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A deep dive into the Apple Arcade—Part One

My new iPad Air came with a surprise (at least, to me): A three-month trial to Apple Arcade.

I thought if I'm going to trial it, I should really trial it. And what better way to do that than by playing everything they offer? So over the last few days, I have downloaded, launched, played a bit of, taken some very brief notes on, and (in most cases) deleted a total of 139 141*Two more games were released during the writeup of this series. games.

Here's what's in each part of the series:

  • Part One: The part you're reading now, it covers what I look for in games, some general observations on the games in the Arcade, and the lengthy list of games that didn't make my first cut.
  • Part Two: A slightly deeper look at the first half of the games I felt merited additional time for playing and testing.
  • Part Three: A slightly deeper look at the second half of the games I felt merited additional time for playing and testing.
  • Part Four: The first half of my set of definite keeper games.
  • Part Five The second half of my set of definite keeper games, including my two favorites.
  • Part Six: Wrapping it all up.

I am not going to begin to pretend I will post a full review of each of these games. For most of them, in fact, I can provide only a passing first impression based on my one-time testing of each game.

What I look for in an iOS game

Obviously, my conclusions on these games are based on what I find enjoyable in a game—even more particularly, in an iOS game. With that in mind, here are the rules I applied to this collection of 139 games…

  1. My main requirement is this: I want an iOS game to be quick to load and start playing the first time I try it. My iOS device isn't a console or a PC or a Mac, it's a device that I may only have a few minutes to use, and I'm just looking for something enjoyable to do during that time.
  2. Rule One does not preclude long-duration games—be they adventure, exploration, or puzzle solving games. However, if the game has a backstory that requires 10 minutes to read or tap through—even one time—then it's not a game I'm going to keep.
  3. As a general rule, I do not play these genres of games: Fighting games, endless runner games, real time strategy games, sports team management simulations, games that rely on perfectly-timed reflex actions, "hold a conversation" games, and tower defense games. Of course, all rules have exceptions, so there may be some in my list.
  4. For iOS, I prefer not to use a gamepad; the whole idea of an iOS game is a gaming-to-go experience, and I don't want to carry a gamepad around with me.
  5. I don't generally like iOS games that require using one hand to move the character, and the other to manipulate a camera—without a gamepad, I generally find that I can't do this smoothly, and wind up feeling ill with the camera moving around too much.
  6. With those rules in mind, you'll probably disagree with the selections I made, as your taste in gaming probably differs from mine. But before we get to the games, some general observations about the Arcade.

General observations on Apple Arcade

While testing 139 games, some high-level observations quickly became apparent—some I expected, some I did not. The first one was quite a surprise…

Many of the games are huge

When I started the installations, my iPad Air had over 180GB of free space. I figured that'd be plenty to install all 139 games—by way of comparison, I currently have only four games that are over 1GB. Well, I was wrong. Really wrong. Here's a look at my iPad storage with a screenshot taken sometime during testing…

The red-starred games are Apple Arcade games; view the full screenshot, and you'll see there are seven on the list. If you're on a minimum-storage-size iOS device, you won't be loading too many of these on at the same time. I was able to fit 104 before my iPad filled up…and that's when I learned that I hadn't disabled the "automatically install App Store apps on this device" feature on my iPhone. It was not very happy with me, as it was completely out of space. Oops.

So I wound up doing my testing in two batches. If you're planning on installing and keeping all the Apple Arcade games, it'd be best to get yourself a 1TB iPad Pro!

The games are visually appealing

When I started taking notes, I'd write "impressive visuals." But soon I stopped, because I was writing that for every entry. Of the entire set, there was only one game where the visuals weren't quite so appealing, and that's because it's designed to look like a very retro pixelated black and white game. Here's a quick sampling of just a few games; while the styles all differ, I found them all visually well done:

You can get a good sense for the art in the games by browsing Apple's Arcade page, or click any of the links in the app table further along this article.

The in-game audio is generally very good

Although there were a handful of apps where I found the audio annoying, in most of the games, it was nicely balanced—music wasn't too loud, effects were lound enough to hear. A handful of the games recommend headphones for the best experience, and that's how I tested most of the time.

There is, however, one bit of in-game audio present in every game that gets annoying very quickly…

That splash screen loads for every game in the Arcade…along with the beep. Sure, it's only a second or two, but it's there every time you play the game. That gets old. How about just a small overlay that says Apple Arcade for a few seconds, on top of whatever the game is loading?

