Developer: Data East
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
The Neo Geo was always an unobtainable treasure when I was growing up. Through gaming magazines and occasional bouts of Fatal Fury on the Gamesmaster TV show, I became aware of this powerful beast of a console which exhibited some of the slickest and most well-animated action titles I had ever seen. No-one I knew could afford one, nor had I even seen a Neo Geo home console in person.
My only exposure to these near-mythical games was through a 4-slot MVS cabinet at a local game arcade, which featured, at different points in time, such classic titles as Metal Slug, Art of Fighting and, most excitingly, Windjammers. I say most excitingly, because we already had home versions of Contra and Streetfighter already, both of which compared favourably with the aforementioned titles. But there was nothing else quite like Windjammers, and there still isn’t.
Its notoriety has only grown over the years, being one of the few Neo Geo titles to never receive a home console port, aside from an all-too-brief stint on the Japanese Wii Virtual Console. But French outfit DotEmu (one of the emerging bastions of retro game preservation) has managed to get around any lingering rights issues and finally been able to re-release the game. I say re-release, rather than re-master, as DotEmu have changed very little from the original version, and for that we should be thankful.
Other than adding obligatory leaderboards and a handy online multiplayer mode, this is very much the Windjammers anyone who has had the pleasure of playing it before will know and love. There are a few graphical filters you can choose to apply if you wish, including scan lines and CRT curvature, but the original pixel art has been left exactly as it was; much to the delight of those of us who despise the lifeless feel that is produced when pixels are smoothed out in certain HD makeovers.
For the uninitiated, Windjammers is like Pong on steroids, played on a beach volleyball court, with lots of spandex and sunglasses – what’s not to like? Put simply, two competitors stand either side of a net, trying to fling a frisbee beyond their opponent, scoring points by landing it in the end zone behind them. A selection of six international superstars each have three marginally different special throws, and six different courts, each with their own quirks and/or environmental hazards such as pinball-style flippers, challenge the players in different ways.
Different shot speeds, lob shots, curved shots and special power shots can all be employed to mix up the action, with a surprising amount of depth to the gameplay once all of the nuances of each throw style are learned. This is certainly a game that is quick and easy to pick up, but more challenging to master. The simplicity of the two-button control system betrays the strategy of shot choice and taking advantage of the scoring zones or barriers that are different on each of the six courts, to successfully defeat each foe, all of who have different speed and power statistics to take into account.
The truly frantic rallies begin once you and your opponent are both using curved throws to bend the disc around the court, and defending players are diving to and fro to block incoming shots. This high-octane feel of the gameplay seems to have remained very much in tact from the arcade original, with neither the controls nor the graphics ever letting the conversion down. The neon-clad nineties aesthetic perfectly complements the beach sport setting and the intensity of the action.
Although you can of course play a basic arcade mode against gradually harder and harder computer-controlled challengers, and a couple of basic Bowling and Dog Frisbee mini-games, the real appeal of Windjammers is and always has been the multiplayer matches. The satisfaction of winning a lengthy rally with a well-placed lob or devastating power move is palpable – and just like Pong, Windjammers possesses that really simple but out-and-out competitive style, where you just want to play one more match, to avenge your previous defeat.
There is little more that can be said about such a retro-gaming classic. Windjammers has often been forgotten when lists of arcade masterpieces are compiled, probably due to its lack of recent availability. DotEmu has done a fantastic job of working directly with fans of the original release to not only make it once again available for gaming fans of all ages, but to make sure that none of the nuances or enjoyment of the title got lost in translation. I can firmly state that whilst Windjammers may not be a well-rounded package, packed full with features, it still plays like a dream, looks fantastic and will be one of the best two-player experiences you will have this year.