventure title that ticks so many boxes – essentially a ‘build your own Zelda’, it has elements of Minecraft, Little Big Planet and deep social sharing elements that let you publish and play other people’s grand games. Both a simple introduction to game design and a fun toybox in its own right, it’s as approachable as these DIY games get. And it’s excellent fun in multiplayer for short sharp bursts too.
The biggest update to the service of the year was the introduction (or should that be reintroduction?) of classic mobile titles to the Apple Arcade catalog in July. Dozens of paid-for apps such as Monument Valley and Mini Metro joined the service as Monument Valley+ and Mini Metro+, as well as classic favorites like versions of chess, backgammon and sudoku.
A return of a whole other kind came with the launch of Fantasian – perhaps the most beautiful game on the service. From Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, it was a large-scale JRPG to rival the classics of the genre, but with a petite twist of its own – its digital characters ran around actual miniature dioramas hand-crafted by the game’s development team.
Clap Hanz Golf represented a big steal for Apple too. An arcadey golf game, it comes from the same studio that makes the Everybody’s Golf titles, usually reserved for PlayStation consoles. Clap Hanz Golf is, in all but name, Everybody’s Golf for iOS.
Another giant title was Monster Hunter Stories+ for Apple Arcade. Usually £/$17.99, it’s an RPG from a steroid franchise that had previously launched on consoles. And while it diluted Apple’s initial “Arcade games will be exclusives” mantra, it was hard to find fault with getting a Capcom hit rolled into the subscription for free. Likewise, the long-awaited Baldo: The Guardian Owls made its debut on Apple Arcade with versions for other platforms following in very quick succession – its Studio Ghibli-esque art style was a delight, even when its Zelda-like adventuring fell short.
The long-dormant Castlevania franchise was resurrected too with Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls. It was a relief to see the long-running franchise revived, and Apple Arcade would have been the perfect outlet for a new 2D side-scroller in the series. A pity then that its final arrival was a pale imitation of the best Castlevania games of old.
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga for consoles remains forever delayed, but fans of the minifigs and that galaxy far, far away could still get a fix thanks to Apple Arcade, which added two new Lego Star Wars games in 2021. Lego Star Wars Battles launched first, mixing real-time strategy and tower defense elements with PvP combat and familiar Star Wars characters. The more ambitious launch was Lego Star Wars Castaways, an MMO-lite that had players carving out a Star Wars legacy in multiplayer quests in an all-new Star Wars location.
And these were just the highlights. Between all the above were a host of other releases, each with an interesting concept, accessible for a quick test run by virtue of the subscription’s try-what-you-like nature. It was a fantastic 12 months.
Now, with that Bloomberg report in mind, the fear will be that the 2021 releases represent the last titles to squeeze through before Apple changed tactic with its Apple Arcade content approach, and that 2022 will focus instead on more perfunctory app-game fare.
But even if that were the case, you’ve now got a couple of hundred games at your fingertips for just $4.99 / £4.99 a month – unlike other services Apple (so far at least) isn’t rotating titles in and out of the Arcade catalog. It’s simply a growing library. And there are already classics to be found there.
Third-party accessory makers are seeing the long-term potential of Arcade too. The Backbone One controller for iOS, a 5-star award winner in its TechRadar review, uses a mix of stellar hardware and a smart app to make an iPhone into a legitimate handheld gaming device to rival the Switch, introducing a unified interface for all things gaming on an iPhone. A smart Apple would be considering buying Backbone up for its own branded Arcade controller accessories. In fact, it’s the Apple TV 4K that still feels like the weak link – not quite powerful enough to do the most demanding games justice, requiring a third-party gamepad, and without the storage capacity that an all-you-can-eat library like this chows down on for multiple game downloads.
Then, to round off the year, we have Disney Melee Mania, a multiplayer MOBA of sorts that will combine the hero character-driven addictive gameplay of titles like League of Legends and Dota with Disney’s most recognizable characters in an almighty scrap, ala Smash Bros.
Beyond that? Well, how about Proxi, a new game from SimCity creator Will Wright that looks to be part AI builder, part life sim, and part human brain emulator. If that doesn’t sound like an ambitious premise, we’re not sure what is…
Pop Arcade on your Christmas list, and make the most of that App Store gift card. Xbox Game Pass may steal all the headlines, but the best deal in gaming is really sitting right there in your pocket with Apple Arcade.