Inundated by logos

This one doesn't apply exclusively to games in the Apple Arcade, of course, but the number of pre-game "logo splash" screens seems to be increasing, and each one interferes with my desire to quickly get into an iOS game. Games with just the Apple Arcade "welcome" screen (with annoying sound effect) were rare. Many games had only one more after that, but quite a few had at least two or three more after Apple's screen. Ugh.

Here's an idea, Apple: Require developers to use one logo splash screen, and tell them they have to figure out how to put two or three logos on that single screen—it shouldn't be too hard. Mutliple splash screens aren't fun for the user.

Some categories aren't well represented

I think I counted a total of five sports games, and that includes a couple that only marginally make the cut as "sports." Traditional auto racing games—as opposed to arcade-racing games—are entirely missing. There are exactly two word games. There might be one card game. There's one jigsaw puzzle game (and it's tough). There are no traditional hunting games.

What is there is a diverse mix, but it's not as diverse a mix as in the Games section of the main App Store.

Too many backstory intros

This one really bugs me: You launch a game, watch the logo splash screens, and then are forced to watch (and perhaps marginally participate in) some long drawn out scene that lays out the story of the game, your character's background, the environment, and whatever else the developers think you might need to know.

I understand that some games are complex and require explanations, but many of the games I tried had multiple minutes' worth (yes, minutes) of prologue material where my involvement was either zero or tapping the screen a few times. Some games will allow you to skip these scenes. But not all games.

Here's a 30-second edit from the worst offender I ran into, Jenny LeClue; the red clock is how long the intro has been running; the green clock is how long I've been interacting with the game during the intro.

Yes, the intro to Jenny LeClue runs over eleven minutes long (with only a couple minutes' interactive time)—and if there's a way to skip it or bypass it, I didn't find it.

To me, this is inexcusable—if I hadn't been working on this writeup, there's no way I would have sat through eleven minutes of backstory. Put the backstory in a button on the home screen, or work it into the story itself—anything other than make a user sit through an eleven minute video!

Any multi-minute-long intro has no place in an iOS game, in my opinion.

Many games seem optimized for controller usage

I mentioned I dislike iOS games that have a movement control on one side of the screen and a camera control on the other. Unfortunately, there were many of these in the Arcade. With a controller, I think I'd probably do much better, but trying to use both sides of the screen at the same time means that your hands are covering more of the screen so you can see less, and for me, it's really hard to get fine grained control over the camera's motions.

There were a handful of games that even displayed some form of "works best with a controller" message during loading. Using a controller also means (obviously) placing the iPad on a surface or a stand, so that's another thing to consider if I want to use the controller.

For me, iOS gaming is first and foremost about ease of use, and a controller interferes with ease of use.

Landscape mode dominates

Of the entire collection of 139 games, I believe there were at most three or four that ran in portrait mode. Everything else was done in the more-cinematic landscape mode.

Saves are automatic

For those games that save your progress in your quest or adventure or whatever, those saves are almost universally automatic—I saw many warnings about "do not quit the game when you see the 'saving progress' symbol onscreen." There were only a couple of games that I tested where you had to save progress on your own, though some offered both manual and automatic saves.

This is, I think, a good thing in general—having to remember to save your progress can be annoying. However, if the auto-save spots are far apart and you decide to stop playing before you reach one, you may have to backtrack the next time you play.

The games that didn't make my cut

Of the 139 games, fully 111 (80%—the 80/20 rule again?!) held no interest for me. Granted, this is based on—at most—a few minutes of actual gameplay, so it's possible I missed some hidden gem. But generally, I can tell quite quickly whether a game is going to hold my interest or not.

Very important note: Just because I didn't like a particular game, that doesn't mean it's a bad game. Far from it—the amount of effort put into each one of these titles is visible in the quality of the graphics, the sound, and the gameplay. It's just that, for these titles, the gameplay didn't line up with my interests in gaming.

Each entry in this table is linked to its App Store page—just click on the app's name to jump directly there.

