In the early 2010s, like many people, I owned a set-top box. It was a third-generation Apple TV that enabled my 1080p plasma screen (which always ran way too hot) to access Netflix and other video streaming services. A decade later, I finally upgraded that plasma TV to something far more contemporary – 4K, HDR, high refresh rates, the lot – and of course, it was smart. Smart TVs were at this point well and truly tried, tested, and in vogue, and my new TV could do everything my old set-top box could do.
So, I said farewell to the Apple TV, and the Chromecast I also owned for some reason, and looked forward to a streamlined, ultra-high-definition TV-watching future.
What I wasn’t anticipating was how shockingly slow and unresponsive the Smart TV’s interface was to navigate and load apps, compared to the dedicated mini-computer the Apple TV was. What’s more, the user interface showcases advertisements on the home screen – can you believe it? The experience is serviceable enough, of course, but it pales in comparison to the zippy set-top box experience I was used to.
In October 2022, Apple released the newest iteration of the Apple TV 4K. When the opportunity came up for me to test it, I was curious.
Despite being 10 years and four hardware generations more advanced than the Apple TV I was used to, the Apple TV 4K seemed like it was virtually the same little black box I had known. Of course, it’s a much more powerful unit. Equipped with an A15 Bionic Chip, it’s got the same 64-bit, six-core CPU that powers the iPhone 13 and 14 – but my first question after hearing that was, ‘but what else am I going to do with this thing other than watch some TV?’
The answer, of course, is play some video games.
Apple’s current relationship with video games
In the last few years, Apple has continued to subtly but consistently strengthen the capabilities of its various mobile and computing devices to natively support a wide array of video games and accessories outside its own ecosystem, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Apple devices now provide native support for Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch controllers, in addition to virtually any Bluetooth controller, for a more traditional way of playing games and generally interfacing with its devices.
The Apple Arcade game subscription service is now also a moderate focus for the company. First launched in 2019, it’s focused on building an approachable and artful selection of games, and because of its existence, Apple has also begun financially backing a variety of studios to assist with the development of games for the service.
Despite the obvious focus on games for iPhone and iPad, Apple Arcade games aren’t all necessarily ‘mobile first’ – the service also features titles you would expect to find as traditional PC and console releases. These might be games from notable independent developers, in genres designed to be experienced in lengthy play sessions. Several titles launched on Apple Arcade have gone on to grace other platforms, after their initial exclusivity period is over.
As someone who thoroughly enjoys this subsection of games, thinking of the Apple TV+ as a relatively affordable games console for your home (the third-generation Apple TV 4K starts at US $129 / AU $219) feels like a good prospect.
After two months of consistent use, I’m impressed with the robust game offering on Apple TV, both via Arcade and other means, which I’ll elaborate on shortly. It’s a place where you can find approachable games that are easy to pick up for the first time, but it’s also a place that lets you discover how different games can be.
The Apple Arcade ecosystem
The first port of call for playing video games on the Apple TV is, of course, the Apple Arcade subscription service, which has its own icon on the main dashboard. One feature of Arcade that doesn’t appear to be widely known is that despite appearing as a mobile-first service, all games on Apple Arcade are actually cross-platform between iOS, Mac, and Apple TV, with slightly different user interfaces and display ratios suited to each platform.
Cross-platform thankfully comes with a cross-progression data save system, via Apple’s Game Center account ecosystem. There’s a seamless synchronisation of your progress in an Apple Arcade game, no matter what device you’re on. Start a game on your iPhone, and you can resume it on the Apple TV, no problem.
For a lot of Apple Arcade games – namely, the ones really designed with quick mobile play sessions in mind – it doesn’t really matter so much. But for several of the more in-depth games that skew towards a more involved experience – the RPGs, adventure games, survival and life simulators – it’s a godsend.
