Has there ever been a console more exotic than the Neo Geo? A rarefied beast in the 90s that boasted near mythical power, its games exuded a certain class; a selection of muscular, meaty 2D action titles, they’re often as beautiful to behold today as they’ve ever been. And they’re much easier to behold now than ever before, too, seeing how ubiquitous ports of Neo Geo classics have become. I don’t think there’s an appliance in my house that a Metal Slug 3 port isn’t available for – not that that’s a bad thing, of course.
There’s been one Neo Geo classic that has, to this day, remained a little more elusive. Windjammers has never enjoyed a home port, the rights to this magnificent 1994 sports game dispersed when developer Data East went bankrupt in 2003 and never properly taken up elsewhere. Not that it’s harmed its popularity, and its relative scarcity has only added to the allure; there’s still that exotic veil to a game that’s become a cult classic in recent years.
That cult status is earned, and then some. Windjammers is, in essence, what happens when Pong meets Street Fighter, with a slim selection of gloriously overstated characters, each with access to their own small set of special moves, facing off as they fling a frisbee between each other in a series of small, self-contained arenas. Get that frisbee past your opponent to score, with more points netted for hitting certain parts of the back netting. And that’s it. Simple, right?
And yet, 20 years on from its original release and a decade on from when I first played it, I still keep coming back for more. This is far from the prettiest Neo Geo game, but its aesthetic is still delicious; all wraparound reflective sunglasses, palm trees and dancing green and yellow geometry in its graphic design. It’s exquisite, but that’s almost besides the point.
There’s something intoxicating about a Windjammers match, its action a blur of kinetics and desert chrome style. It’s the essence of the 90s arcade video game distilled until it’s at it its most narcotic, and I’ve had countless nights lost while huddled around a candy cabinet with a friend and my own MVS copy.
There are depths to be found here, whether it’s in the intricacies introduced by the six courts or what happens when you begin to master the curve shot, the specials and the counter. That’s when Windjammers gets seriously quick, and when Windjammers players get deadly serious. It can offer a high like no other, and I honestly think it’s as good as competitive gaming gets.
All of which is at the heart of DotEmu’s port, which does well not to touch the fundamentals while building out Windjammers where it counts. This French outfit has got an enviable track record when it comes to handling past masters, from ports of classics such as R-Type to, more recently, its involvement with LizardCube for the insanely brilliant Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Chalk this one up as another victory for the team.
The original is preserved, with options to play with or without scanlines, or with the curvature of a CRT mimicked. Perhaps more importantly, the feel has been preserved perfectly – DotEmu recruited some members of the small competitive scene that’s stayed faithful to Windjammers to ensure that this port stays faithful too, and coming to it fresh from the MVS original I couldn’t detect a pixel out of place.
What’s added is a fairly robust online that only helps underline Windjammers’ competitive credentials. There’s ranked and casual play, all complemented by a new character select screen that adds in some new pixel art while remaining utterly faithful to the spirit of the originals. Being able to play competitive Windjammers at a whim is a wonderful thing – but even more wonderful is the fact that it’s now easier than ever before to get together with a friend and fall under this game’s exquisite spell.
The only thing that’s missing here? That Data East logo in all of its desert chrome glory, something that’s been unceremoniously cut from the title screen. It’s an excision I can live with, I think, in what’s otherwise a gloriously handled port of a 90s arcade masterpiece that’s every bit as dazzling today as it was back then. It’s been polished up, but at its heart this remains a slightly scratchy, bluntly simplistic sports game that still exudes a magic of its own.