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Want to play this winter’s best games? They’re on Apple Arcade

Apple Arcade hasn’t exactly been a game-changer for the video game industry. Apple’s mobile subscription service got a big initial push when it launched in 2019, but it has since faded out of public discourse while services like Xbox Game Pass are the talk of the town.

While it may not generate a lot of mainstream attention these days, Apple Arcade has only gotten better in the past few months. In fact, some of this winter’s most inventive games are only a few taps away … as long as you know they’re there.

Hidden gems

In general, 2020 proved to be a strong year for the platform, even if players weren’t paying attention. Creative indies like Necrobarista and Creaks launched on the service, strengthening its ever-growing library of niche hits.

As last fall got into full swing, Apple started dropping a string of hits just as everyone was busy obsessing over the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. That started in October with South of the Circle, an excellent visual novel from BAFTA-winning studio State of Play. Set in 1964, South of the Circle is a moving survival story about an English academic who ends up crash landing in Antarctica just as Cold War tensions reach a fever pitch. The story-driven game boasts an impressive voice cast, fantastic score, and one of 2020’s most compelling video game stories.

South of the Circle
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Despite having all the markings of a critical darling, the Apple Arcade exclusive didn’t receive much attention at launch. Perhaps it just got buried in the heaviest gaming news cycle of the past eight years. Though as more standout titles quietly arrive on the platform, there seems to be an unfortunate trend unfolding for Apple.

On December 11, the platform got one of its finest offerings yet. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a charming bird watching game from Monument Valley developer Ustwo Games. Despite also launching on PC, the title is a perfect mobile game. Players control a young child with a passion for nature who uses her phone to photograph creatures. There’s a clever bit of phone-ception happening while playing on mobile and physically moving the iPhone to get the perfect shot on Alba’s in-game smartphone.

Beyond that clever mechanic, Alba is a well-meaning game about wildlife preservation that’s perfect for kids. While parents bemoan that their children are hooked on shooters like Fortnite (which still isn’t available on iOS), Apple Arcade offers a perfect alternative that’s educational while evoking photography games like Pokémon Snap.

Alba A Wildlife Adventure
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Apple’s recent standouts don’t stop there. Just this weekend, the platform added another wildly creative selection: Nuts. In this clever adventure games, players control a nature researcher who takes a job studying squirrel behavior. The gameplay consists of setting up remote cameras during the day and running back the footage at night to see exactly what the creatures are up to. What starts as a simple puzzle game soon builds out into a larger environmental mystery that’s much bigger than squirrels.

A marketing challenge

It’s a little strange that these games landed on the platform with barely a peep. Gamers are currently in the middle of a drought as we come off of a crowded fall and games like Nuts or Alba: A Wildlife Adventure should be thriving right now. And yet, both feel like niche secrets bound to show up on hidden gem lists down the line.

Apple is sitting on a treasure trove of innovative indies, yet it often feels like it still misses the mark when it comes to getting the word out. The company has gone to great lengths to promote its service as a whole, but less effort goes into hyping individual games to the general public. Head over to the official Apple Arcade site and you’ll be greeted by a big splash page that talks up the platform’s features. Site visitors can watch trailers for five specific games, but there are no links to landing pages for any of them. None of the three games mentioned above appear on the page at all.

Nuts Apple Arcade
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Finding out what new games have dropped on the platform is a bit of a task for non-subscribers. When I search Google for “Apple Arcade new releases,” I’m at the mercy of external websites’ coverage of the platform with no helpful resources from Apple itself. For comparison, search “Xbox Game Pass new releases” and you’ll get various blog pages from Microsoft directly announcing every new batch of games added to the service.

It’s different for players who are already bought into the Apple Arcade ecosystem. They’ll receive push notifications when new games drop and see more heavy promotion on the App Store page. But anyone who’s an outsider will have a much harder time knowing that games like Nuts even exist.

For iOS users who aren’t clued in as to what’s happening on the service, consider this a bat signal of sorts: Apple Arcade is on a roll right now. It’s worth popping back in to try some of its recent gems, even if only for a month of winter hibernation.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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