Gaming

Apple Arcade review: The best game subscription for casual gamers

For the price of one console game a year, Apple Arcade gives you a lot of quality games and a steady stream of new titles.

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Fantasian, a mobile RPG from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Mistwalker, was a highly anticipated release on Apple Arcade.
Apple

When Apple Arcade launched in 2019, it presented a polished service that held its own next to Apple TV Plus, Apple News Plus and the Apple Card. Since then, Apple Arcade has consistently improved its service and offerings, as well as placing a spotlight on lots of different game developers around the world. 

While updating older games and adding new games almost weekly, Apple Arcade has kept its original $5 per month price tag. The service also offers a $60 annual option, as well as free trials with new device purchases and bundle deals with Apple One. For the subscription price, you get access to over 225 games that are playable offline across iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac and Apple TV.

Apple Arcade

Like

  • Massive selection of games; new games each week
  • Subscription cost for a year equals one console game
  • Can download and play all games offline
  • No ads, upsells or in-game purchases
  • One subscription works for up to 6 family members

Don't Like

  • Multiplayer modes can be inconsistent
  • No flagship game
  • Only for Apple devices

Apple Arcade was an easy recommendation to make at launch, and its value has only become more attractive. In April, Apple gave the service a massive refresh that organized the platform's landing page in the App Store and added 32 new games. The update made it easier to find the perfect game quickly, with minimal scrolling. 

The service built on its library of genres like action, adventure, racing, RPG and strategy, with new categories like Arcade Originals, App Store Greats and Timeless Classics. The service was already marketed as a casual, family-friendly alternative to the merry-go-round of in-app purchases usually found in mobile gaming, and the April update only increased this appeal by adding apps already available in the App Store. With an Apple Arcade subscription, the games would be playable without ads or in-app purchases. In addition, familiar titles like Stardew Valley, as well as old favorites like checkers and solitaire, allowed Apple Arcade to cast a wider net. 

All of this is why Apple Arcade is a CNET Editors' Choice pick for 2021. 

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Hot Lava uses Apple's AR cameras to place objects everywhere in a room.

Apple

Changing the paradigm for mobile games

In recent years before the launch of Apple Arcade, gaming on iOS devices had become a race to the bottom. Nearly all the most popular games on the App Store were either free or 99 cents -- and would make their money by charging for in-app purchases and add-ons, or by inserting advertisements. 

As this freemium model came to dominate, it elbowed out some of the best and most creative games from indie studios and small developers. A lot of these games didn't have ads or in-app purchases and so they typically charged $2 to $5. But their audiences were dwarfed by the freemium titles. The shame of it was that there were a bunch of beautifully designed games with strong gameplay that were getting overlooked because they didn't fit very well in the freemium model. 

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Crayola Create and Play is one of the best kids games on Apple Arcade.

Apple

At the same time, many parents were getting frustrated because their kids were racking up big bills from in-app purchases or were constantly asking for permission to buy tokens or add-ons for the games. Alternatively, kids were getting exposed to unknown content from ads. Above all, these freemium game systems were all about getting kids -- and adults -- addicted to playing these games and then continually milking them for more money through ongoing purchases. 

We can look at Arcade as Apple's attempt to change the environment on its platform for mobile gaming and skew it back toward quality titles, often at the expense of freemium games. Make no mistake, Apple makes a ton of money from taking a cut of all of those freemium micro-transactions. But it's playing the long game and betting that if it can help quality games to flourish on its platform then it will attract plenty of kids, parents and casual gamers. And since mobile games and casual games are where most of the growth is in gaming, it makes sense that Apple decided to take a stronger hand in the direction of gaming in its massive ecosystem.

The Apple Arcade games catalog

Every game platform rises or falls on whether it has games that people actually want to play. The breadth of Apple Arcade's catalog, bolstered by consistent new releases, is impressive. There are a ton of different types of games -- mystery games, family games, puzzle games, nostalgic games and more. They're all easy to download from the new Arcade tab in the App Store and you can do a one-month free trial to make sure there are games you'd want to play before you start paying your monthly fee.

