There's something pretty special going on with Apple at the moment and, despite all the headlines, it's not the new TV service.
Sure, Apple TV+ is an interesting development – giving a year away free with every new device is a pretty sound way of getting eyeballs on it. But with only a smattering of original shows, so-so reviews and a lack of investment compared to the likes of Netflix, HBO and Disney, it seems very much a long game, particularly for the UK.
But Apple Arcade? That's game as a badger right now. It may have flown relatively under the radar, no doubt because on the surface it seems an extension of what the App Store already does rather than a brave new world, but it is already utterly essential – and it's only getting better.
Shop Now Get a year's free Apple TV+ if you buy an eligible Apple device (John Lewis)
With Google Stadia attempting to grab the 'Netflix of gaming' PR with its big-budget fronting (despite it totally not being the Netflix of gaming), Apple's generous, all-you-can-eat buffet of exclusive premium games across iPhone, iPad and Apple TV devices may already have it sewn up.
Whisper it, but Apple has long been very good at gaming. There's a reason the 'mobile games aren't real games' bores stopped piping up, and it was because the App Store has increasingly been home to some of the best games around. However, with free-to-play and predatory junk outnumbering the good stuff, a bit of the oft-mocked Apple walled garden was desperately needed – which leads us to the current curated paradise of Arcade.
For just £4.99 a month after the free trial, the variety here is almost overwhelming. Gorgeous-looking platformers, deep puzzle games, online multiplayer parties, branching narrative fiction, sport – there really is something for everyone, and Apple has already pushed hard to hit the 100 games it promised for the year. And everything we've played is so good, you do wonder how you'll ever get to the end of it all – which in a subscription service is a really good problem to have.
OK, ninety per cent of our play time has actually been taken up by two games: Mini Motorways, Dinosaur Polo Club's equally addictive sequel to Mini Metros, which transports running a train network backed by a blissfully chilled soundtrack to building a similar but crucially different one with cars (where we're going, we WILL need roads); and Grindstone, Capybara Games' unique mix of match-three and dungeon crawler that has you collecting loot with cut-throat combos for as long as you don't get too greedy and lose it all.
Easy to pick up, hard to put down, this 'just one more go' pair have given us some of the best times we've had in gaming this year.
But outside these two time-sinkers, we've also enjoyed Simogo's incredibly beautiful rhythm action 'pop album' of Sayonara Wild Hearts, Chance Agency's brooding futuristic Uber driver simulator Neo Cab, A Brave Plan's Portal-esque puzzling atmosphere of The Bradwell Conspiracy, the bonkers 'sports' (used in the loosest term) double-header of What The Golf and Cricket Through the Ages, and UsTwo's beautifully tactile Assemble With Care.
But this past week's influx of games on the platform has uncovered the best one yet: Picomy's Monomals, a simply brilliant mix of Sonic's underwater levels, Ridiculous Fishing and the audio sequencer in Mario Paint.
You work your rod's slippery line through a level of submerged enemies and block puzzling before facing off against a fishy boss – who, once caught, becomes an instrument that you can then use in its Day-Glo take on GarageBand, with the tracks you make shared online, a la Mario Maker. It has all the hallmarks of classic Nintendo and Sega, with its water world as alive and 'Actually, I want to live there' as Splatoon or Jet Set Radio's bustling city hubs.
What makes Monomals so good is how well it works between the devices it's made for – while we played the main fish-catching bit on an Xbox controller on an Apple TV hooked up to a 60" telly, the music sequencing bits are perfectly suited to an iPad, and you can easily hop between the two. Apple Arcade throws in family sharing, too.
It also highlights just how developers are playing to the service's strengths already, something that is clearly being encouraged by Apple. Monomals comes with just three musical styles at launch, but more are going to be introduced over time.
Elsewhere, Mini Motorways only has 6 cities compared to its paid-for forerunner Mini Metros' 21, with more coming later. Hogwash, a new 3 v 1 'farmer against pigs' face-off (you heard that right) has just one arena at launch; Agent Intercept, a highly stylised Spy Hunter-esque racer, even only lets you play one escapade each day.
These are all novel ways to feed into the feeling of Apple Arcade as a service that's growing. These are games to be returned to, not devoured and deleted, but also this approach allows small vertical slices of games to be perfected and built upon. Rather than rush out 10 levels of so-so action, why not spend your time making one level absolutely amazing, grab an audience, and build from there?
It's the service structure that allows this kind of risk taking, with app developers no longer worried about instant monetisation and playing to our basest instincts for a quick buck as has increasingly been the case on iOS and Android when they can now spend time knowing they have a built-in audience to please. It's great, and we can't imagine not subscribing if the initial jewels are indicative of the experiences it will offer.
Of course, there are longer-term questions that will be intriguing to answer: while this is great for us phone-game players, how will developers fare with such a new way of financing their games? At what point does a lot of games become too many games for individual ones to get noticed? And will Apple keep financing a spread of games to keep the service in rude health of options, or will actual play times begin to define what games are supported and commissioned?
It will be intriguing to see it develop, as Apple Arcade feels genuinely new, original and the least 'us as well' move the company has made for years. Apple has become known for perfecting the technology trail-blazed by others, but Arcade is unlike anything else, and it's all the better for it.
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