Windjammers 2 and the Thrills of Fictional Sport

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I have often considered it an injustice how unwilling most video games are to let us assume the role of a German man who sports not just a mullet and moustache of matching pink, but wraparound shades imbued with a searing tint of sour apple, and who encases his abs in a shell of shock-yellow plastic, before taking to the beach to compete in a Frisbee tournament. Such, it is my joy to report, are the rarefied thrills offered by Windjammers 2—and, in particular, by Klaus Wessel, the German in question.

Also in the offing are Hiromi Mita, from Japan, whose preference for sheer speed is signalled by leggings of sawn-off lycra and a fluttering bandana. Steve Miller, a Brit with light-brown curtains and an eyepatch, hinting at the dark side of the sport—at the dangers of hurling a disc toward your opponent at blinding speed. Then there is Max, the “Canadian Hurricane,” who, with his drooping belly and ropey blonde locks, may well be a relative of Rufus, from Street Fighter IV. Indeed, it would not surprise me if Windjammers 2 was set in the same world; it possesses the same blend of brightness and abbreviation, and a conviction in the passport-stamping power of its title. Capcom wrought a subrational landscape of streets that stretched across all borders, where fists were the lingua franca; and Dotemu, the developer of Windjammers 2, imagines a planet in thrall to the breeze-borne motions of a disc—where courts can be ironed out from the mangled vista of a junkyard, or lightly combed into place on a creamy strip of beach.

Of course, Dotemu, a Paris-based studio, is not the one that dreamt up this place. Principal dreaming was done by Data East, a Japanese developer, and the original game, Windjammers, was released for the Neo Geo arcade system in 1994. Data East closed its doors in 2003, filing for bankruptcy; note here the logo, emblazoned on some of the floors, for the “Flying Power Disc Tournament,” bearing the year 2003. It’s as though Dotemu, despite revivifying the work of an older, defunct team, would prefer to freeze its game respectfully in time, blowing through it and buoying the work of its predecessors on a zephyr of ecstatic tribute.

Windjammers 2

Dotemu ported Windjammers to the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita in 2017 (and to the Switch in 2018), leaving the original art direction, led by Nozu Makoto, untouched. The visual style of the port (whose surface you could bend, mimicking the bulge of an old television screen, or rake with scan lines, in homage to the haze of your memory) was handled by, among others, Simon Périn, who returns as lead artist for Windjammers 2. We are in the arena of the hand-drawn, rather than the richly pixelled, and the flickering 2-D character designs seem to have sprang off the can of a kids’ fruit drink—all Spritely perspiration and fizz. Périn’s style is appealing and clean, pared of the scratchy clutter favoured by Ben Fiquet, the art director of Dotemu’s previous revival, Streets of Rage 4. That game’s lead designer was Jordi Ascensio, who holds the same title here, and who, along with Périn, offers a similar spectacle: free of head-cracking violence, granted, but vested with the purity of another era, and conjured with time-piercing sharpness.

Not that Windjammers 2 is entirely without violence. It may be a game in which your goal is merely to launch a Frisbee past your opponent and into a net—as if Pong were clad in elbow pads and pulled into the nineties—but everything about it suggests a fight. You view the action from overhead, and your moves—the slap, the lob, the leaping interception, the drop shot, and so forth—feel like the special moves in Street Fighter II. If you wish to suffuse the disc with a treacherous curve, you do so with a quarter-rotation of the analogue stick followed by the shot button—precisely the same input used to summon one of Ryu’s Hadouken. Plus, we also have super moves, which gird your character with fire and lap the disc in seething light. And at the end of each match, the loser is shown beaten and bruised, as though a brawl had erupted.

I was reminded, while playing Windjammers 2, of another game, centring on a much bleaker fictional sport—Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, from The Bitmap Brothers. The genius of that work wasn’t just the sport at its heart—a no-holds-barred take on handball, in which the players, bound in blue-grey armour, are free to savage their adversaries in any way they wish. It was in its vision of the sort of crazed and crumbling society that might feed on such a display. “Corruption and violence force the game underground,” we are told in the opening. “Unregulated and ungoverned, the game degenerates into a fiasco.” If only Dotemu’s game could boast a similar fiction, the sort of detail that one used to find in an instruction booklet. No one has surpassed Studio Liverpool in this regard, whose Wipeout series, set around an anti-gravity racing league, was adrift in perfectly pitched backstory: in tales of each racing team—the scandals, the buyouts, the corporate chicanery—told with the tone of gossip and strewn with weightless wit.

Windjammers 2

Mind you, you could argue that Windjammers comes equipped with as much real-life backstory as it needs. Released into a guttering arcade scene, loved intensely, and smouldering on obscure consoles (the Neo Geo AES and the Neo Geo CD), the game’s fate appeared to be sealed. Almost two decades later, in 2012, its embers began to glow, when a Frenchman by the name of Cédric de Saint Riquier created a forum that allowed players, via emulation, to compete online. In that corner of the internet was secreted a community of devoted fans, for whom Dotemu’s 2017 port (in which de Saint Riquier is credited) must have been like a reprieve. For them, Windjammers 2, should it get the audience it deserves, will constitute a return to full blaze—the future and the past, both real and imagined, roaring as one. At last, the Flying Power Disc Tournament is no longer being forced underground, unregulated and ungoverned. 2003 awaits.

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Windjammers 2

  • Release Date: January 20, 2022
    • - 20 January 2022 (PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
  • Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X
  • Genre(s): Indie, Sport, Sports