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Augmented reality has a ton of practical uses, like telling you where to walk or letting you visualize what a toilet or Ikea bookcase might look like in your living room. But what about having a little fun? AR lets you do that, too, with games! To some extent.
I spent some time over the last week playing AR games, and, well, I tested a lot of very bad ones. Ones that were boring, or finicky, or required me to move around more than I was feeling at that particular point in time, or required a large amount of open space in my small Brooklyn apartment. The joy and the frustration of AR is that it forces you to interact with the actual world around you instead of just tapping at your phone and feeling a rush of endorphins. That’s a tough balance to strike! These were the good games.
If you want a good idea of what AR can do, Pokémon Go is the gold standard. The game transposes the addictive monster-hunting franchise to your phone, allowing you to catch Pokémon standing virtually right in front of you, and then use them to fight for control of real-world locations. It’s a game that enhances your surroundings instead of tearing you away from them. If you want a Pokémon–free version of this, check out Ingress.
Simple but fun. In Stack AR, you need to time your taps so that discs sliding across the screen land directly on top of each other, forming a tower. Mistime your taps and the area gets smaller, but settle into a groove and you’ll hear “Do-Re-Mi.” You don’t need to play it in AR, but if you do, you can watch your tower rise out of the floor and see the full result in all its glory when you eventually lose.
Splitter Critters is another game you don’t have to play in AR, but it’s nice if you do. The puzzle game requires you to bisect the screen and shift platforms in order to help an alien get to his ship. In AR, each puzzle is presented as a diorama, and the game is given literal depth. The controls can be a bit unwieldy as your perspective shifts along with the environment, but you’ll get the hang of it. I believe in you.
In a similar but more story-focused vein, Shadows Remain is an AR horror game that requires the player to inspect different dioramas and solve puzzles in order to find a missing family. The environments are impressively detailed but not to the point that you’ll get lost.
If you liked Monument Valley, the M.C. Escher–esque puzzle game that plays with perspective, you’ll probably like ARise. The game requires you to circle a virtual environment, literally positioning your camera to form platforms and help a hiker get to the end of each level. Bear in mind, this might involve a lot of crouching, so watch your knees.
Conduct AR! (get it??) tasks you with making sure the trains run on time. Detailed virtual train tracks appear in AR, and by stalling trains and flipping switches, it’s your job to make sure every locomotive gets to the right place. Just make sure you’ve got enough floor space so you don’t stumble into any furniture like I did.
My Tamagotchi Forever
If you crave an official AR Tamagotchi experience, this game works well enough. Most of the game doesn’t use AR at all, but I managed to find one game, Hide and Seek, that lets you survey a little diorama over your town and find your tiny charges. (This isn’t related to AR but I can’t not mention that this game requires you to tap on moaning Tamagotchi to make them poop.)
Follow Me Dragon
If you want a more AR-focused Tamagotchi–like piece of software, try Follow Me Dragon. It’s simple: you feed your dragon cookies and candy and buy them costumes. I gave my dragon a top hat and a monocle and then took a photo of it standing on my unkempt bed. Fantastic.
If you’re looking for a real showpiece, check out The Machines (cool title, lol), which Apple demoed onstage in 2017. Just clear off your table and gather a few friends around it to play this impressively detailed robot combat game. Most AR games are solitary, asynchronous experiences, but The Machines gives you a decent excuse to try out some new tech and roast your friends.