For a game like Wylde Flowers, a cosy (and award-winning) life simulator that can be enjoyed in short bursts or long-session play, it’s incredibly novel to play for a few hours on the couch, and then pick up right where you left off for 15 minutes before bed, on your phone, with both versions running natively on their respective devices – I sometimes do this with Xbox games, but the phone experience there is limited to cloud streaming, which has its downsides.
The sync is just as good as Xbox’s excellent and headache-free save syncing system, which automatically keeps track of your progress, no matter which Xbox console or PC you’re playing on. It’s something that Nintendo and Sony have yet to really match in terms of ease of use.
The performance of these games on Apple TV was also mostly pleasing – with some caveats. While most of the games I was drawn to were stylish, 2D platformers that expressed their visual flair through unique art direction, I was impressed by how some of the 3D games ran too – NUTS and Manifold Garden, which I had played on high-end gaming consoles, also performed well on the Apple TV.
Some games, like Air Twister – the latest game from veteran designer Yu Suzuki, creator of Outrun, Shenmue, and several more all-time classics – looked incredibly sharp, but encountered some performance issues (specifically, frame rate stuttering) during busy sections. Considering that the game runs excellently on the iPhone, and the Apple TV chipset is the same as the iPhone, I’d chalk this up to the Apple TV struggling to render highly-detailed textures natively at more than double the resolution on a 4K TV.
Third-person game The Pathless also suffered from a very low resolution that washed out its usually beautiful art direction, in an effort to try and prioritise maintaining a consistent framerate.
The Best Apple Arcade games to play on Apple TV
Here are some of my personal favourite Apple Arcade games, that I found specifically well-suited to the Apple TV environment, using traditional game controllers – there are several more great games on Apple Arcade of course, but some are definitely much more suited to touch interfaces.
- The Pathless – An exciting and beautiful third-person action game about a master archer and their eagle, working to dispel darkness from their land. It has an incredible movement system that feels very slick, despite the lower visual fidelity of the Apple TV version.
- Alba: A Wildlife Adventure – A delightfully heartwarming adventure game about a little girl taking photos of nature, with a subtle but important message.
- Wylde Flowers – A fantastic life simulation game that sets a high bar for the genre in mechanics, presentation, and themes.
- NUTS – An amusing first-person game about setting up cameras to take photos of squirrels, and uncovering an intriguing mystery.
- Dead Cells+ – A modern classic, Dead Cells is an exciting roguelike platforming game where each run feels highly-staked, and each failure helps you gradually improve.
- The Gardens Between – An incredibly unique puzzle adventure game about two friends, set in fantastical dioramas of mundane, everyday childhood things.
- Gris+ – A stunningly beautiful and evocative 2D platforming game that will make anyone who walks by turn their head to watch.
- Dandara: Trials of Fear – A dynamic Metroid-style action platformer where you can only move by bouncing onto floors, walls, and ceilings.
- South of the Circle – A beautiful and highly emotional narrative adventure game.
- Mutazione – Possibly some of the best vibes in video games, Mutazione is a mix of narrative adventure game and garden tending simulation, with an incredibly unique world and characters.
- A Monster’s Expedition – A cute and absolutely brain-melting ‘Sokoban’-style puzzle game that will have you cheering when you finally work out a solution.
- Manifold Garden – A wonderful and visually stunning first-person puzzle game that channels M.C. Escher.
- Fantasian – The latest game from Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, which has a lot of neat, new ideas for the Japanese RPG genre.
- Don’t Starve – One of the original and best survival games.
- Overland – An excellent turn-based tactics game with roguelike elements, themed around a post-apocalyptic road trip across the USA.
- Thumper – A sensory assault of a rhythm action game (or rhythm violence game, as the developer puts it) that is as thrilling as it is terrifying.
If you’re familiar with video games, you may recognise a lot of these titles, either because they broke out of the indie scene and into the mainstream on PC and consoles, or because they come from notable publishers like Devolver Digital and Raw Fury. Some of these games are definitely all-time favourites, no matter what platform you play them on.
