The Apple TV has its problems as a game console, but there's no denying that it has a ton of potential. And right now is the most interesting time there'll ever be to check it out; developers are still working out how to use the Siri Remote, others are hoping you'll pick up a controller like the semi-official Steelseries Nimbus, and others still are finding ways to get around the Apple TV's unusual storage system.
It's a jungle out there, and it doesn't help that Apple seems to be doing its utmost to stop you find games for yourself — not only is App Store discovery a disaster, but you can't even link to apps on the web. But I've been playing as many Apple TV games as I can over the past 10 days, and here are the ones I think you should check out. I can't say they're all classics, but once you've played them all, you'll have a pretty good idea of what your new box can do.
Harmonix's Beat Sports is the flagship exclusive title for the Apple TV's launch, and it might as well have come out of a make-people-happy video game generator. The pitch is essentially "let's make Wii Sports, but if it were a music game from the people who created Guitar Hero and Rock Band, with a soundtrack from the guy behind Parappa the Rapper, and one-button action straight out of Nintendo's Rhythm Heaven series," and it's exactly as crowd-pleasing as that sounds.
There's very little depth here, and the timing is too forgiving for anyone who wants a real challenge, but Beat Sports is the first thing you should download if you want an excuse to wave your Siri Remote in front of your TV.
Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising
I wouldn't call Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising a good game, exactly — it's a generic space shooter with laughable voice acting and a propensity to show you the same single piece of character art every few seconds — but it is a good proof of concept for how 3D games might work with the Siri Remote.
Although your control is limited, as your ship fires on enemies automatically, the graphics are pretty good and it's fun to fly around space with motion controls. That's not to say the remote will be much use for controlling 3D characters that don't have jet engines strapped to them, but Manticore Rising is the slickest action game on the Apple TV so far.
Peg Ballet is basically Peggle meets N++ by the creators of Super Stickman Golf, which will be enough of a recommendation for anyone to whom that means anything at all. For everyone else, Peg Ballet is a minimalist one-button take on bagatelle and pachinko where you can make your ball jump at any time in order to knock out all the pegs. It's harder than it sounds, and while it takes a bit of time to get into, it can quickly become one of the Apple TV's more addictive timesucks.
Endless snowboarder Alto's Adventure is one of mine and everyone else's favorite iOS games of the year, and it makes a sleek transition to Apple TV. The only way the iOS version could get more chill is if you played it lying prostrated on a sofa with its languid soundtrack blaring out of speakers bigger than your phone's — so it goes. My one complaint is that you have to click the Siri Remote button down to jump, rather than just tapping the touchpad like you'd tap the screen on an iOS device; it's not quite as responsive, which means it's not quite as chill. But it's still chill.
Canabalt — an iOS classic fairly similar to Alto's Adventure except that it's about escaping the robot apocalypse rather than rescuing llamas on a snowboard — might not be chill, but it does get the controls right. Here, you just lightly tap the remote's touchpad to jump from building to building, giving you the best chance possible at avoiding a gravity-induced death. And Canabalt just works really well on a big, wide screen with loud music; it's always been an intense experience, and the Apple TV amps it up.
Rayman Adventures is a great example of a game that works well on both the Siri Remote and Steelseries Nimbus. If you're only using the remote, it plays just like the excellent Rayman games on iOS; endless runners where you just tap at the right time to jump and perform other actions.
But if you connect a controller, Rayman Adventures becomes a traditional platforming game, where you have full control over the character's movements and commands. The level design is the same, of course, which makes the game feel a little simplistic with a controller at times; it's not as tuned to perfection as something like Rayman Origins on consoles. But it still represents an improvement on the iOS versions for anyone willing to invest in a controller — after all, you can always just keep running.
I was more than happy to revisit Transistor, one of my favorite PS4 games of last year, on the Apple TV. And it actually works better with the Siri Remote than I'd imagined — it's a little awkward, for sure, but the game's ability to slow down its action-RPG combat makes it more forgiving than the touch controls would otherwise allow.
Transistor isn't quite as smooth as it is on other platforms, mind you, but if you have an Apple TV controller and no other gaming device, I'd recommend playing through this version. Almost everything of its stylish, melancholic charm appears to have remained intact.
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions
Here's where the Siri Remote starts to fall down. Geometry Wars is a series that single-handedly popularized the modern revival of what has come to be known as the twin-stick shooter; since game controllers have two sticks and the remote very much does not, you really shouldn't consider this without a Nimbus or similar.
With a controller, this is a great port of Geometry Wars 3 — I couldn't tell much difference between the Apple TV version and the PC game I've sunk too many hours into. But with the Siri Remote, it's a different story. The entire appeal of this kind of game is moving your ship with one stick while firing in 360 degrees with the other, but the remote controls only let you move — firing and aiming is handled for you.
And even then, the movement doesn't work too well on the touchpad; my favorite Geometry Wars mode is Pacifism, which sees you try to survive as long as possible without shooting, but the remote just isn't precise enough. Skip this one if you don't have a controller, but by all means pick it up if you do and haven't played it yet.
How do you cram a 10GB console game onto the Apple TV, with its 200MB initial download limit? Skylanders: Superchargers proves it's possible, using tvOS's app thinning technique to stream additional chunks to you on the fly. And with iCloud saves, you can play Superchargers across the Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad with one purchase.
Superchargers also shows how Apple TV games might work at retail by including a physical component. You can buy a $75 starter pack with the game, a controller, two figurines, and a vehicle, or just skip the toys-to-life aspect entirely and build up a virtual collection through in-app purchases. Publisher Activision is trying something similar for the Apple TV version of Guitar Hero Live; selling physical games for an all-digital device sounds bizarre, but Skylanders: Superchargers at least proves it can work in practice.
Bean Dreams is a fun, simple platformer on your iPhone in which you play a Mexican jumping bean that can't stop jumping; this frees your thumbs up to only move your character left or right. This works just as well on the Apple TV, where you can tap on the Siri Remote or use a controller to input the same controls, but unlike Rayman Adventures, the addition of a controller doesn't change the game at all.
Bean Dreams is a good iPhone game because it uses neat design to solve the problem of how to play a Super Mario-style platformer on your phone, but on your TV you're better off with the real deal. If that's not an option, though, this version isn't any less fun than it is on your phone.
Asphalt 8: Airborne
The Asphalt series is about as close as you can get to an intense arcade racer on mobile platforms, and it does that job well enough. On the Apple TV, though, the stakes are a little higher, and Asphalt 8 doesn't hold up. The frame rate is terrible — the game runs fine on phones, so this should just be a matter of optimization for an unfamiliar device — but more importantly, the lack of depth in track design and handling is a lot more apparent when you're holding a controller in front of a big screen. This is about as good as racing games get on the Apple TV for now, but until something better comes along I will continue to stick with Ridge Racer 7, as I have done since... 2006.
The reason to play Oceanhorn on iOS is if you really feel the need for a competent yet blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff on the go. The reason to play it on Apple TV is, well, if you don't have any Nintendo consoles. But it does work a lot better with the Nimbus, and the graphics are vibrant enough to show off some of the Apple TV's potential for less derivative games. Oceanhorn might not be an inspired work of art, but it does at least prove that this kind of game could make a convincing leap to a bigger screen.