Apple Arcade’s newest games are some of the most fun I’ve had all year

What The Car? is the sort of ludicrous experience that I live for

It’s no secret that I’m not really a mobile gamer.

Outside of a few exceptions like the Hearthstone-esque Marvel Snap and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Fantasian, I’ve traditionally only played on consoles and dedicated handhelds.

But at a recent Apple Arcade media showcase in New York, I was reminded of just how much fun mobile games can be. The event was held to promote the 20 new games that just launched on the subscription service, with the developers behind four of them being on-site to discuss their work. While I didn’t quite know what to expect, I ended up finding some of my favourite games of 2023 so far, mobile or otherwise.

Disney Spellstruck

Disney Spellstruck

Image credit: Fun + Games/Disney

While I’m aware of Words with Friends, I’ve never actually played it, which, in hindsight, feels like a glaring omission since I am a writer and do generally enjoy Scrabble and other word puzzles. One of Apple Arcade’s newest games, Disney Spellstruck, takes the gameplay of Words with Friends and mixes it with a charming Disney coat of paint. If you’re a newcomer like me, that means you and your opponent are tasked with using tiles in your hand to spell out words on a crossword-style board. It’s pretty approachable.

At the same time, Words with Friends stalwarts don’t have to fear that Spellstruck is some knock-off, as it actually hails from the new studio led by that game’s co-creator, David Bettner. According to Bettner, Disney Spellstruck has been a long time coming. “I had this idea for a long time of how we would integrate characters into this kind of game. This style of game has been around for quite a long time but hasn’t really evolved very much.”

Disney Spellstruck characters

Image credit: Fun + Games/Disney

In this case, the key evolution here is the implementation of unique character powers. At launch, the game features 12 playable Disney and Pixar characters ranging from Mickey Mouse, Princess Tiana (Princess and the Frog), Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story), Stitch (Lilo & Stitch), and, as a nice inclusion for Canadians, Mei from last year’s Turning Red. “That was very much a collaborative effort between us and Disney,” says Bettner of how they decided on the characters. “It was trying to get a great balance and diversity in the lineup — humans, animals, all kinds of things. And then integrated with that is the popularity of these characters.”

From there, each character has their own ability that affects the flow of a match. For example, Tiana can add point values to random tiles to spice things up, while Mickey lobs a bunch of higher-earning tiles across the board. At the same time, these moves feel balanced because you have to successfully spell a word over a designated ‘Power Square’ to activate them. Bettner says the goal with powers was to “break the rules a little bit” when it comes to crossword games like Words with Friends, like having one that just drops a tile that’s completely disconnected from the rest.

Disney Spellstruck Donald powerMy biggest takeaway here beyond the cute, doodle-esque Disney aesthetic was just how relaxing and enjoyable the whole experience proved to be. A lot of mobile games turn me off because they’re trying to condense bigger experiences, like high-octane shooters or racers, into a tiny screen without buttons. But Disney Spellstruck — with its simple-yet-engrossing word puzzles — feels right at home on mobile. And to make that experience translate even more smoothly, Bettner says they’ve shortened the matches from Words with Friends to Spellstruck across both single-player and multiplayer to “create a more mobile, bite-sized experience.” That mobile-friendly design, coupled with surprisingly addictive gameplay and recognizable Disney characters, is ultimately why I actually am looking forward to regularly coming back to this game.

What The Car?

What The Car legs

Image credit: Triband

The other highlight for me of the four featured games was What The Car?, Triband’s spin-off of What The Golf? This, too, is another case of me having heard of the predecessor but not really knowing much about it. Much to my surprise, then, when I learned What The Car? takes the zany, physics-based minigames of What The Golf? and dials them to eleven. The core premise, quite simply, is “What if a car but with legs?” and it just gets more insane from there.

One track might have your character have several legs and have to cartwheel to the end, while another will give him a comically oversized pair with which you’ll have to bounce along. But forget legs — other tracks transform your vehicle even further by giving him an umbrella (in a track called “Carry Poppins,” no less), turning him into a ball (“Car Is Ball”) or even boat (“Car Is Boat”). Things get weirder when your car gets a cold and has to sneeze his way through the course or, in another section, avoid a giant cow with heat vision.

