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Review: Windjammers 2

21 Jan 2022

Some may accuse me of clinging to nostalgia, but I still think there’s still value in the formula of certain simplistic old school arcade game mechanics. There’s something appealing about the ability to quickly understand how to play and be able to hone your skills as you do so. I’m sure it’s also fun as a developer to take the concept of a well known gaming classic and mold it into something that’s just as good as its influence, if not better. Back in the 90s, developers at Data East thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take the core concept of the simple arcade classic Pong and turn it into something a little more deep than just volleying a square “ball” back and forth on the screen. You can only go up from there, right? Turn the ball into a flying disc and the paddles into people and you’ve got yourself Windjammers.

Dropping into arcades when such a business model was still viable on a mass scale, the appeal to this game essentially relied on the “simple to learn but hard to master” angle that many arcade games were keen to use at the time. Much like the classic game it drew influence from, the straightforwardness of it all was what I think drew people to these cabinets back in the day. Sure it took a little bit of time to get your bearings on how things work, but once you got the hang of things it was a blast to play. There was also the fact that the graphical presentation was pretty striking for the year it came out. Never mind that gaming at the time was on the cusp of primitive 3D graphics, Windjammers would definitely catch your eye if you walked past it. It’s not a subtle game.

While the concept of porting arcade games to consoles is nothing new, most modern gamers might not have heard about the original until it was ported to the eighth generation of consoles thanks to the folks at DotEmu. While longtime fans were happy to see a classic game grace a modern generation, the magic that they felt in the arcades was now being experienced by a new group of gamers. The combination of new and old fans meant that there was interest in a sequel, so the same folks that helped bring Streets of Rage 4 to life got to work on continuing what the now defunct Data East started.

Developed and published by DotEmu, Windjammers 2 will release on PS4 (playable on PS5), Xbox One (playable on Series X | S and will be available on Game Pass), Nintendo Switch, and PC (playable on Steam and PC Game Pass) on January 20th, 2022. The Switch version was played for this review.

Flying Discs With Flash and Flair

The base mechanics of either Windjammers game end up being pretty easy to understand. You’re throwing a disc back and forth until someone misses and the disc either ends up in a specific scoring area behind you or you just let the disc fall to the ground. Either one of these outcomes will net you a specific amount of points, until someone crosses the scoring threshold for that set. Win enough sets, and you’ll win the match. With a base explanation like that, it does kind of sound like just another version of Pong. But that’s where most of the similarities to its influence ends.

One of the things that fleshes out the gameplay is that there are multiple ways to send your volley back. The action is meant to be fast, so you’re meant to send this back as quickly as possible. In the original game, this was accomplished by curving the shots, using power moves, and dashing around to keep your opponent from scoring. Sometimes these power moves will send the disc flying straight up, which gives you the chance to send it back using a flashy super move that your opponent may not be able to counter quickly enough. If you throw it hard enough, you can stun your foe. Though the balancing here doesn’t totally set that player at a serious disadvantage.

While these mechanics do add depth to the concept, there are other ways to throw off your opponent without using any super moves. This is mainly accomplished through how you angle your shots. Implementing a semi-fighting-game-input system of sorts, the game encourages you to try angling and curving your shots to finish off your set. Because of this, you’ll often find yourself slamming the disc as hard as you can off the walls of the playing area to potentially score. Occasionally it works, but skilled players will be able to counter this. Curving has a bit of finesse to it as well thanks to the half circle input that it requires.

Since the game won’t let you hang on to the disc for long, oftentimes you’ll have to make quick decisions and make sure you angle yourself in an advantageous way to score. Just this by itself is part of the reason that players latched onto the original as hard as they did. It’s a fast and fun multiplayer experience, and I’m sure plenty of console players who downloaded the original found this to be a fun couch multiplayer game to throw down on whenever you had a free moment.

Really, it should come as no surprise that what made the original such a fun game to play came over to the sequel. Everything from the original is present, and some new mechanics made its way over with a few more wrinkles added in to deepen the fast-paced experience. Non power move additions are lobs, deflections, and smashes. With lobs, it’s basically the disc version of the tennis move, as it’s a high-angled low-powered throw meant to throw the pace off. You can counter it, but tossing a lob can effectively change the pace of the match in the right moment. Deflections are exactly that, and they will send the disc into the air. This is more of a defensive move than anything, as trying to send back a powerful throw is useful in certain circumstances. Finally, smashes are also a bit of a defensive move more than anything. With this move, you can jump in the air and quickly send the disc back into your opponent’s space with the chance to net a dead disc miss score.

I like these additions to the base gameplay, as you have a lot more to work with in the midst of a feverish volley coming at you. While the power moves also make a return, an even more powerful super move is added into the mix as a simultaneous offensive and defensive tool. With the power moves, you can implement ridiculously flashy shots that are often difficult to deflect. While the new super moves are good to use offensively, the defensive deflection that you can also do is pretty damned useful when you see your opponent sending a super-infused power shot in your direction. It’s not always foolproof, but it’s damned helpful.