One of the biggest challenges that Apple Arcade faced as it got off the ground was that most of its games were original titles from lesser known developers. Sure, there were some exceptions such as Frogger in Toy Town, Lego Brawls and Pac-Man Party Royale, but most of the Apple Arcade games -- and the studios that made them -- were ones most people had never heard of. 

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The Pathless was a breathtaking addition to Apple Arcade's catalog.

Annapurna Interactive

Apple Arcade's April 2021 overhaul changed this. The highly anticipated Arcade original Fantasian from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, The Pathless from Annapurna Interactive, Beyond a Steel Sky and NBA 2K21: Arcade Edition have joined the catalog, demonstrating Apple's commitment to entice more types of players, and add larger, more mainstream titles. Fantasian was recently named Apple Arcade's Game of the Year.

The bottom line is that there's more than enough good stuff to justify the price tag. Just keep in mind that most of the games and gameplay are still phone- and tablet-centric, so they still play like a lot of the premium $5 iOS games from before Arcade. Since launch, a majority of the games now support third-party controllers, which is a relief to touch-and-drag-fatigued fingers.

At launch, console-style games were few and far between, with notable exceptions like Shinsekai Into the Depths and Sayonara Wild Hearts. Bringing in a super popular series like NBA 2K21 and NBA 2K22 was a promising step forward. And Apple's hardware and software updates over the last year -- 5G, the A14 Bionic chip in the iPhone 12, the A15 Bionic chip in the iPhone 13, as well as the upgraded M1 chip in MacBooks and iPads -- point toward bigger and better things. 

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Sayonara Wild Hearts was a fan favorite at launch. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple Arcade compared to Nintendo, for family gaming

Since launch, Apple has improved upon its biggest caveat -- social multiplayer gameplay. The service recently launched Lego Star Wars Castaways -- the first online social Lego Star Wars game, and multiplayer arena battle game Disney Melee Mania is expected to hit the service soon. 

Leading up to the launch of Arcade, CNET's editors -- many of whom have a long history covering the games industry -- saw it as a threat to the hottest game system of the past couple years, the Nintendo Switch. That's because both target family and casual gamers. For families, one of the most frustrating parts of the Switch is that in order to play multiplayer games, every Switch user needs to own their own copy of the game. 

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Star Wars Castaways is the first online multiplayer game from the Star Wars game universe. 

Star Wars

One of the best features of Apple Arcade is still that one subscription gives access to up to six members of a family group. That means it has the potential to be a lot more attractive for families to game together. The addition of more multiplayer games with social features, gaming with friends and family on Apple Arcade could become more accessible and common.

In October, Apple launched in-app events that extended to Apple Arcade as well. In-app events include special content like game competitions and live streamed experiences.

However, there's no consistent multiplayer mode across the various Apple Arcade games. Some games have you simply play on one system with multiple controllers. Others only let you play one at a time on the same device and then compare scores. Still others try to use invite codes to let you join with people on their devices to play together in the same game -- but the sad state of Apple Game Center makes it difficult to connect to people and streamline that process. 

It results in an experience that makes it a lot less fun than playing your friends and family at Mario Kart on Nintendo -- the gold standard in multiplayer gaming. 

If Apple can improve Game Center so that you can more easily make connections to family and friends as well as bring some consistency to its multiplayer modes, then it could win over a lot more family gaming time. 

Apple Arcade is a terrific platform that's constantly putting a lot of games at the fingertips of casual gamers. The service shines in how it offers hundreds of games to cycle through -- whether originals or old favorites. And the fact that you can download a ton of games and run them on a relatively inexpensive device like the Apple iPad 10.2 -- also a CNET Editors' Choice -- makes this a great deal for a lot of people. It's limited to Apple devices, but if you're a family with iPhones and iPads, you'll find an easy on-ramp to lots of different types of games and it can probably save you money.