A few months ago, Vulture’s Josef Adalian wrote about the budget-streamer renaissance in his streaming-industry newsletter. The piece arrived as we were witnessing the first contraction of the streaming wars, when Disney reported massive operating losses and Netflix hemorrhaged subscribers throughout the first half of 2022. This opened the door for other, tinier companies to leave their mark; Freevee and Tubi and the Roku Channel slipped through the first cracks of the monolith. We aren’t at a comparable tipping point with the still-nascent games-subscription field, but Netflix’s ascending games business is mirroring the strategy of those smaller fish. Yes, Microsoft and Sony might be going to war with their exclusives, but you can still build a sizable audience by offering a couple of free phone games to pair with a new season of Stranger Things.
Netflix Games is available to everyone with a Netflix subscription. It can be accessed exclusively through the Android and iOS apps — yes, this is a small-screen operation — and it has collected a tasteful suite of mobile games from third-party publishers that are all free to play. Netflix hinges its pitch on the promise that its catalogue is free of microtransactions, thus removing one of the more pernicious qualities of the App Store genre. That’s an intriguing premise! Nobody likes to be stonewalled on level five because they haven’t yet collected enough Sapphires to proceed. Our recommendations include legitimate action-RPG standouts as well as the most dulcet, low-stakes puzzles your phone is capable of producing. Don’t look now, but Netflix is already shaping up to be a contender.
Moonlighter takes us into the inner lives of the wayward souls who populate our favorite RPG adventures. After all, when the hero is off saving the world, someone has to run the shop back in town, right? That’s the premise here. You take control of an old man who is trying to make an income in a universe where everyone’s job involves fighting monsters and exploring dungeons. At night you schlep out to the eerie catacombs and plunder in-demand materials, and in the day you set those newly acquired munitions at a competitive price for your deluge of customers. It’s a cute joke that’s morphed into a surprisingly robust gameplay formula, and if you’re looking for something on Netflix’s service with more of a strategic bite, this is your best bet.
Exploding Kittens made waves back in 2015 with one of the most shockingly successful Kickstarter campaigns ever run. Designers Elan Lee and Shane Small raised nearly $9 million for their silly little card game, in which five players dodge a feline timebomb waiting to detonate somewhere in the deck. (To put that in perspective, they were initially asking for only $10,000.) The duo has iterated on Exploding Kittens with a variety of expansion packs and promos, culminating with an animated series based on the game coming to Netflix later this year. Naturally, the streamer also brought a digital version of Exploding Kittens to its games division, so you can be fully caught up on all the lore before the franchise glues to the algorithm for good.
Here’s a hot take: More games need to take inspiration from the ancient Atari classic Breakout. I mean, who doesn’t like smashing up bricks with an all-powerful orb? Why was that idea left behind in 1976? Thankfully, Netflix offers Shatter: Remastered, which combines the tenets of a 2-D side-scrolling shooter with all of that physics-y, ricocheting goodness. There is so much more meat left on the Breakout bone, you guys. Shatter is a game with honest-to-God boss fights. Go see for yourselves.
Stranger Things 3: The Game
Netflix’s crown jewel is well represented in the company’s upstart games division. Stranger Things 3: The Game gives Hawkins, Indiana, a gorgeous pixel-art veneer — immediately bringing to mind the NES classics that the central characters were weaned on. Expect a throwback, arcade-style brawler, as you and your fellow D&D addicts delve deep into the sinister government complexes and grisly parallel dimensions that make up the steadily expanding Stranger Things universe. The game looks and plays like it was made in 1989, which is to say Netflix knocked it out of the park.
I envy anyone who hasn’t yet experienced the splendor of an idle game. It sounds counterintuitive, but there is something inexplicably liberating about an RPG that essentially plays itself. Enter Dungeon Dwarves, a game where you stand back and watch your enterprising group of warriors carve through an endless span of subterranean ghoulies for the rest of their natural lives. All you’re asked to do is upgrade your party’s abilities every once in a while, only to ensure that the numbers keep going up. Idle games are notorious for their onerous microtransactions, but on Netflix’s service, Dungeon Dwarves is completely free. There are no checkpoints that can only be overcome with virtual currency, and that’s the greatest gift of all.
Here is the most casual-friendly offering in the entire Netflix oeuvre, to the point that it should be recommended to every mom across the country. Based on the outrageously pleasant Instagram comic of the same name, Krispee Street blows out the Where’s Waldo formula to a massive panorama. You’ll be poring over landscapes rendered in the easygoing pastels of the source material, trying to single out whatever character you’re tasked with finding. It’s about as breezy as it gets, which makes Netflix a perfect home.
Ojiro Fumoto broke onto the indie scene with Downwell, an aggressively lo-fi arcade shooter in which an intrepid explorer free-falls through a massive cave network, doing their best to ricochet off enemies to stay alive. Poinpy is Fumoto’s next game, and it brightens up the color palette quite a bit. This time we’re lost in a distinctly Miyazaki-ish panorama, studded with shiny berries and convenient platforming ledges, as we try to hoist ourselves upward towards the stars while keeping a great blue beast below our feet satiated. It must be fed with the grist we find along the way, because if we don’t, it might just swallow us whole. Poinpy is a clever flip on Fumoto’s previous formula — get this, we’re going up instead of down — and it hides a gnarly skill curve below its cutesy exterior. Yes, it is possible to become really good at Poinpy.
If you are of a certain age, you probably have a lot of memories playing rinky dink, Flash-based mini-golf games on sketchy dial-up connections. Wonderputt Forever pays homage to that lost tradition. Here are a series of short, colorful courses, each delectably lo-fi, which soften the blow whenever you fail to save par. Like all great mini-golf games, you’ll pivot from rolling fairways and blanketing sand traps to, say, the far-off reaches of space. If you like games that can double as a screensaver, Wonderputt Forever is right up your alley.
For the last decade, Riot Games has focused all its attention on League of Legends, the hugely popular multiplayer juggernaut that’s become synonymous with esports. But recently, Riot has started freeing up some of its bandwidth to work with third-party studios on smaller, offbeat projects — projects that don’t necessarily need to be the most popular game in the world. One of those is Hextech Mayhem, a rhythmic platformer where you’re asked to time all of your jumps to the kickdrums and downbeats. Once the tempo gets into your brain, it won’t let go. If you watched Netflix’s Arcane and have become curious about the eccentric contours of the League of Legends universe, Hextech Mayhem is a great place to start. At the very least, teammates aren’t going to be yelling at you over voice chat.
Sometimes a mobile game comes along with such a stupidly simple premise — think Flappy Bird or Desert Golfing — that it somehow transcends its meager trappings and becomes euphoric. That’s the appeal of Shooting Hoops, a game that asks you, over and over again, to flick a basketball into a rim. Nothing more, nothing less. You will not be surprised to know that this is difficult, tedious, and impossible to put down. We cautiously recommend Shooting Hoops, because there is a decent chance that this game ruins your life.