There’s a lot going on in Air Twister. The arcade-style shooter from legendary designer Yu Suzuki is out today on Apple Arcade, and it pushes players through a strange fantasy world full of armored birds, flying squids, skeletal dragons, floating cities, and evil clocks. For Suzuki, who is best known for his work at Sega on games like Space Harrier, Shenmue, and Virtua Fighter, it was a chance to build a fantasy universe full of things he loved. “It’s an amalgamation of all of the different things that I would like to see in a fantasy world,” he tells The Verge.
Air Twister is a classic rail shooter — think Space Harrier or Panzer Dragoon — where players take on the role of a sci-fi princess fighting to save her home world. It has 12 stages, which are relatively short but packed with enemies and punctuated by gigantic boss battles. It feels like a long-lost Dreamcast game but with the modern addition of touch controls; you can highlight swarms of enemies with your fingertips to fire off a volley of attacks. It’s very satisfying.
The gameplay is solid, but the most striking thing about Air Twister is its downright bizarre world. You start out soaring across a vast ocean with massive mushrooms growing out of it before moving on to stages that include a barren moon, a stark mechanical lair, a giant garden full of impossibly huge roses and topiary animals, and a desert full of deadly flying manta rays.
Suzuki describes the worldbuilding as a “collage” of ideas, citing influences like the artist Michael Parkes and the film The NeverEnding Story. “At first, it seems like they may not fit together, and as I was putting these parts together, I wasn’t really consciously thinking about how they would actually fit together in this world,” he explains. “For me, they just naturally fit.” Part of making this work, he says, was focusing on “the texture and the density and the color” of the landscapes and enemies when rendering the visuals. “I wanted everything to feel as if it was aged 100 years,” he explains.
The music was approached in a similar way. Air Twister features a prog rock soundtrack from Dutch composer Valensia; Suzuki says that he’s been a long-time fan of the musician and even “wanted to have the world fit his music.” But Suzuki had no connections to help him get in contact. So he resorted to a random Facebook message — and it worked. “Once he got a feel for the world we were trying to create, he was totally on board,” Suzuki says of Valensia.
Aside from the touch controls, Air Twister does make a few concessions for modern players. In its main mode, you can collect stars, which can then be used to unlock new items, ranging from cosmetic upgrades like new hairstyles or outfits to genuinely useful gear like a protective shield that kicks in when your health gets low. Given that Air Twister can get pretty challenging, this structure is designed to help less-skilled players make it to the end.
That said, the game still has a more traditional arcade mode with varying degrees of difficulty. Just like if you were shoving quarters into an arcade cabinet in the ’80s, here you only have your own skill to rely on — which is how Suzuki initially envisioned the experience. “I wanted to make this like an old-school arcade game,” he says.