The Apple TV App Store game ecosystem
It goes without saying that the Apple-owned and controlled game subscription service is full of nicely curated titles, where everything works fairly seamlessly, given they’ve all been specifically designed to work within the Apple ecosystem. It’s what they’re known for.
But what about the rest of the games available on the App Store, published by third-party developers? The iOS App Store is known for its wealth of games, as well as other mobile subscription services like Netflix Games. But how many of those game developers have thought about Apple TV?
Unfortunately, the selection is certainly nowhere near the abundance of the Apple Arcade selection, let alone the iOS version of the App Store. But with some very light digging, I did come across a number of nice surprise inclusions, many of them strong.
There are a number of stellar, artful independent games – all-time greats like Inside, Transistor, Hyper Light Drifter, and Machinarium. There are also some remastered retro classics like Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2, and Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.
I was very surprised to see Chrono Trigger on there – one of the most influential Japanese RPGs of all time, originally released on the Super Nintendo. It’s a remastered version – and although I’m a huge fan of the company’s legacy, I’m not in love with how it’s remastered it’s legacy titles – but Chrono Trigger still an important classic, and having it accessible to more audiences is great. If the Apple TV happened to be the only video game console connected to your TV, I’d recommend it.
I was also unsurprised, but very pleased to see a couple of titles from Jackbox Games – makers of irreverent trivia and party game collections that are wildly popular on PC and console.
It makes total sense that these would exist on Apple TV – and I found myself instantly grabbing them. Booting them up on Apple TV to quickly dive into a party game also proved much faster than waiting for a console to boot up, closing the game I was previously playing, and then booting up Jackbox Party Pack 3 (one of the best ones!) or Drawful 2.
While the App Store selection certainly isn’t as healthy as the Apple Arcade selection – I suspect that the actual number of people who have played or purchased games on the Apple TV store in the past few years is relatively low – there are definitely a few strong titles there.
Perhaps in future, now the Apple TV is far more powerful than it once was, we’ll see more games come to the App Store for the device.
The best games for Apple TV on the App Store
Here’s a list of the games I was impressed to see on the Apple TV App Store, games that I personally love and would recommend to anyone.
- Chrono Trigger – An all-time great, innovative Japanese RPG classic from the golden age of Squaresoft, creators of Final Fantasy.
- Drawful 2 – A hilarious spin on Pictionary where you use your phone as the controller, and your inability to draw well only adds to the entertainment.
- Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2 – Classic retro platforming games that honestly haven’t been topped since.
- Inside – A dark, moody, and tense puzzle action platformer that will stick with you long after you’re done with it.
- Transistor – A sci-fi action game from indie hit-making studio Supergiant Games, absolutely bursting with cool style, great strategic gameplay, and a strong story.
- Donut County – A lighthearted, humorous indie game where you mischievously control a hole and wreak havoc on a town.
- Hyper Light Drifter – Another incredibly stylish and satisfying action combat game.
- Dead Cells – A modern classic, Dead Cells is an exciting roguelike platforming game where each run feels high stakes, and each failure helps you gradually improve.
- Jackbox Party Pack 3 – A great collection of entertaining party games that will have you in stitches, where you use your phone as the input device.
- Octodad: Dadliest Catch – A chaotic, humorous game where you play an octopus trying its best to do everyday tasks with its slippery tentacles.
- Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated – A remastered version of a beloved PlayStation 2-era platformer.
- Machinarium – A charming, easy-to-play adventure game that’s somewhat of a modern classic, featuring stylish art and a dialogue-free story about a mute tin-can robot.
Steam Link: The killer app
The best app for video games on your Apple TV deserves its own section – but it’s not a game in itself. It’s the Steam Link app.
For the uninitiated, Steam is undoubtedly the most popular digital storefront and launcher for video games on PC and Mac. Created by Valve, the developers behind games like Half-Life, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, and Portal, it’s home to literally tens of thousands of games.
