Apple Arcade launched in September promising a new way to buy mobile games. Instead of downloading a free-to-play shell that needs to be filled out through regular in-app purchases, or even paying a flat rate for a game, you can now subscribe to Apple Arcade and access dozens of games for a monthly fee of $4.99. Your device needs to be running iOS 13.0 to sign up, but once you subscribe you’ll be able to play these games across a variety of devices connected to your iCloud, including iPhones, iPads, Apple TV and Macs.
I was a little leery of this idea at first. Five bucks isn’t necessarily that steep (although all these damn subscription services really add up), but I doubted whether there’d be enough new games uploaded every month to make it worthwhile.
Well, that was a foolish fear. I signed up for Apple Arcade the day it came out (first month is free, by the way) and although I’ve downloaded about 20 games since then, I’ve only really played five of them. That’s because they’re so good and so addictive that I haven’t had the time or need to try more yet. So even if Apple wasn’t going to regularly release new games—which they will be—there’d be enough here at launch to keep you busy for a few months, at least.
Here are the five games I’ve played on Apple Arcade so far, all of them worth downloading and trying out. (Although one of them is probably better on console than mobile—more on that in a bit.) And if you’d rather watch and hear me talk than read, here’s a video that hits all the same points.
Simogo’s rhythm game is a gorgeous piece of art with a strong, unique aesthetic. It’s also better on the iPad, Switch or PlayStation 4 than on the iPhone. My only problem with Sayonara Wild Hearst on mobile is that you have to keep your finger on the screen to play it at all times, which means your hand will regularly mess up your sight line. You have to guide your character past numerous obstacles as she speeds through cities, forests and other environments, and I died too often because my hand was blocking my view. Still, it’s a beautiful game with a fantastic score—it’s one of the most stylish and coolest sounding games I’ve ever played. I’m just going to play it outside the Apple Arcade from here on out.
The Pinball Wizard combines two things I love: pinball and long, shaggy beards. Okay, your eldritch silver ball doesn’t always have a Gandalf beard—it’s something you have to actively choose for it to wear. (Every game NEEDS a feature where you can add a huge beard to any character simply by touching the screen.) This mobile mashup adds RPG elements to a genre that normally doesn’t have them, namely video pinball. You have to climb the 20 or so floors of an evil tower, with each floor being its own small pinball game. Flippers at the bottom of the screen keep your character from plummeting off the side of the tower, and also lets you aim its attacks as you send it hurtling into enemies. The bumpers you’d find on a pinball machine double as monsters that need to be killed or barrels full of gold, health and experience points. As you collect money and XP, you can unlock new “spells” that turbocharge your ball with temporary special skills, and increase your total health and attack strength by leveling up. It can be extremely challenging in spots—certain enemies are inordinately powerful, and falling off the bottom or side of a stage deals a ton of damage. Still, it captures that addictive thrill found in the best mobile games, where it can be played in quick bursts whenever you have a free moment, while simultaneously sinking its hooks so deeply into you that you want to keep playing it as much as possible. That drip feed of progression, with new levels and new skills and new abilities, is hard to pass up.
Zach Gage and Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward teamed up for this surreal RPG-styled card game, which is one of the most visually arresting games in recent memory. It’s another game where you have to fight your way through the floors of multi-story dungeons, but instead of pinball it’s a card game built on a 5 by 5 grid. Each square has a deck of cards on it, with only the top cards on the bottom row being face up at first. As you get to the bottom of one square’s deck, the top cards on the decks on adjacent squares will be flipped over. There are five main types of cards: weapons, gold, spells, health potions, and, most commonly, enemies. The monsters all have different skills, which sometimes play off of each other to make them even deadlier. The goal is to make it from the bottom of the grid to whichever square on the top row has the exit (it changes randomly every time you play). Weapons work on an even-odd system—every enemy card has a number on it representing its strength, and weapons have a corresponding number. If the weapon’s number is higher than the enemy’s, it’ll kill them without you taking any damage; if the weapon’s number is lower, you’ll kill the enemy and remove their card from play but the difference in numbers will be inflicted upon your character as damage. If you use a weapon card with an even number on an enemy with an odd number (or vice versa), you’ll still kill the enemy, but it’ll permanently break your weapon. You don’t have to pick up every card on the grid, but once you start pulling cards from a deck you have to turn over every card in that deck in order to exit the floor. This might sound confusing, and, frankly, it is the first few times you play, but once you get everything down you’ll be returning to this one whenever you have free time and staying up late every night playing just one more dungeon. The only real drawback with the game is its difficulty, which is heavily lucked-based; sometimes cards will be distributed fairly evenly, with swords and health potions popping up almost as often as monsters. Other times, though, you’ll find yourself pulling up nothing but bad guys at the top of every deck, leading to a quick and unavoidable death. That random distribution of cards is a major part of the game’s structure and appeal, but it also can make everything a little too frustrating at times. Still, with its whimsical artwork and novel approach to dungeon crawling, Card of Darkness is a game that’s hard to put down.
