Apple Arcade: The Hands-On Experience

Apple's new $4.99 gaming service shows promise

The splash screen for Apple Arcade on an iPad.

Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

At $4.99 a month for unlimited access to 100 or more exclusive games for up to six family members, Apple Arcade is unquestionably a good deal. But is it good gaming?

Exclusive, high-quality gaming content is not a new concept in the video game space. PlayStation and Xbox both have their share of FOMO-inducing exclusive games. Still, it’s the rare game that inspires someone to switch to or join a new platform.

A picture of Apple Arcade Games on an iPad.
Apple Arcade games live on your device pretty much like any other app. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

It’s too soon to tell if Arcade has a title like that, but, when it launches on September 19, Arcade will not want for variety. Recently, I had the opportunity to use Apple Arcade to try a dozen or so titles, all of which are set to launch exclusively on Apple Arcade, and many of which are playable across multiple Apple platforms, including iOS (iPhone and iPad), tvOS (Apple TV), and macOS (iMac).

Games of All Stripes

There is no particular theme or play style. Controls range from touch and gesture to game controllers. Only later did I realize that most games do not rely on the iPad or iPhone’s motion sensors to control game play. This makes sense when you consider that a game you play on the iPad with touch might also be the same one you play on the iMac with a game controller.

I didn’t see anything that might rival Gears of War, but Apple Arcade games can, with technologies like augmented reality through an iPhone or iPad, go places traditional gaming consoles can’t.

While some have inaccurately described Arcade as a streaming game services, the games are all downloadable and can be played offline. There also doesn’t appear to be a central Arcade game space on your iOS device. Instead, the game icons live, for instance, on your iPad screen just like apps.

A screenshot of a game from Apple Arcade on an iMac.
Apple Arcade Games can be played on your iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, and your Mac. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

Each time I loaded a game, I was greeted by the orange and white Arcade splash screen and then signed into Apple’s Game Center, which appears to manage the player stats, as, at least in one case, “Arcade Player 6.” After that, though, there was nothing in any of the game experiences to remind me I was inside the Apple Arcade.

Developers Are In

In between playing games like the cute Frogger in ToyTown from Konami, Speed Demons from Radian Games on an iPad, and Sayonara Wild Hearts on Apple TV, I spoke to a few of the developers about their experiences developing exclusively for Apple Arcade. There were few revelations. Most seemed excited about the new platform and potential access to Apple’s hundreds of millions of customers across multiple platforms.

Frogger in ToyTown being played on an iPad.
Frogger in ToyTown is a major visual upgrade from the original Frogger. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

“We made the game we wanted to make, creatively speaking,” Capcom developer and Shineskai: Into the Depths producer Pete Fabiano told me as I played his game.

Hands-On Gaming

The underwater adventure is one of the most visually arresting of all the Apple Arcade titles I tried. It was also one of the few I played on both an iPad using touch and, later, via an Xbox game controller. I walked around the undersea game environment and spent a lot of time battling a giant and seemingly un-killable sea worm. Ultimately, with a little guidance, I found playing with the controller a lot easier.

A screenshot of Shinsekai Into the Depths on the iPad.
Shinsekai Into the Depths is probably Apple Arcade's most intricate title. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

I also played Skate City (Snowman), a sort of stylized skateboard game where I could use taps and swipes on screen to perform tricks. I liked the look of it, but it didn’t have the intensity of a Tony Hawk game. The developers said they worked to make the skating experience more realistic.

Skate City being played on an iPad.
This is Skate City on the iPad. I also saw it played on Apple TV. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

I also played the aptly named Rogue Games’ Super Impossible Road. It’s not a complicated game, you just have to keep a speeding ball on a winding space track. Of course, there are no retaining walls and part of the game involves directing your ball, mostly with well-timed screen taps—to another track if (when) the ball careens off the initial track. It’s a game good and hard enough to deliver endless hours of frustration.

Super Impossible Road being played on an iPad.
Super Impossible Road takes fast fingers and some real skill (which I did not possess). Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

The most unusual game I tried had to be Spek from RAC7. I played it on an iPhone in the Augmented Reality mode, which lets you place virtual shapes on real surface (we used a small wooden table). Each shape is basically just an outline that can, as you move around it, transform from a flat shape into something with three dimensions. On each shape is a bright dot and, depending on how you hold the phone and view the shape and dot, you can transfer the dot to one of the other shapes. It was pretty mind-bending to play.

The game SPEK running on an iPhone.
Spek uses augmented reality to create a truly mind-bendign game experience. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

I was playing alongside Spek developer Jesse Ringrose who told me that there were no special considerations when developing for Apple Arcade. “We were just making sure that the quality is there,” he said. And unlike other platforms where developers might be encouraged to launch incomplete or untested titles, they just had to “make sure it works before we launch,” said Ringrose.

An animated GIF showing off the game Spek.
Can you connect the dots in virtual 3D space?. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

Overall, Apple Arcade games do not appear to break any new ground beyond what you might find in really games on the App Store. However, the promise of all you can eat games across all your favorite Apple platforms without additional in-app purchases and for just $4.99 a month is compelling.

An iPad playing the game ATONE.
ATONE: Heart of the Elder Tree on an iPad. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire