The new Apple TV can play games. But are they any good? And how's that Siri remote as a game controller? The easiest way to answer those questions is to spend some time playing games.
We've been gaming on the new device since last Friday, and we've compiled a list of the best and most interesting offerings. It's not just about the games but what they do that shows off what the system can do. And what they can do often surprised us, even when it took some time to acclimate to Apple's gaming capable set top box.
Alto's Adventure and Canabalt
Alto's Adventure and Canabalt are prototypical examples of Apple TV games that were born for smart devices like the iPad and the iPhone and translate perfectly well to Apple's new device.
Playing each endless runner on a smart device requires little more than tapping and, sometimes, holding to jump. That interaction maps easily to the Siri remote's touchpad, and playing on TV doesn't feel much different than it does when you're holding a screen in your hand. Both games feel a bit less precise on the Apple TV, though.
Alto's Adventure, for example, requires you to click the touchpad to jump. The delay that clicking introduces over tapping is slight (measured somewhere in the order of milliseconds), but because it's not as instantaneous as tapping your iPhone screen, it requires some relearning.
Jumping in Canabalt takes the opposite approach and maps to tapping. It eliminates the clicking delay, but at the cost of being hypersensitive. You'll have to learn not to accidentally brush up against the touchpad and trigger inadvertent leaps.
Both of these games have secondary advantages: If you bought them on iOS devices, their Apple TV versions are free to download. That's true for many tvOS games, and in these very early days, it's a benefit to be able to fill your Apple TV with games you already know at no additional cost.
Xenowerk, Pixelbite Games' shooter, is the best argument for buying a third-party controller.
On a platform with a controller or a mouse and keyboard , it'd be easy to call Xenowerk a twin-stick shooter. On the Apple TV using the Siri remote, all of the genre's ingredients are there — except for the twin sticks. Recognizing this, Pixelbite accounts for a stick's absence with a generous auto aiming mechanic that zeroes in on the closest enemy as you fire. It's a perfectly serviceable solution to an inherent limitation, and it works better than I expected to to.
You move your character with the Siri remote's touchpad, which mimics the fine-grained input of an analog stick. With a proper controller, your other analog stick would control your aiming. as you hold the Siri remote horizontally, NES-style, the Play/Pause button becomes your fire button. You've always got two weapons, and a single tap on Play/Pause lets you switch between, say, your assault rifle and your shotgun.
Connect a proper controller like the SteelSeries Nimbus, and the game instantly gets better, bringing all of the control you'd expect from a twin-stick shooter to the game. The auto aiming mechanic persists, and you can lean on that if you want to. But if I've got a controller with two analog sticks in my hand, I'd rather aim myself.
Many gamers weren't pleased when they learned that Apple requires developers to use the Siri remote as a controller on every game. I have 25 games installed on my new Apple TV, and many of them support third-party controllers, and that almost always makes the experience better.
Better, enabling a controller couldn't be simpler in tvOS. The SteelSeries Nimbus requires an initial pairing with the device, just like you'd pair a controller to a console. After that, though, all you need to do is flip the power switch, and the Apple TV will automatically detect and enable the controller. Even if you're in the middle of a game like Xenowerk using the Siri remote and you decide to switch to a proper controller, all you need to do is power it on, and the game will recognize and enable it without any fiddling or complications.
My biggest surprise is that the Siri remote is a perfectly capable controller. It's not always my first choice, but at least with these early games, developers like Pixelbite have tuned their games to account for the limitations inherent in the Siri remote.
It's also worth noting Xenowerk's graphical prowess. It's filled with high contrast lighting, explosions and atmospheric effects. I was pleasantly surprised by all of them. That it runs at a smooth 60fps is icing on the cake.
The fourth generation Apple TV may not be as powerful as a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One, but it is a deceptively powerful little device, able to run games that also appear on consoles and PC without a sense of compromise.
Developer Supergiant Games proves this as well as any other game maker with Transistor. The isometric action game looks nearly indistinguishable from its console and PC cousins. In fact, the only real graphical difference I could ever see were some slight compression artifacts in video that plays behind menus.
Like Xenowerk, Transistor changes its controls depending on whether or not you have a third-party controller attached. Because the Siri remote is imprecise, Supergiant uses a mechanic that allows you to slow down time while in battle to set up your moves. But if you've got a third-party controller, it's a real-time battle.
This input device mechanic layering happens so often in games that support third-party controllers that it became a sort of leitmotif. Whether Apple encourages it or developers all came to the same conclusions, I don't know. But those who support proper controllers do so well and, in every game I've played, thoughtfully.
Third-party controller support doesn't feel like an add-on, like a feature hastily bolted onto games.
Ubisoft's Rayman Adventures is the best example of a game that changes fundamentally with a controller, but whose Siri remote version also works so well that I can't decide which I like better.
If you've played a Rayman game in a smart device in the last couple of years, you'll understand this one. Ubisoft decided against giving direct control to players of the main character in its series of mobile platformers. Instead, its characters run at their own pace, and you can swipe left or right to change directions. That sounds like a horrible idea, but it works incredibly well for Ubisoft's recent handful of mobile Rayman games.
