‘Crossy Road Castle’ is a return to form for Apple Arcade

Apple Arcade hasn’t looked too hot lately. It started out well enough, thanks to a starting lineup that included some flashy titles like Sayonara Wild Hearts and a smattering of titles from well-known brands like Lego. In those early days, it was easy to argue that dismissing Apple Arcade as a mere “mobile game service” was doing it a disservice.

Lately, though? Not so much. That’s not to say there haven’t been some enjoyable games like Doomsday Vault, but few of the new ones caught that award-bait “art house” vibe I championed last June. We’re not even at the six-month mark yet, and just a few days ago you could already find some other outlets penning editorials that all but proclaimed the death of Apple’s gaming service.

I was almost one of them. This month’s Loud House: Outta Control so disappointed me with the way it came off like a stereotypical mobile game that I didn’t even bother to write an Apple Arcade column for the week. When the following Friday came and went without a new Apple Arcade release, even I started to wonder if it was game over for the Cupertino company’s infant gaming service.

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So thank goodness that the new Crossy Road Castle captures some of the excitement of those early days. It’s a followup game to 2014’s wildly popular (and, importantly, recognizable) Crossy Road, and it wears much the same pixelated aesthetic. This time, though, developer Hipster Whale has delivered a platformer that unfolds in a procedurally generated tower with floors that change every time you bounce through it.

You spend each level jumping from ledge to ledge with a member of a cast of unlockable characters that includes everything from a chicken to a “Big Fat Pig,” bouncing on the heads of blocky birds and solving puzzles along the way. Sometimes my chicken would waddle over a button, and I could send the birds plummeting onto spikes below. At other times I’d press switches that’d activate timed platforms, or I’d rocket from platform to platform with the help of yellow cannons. Boss fights even make an appearance. The first one had me chasing a giant bald eagle who plopped eggs and feathers in my general direction while soaring through a rainbow, and I rudely knocked her out of the sky by bumping her wings.

crossy road castle level Leif Johnson/IDG

You can play Crossy Road Castle in portrait orientation on your phone, but I find it’s more satisfying to play in landscape mode. (12.9-inch iPad Pro shown here.)

All the while, I collected coins, the better to replenish my health through a handy vending machine that shows up every 10 levels. Alternatively, I could spend some currency on unlocking new characters or nifty hats.

Sound sort of familiar? It should. Crossy Road might have owed a more than few debts to Frogger, but this might as well be Super Mario Bros. with chickens and doges standing in for Italian plumbers. It captures that feeling even better than Nintendo’s own Super Mario Run, as it’s not forcing you to bound through every level with an unrelenting jog. I didn’t realize how much I wanted something like this from Apple Arcade until it was in my hands.

Even better (in theory), it’s designed for local co-op for up to four players who can play either on the same device with multiple controllers or through Wi-Fi. I suspect it works better on the Apple TV, although I don’t have one on hand so I could try it out. Alas, it’s awkward on the iPhone and iPad when you’re playing on the same device. I may be missing something, but it looks as though one person still has to play with the touch controls while the other three can use whatever controllers are hooked up. (I tried it with a Sony DualShock 4 and the Rotor Riot, and both worked fine while paired at the same time.) Along with the fact that you can’t play with remote Apple Arcade-subscribed friends, it’s one of the few weak points in this colorful castle.