With this foundation, this makes both the single player and multiplayer experience a fun time for a small asking price. True to its roots, the single player arcade mode will have you playing on different environments with their own playing surfaces. More than just an art swap, some courts do implement unique elements like dynamic scoring areas and split nets. The base difficulty is a bit more difficult than modern games tend to be now, but mastery of the gameplay will get you up to speed soon enough. One run is not exactly a long affair, so the replayability is high with the different attributes of the expanded roster (expanded to ten, up from six). Those preferring to be nimble are well represented, as well as those who prefer extra power instead. No character is particularly broken, but a little experimentation may be good for those finding their style.

Really, the big draw here is the multiplayer. Big surprise, right? Since a match doesn’t take long at all, sitting down and tossing discs back and forth with a friend is where I feel this will see the most traction. I’m happy to see that people are starting to warm up to the concept of couch multiplayer again, and I’m not surprised that DotEmu didn’t forget either. While the game is coming to every modern platform available, I feel that Switch owners will get a hell of a lot of traction based on the hybrid nature of the console. The controls are tight and simple, and tossing a Joycon to a buddy to squeeze in a match or two in the right ciricumstances has some serious spontaneity value. Online play is also included here, but wasn’t available at the time of review. Hopefully, it should come out decently enough. But I’m happy they didn’t forget the people who enjoy competing with others online.

The big question that some may be asking is whether or not the gameplay adds enough to justify having a sequel at all. Honestly, I feel confident that it’s a satisfying update to some already compelling mechanics. Retaining the “easy to learn and hard to master” aspect definitely works in its favor, and what’s added here doesn’t fundamentally change what made the game a hit to begin with either. I admittedly had a bit of a learning curve figuring everything out, but with enough playtime I found myself finding a comfortable groove. Longtime fans can exhale, as DotEmu knew what they were doing with this and did a smashing job keeping things familiar yet fresh.

Sun Soaked Smashing

One of the advantages the Neo Geo platform had in comparison to its home console competitors would be the detailed 2D graphics. Given that this released on superior hardware in comparison to the Genesis/MD and Super Nintendo, people found themselves attracted to the fluid motion and flashy graphics. Nothing was fundamentally changed about this when DotEmu ported that game over to the eighth generation of consoles. Though that retro flair that comes with games like this still holds up. If anything, the art direction for the sequel could have very easily rested on those retro graphics like so many retro revival games of this era have done.

Instead, they decided to go in a much more Streets of Rage 4 direction in regards to the graphical presentation. Much of the praise I had for the graphical style of that game does apply here as well. Everything here is animated in a fully hand-drawn style, and the bright colors of the environments blend in well with the animations as a result. Make no mistake, they nailed the vibe of the original here. While it may not have that distinct Neo Geo feel mixed with the graphical eccentricities of being paired with a CRT monitor, it looks good on modern TV panels and is just as flashy as the original found itself to be. I’m honestly loving that more games are taking the hand drawn approach these days, as it’s simultaneously visually striking while also not being taxing on modern hardware. I never found myself experiencing frame dips or any sort of struggling on the part of my Switch, which is great.

Really, the amount of detail in the visual presentation is above and beyond what you’d expect from something with a twenty dollar asking price. I’m hoping that this visual style doesn’t die out anytime soon, because I do quite enjoy what was accomplished. In between the flashy 2D effects and the fluid animation, it just feels right to say that the care in the presented art style just feels right. This approach of keeping one foot in the past while also taking advantage of modern technology works out for the game, as it definitely looks the part.

The adherence to the vibe of the original extends to the audio presentation as well. Certain musical stings from the original are present here, and brief enough to not feel like a total fallback onto nostalgia. Though, overall, the music went for the 90s aesthetic it spawned from. Obviously, that isn’t a bad thing. But the game does acknowledge this and makes it pretty clear that they tried to angle this as something that would have been released as a sequel in the early 2000s instead of the early 2020s. Given that people were still sort of clinging to the prior decade in that era, it’s not much of a stretch to hold onto that aesthetic. Paired with some simple voice acting that wouldn’t be out of place in an arcade of that era, the overall audio aesthetic went for a simple but reverent vibe and nailed it.

Which is what I would say about the overall presentation, honestly. DotEmu has been doing some good things in the 2D space, and I’m happy to see that they’re still giving hand drawn art some loving care with this game. They may be going in a more pixel art direction with the upcoming TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge later this year, but I’m really hoping that they keep going with hand-drawn 2D games in general. They’re such a welcome addition to the space, and this fan of hand drawn animation appreciates their efforts in keeping this alive in the game space.

Winning in the Clutch

Playing Windjammers 2 often feels like driving a tuned up version of a classic car. Sure, there are some more things that make the overall experience better. But at the end of the day, you’re still in the driver’s seat of a solid experience. Does that dilute the experience at all? I can’t say that it does, and that feels good to say. What’s out here is still as fun as the original, and the subtle tweaks are ones that just make sense.

The folks at DotEmu obviously cared about what they were doing here, and that by itself is worth consideration. They wanted to put out at least a worthy sequel, and I feel like they did that at bare minimum. This game is not a drastic evolution of its forebears, nor did it have to be. Those looking for a fun pick up and play game will find a lot to love here, and with good reason. Windjammers 2 is a worthy sequel, and a damned fun multiplayer experience.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by DotEmu for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of DotEmu.