Air Twister

Air Twister - Apple Arcade, PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch (2022)

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Yu Suzuki was attached to many of Sega’s high profile arcade games like Hang-On, Space Harrier, and OutRun, all using fancy 3D sprite scaling technology. He then shook up the gaming world with Virtua Fighter, then moved onto Shenmue, an expensive failure that resulted in his demotion. But having since left Sega for his own ventures, he’s returned to his roots with Air Twister, a 3D rail shooter which barely hides that it’s a modernized Space Harrier.

The comparisons are numerous, though subtly changed a bit to avoid stepping on Sega’s intellectual property. Rather than a sunglasses-wearing blond guy, you control blond lady Princess Arch, another flying warrior, defending her world AIR from invading aliens. Enemies will look familiar, including various floating geometric shapes, long-tailed dragons, jellyfish, along with foes like flying elephants. Each of them flies onscreen with a little sound effect, floating around in formation before lobbing bullets and flying away. The first level opens with a narrator yelling “Protect your planet. Get Ready!” and strong attacks will send Arch flying the ground, accompanied by an echoing scream.

Of course, the Super Scaler games never quite went away, they just evolved as the industry moved to 3D, including games like Treasure’s Sin and Punishment, Nintendo’s Star Fox, and Sega’s own Panzer Dragoon. On the other hand, Air Twister feels closer to its roots, most closely mimicking Space Harrier with only a handful of improvements. The most useful is the lock-on laser, which automatically targets any enemy that flies in front of you and unleashes a multi-projectiles blast when you unleash it. You also get the ability to slow down time for a few seconds, which is especially handy for boss fights. Whenever you fight a boss, you hop onto a flying animal friend, ranging from swans to dragons, though this doesn’t change much of anything. But you won’t find anything like Panzer Dragoon’s Berserk attacks, Star Fox’s branching paths, or Sin and Punishment‘s dodge rolls.

But Air Twister nails the original Space Harrier’s weirdness in ways that even its official sequel, Planet Harriers, never quite managed. The first stage takes place over an expansive ocean, with the only scenery being enormous, towering mushrooms. The original Space Harrier’s visuals were pretty abstract since they were limited by 1980s technology, but this feels like a perfectly appropriate adaptation of what feels like, even though it’s missing the trademarked checkered floor. The third stage has a virtual reality, Tron-like aesthetic, with colored levels amidst a dark backdrop. The fourth is a fanciful garden filled with enormous roses, filled with perfectly trimmed plant sculptures. The game saves the best for last in the final stage, which is rendered with flat-shaded polygons, like something out of a Sega Model 1 arcade game. Each stage has a dominant color scheme, like in Space Harrier, which really gives each level an identity even though a few stages repeat scenery and enemy types.

Air Twister was originally created as an Apple Arcade title that was meant to run on smartphones and tablets, so from a technical perspective, it’s not always the greatest. But the visual design does a whole lot of heavy lifting to make up for it; imagine that it’s a lost Dreamcast game that’s been remastered in HD, and it becomes perfectly acceptable.

The music is also similarly weird, coming from Dutch musician Valensia, who’s essentially created an original Queen tribute album for this game. Complete with bombastic vocals and silly lyrics, it’s so absurdly appropriate for a game where you fight against enormous antique clocks.

At twelve levels, Air Twister is pretty lengthy for an arcade-style shooter, maybe too lengthy considering there’s no way to save progress, with a whole playthrough taking roughly forty minutes. The stages are well paced, but some of the boss battles drag on a little too long, since they often hide into patterns where you can’t target their weakpoints. Two of the twelve stages are also bonus levels where you just target fast-moving enemies, a little disappointing considering the Space Harrier stages where you rode the friendly, furry dragon. The first half of the game isn’t terribly difficult, but after the sixth stage it warns you that things are going to get harder, and it ain’t joking. Enemies formations are more numerous, bullets are denser, and bosses no longer telegraph their hardest hitting attacks, which can feel pretty cheap until you learn their patterns.

Air Twister is more generous than most arcade games in giving you a life meter, allowing you to take several hits before getting a game over. You also get two continues before you need to start over. But it’s also here where it shows its origins as a mobile game, with tons and tons of unlockables. Every enemy formation you destroy will grant you a star, which in turn can be used as currency to unlock things on an enormous board. Some of these affect the game, like extending your life meter, allowing you to target more enemies with the lock-on laser, extending how often you can use the time-stop ability, or giving shields that can absorb certain attacks. You can also get new weapons, though they don’t differ too much from your main weapons.

Along with these are plenty of ways to customize Arch, including changing her outfit, hair-style, and face paint. Go ahead, give her a witch hat with cat face makeup and a broom! There’s a lot of fluff to unlock here, as it’s unlikely you’ll ever use any of the minor color or design variations, but along with the score attacks, it’s a good way to keep you engaged beyond the couple of hours it’ll take you to beat the main game. Also included are several minigames and extra stages, some of which are pretty inscrutable, but let you earn extra stars outside of the main game.

While it may lack the depth or grandeur of other rail shooters, Air Twister is still pretty remarkable, especially considering that it’s emulating a game released nearly forty years prior and still manages to feel fresh.

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