No matter how much social distancing or sheltering in place you’re dealing with, no one can stop you from having a stellar time with your iPhone or iPad in these sundry worlds for what’s still a very attractive monthly subscription price of $5.
Butter me up! Butter Royale is a mildly amusing riff on the battle royale genre with 32 players online in a meltingly fast-paced, top-down food fight. Filled with puns, this Fortnite homage offers varied powerups that include hot dogs to throw and baguettes that fire like rockets. It’s a breeze to play. There are no levels to ascend to, just a flat suburban surface for your five-minute game.
There’s no flossing, unfortunately. Then again, there are also no dreaded, potentially addicting in-app purchases. It’s a fine trade off.
UFO on Tape: First Contact
When you don’t quite know what to expect and a thrilling surprise comes from nowhere — that’s how it feels to play UFO on Tape: First Contact. This timed, photo-taking game about a UFO invasion takes you through the historical deserts of Egypt and the jam-packed streets of neon Tokyo. As you whip around, snapping pictures of UFOs and taking videos as they zip through the skies, you’ll feel a breathless exhilaration, as though you’ve become a photographer, discovering that the truth really is out there. Despite a corny moment or two of dialogue, this is one of the better games to ever appear on Apple Arcade.
Despite not being a proper arachnid, the tiny, eager six-legged robot in Spyder is a wonder — and so is the game. A ’60s spy movie-inspired soundtrack (that includes a captivating bossa nova ditty) sets the mood. As you move stealthily through a bunker for clues to halt the launch of a nuclear device, Spyder tap tap taps along to find answers in lockboxes and, finally, on the bomb itself as it drops from a plane. The only issue is the game engine’s camera, which goes absolutely haywire in corners. In those moments, you go from feeling like a cool James Bond to a bumbling Austin Powers.
Major League Baseball is on hold. If you don’t have time to play the latest, big console sim, the over-the-top arcade nature of Ballistic Baseball is a happy, quick hit. I just love the details. For instance, when a wry hitter smacks a homer, the player laughs wildly before running the bases. Then, a stegosaurus in the stands rages on two legs in appreciation of a home run. With a light career mode, single player and online play modes, you’ll feel as though you were taken out to the ballgame — from the comfort of your phone.
No Way Home
Boy, the dialogue and voice acting in this title can feel like a child’s first attempt at humor on TikTok. Don’t let that deter you: Everything else is nothing short of superb. When you begin, the game play in space is reminiscent of Asteroids, updated for 2020. But there’s more. You move from planet to planet, exploring the frontier in up to 50 vehicles, and meeting a variety of loopy characters who send you on quests. The hand drawn artwork is a plus, as are the 60 different enemies you encounter.
Kings of the Castle
You’ve landed on a bright, appealing island world of tweeting birds, Crash Bandicoot-like music and plush, giant flowers that give you wild jumping powers. As a smiling girl adventurer in this world, you try to save a Prince Rupert from the clutches of Zantorian the Dragon. You can pick from a small variety of princess characters to play as, deal with timed trials, and even go online for some hectic multiplayer play. It’s properly distracting in short doses. But you may get a bit dizzy: Kings of the Castle is played from a first-person perspective.
Down In Bermuda
You’ve crashed hard on a Bermudian island, and encounter a character who’s slept for 30 years — longer than Rip Van Winkle. As you help the bearded, backpacking Milton, you find a giant, glasses-wearing turtle who’s been trapped for 563 years. Hopping from island to island, you find orbs, solve slider puzzles, and watch Milton stop to fish on the beach occasionally. It’s good, diverting fun — the beaches and ocean especially so — if you canceled your vacation due to the coronavirus.
Created by the brilliant but sadistic minds at Amanita Design (which created the Samorost series), Pilgrims is more than a puzzle game. In it, you search — with varying degrees of success — to find a small clues that will propel you to the next difficult encounter. With its folksy music, quirky characters and fairy-tale woodcut graphics, Pilgrims is just about perfect. And you’ll most definitely chuckle when your character deals with an angry priest.
This riff on Norway’s Global Seed Vault might be considered mediocre if not for its timely focus on environmentalism. It features a little being called DV Robot, who wears a Charlie Brown smile as he climbs ladders, crosses streams and moves boxes to solve puzzles in order find and save the last plants and seeds in the world. It may sound Polyanna-like, but I gently watered my own plants each day after playing. While there’s no overt message to Help The Earth in a games for change way, Doomsday Vault does indeed make you want to do more to protect the world.
Inmost is a thinking person’s puzzle game, oozing with dark and heavy energy. With a monochrome palette and stylish pixel technology, its ghosts and creepy goo are truly frightening. Of the three characters you follow, the big-eyed monster that “feeds on pain” is the most nuanced. It’s both abhorrent and, dare I say, somehow lovable. Searching for 80 well-concealed items was a chore, but the story wins big. What starts out as a tale of terror morphs into an emotional story of sacrifice by the end.
On the surface, Yaga is as cheesy as a well-worn fairy tale. However, this light role playing game is steeped in Slavic folklore that’s compelling in its simplicity. Shakespearean witches who rhyme, goats under devilish spells and thieves with pitchforks all try to foil the protagonist, a determined, one-armed blacksmith. Add some toe-tapping (if sometimes repetitive) folk music to heighten the action, and the game will catch you in its spell.
If you remember Viva Pinata, the sweetly lurid Xbox game, you’ll get an idea of the appealing, colorful palette of Monomals. Even more engaging, though somewhat jarring, is that Monomals is two games in one. First, you play as a fishing lure (and what an ingenious idea for a character it is). You wander in an underwater platformer environment, catching and piercing all you can. Get to the end of the level and you’ll unlock a Monomal. That character lets you open a music making app with seemingly infinite possibilities. As long as you’re agile enough to enjoy two game genres in one, Monomals won’t disappoint.
Towaga: Among Shadows
It’s you in a hellish environment against the demons who dare to take down the sacred temple called Towaga. In this bullet hell, you may be tempted to get lost in the art. But don’t gaze too long. A barrage of monsters and minions attack with startling speed. You return the favor with a beam of killing light that powers up with spells. The myth-like sentences describing each enemy in your codex immerse you in this violent world, populated by the awesome Voidmonger. Don’t be fooled by the relative ease in purifying the shrine on the first level. The next five are incredibly difficult.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.