Title of Game
Really brief overview
AssembleDragging things together to make bigger things in 3D views. Nice audio and graphics.
ATONENo idea. Rotoscoped-looking overheadish puzzle adventure with dialog bubbles? Gave up.
BattleSky Brigade HarpoonerCartoon-grpahics top-down view shooting/flying game.
Beyond a Steel Sky 2 (BASS2)3D android adventure in Outback? Not quite sure. Long cut scene at launch, and dual move/camera controls.
Big Time SportsSide-scrolling game with reflex-timing-based meters. Not really a sports game per se.
Bleak SwordIt's a fighting game.
Card of DarknessClear cards from puzzles, cards have weapons and potions and harm, and too much of an RPG for me.
CardpocalypseDon't know what it is; the intro took too long and required pop-up balloon answer choices. I gave up.
Cat Quest IIWandering cats on a quest earn spells and fight enemies.
Charrua SoccerSimplified cartoon-graphics soccer game.
ChuChuCartoon-graphics puzzler 3D view.
Cricket Through the AgesA humorous look at Cricket's history through an odd game interface. I don't know cricket, I didn't do well.
Crossy Road CastleKind of like Mario Brothers meets Crossy Road.
Dead End JobTop-downish ghoul hunting game. Cartoon-graphics, dual move/camera controls.
Dear ReaderInsert missing words into literary classics, choosing from a list.
DecoherenceI can't really tell what this is. You build or use bots to beat other bots? Gave up.
DiscoloredFirst person 3D explore/puzzle, again with dual move/camera controls. Gave up.
Dodo PeakCartoon-graphics "save the eggs" arcade puzzler. Cute and could be fun.
Don't Bug MeNot quite sure about this one; sort of a tower defense game with 3D perspective, against Martians?
Doomsdsay Vault3D explore/puzzle game, but view is from way off the back right shoulder; movement becomes very strange.
Dread NauticalGritty looking overhead explore/escape adventure.
EarthNightInnovative side scroller/jumper/platform set in space.
Exit the GungeonEscape crumbling underground-side view platform retro style.
ExplottensHeavily armed flying kitten rescues other kittens while fighting off bad guys?
Fallen KnightIt's a fighting game.
Frogger in Toy TownFancy 3D frogger; gorgeous scenery but it's still Frogger.
GoT: Tale of CrowsSome sort of adventure/world building game; not quite sure, as I gave up—I'm not a GoT fan.
GrindstoneBreakout meets a path-finding game—draw a path through like-colored "creeps" to destroy them.
GuildingsExplore and build structures in space by solving puzzles? Not quite sure.
HogwashCartoon-graphics dirt-covered pigs vs guy with sprayer. Separate camera and movement controls.
Hot LavaFirst person view hero adventure game, perhaps? Not sure, gave up pretty early.
HyperBrawl TournamentIt's a fighting game.
INMOSTStunning visuals, adventure/puzzler, seems fun but very time consuming.
Jenny LeClueAdventure mystery game? The intro must was over 11 minutes long!?
Jumper JonMario Brothers but with a ghost in a graveyard, maybe?
King's League IIIt's a fighting game.
Kings of the CastleCartoon-graphics advenutre/puzzle game. Yet another set of dual controls.
Legend of the Skyfish 2It's a fighting game.
Lego BrawlsIt's a fighting game.
LEGO Builder's JourneyLego building puzzler. Unique but a bit too slow for my taste.
Loud House: Outta ControlDraw paths to move family members from one point to objective without hitting other family members.
Lullaby of LifeWeird floaty underwater (perhaps) maze with bacteria-like creatures?
Manifold GardenRoom puzzler with flippable gravity—this will mess with your sense of direction!
Marble it Up: MayhemRace a marble down a track, but again, with dual move/camera controls.
Marble KnightsCartoon-graphics knights on marbles, 3D perspective explore/fight game.
MonomalsUnderwater cartoon-graphics arcade shoot/explore/collect.
Murder Mytstery MachineUsing an overhead 3D view, analyze crime scenes, arrange evidence in the right order. Very deep.
MutazioneRotoscoped adventure with at least a three minute intro.
NecrobaristaHuge long wordy cut scene to open the game. Then another. More dual camera/movement controls.
Neo CabConversation dialog bubbles in a cab? Click answers, watch story progress? Maybe? Gave up.
Next Stop NowhereGuy gets off space ship at rest area, enters bar…after a too long intro scene. Adventure/puzzler, perhaps?
Nightmare FarmFarming game? Not sure, couldn't figure out the controls even with tutorial. Gave up.
Oceanhorn 2Dual camera/movement controls in this 3D fighting game—maybe? I didn't play very long.
OutlandersSome sort of building a town game set on islands with forests.
Over the AlpsI don't have the slightest idea. Something with postcards and stamps?
OverlandAsteroid crash left monsters, which you're trying to defeat, but it's turn-based.
PAC-MAN Party RoyaleIt's Pac-Man, but also Battle Royale, complete with a shrinking board at the end of the round.