It works the same way on an Apple TV with the Siri remote. Rayman runs, you swipe to change direction. There are a limited number of gesture-based moves, too, like swiping down while you're in the air to do a ground pound. It's simple, easy to understand, and Ubisoft's levels are designed around the controls. It rarely feels imprecise because of that design.
Plug in a controller, though, and you gain full control of Rayman. There's no more automatic running. There's no more swipe controls. Rayman Adventures plays exactly like a platformer would on a console.
The game's main problem has nothing to do with controls, though. It's a free-to-play product, and it's filled with timed mechanics to unlock progress. Yes, you can earn what you need by playing or waiting the timers out, but it still feels really weird to have to do that when you've got a controller in your hands.
Rayman Adventures looks and feels like a proper console game. I can't imagine it looking any better on a console, frankly. But its free-to-play mechanics are a bummer of the inconvenient sort.
Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising
Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising looks great and makes some smart, if surprising, decisions about control.
The dogfighting game puts players in the cockpit of a spaceship and besieges them with waves of enemies. There's even a story and some awkward dialogue and voice acting, which add a layer of immersion.
Here's the thing: Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising looks and feels like it should support a third-party controller, but it eschews that for exclusive Siri control. It's an interesting surprising decision, but one that works out surprisingly well.
Your ship is always moving, and you're a swipe away from a speed boost, a slow down or a fancy dodge move, but you control your movement entirely with the Siri remote's gyroscope. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once I acclimated, it worked better than I expected.
Developer Fishlabs also takes care of firing for you. Center a target in your reticle, and your craft will unleash hell automatically. I didn't like the idea at first, but it's fine. I grew to understand in time that concentrating on flying was a tradeoff that makes the game easier to play.
This game is absolutely gorgeous, and seeing on the big screen is even better than it is in your hands.
Because it was designed with direct finger manipulation in mind, the developer uses a cursor that you control with the trackpad on the Apple TV. It does take some getting used to, but it works just fine when you get the hang of it.
I suspect the awkwardness has less to do with Lumino City than it does with learning the intricacies of the Siri remote's touchpad. That you're surrounded by papercraft beauty while you learn only helps to dull any pain.
The games above each show a unique aspect of the new Apple TV's capabilities, but they're far from the only games we could have highlighted. If you've got the new device, there's plenty more you should check out.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch
This lighthearted game actually benefits from the Siri remote. Controlling the titular character was always supposed to be cumbersome. Doing it with a Siri remote is hilarious.
Beneath the Lighthouse
It's easy to imagine playing this game on an iOS device, but it makes the transition to the Apple TV well, thanks to the trackpad. Direct manipulation through a touchscreen may have been how it's developers envisioned controlling the game, but rotating it's gear-like puzzles remains a lot of fun on the Apple TV.
Is it a gaming machine?
The new Apple TV may not be a console, but it is a capable gaming machine. Even in its earliest days, it shows promise. As developer continue to poke and prod at the system and figure it out, I expect its gaming component to get better.
As it stands today, less than a week before the tvOS App Store went live, it's mostly a way to get games that already exist elsewhere on a new device hooked up to your TV. That offers some benefits. Bigger is sometimes better, and it can give an old game a new lease on life. It's always a pleasant surprise to find out you get a new, free version of a game you've already played, too.
But this is also the normal course of a system's launch. It wasn't that long ago that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were filled with ports of games that launched on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. In these early days, there are plenty of games to play and plenty of games you probably haven't played.
Whether, like its counterparts at Microsoft and Sony, the new Apple TV will become a platform for exclusives remains to be seen. It is brand new, and the ecosystem is barely established. Harmonix's Beat Sports is an early winner in this category, ranking high on the tvOS App Store's charts. But will other games follow?
There are also several high-profile games like Disney Infinity 3.0, Guitar Hero Live and Skylanders Superchargers that offer the promise of full console ports. We haven't played those yet, but we will soon, and we'll keep you updated.
The new Siri remote usually isn't an ideal controller, though you don't have to own an Apple TV to figure that out. It has been a constant source of surprise, though. Developers are being smart about it, oftening changing their games controls depending upon the input. Even when controls can get complicated, the Siri remote is a credible alternative to a proper controller.
Apple didn't make a gaming console, though, and it made some decisions that confused gamers, like allowing but not bundling a controller with the system, which necessarily fractures the market. Having played hours worth of gamins on the new Apple TV, I'm somewhat surprised to repor that I'm OK with using the Siri remote in many instances. I vastly prefer the SteelSeries Nimbus in others. This is part of what makes the new Apple TV unique, and I hope that third-party controllers gain enough of a foothold on the device that developers continue to support it. The idea success story for the Apple TV is an ecosystem that supports both.
I suspect that the best Apple TV games are yet to come — and we'll only play them if the system becomes a viable ecosystem and as developers learn more and more about Apple's potentially disruptive set top box.