If a publisher or developer neglects one of their cherished IPs for too long, an indie studio will often swoop in with a spiritual successor. This fan-pleasing phenomenon occurred just months ago, with Bomb Rush Cyberfunk filling in for a new Jet Set Radio. But what happens when a franchise’s original creator returns with a spiritual successor? Well, that’s when things get interesting.
Air Twister comes from former SEGA poster child Yu Suzuki, a producer responsible for some of SEGA’s biggest arcade hits. It’s essentially a modern-day iteration of Space Harrier, starring a customisable female lead armed with a magical crossbow. It borrows the lock-on system from Panzer Dragoon – another dormant SEGA franchise – but aside from a stage littered with dragon skeletons, it retains the colourful and dream-like aesthetic of Space Harrier. These psychedelic sights are accompanied by a very distinct musical score that’s also a homage. This time it’s the rock/opera hybrid band Queen, with several familiar riffs lifted from Bohemian Rhapsody. It suits the dream-like nature of the experience well, complete with a rousting vocal track that helps ready for a boss fight.
What we have here is a modern take on the classic arcade formula. Air Twister is intended to be tough, requiring numerous retires to finally beat – it isn’t something you’ll see the ending of on your first attempt simply by adding more credits. Instead, it’s something to chip away at. Initially, the health bar is small and the default weapon weak, only able to lock-on to a few enemies – the odds are stacked high, and just two continues are provided.
The idea is to spend accumulated stars, the in-game currency, on upgrades via a 2D map screen resembling a board game. Each ‘square’ unlocks something new, be it a heart piece, cosmetic item, new weapon or upgrade, an extra lock-on target, or a piece of armour that can deflect certain attacks. Even if you only make it halfway through the game, enough stars are usually acquired to unlock a dozen items, with each helping chances of survival on the next attempt.
Twelve stages feature, two of which are bonus rounds set in deep space, and there are ten different bosses to overcome. Stages last just 2-3 minutes, and the bosses take just as long to whittle down. Not only must you avoid incoming fire, with the camera positioned behind the slender blonde heroine, but enemies are prone to smashing into you if they aren’t taken down quickly. Head-on collisions become more common towards the end, seeing the difficulty rise, while the penultimate stage has several ground obstacles to avoid. Specifically, large luminous mushrooms.
Bosses have weak points that can be locked onto, or you can tap the fire button to perform damage more swiftly. Some bosses strike with claws, giving just a few seconds to move out of harm’s way, while others emit searing lasers that home-in on your location. It seems reasonable to say that most players will die during a boss, rather than mid-stage. A couple of stages have unique features, such as tunnels requiring swift reactions, but mostly you’re going to be aiming, shooting, locking on, and manoeuvring out of the path of incoming fire. It’s a demanding experience requiring your attention almost constantly, with most enemies able to take a chunk out of your health bar.
There are a few different weapons to experiment with – designated as beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Every weapon has lock-on, while one emits an explosion, and another generates a pink electrical field that doesn’t seem to do much. The seeker is more beneficial, whizzing around the screen while destroying entire strings of foes.
I was able to see the ending after four hours of play, gradually learning attack patterns to the point where I was able to finish the first three stages without taking a single hit. By this point I had unlocked around 70% of the upgrades – there were still lore items and cosmetics to unlock, but not much else. Stars can be acquired outside of the arcade mode too. In fact, Air Twister has a whole suite of extra modes to dive into. Fluffy Mode is a side-scrolling affair not dissimilar to Flappy Bird, intended to be light-hearted. Turbo Mode doubles the speed, Stardust is set against the clock, Boss Rush is self-explanatory, and Extra Stage takes place in long tunnels.
Then there’s Tap Breaker, a logic mini-game of sorts that involves shooting numbered blocks in order while they spin around. While time limits here are tight, there is something to address – this mini-game becomes easier towards the end, as there are fewer blocks to glance over. Imagine checking a Christmas advent calendar for that day’s door; tough on day one, but a breeze by day twenty.
The presentation elsewhere is a mixed bag. Visually, it’s often dazzling – character models are detailed, colours schemes are vibrant, and the screen is often awash with particle effects that even reflect on the surfaces around you. The boss designs are memorable too, although a couple can be considered goofy – one stage is loosely influenced by Alice in Wonderland, featuring a boss battle against colossal clocks and candle sticks. Indeed, at times Air Twister can be unintentionally amusing. The menu screen, meanwhile, harks back to the game’s roots – it first launched on Apple Arcade, and so there’s a mobile style frontend with chunky icons and daily/weekly log-on rewards linked to challenges. It’s worth mentioning the achievements/trophies too, as there’s one for playing for 50 hours, and another for 100.
Unquestionably, that’s a tall order. I put in 6-7 hours before writing this review and felt like I had seen most of what it had to offer outside of the aforementioned locked cosmetic and lore items. Arcade pursuits may want to try for a one life run while besting high scores – this is intended to be an arcade-style experience, after all. There doesn’t appear to be online leaderboards though, which seems a missed opportunity to extend replay value.
While I found Air Twister’s difficulty fair, getting a little further after every visit to the upgrade map, I imagine dusting yourself off and trying again isn’t everyone’s preferred way to play in this modern age. By the time the credits roll, you’re going to be very familiar with the opening stages. Yet, Air Twister can also be considered a success, scratching that Space Harrier itch while providing a memorable and dreamlike experience. Those weaned on the arcade classics of yore will certainly want to ‘Get Ready’ and soar through its psychedelic skies.
YS Net’s Air Twister is out Nov 10th on all formats. Published by ININ Games. Physical releases are available for Switch and PS5. It first released on Apple Arcade in 2022.