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Apple Arcade on TV: Eight months later, still not much progress

Apple Arcade has had time to grow, but unfortunately for Apple TV users, it's still far from an Xbox, PlayStation or Switch competitor.

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Apple Arcade works on a TV through Apple TV, but it won't replace your Xbox, PlayStation or Switch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's been over a year since Apple Arcade was first announced and more than eight months since the subscription video game service was released. One of its big pitches is the ability to play its library of games not only on your iPhoneiPad or MacBook, but also on your couch at home with the Apple TV. I last looked at Arcade for Apple TV in October on an Apple TV 4K, paying special attention to how it plays on the big screen. Now, with the coronavirus leaving everyone hungry for new home entertainment, I decided to give it another spin to see how the platform has grown. 

I played a host of Arcade titles over the last few weeks on an Apple TV HD, Apple TV 4K and a 65-inch 4K TV, primarily using the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers as well as the Apple TV remote. In short, Apple's $4.99 (£4.99, AU$7.99)-per-month service has gotten a little better and is now at over 110 titles, but it still has a very long way to go to offer a real alternative to the Xbox, PlayStation or Nintendo Switch.  

Update, June 8: We discovered after publication in May that the Apple TV we took from our office and used on the latest round of tests was actually an Apple TV HD, not an Apple TV 4K. We've since ordered a new Apple TV 4K for in-home testing and have updated this article to reflect Arcade's progress on both models. 

Read more: All the hardware you need to play Apple Arcade games  

Now playing: Watch this: Apple Arcade is changing video games for $5 a month
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What's good: Some games play well, especially with controllers

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Similar to the iPhone, Arcade games on the Apple TV appear alongside other apps. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

I suspect that many if not all of Arcade's titles are designed with the millions of potential iPhone and iPad players in mind and not the far smaller number of people who own an Apple TV. In my experience, these games generally play a lot better on mobile devices than on the big screen. 

In some cases, these games work well on the TV, too. Ultimate Rivals: The Rink, which takes star athletes from several professional sports and puts them into an arcade three-on-three hockey game, is one example of a recent game that is fun to play on mobile and also translates well to Apple TV. Racing games like Sonic Racing and Super Impossible Road still looked good on TV, and pair well with an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller. 

Read more: My Apple TV 4K wishlist: 4 things I want to see in a 2020 refresh

Pairing those controllers to the Apple TV is also pretty easy. Go to Settings and then Bluetooth. There is a quick "how-to" available for guiding you on how to pair each type of controller. For the Xbox One that means holding down the main Xbox button and the "connect" button at the top, or the "share" and PlayStation button on the PS4 remote. You can also pair other controllers that are MFi -- aka "made for iPhone"-- certified.

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Playing Shinsekai Into the Depths with an Xbox One controller. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's software will automatically map the proper joysticks and buttons for each game, with the in-game controls similarly changing to adapt to your device. You can even use the Xbox or PS4 controllers to navigate the regular Apple TV interface. And you can also connect Xbox or PS4 controllers to an iPhone or iPad.

You can also use Apple's own Apple TV remote for games, but the experience is worse. In Super Impossible Road, for example, it was much harder to control the ball with the Apple TV remote than with an Xbox One controller. Likewise for Sonic Racing. Even a simpler game like Mini Motorways played better with a PlayStation 4 controller than the Apple TV's touchpad. 

Interestingly, and a sign of the platform's maturity, an increasing number of games on the Apple TV require a third-party controller. 

Arcade has other good points, too. Load times, for the most part, were also fairly quick even on the older HD box, as were download times over my Altice One connection in New Jersey. Compared to other gaming services, the $4.99 price is relatively cheap and like Apple Music, TV Plus, News Plus or iCloud it can be shared with up to six members of your family through Apple's Family Sharing feature. 

Read more: Game subscription services: How to choose between Apple Arcade, Xbox Game Pass and more

What still needs work: Gameplay and game selection

Although there's plenty to like with Apple Arcade on Apple TV, those hoping it will turn the Apple TV into a miniature Xbox, PlayStation or Switch will be disappointed. Eight months after launch, the biggest problem is that there just aren't a lot of great games that take advantage of the TV. 

