Like any subscription service, Apple Arcade has had a tough task since it launched in 2019. It wasn’t just that it had to convince iOS device owners to pony up for another monthly subscription — it also had to give them a good reason to stay subscribed. The gaming service has been through a few pivots to accomplish that, from including mobile classics to reportedly moving its focus to games with more long-term engagement.
Apple’s strategy seems to be shifting again, and you can see that in its latest game, Air Twister. Created by video game legend Yu Suzuki, it’s a gonzo space shooter that’s truly unlike anything on the market today. The psychedelic game has players soaring around giant mushrooms, shooting desert manta rays, and riding on the back of a carp – all while Queen-like art rock anthems play in the background.
Air Twister is a sign that Apple might be taking a page out of another popular streaming service’s book: Netflix.
Air Twister is essentially a spiritual successor to 1985’s Space Harrier, another title Suzuki famously worked on. It’s an on-rails arcade shooter where players fly, shoot, and dodge their way through 12 stages. Like Space Harrier, players will dodge multicolored energy pellets, shoot down geometric shapes, and take on giant bone dragons.
The key difference is that this is a mobile game meant to be played on touch devices. The main hook is that players swipe their finger across the screen to lock on to rows of enemies, taking them all out with homing shots. Blasting an entire group of monsters grants players stars, a currency that’s used to unlock cosmetics, weapons, health, and more perks that’ll make the next run easier.
It’s very much a classic arcade shooter, which might be off-putting to some modern players. A successful run takes about 30 minutes, but mastery is the name of the game. Players will go through the same set of stages multiple times as they grind for stars and build toward the perfect run. There are a few other unlockable modes to switch things up, like a minigame where players tap on numbered boxes in the right order, but the bulk of the package is built around the same sequence of levels.
That can get repetitive, but I’m finding it incredibly addictive. With the runs being as short as they are, I find myself booting the game up once or twice a day and knocking out another attempt. The upgrade system adds some noticeable progression as I get a little better each time. That gives it a leg up over classic shooters, which rarely ever had a mechanism for helping players improve (you had to drop more quarters to get better). It’s a smart way to modernize an old genre, giving it longevity beyond the age-old leaderboard chase.
The core gameplay is a nice throwback to the arcade era, but Air Twister is most notable for its completely bonkers style. The game is a series of psychedelic paintings come to life, as if it was developed during a mushroom-fueled haze at Burning Man. Each level is filled with trippy imagery, from an Alice in Wonderland-like garden to a sky filled with floating houses carried by balloons. There are a few cutscenes throughout to move the story along and each one is more jaw-droppingly weird than the last.
All of that is before mentioning the completely wild original soundtrack from art rock composer Valensia. Symphonic rock underscores everything, from menus to levels, making the game feel like a full-blown rock opera. A few days in, I caught myself singing along as I was in a menu grabbing new upgrades.
I can’t imagine any major publisher releasing a game like Air Twister in 2022. It’s the kind of creative swing that just feels too out there. And that’s where I see Apple Arcade perhaps taking some cues from Netflix’s now-waning golden age.
At the streaming service’s peak, Netflix had begun investing money in ambitious auteur projects. It produced a string of awards-worthy films during the late 2010s, from Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. For a time, it felt like Netflix was eager to give out blank checks to celebrated directors, allowing them to make whatever dream project they wanted.
Apple Arcade seems to be doing the same. Air Twister very much feels like Apple sat down with Yu Suzuki, an industry legend, and gave him free reign to make whatever he wanted. It’s not the first time we’ve seen Apple take that approach either. Fantasian was a fantastic labor of love for Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and World of Demons saw PlatinumGames experimenting with an inventive action game. All of those titles make Apple Arcade more appealing, as it contains left-field pet projects from industry darlings.
As a subscriber, I feel it’s a delightful strategy. Air Twister is sloppily conceived in some respects, but it’s exhilaratingly weird. It feels creatively unrestrained, which is rare outside of the independent scene these days. Despite the problems I have with it, I was eager to log back in day after day and dig further into its strange world. I’d rather play an imperfect game that’s passionately produced than a safe hit that checks all the usual boxes. Apple Arcade is currently providing those experiences more often than its competitors.
Is it a sustainable strategy? Most assuredly not. Netflix is currently walking back its focus on auteur films, reportedly calling them “vanity projects.” I imagine Apple could do the same if games like Air Twister don’t translate to subscriber retention. For now, I’m just going to enjoy this moment while it lasts. If legends like Yu Suzuki keep getting to make games where you mount an elephant and fight a giant clock that shoots other clocks at you, I’ll keep letting my subscription go on another month longer.
Air Twister launches on June 24 for iOS devices via Apple Arcade.