Steam Link is Valve’s remote-play initiative. It previously existed as its own set-top box that you connected to your TV, and it let you beam your Steam games through your home network onto whatever screen it was plugged into, using your existing PC or Mac.
The physical set-top box was discontinued, but the technology lives on in the Steam Link App, which is available on the Apple TV. And it works fantastically.
While cloud and remote-based gaming will never be as good as playing a game natively on the hardware you’re using (because of the latency that exists between your controller input and the action on screen), it can come pretty damn close.
When connecting the Apple TV to my home network via an ethernet cable or 5 GHz Wi-Fi network (there are two models of the Apple TV 4K, one without an ethernet port), the latency is good enough to play light action games. When connecting via a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi frequency, latency is higher, but it’s still good enough to play any game not reliant on reflexes – strategy games like Civilization or XCOM are a good example, or any kind of narrative adventure game.
Just to be clear – the quality of this experience depends on the quality of your home router, and the clarity of wireless signals in your home. Your actual internet service has nothing to do with it
Given the endless quantity of titles on Steam, and the frequency of sales events on the store, which allows you to grow a quality collection of PC games very quickly, it’s probably fair to say that being able to easily access your Steam Library on Apple TV is a very, very good thing.
Cost-wise, the Apple TV 4K (US $129 / AU $219) with an Apple Arcade subscription (US $4.99 / AU $7.99 per month) is certainly a worthwhile option to consider if video games are a key interest point. You will have to factor in the cost of a controller of some kind if you don’t already have one, and the cost of this can vary.
The next natural recommendation for someone getting into video games for the first time would be an Xbox Series S (US $299.99 / AU $499.00), with an Xbox Game Pass subscription (US $9.99 / AU $15.95)
Another alternative would be a Nintendo Switch (US $299.99 / AU $469 for the standard hardware version), though games must be purchased individually.
These three options are not wholly comparable, and each is largely associated with a completely distinct type of gaming experience and suite of games, although there are several titles that cross over between each.
For those who do decide to treat an Apple TV as a video game console, potentially a first video game console, Apple Arcade is a must. The range of different experiences is enough that there’ll undoubtedly be something that suits your personal taste. If the desire to try something more complex arises, there are plenty of excellent options available on the service, too.
The game selection on the Apple TV App Store is very small, but there are a handful of strong titles that aren’t currently available on Apple Arcade, which are definitely worth exploring. However, it’s important to note that Apple Arcade continues to add new games every month, and the service has started including what it calls ‘App Store Greats’ – games available to purchase on the App Store, which are now included as part of the subscription. The excellent Dead Cells and Dandara are two recent examples.
If you do get more ambitious with your video games, the most accessible next step is probably your existing PC or Mac computer, with a high likelihood that whatever game catches your interest will be available on Steam, and ready for you to play either on your computer or in the living room via your Apple TV. You could always just plug your computer directly into your television, but the convenience of that option will vary between people.
Other nice Apple TV features worth mentioning for playing video games are the very quick and seamless connection of AirPods, if you happen to own those – other Bluetooth headphones can be paired with the standard setup method. You can connect up to two sets of Bluetooth headphones, and four wireless controllers.
The Apple TV also seems to manage juggling multiple open apps or games at once, allowing for quick switching – something most dedicated game systems struggle with. It basically feels like running multiple apps on a phone. In addition, when you power on your paired game controller in subsequent usage of the Apple TV, you can quickly switch to the last game you were playing with the press of a button.
Oh, and you can use it to watch video streaming services, too.
I was genuinely surprised by the experience of playing games on the Apple TV 4K, and impressed by the possibilities. When looking at the technical capabilities and the selection of games on offer, as well as the utility that something like the Steam Link app brings to dramatically expand the games you can play via the Apple TV, it’s an impressive prospect for such a tiny box.
Products discussed in this article:
An Apple TV 4K (3rd generation) was provided for the purposes of this review. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.