I'll start with graphics because a big TV is much more revealing than a tiny phone screen. Nonetheless, some games like Sonic, fighter game HyperBrawl and Super Impossible Road translate really well to the big screen, with Sonic Racing still looking (and playing) like a Mario Kart knock-off. (It actually plays more like traditional Mario Kart than the Mario Kart Tour mobile game.)

Other games, not so much. Playing Oceanhorn 2, Capcom's Shinsekai Into the Depths and Beyond Blue, the graphics reminded me of an iPhone or Switch game blown up to a big-screen 4K TV. Although these games looked much better on the more powerful Apple TV 4K, even on the latest box they lacked the crispness compared to an Xbox One or PlayStations. Adventure game Oceanhorn 2 and ocean exploration game Beyond Blue were particularly disappointing on the Apple TV HD box, though they looked better on the 4K model.

I tried more than a dozen games and none had graphics that came close to the realistic images of a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. 

Many weren't as smooth either. Playing The Rink, Shinsekai and HyperBrawl, for example, I experienced moments of lag and frame rate drops on the HD box that would be tough to forgive in a major console. While the lag was improved on the Apple TV 4K, gameplay was slower, but moving players or characters around lacked the crispness of even a good mobile game. 

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Playing Sayonara Wild Hearts with an Apple TV remote. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple Arcade's assortment of titles is still pretty narrow too. There are no video game staples like first-person shooters, few open-world role-playing games and even fewer that let multiple people play together offline, something I was hoping to do during quarantine while at home with my family. Two that I found, HyperBrawl and Super Impossible Road, didn't play particularly well, with Super Impossible Road being especially difficult to play split-screen. 

Arcade still lacks the big, iconic "AAA" titles the drive traditional consoles and has no "killer" game that makes the TV experience similar to what you'd get from a dedicated console.

On your phone, you could download some of these types of titles separately, outside of Arcade -- Fortnite, NBA 2K, FIFA and Call of Duty are a few prominent examples of AAA games -- but Arcade doesn't offer those high-profile games yet. You can AirPlay them from an iPhone or iPad to an Apple TV, which I tried on both the Apple TV HD and 4K with Fortnite running on an iPhone 11 Pro Max. 

On the HD box, the experience was filled with lag despite having a strong Wi-Fi connection. Things improved on the Apple TV 4K, with the game being much more playable, but it still felt a bit choppy and graphically wasn't as clear. Those looking for a better experience will want to play directly on their iPhone or iPad. 

There has been an increase in sports titles on Arcade since launch, but Sociable Soccer doesn't hold a candle to the likes of EA Sports' FIFA franchise.  

Beyond graphics and game selection, I had a few other issues:

  • Signs of mobile-first design are also present in some game interfaces. Mini Motorways and Sonic Racing, for example, have cursors that replicate your finger, either when playing the game or in the menu screens. 
  • Game continuity has improved but still had some issues syncing from iPhone to Apple TV, particularly with having to restart tutorials despite having had played the game before on an iPhone or on a different Apple TV.  
  • And if you switch the controller back to an Xbox or PlayStation you will need to re-pair the controller back to the Apple TV each time you want to use it. 
  • Online multiplayer matches were hard to find in a host of Arcade games, including The Rink, Sonic Racing and Pac-Man, at various points throughout the day. 

Even after a year it still feels like early days for Arcade on TV. It's possible we'll see advancement on Apple's vision at WWDC next month particularly with rumors of a refreshed Apple TV with an improved processor in the works. Given the progress Apple has made with its silicon in recent years, an A12X or A13X Bionic chip inside an Apple TV could make a real difference and give developers a lot more power to work with. 

But at this stage, Arcade is better suited to phone and tablet gaming. Gamers looking for a big-screen experience will be better served by a Nintendo Switch or traditional PlayStation or Xbox console.