Painty MobCartoon-graphics character runs around trying to spray paint its pursuers.
PatternedJigsaw puzzle game where you match shaped colored bits of a pattern with a B&W outline—very tough!
PilgrimsCan't really tell. Puzzle/adventure/explore, but didn't catch my interest.
Possessions3D perspective puzzler—make floating things appear on a table, etc. Fun but repetitive.
Projection: First LightDark side-scrolling adventre/puzzle solver. Similar to others, looks good, time consuming
Punch PlanetIt's a fighting game.
Red ReignIt's a fighting game.
Redout Space AssaultColorful space-based arcade style shoot-em-up with no sense of up or down. Fun but repetitive.
Rosie's RealityRescue robots by solving puzzles that require placing things to build a path from A to B. Fun but slow.
RoundguardYou fire yourself from a cannon (top view) at monsters. Has health, damage meters, etc.
Samurai JackOver-the-shoulder 3D fight/explore game. Gorgeous but not my kind of game.
Sayonara Wild HeartsPsychedlic endless runner on a skateboard. Nice music, trippy graphics.
ScrappersCollect garbage, destroy roborats.
Shantae and the Seven SirensSome kind of side-scrolling anime-inspired run/jump/fight game.
ShockRodsA driving battle game with separate move and aim controllers.
Slash QuestCartoon-graphics adventure with a sword. Spin/move mechanics different but effective.
Sneaky SasquatchA Sasquatch in the forest collecting stuff.
Sociable Soccer 2020Fun soccer game, but also has a degree of team management duties.
Sonic RacingMario Kart cartoon-graphics racing but with Sonic.
South of the CircleAdventure, starts with plane crash in Antarctica, then jumps to a train? Gave up.
SpacelandSpace-based strategy game.
Spek.I have no idea, really. A dot and a circle tracing 3D outlines, supposed to be something happening? Very lost here.
SpelldrifterMedieval 3D overhead combat/strategy game.
SpidersaursIt's a fighting game.
Sponge Bob: Patty PursuitMario Brothers but Sponge Bob underwater. If you like Sponge Bob, he's here.
Star FetchedCartoon-graphics platform jumper.
StelaStunning visual adventure/puzzle game, probably needs a gamepad for best play.
Stellar CommandersMissile attack game around a 3D globe. Some aspects of Risk as you place asssets in territories.
Stranded SailsCartoon-graphics 3Dish overhead advetnure.
Super Impossible RoadRace a ball down a tight twisty track.
Super Mega Mini PartyCartoon-graphics view-from-behind explore with mini games. No idea, really.
Takeshi and HiroshiIt's a fighting game.
Tales of MemoSpell casting fighting/exploring game.
Tangle TowerSome kind of detective/find hidden objects game.
The Bradwell ConspiracyAdventure/puzzle game? Separate controls for camera and movement, so I gave up.
The Collage AtlasLovely black and white puzzler with books and words and letters, Not fast paced.
The Enchanted WorldExplore/puzzle 3D persepctive with sliding tiles as the main (only?) puzzle style.
The Get Out KidsPuzzle in a haunted house or something? I gave up after its very slow start.
The MosaicOver-the-shoulder of a human in 3D, doing something? I gave up.
The SurvivalistsCartoon-graphics overhead perspective, adventure-puzzler, stuck on an island, lots of controls to interact with things
The_Otherside3D perspective combination board game (turn based) and adventure?
Things That Go BumpIt's a fighting game.
Towaga: Among ShadowsSide scrolling adventure/fight/explore game, with light as a weapon.
Towers of EverlandFirst person cartoon-graphics explore/fight but with odd 90 degree turns, no free movement.
UFO on Tape: First ContactUFO hunting game? Not sure, as it has dual controls and I gave up.
Ultimate Rivals: The Rink2-on-2 hockey in a trippy psychedlic arena with loud music and flashing lights.
Unleash the LightCartoon-graphics explore-fight game with backstory.
VARIOUS DAYLIFEReally impressive graphics; side scrolling adventure, but perspective switches to make it look like not side scrolling.
Way of the TurtleEndless runner with a turtle.
WHAT THE GOLF?Cartoon-graphics weird golf game where you're not often golfing with a ball—sometimes you're the ball. Very odd.
Winding WorldsStrange cartoon-graphics game where you manipulate circles of things to solve puzzles
Word LacesSwipe to spell words, based on what's in the visible picture.
World's End ClubSide scrolling group of four cartoon-graphics characters in a jump/platformer game done in anime style.
Yaga the Roleplaying FolktaleIt's a fighting game with a long intro.

Tomorrow, a look at the titles that made the first cut, divided into two separate posts just because they're somewhat lengthy.

Note: All logos and game images used here are copyright by the original copyright holders; they are used here solely for the purpose of review and commentary.

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