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Apple TV Beat Sports impressions: It's pretty much Wii Sports, and that's fine

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

It's not surprising that Apple chose Beat Sports, from Rock Band and Dance Central developer Harmonix, to demonstrate the possibilities of games on the new Apple TV during the device's unveiling last month. It's a perfect showcase for the platform's capability to deliver lightweight living-room gaming, and it's a riot when played in a group.

Beat Sports is a motion-controlled rhythm game full of "weird, irreverent takes on Earth sports," said Matt Boch, product manager at Harmonix, during a demo at Polygon's offices yesterday. "Earth sports" sounded like an odd phrase until we remembered that Beat Sports pairs you with (and pits you against) cute aliens from a far-off musical galaxy — aliens who happen to love the traditional sports we play on this planet.

You can customize the look of your "slugger" and take them through numerous levels across three different locales — Home (Earth), Away (outer space) and Far Away (the aliens' home planet) — in three distinct games inspired by Earth sports. Net Ball is reminiscent of tennis and volleyball; Whacky Bat is based on baseball; and Hangry Holes is similar to golf. You unlock additional levels as you go, and can also try Pro Mode, which offers more difficult versions of the stages. Beat Sports scores you on your performance in medal form, similar to the way Angry Birds titles give you star ratings, and Boch said Harmonix was "trying to inspire that score-chasing, medal-chasing vibe."

Beat Sports - Whacky Bat screencap 1920

Beat Sports is a rhythm game, so everything is played to music. Most of the tracks are original compositions from Harmonix, but some of the music was written by Masaya Matsuura, creator of PaRappa the Rapper and Vib-Ribbon. One of Matsuura's tunes was the backing track for the second level we saw, the opening Whacky Bat stage.

The level begins with a robot that has two Doctor Octopus-like claw arms serving up pitches to you. Once you get the timing of the throws down and hit a few balls — the idea is to swing in time with the beat — the field switches to a layout with three lanes. This more closely resembles Harmonix's work with Amplitude and the Rock Band series, with charming purple creatures at the other end of a lane (usually one at a time, but sometimes two) tossing balls your way.

From The Verge

Beat Sports is designed for the Apple TV's included Siri Remote, and the controls here are simple: Swipe left or right to move between lanes, and flick the remote to swing your bat. They work similarly on an iPhone or iPod touch, where Harmonix has released a free Beat Sports Remote app to let other people play along. (The handheld devices and the Apple TV just have to be on the same Wi-Fi network.) Beat Sports truly shines in its multiplayer mode, Buddy Ball, which supports up to four players.

In this competitive game, the players take turns hitting a ball toward three different alien creatures. Player one takes a swing, aiming toward the target of their choosing (swiping left, up or right), and the ball ping-pongs back toward player two. Each alien returns serve at a different speed, or tempo, if you will. The orange cyclops is the slowest, with the following player having to swing four beats later. The four-toothed purple alien goes on a two-beat cycle, while the smiling yellow alien is challenging at a one-beat pace.

Players have to contend with the timing of the returns, as well as occasional curveballs (sorry) like modifiers that increase or decrease the tempo, and obstacles such as bombs, which result in an immediate elimination. They'll also lose if they miss too many returns. There's a lot of strategy to consider in Buddy Ball, like which of your opponents you want to pick on, and our four-player game quickly turned into a shouting match.

Beat Sports - Buddy Ball screencap 1920

Buddy Ball makes a great case for Beat Sports as an Apple TV game. It's easy to understand, and it's simple to play (as long as you have enough iOS devices lying around). Beat Sports as a whole looks gorgeous on a big-screen TV in a living room, which is the situation the Apple TV is meant for. Groups that gather around an Apple TV with Beat Sports installed on it can have a lot of fun with a device that they may not have known could play games.

It doesn't matter that there are likely very few, if any, people who will be buying this set-top box for gaming purposes. Unlike, say, Wii Sports on the Wii, Beat Sports doesn't have to be a system-seller for the Apple TV. Boch told Polygon that the Apple TV is interesting to Harmonix because it's a streaming solution from Apple that delivers games to the living room without being a traditional gaming console. (Amazon has its own bid for the living room, the Fire TV Gaming Edition, but it's meant to be used with a traditional video game controller — an input device that's intimidating to most people who don't already play console games.)

"We were excited enough about this platform to port our engine to it," said Boch, when asked about how bullish Harmonix is about the prospects of the new Apple TV. Harmonix brought the Rock Band engine to Apple TV's tvOS for Beat Sports, and built the game from the ground up for the device.

Apple TV's particular size restrictions weren't a concern for Harmonix, according to Boch. Apple's documentation gave some developers pause when the company revealed that Apple TV apps' initial downloads would be limited to just 200 MB. The reality of the situation is more complex than that, and Apple's solution — a suite of systems the company calls App Thinning — is meant to relieve the burden of managing the device's internal storage yourself.

"I think it's a totally reasonable size restriction, said Boch, adding that compartmentalization of resources is "a thing we understand at this point." Since Beat Sports' levels are unlocked over time, the initial download includes only the stages that are playable at the start.

Beat Sports is available for $9.99 exclusively on Apple TV, which launched last week. You can check out gameplay footage of Beat Sports above. We'll have much more coverage of Apple TV throughout the day, including a full review of the hardware.

StoryStream: The new Apple TV