What The Car? tube

Image credit: Triband

The level of creativity, charm and just plain goofiness on display here made it an absolute blast to keep playing. Triband says it specifically chose Apple Arcade to avoid microtransactions, too, which means that you can go through these wonderfully over-the-top levels entirely at your own pace. What’s more, there’s a level creator so you can go nuts with your own wild scenarios for friends to take on. While many games would feel like a bit of an incoherent mess with so many drastically different things going on, What The Car? embraces the absurdity in one bite-sized, mobile-friendly package.

TMNT: Splintered Fate

TMNT Splintered Fate

Image credit: Super Evil Megacorp/Paramount

Super Evil Megacorp (Vainglory) has teamed up with Paramount to make a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beat ’em up, and it turned out pretty well. In TMNT: Splintered Fate, the Turtles have to rescue Splinter from Shredder while dealing with mysterious portals that are popping up across New York City. To do that, you’ll have to play as one of the four turtles in single-player or co-op.

Gameplay-wise, Splintered Fate has a pretty simple and standard basic melee attack alongside a few rechargeable special moves. To the game’s credit, I did find that each Turtle feels different to play. Raphael, for instance, feels like more of a heavy character with slower sai moves that are better at dealing critical hits. Leonardo, on the other hand, hits fast thanks to his katanas. But it’s the implementation of roguelike elements that shakes things up.

TMNT Splintered Fate

Image credit: Super Evil Megacorp/Paramount

What that means is you’ll be offered a choice of one of a few different power-ups between areas for your Turtle. I was impressed with how much this enhanced the otherwise fairly rudimentary combat. Whether it was upgrading Raph’s sai with fire-based attributes, improving the range of Leo’s shuriken or just increasing my maximum HP with some pizza (naturally), I enjoyed the progression here. As I played alongside Super Evil Megacorp studio head Ian Fielding, he explained that the team took this approach because we don’t normally see roguelikes centred around co-op. He also said that TMNT co-op framework helped bring “fun banter” to the roguelike genre. It’s good point, as it did add a lot of flavour to the action, especially since it feels authentic as written by creative director Kevin Michael Johnson and TMNT comic book author Tom Waltz.

The roguelike elements also make the game surprisingly challenging. With healing options only coming sparingly, my team was unfortunately crushed by the second boss. While this might prove frustrating to some, I could also see it being an engaging way to get people, especially families, to keep coming back to get just a little bit further each time. That, alongside Fielding’s promise of a New Game+ mode to shake up enemies and power-ups, should give the game some solid replay value.

Cityscapes: Sim Builder

Cityscapes Sim Builder

Image credit: Magic Fuel/Playstacks

Admittedly, this is the game I’ll have the least to say about here because I’m simply not the target audience. In general, management sims are not my cup of tea, and Cityscapes: Sim Builder didn’t really change that. Most notably, though, it hails from Magic Fuel Games, a team made up of several former Sim City developers, which certainly gives it pedigree in that genre.

Like other sims, your goal as mayor in Cityscapes is to oversee the construction of all kinds of buildings related to everything from apartments and fire stations to hospitals and schools. What sets this game apart, however, is quite novel: a focus on sustainability. Magic Fuel says the game’s mantra is “city building with a conscience,” so you have to balance what might be good for business with what will affect your citizens’ happiness. For example, rocks and trees contribute to air pollution reduction, but building a factory over them will have the opposite effect.

Cityscapes Sim Builder pollution

Image credit: Magic Fuel/Playstacks

Honestly, it’s a fascinating concept, and it seems like it should make for a smart twist on the genre for fans. Once again, though, I didn’t spend very long with it myself because I just don’t vibe with this kind of game. While Magic Fuel has done a clearly commendable job in carrying over the deep, interconnected systems of city builders from PC games, I still found it a bit overwhelming as a newcomer. Certainly, it’s a neat game that adds only more variety to the Apple Arcade catalogue — it’s just not for me.

In a lot of ways, it was smart for Apple to focus on these four titles, as they represent the variety of Apple Arcade’s 200-plus games catalogue as a whole. It’s a good reminder of the value of services like this — they really do offer something for everyone. Even if some titles aren’t your thing, like Cityscapes for me, you’ll surely be able to find your own Disney Spellstruck or What The Car? that speak to you. And with so many console games nowadays feeling so dauntingly big, there’s an undeniable appeal in smaller titles like those on Apple Arcade. I’m now looking forward to spending more time with these and checking out others.

Apple Arcade costs $5.99/month in Canada and is also included in Apple One subscription bundles, which start at $18.95/month.

Image credit: Triband