Look, you can’t call yourself a big game system if you don’t have a sports game. Madden, The Show, FIFA, NBA Jam—they’re all games that have been critical to the platforms they appear on. Apple Arcade has been bereft of sports games and particularly bereft of licensed sports games. That means there hasn’t really been an Arcade game where you can play as Gretsky or Rapinoe. But in Ultimate Rivals from Bit Fry Game Studios you’ll be able to play as both characters—at the same time.
The new title—a 2v2 ice hockey game inspired by more action-prone fair like NBA Jam launches exclusively on Apple Arcade tonight. It’s one of the first major titles coming from Apple Arcade since it launched earlier this fall and it feels like a very big deal in quite a few respects.
It’s the first licensed sports game for one. That means you’ll see lots of NHL logos and lots of athletes you’re familiar with. Licensed sports games are big business for game platform developers as they have the same kind of built-in fanbase that you get from a Star Wars kind of game.
Exceptional for Ultimate Rivals is Bit Fry didn’t just secure the rights to one franchise and roster of athletes. It secured the rights to 10 separate licenses across four sports. Bit Fry claims there are 58 playable characters from the NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL, WNBA, and US Women’s National Soccer Team.
The latter two are crucial because women are often excluded and/or ignored in sports games owing to the fact that most sports are dominated by men. There are only six women on the roster for Ultimate Rivals, but that’s certainly still better than no women at all.
So not only is this Apple’s first big licensed sports game, but it has also got an incredible and inclusive roster. None of which matters if the game sucks. I only had thirty minutes with Ultimate Rivals, but I’ll admit to having a fun time playing it on an Apple TV with an Xbox One controller.
The game is pretty simple at a glance. You choose from the roster of 58 athletes. You can pick a forward, a defence player, and a goalie. Each character has their own stats with some being better at taking hits and others being faster and more manoeuvrable. Theoretically, theorycraft could come into play as you try to design a perfect team for your specific playstyle.
Currently, you can only control the forward and defence players, with the goalie functioning as an NPC who blocks shots and punts the puck back down the ice. Yet the goalie could become a playable character in the future.
Your goal is to get the puck and score a goal through passing, checking, and switching between your two playable characters. Every time you check another character or a goalie blocks a shot, green coins are dropped. Pick up enough coins and you can activate a super which is dependent on the primary sport of the athlete. Baseball players will rocket a ball into opponents’ faces, football players will tackle them, while hockey players will freeze opponents in their vicinity and they smash them with the Stanley cup.
My personal favourites are the basketball players, which get a 3-point line made of fire to shoot from. Every goal scored across that line is another 3 points on the leader board.
Right now, there are two modes of play: 1vCPU and 1v1 from randomly selected players on Apple Arcade. However support for playing people you know, and even co-op are expected at some point further down the line.
I only played on Easy mode—because it was a 30-minute trial and my last experience with hockey was eighth-grade field hockey—but it was remarkably fun. It’s clear NBA Jam is an inspiration just as much as Super Smash Bros. or whatever sports game my brother is currently obsessed with. That’s great for people like me, who are not sports fanatics but will play any game if its fun enough.
Ultimate Rivals seems like it could be fun enough. It should be available on Apple Arcade starting tonight. While it will likely trickle down to consoles eventually Bit Fry does note that Apple Arcade will be the exclusive subscription service for Ultimate Rivals, and that it will never be available on Android. A follow-up game, Ultimate Rivals: The Court, is expected in 2020.