Apple Arcade remains one of the best deals in gaming — even after getting a price bump. Since launch, the service has steadily grown with a mix of original mobile releases and App Store classics, none of which are burdened with the ads or in-app purchases that so often plague smartphone games. 2023 was a particularly strong year for new additions, with everything from daily word games for the Wordle-obsessed to cozy adventures to relax with. If you just picked up a new Apple device, or are using the subscription service for the very first time, here are some great places to start.

Zach Gage and Jack Schlesinger have partnered on a number of great mobile puzzle games — including Good Sudoku and SpellTower, both of which are also available on Apple Arcade — but Knotwords might be my favorite. It combines the structure of a classic crossword puzzle with the guessing inherent in Wordle. You’re presented with a grid that looks like a crossword, but instead of clues, you’re given letters that can only be placed in certain squares. From there, you have to work out the words that fill up the puzzle. Knotwords has a huge number of puzzles, including daily ones that are a perfect companion to your morning coffee.

There was really nothing like Downwell when it first debuted in 2015, and all these years later not much has changed as the game hits Apple Arcade. It’s sort of a platformer, but one that asks you to move down instead of forward. You play as an unlucky pixel art character who is perpetually falling down a well full of platforms and enemies, aided by a pair of boots with guns on them, so that you can both kill bad guys and slow your descent when necessary. Downwell is dark, weird, and very tough — and also very hard to put down once you get into it.

This is probably the best way to unplug without, you know, actually putting down your phone. Japanese Rural Life Adventure may have an extremely literal name, but that also means you know exactly what you’re in for. It’s a laid-back experience in the mold of Harvest Moon, but one streamlined to play on a smartphone. You play as a newcomer to a small Japanese village: first, you need to rebuild your derelict home before eventually moving on to helping rebuild the entire town. There’s fishing and farming and festivals, and you can even take a bath.

Stardew Valley

Speaking of cozy games, the mega-hit Stardew Valley is now on Apple Arcade. For the uninitiated, it’s a sprawling farming / life sim with an incredibly open-ended structure, so that you can do what you like at your own pace. The game originally debuted on PC, but it’s a really great fit for playing on the go, when you just have a few minutes to water your crops or woo the NPC of your dreams.

Hello Kitty Island Adventure

It may sound like a South Park joke, but Hello Kitty Island Adventure is actually a very solid mashup of Animal Crossing with the iconic slate of Sanrio characters. That means you can make friends and customize a home, all while exploring — and restoring — a very cute island. So far, the game has also been updated with new content and events tied to specific holidays, giving you reasons to come back regularly. Also, you can turn into a mermaid.

One of the App Store’s early hits returned this year with a remastered version. The core of Ridiculous Fishing remains the same as always: you use increasingly devious tools to plunge down into the depths of the ocean gathering fish, before eventually flinging them into the air and… shooting them. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s tense and fun in the way the best arcade games tend to be. The new edition has updated visuals, along with a few other tweaks including an in-universe version of TikTok solely about fish.

Sonic Dream Team

It’s been a rough little while for Sonic the Hedgehog, at least when it comes to video games. (The films have surprisingly fared better.) That’s part of what makes Sonic Dream Team such a welcome change of pace. It isn’t a return to form for Sonic but, instead, a nice detour; it’s kind of like what would happen if you crossed Sonic Adventure with Tony Hawk Pro Skater. The levels are full of ramps, half pipes, and rails, and in each mission you’re given a different task. It could be racing to the end as quickly as possible, or it could mean figuring out how to reach every nook and cranny of the level to find hidden items. The stages are bite-sized and the controls are dead simple, making it perfect for getting in a little burst of gaming on the go.

Puzzle & Dragons Story

The Puzzle & Dragons series has been around for a while, and it offers a nice mix of match-3 and RPG gameplay. Imagine Bejeweled, but you’re fighting monsters inside of a dungeon. The Apple Arcade version adds more story elements — which you can probably guess from the title — but the more important change is the removal of microtransactions. The series has a bit of a Pokémon vibe, as you collect monsters to create the ideal team, but in the main game that typically requires spending cash on a virtual gacha machine. With that real-money element taken away, the game is a lot more fun — and even harder to put down.

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