What the Golf finally makes golf tolerable by turning it into the most surreal and least predictable sport of all time. It regularly obliterates whatever expectations you might have from decades of legitimate golf videogames, preserving nothing from the real sport except for the basic concept of getting an object to a hole with a flag in it and a heavily abstracted approach to the traditional golf course layout. Even those aren’t omnipresent, though, as many of its dozens of holes eschew anything even remotely connected to golf. I don’t want to give too much away, as surprise is What the Golf’s greatest gift, but here are just two examples of what you can expect. Imagine what looks like a typical golf game, with an on-screen character holding a club at the tee, staring down a fairway that leads to the green. You touch the screen and pull back in order to control the power and direction of your swing. When you let go, instead of the ball soaring towards the hole, the character itself is flung deep into the fairway—or even the arrow that appears on-screen to represent the angle and strength of your swing. What the Golf pulls both of those pranks very early on, and then somehow consistently comes up with new, unexpected jokes throughout its surprisingly long run time. With bite-sized levels that each have three increasingly difficult objectives, and dozens of them in total to play through, this is yet another mobile game perfectly suited for either short, pick-up-and-play sessions, or long marathons. There are also entire clusters of holes that cheekily reference games like Super Mario, Super Meat Boy, Superhot, and even some games that don’t have the word “super” in their title. What the Golf is the rare game that tries to be funny and actually pulls it off, hilariously defying expectations with puckish glee.
I’m torn about whether Grindstone really deserves the number one spot. Yes, I’ve played it longer than any of these games, and am still playing it a little bit each day, after successfully breaking the all-consuming obsession I had for it a couple of weeks ago. And yes, it’s a smartly crafted game that doesn’t feel like anything else out there, with a grimly comical cartoonish art style. I’ve also played it so much over the last three weeks that I’m a little sick of looking at it—and yet I can’t completely quit it until I finish the whole thing. Grindstone borrows RPG elements and a few roguelike concepts (although you don’t really lose anything when you die, thankfully) and injects them into a color-matching puzzle game; your character has to slice and dice his way through a grid covered in enemies of different colors, but can only chain together kills with creatures of the same color. If you can kill 10 or more enemies of the same color in a single chain, a special gem will appear on screen, which will let you chain kills from your current color to one other color, opening up the possibility of massive chains that can reshape the entire board in a single move. It has a simple set of rules that it explores in exhaustive detail across 150 different stages, steadily forcing you to rethink your approach as new enemies and new obstacles are regularly introduced into the mix. I can’t think of anything in any other game I’ve played this year as satisfying as running through a massive chain in Grindstone, slashing through 30 or more enemies in a single move while also knocking off some of the stronger special monsters or cracking open a treasure chest along the way. You’ll regularly find blueprints for new weapons, potions and suits of armor, which can be crafted at an inn using materials collected in battle. Your health doesn’t regenerate between levels, and you only have one out of three hit points restored after you die, but you can pay to restore your character to full health in the inn, too. There’s also a bit of luck at play in Grindstone, but it’s not as significant and doesn’t swing as wildly as it does in Card of Darkness. Grindstone is a thoroughly confident game that understands exactly what a certain type of player is looking for from mobile experiences, and then goes above and beyond all expectations to make that a reality.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.