Windjammers is one of those older games that feels modern, at least in terms of its actual gameplay. It is almost like it was built for esports before esports was a thing, with its core gameplay cooked from a recipe that’s part strategy, part reflexes, and part mechanical skill. Its colorful 16-bit graphics, though built for the NEOGEO in 1994, don’t seem particularly out of place considering how many indie games opt for A-plus retro-graphics as opposed to B-minus 3D modeling. And some of the smaller details—like the feel of the disc crashing into the back of the net, with a slight pause and screen shake to really sell the impact of a goal—are details that make the game come to life as much as any game that might debut today.
It makes sense why it’d get a PS4 port (which can also be played on the Vita once purchased): it’s a colorful, fast-paced, responsive sports arcade game. But for all of Windjammers’ modern-like triumphs, its age shows quite clearly in its lack of variety, customization, and unlockable content, and especially in the one place where it should feel truly modern—online competitive multiplayer.
Windjammers is basically a mix between Pong and Atlus’ Dodgeball games, with a tennis-like rule set. The first player to win two sets wins the match. Sets can be up to 25 points, though the standard amount is 12. On top of that, there’s a time limit of 30, 45, 60, or 99 seconds per set, though standard sets are 60. Restricted to one-on-one versus gameplay, each player takes a side of the court and takes turns tossing a flying disc back and forth over a central net, trying to shoot the disc into the opponent’s goal for three or five points, depending on where in the goal the disc hits.
While this might sound simplistic, there’s an interesting amount of variety available in the kinds of throws you can make. You only need two buttons to do everything, but those two buttons can do a lot, depending on the situation. Square or X will toss the disc in the direction you choose, with the bumper walls giving you even more options for how to approach each throw. On top of that, the longer you hold onto the disc, the slower your throw will be, so it behooves you to think quickly and act even quicker if you want to catch your opponent off-guard. Alternatively, triangle or circle will lob the disc in the air. If a lob drops on your opponent’s side, it’s worth two points, and can be a great way to catch them off-guard, but it’s easily defensible if they see it coming. You can also input a half-circle motion on your left stick right before you throw the disc to perform a curved toss, which can catch your opponent off guard if they aren’t expecting it, though it requires an above-average amount of mechanical skill to pull off.
There is a decent amount of strategy that goes into placing your shots and positioning yourself properly on the court. While you’re holding the disc, you can’t move, but players waiting to receive the disc have a full range of motion on their side. If a disc is just out of reach and you need to make a last minute catch, you can dash with square or X to cover a lot of ground quickly. Or, if you read your opponent’s throw, pressing square or X right before you catch the disc will knock the disc into the air, giving you time to charge up your super move, though the catch is you have to be standing still to achieve this opportunity.
Even super moves come with several variations. Executing a normal toss while supercharged will perform a character specific super move, meaning it’s important to know each of the characters’ special moves and the best ways to shut them down if you want to be able to win. However, pressing the lob button will execute a super lob, which tosses the ball into the air and then causes it to shoot forward when it hits the ground, making it a good option if your opponent is playing close to the net, or if you simply want to force them to position deep in their own half. Finally, executing a curved shot while supercharged will perform a faster, more unpredictable version of a normal curved shot, perhaps making it the most frustrating throw type to defend.
All of these different offensive options you have make for a game that’s ripe for truly competitive one-on-one battles. Even if you don’t have the quickest reflexes or mechanical skill, a solid understanding of the game’s physics and strategic positioning on defense can win games. This makes for gameplay that is frantic and fast-paced but never unfair.
Likewise, each of the six characters (each categorized by their home country) seem fairly balanced, with all six graded on a spectrum of speed versus power: the more powerful the thrower, the slower-moving they’re going to be, and vice versa. The German character, Klauss Wessel, for instance, has a very high power rating but a very low speed rating, whereas the Japanese character, Hiromi Mita, has a very high movement speed with a very low throwing speed. Meanwhile, Loris Biaggi, the Italian character, falls somewhere in the middle. While I mostly focused on the power-throwers, it’s possible to win with any character and it all comes down to personal preference. While Hiromi might have a slower throw speed, that means her curved shots are much more pronounced, whereas Klauss’s throws are so fast the ball barely curves at all.
But this is where Windjammers begins to show its age. You start with only six characters to choose from, and that’s as big as the roster gets. There are no hidden characters to earn, no visual customization, and no items to unlock. Where more modern games would give you something to work towards, Windjammers never gives you a reason to dive too deeply into its “campaign,” which is simply an early Street Fighter-like romp through matches against all six characters (including the one you’re playing as). I don’t want to criticize the game too heavily for this, as multiplayer is certainly the focus of the game, but it would have been nice to unlock new items and maybe even character emotes after playing with every character. While character customization wasn’t in the original game, it is something that more modern players expect, especially in online multiplayer matches.
Other aspects of the game that show its age are the lack of courts. To be fair, each court has a fun, unique gimmick, much like a simplified version of Mario Power Tennis. But in the end, there are only six of them. On top of that, while one-versus-one is always a good time, it would have been nice to see more options. It seems like a doubles mode in this game would be appropriately nutty, though it’s possible the court sizes couldn’t really accommodate such a mode. Still, solo duels get old, and some variety in the amount of players would have kept me playing the game much longer than I had. Again, maybe it’s unfair to judge a port by what hasn’t been added to it, but it definitely leaves the package feeling slight.
What this port does add is online multiplayer. While I didn’t try the Vita version, the PS4 version was fairly stable and ran smoothly for the most part, though I did experience quite a few connection issues and dropped matches the first day I played the game. By the second day, however, everything seemed to be working fine, even while I was using the PS4’s wireless connection.
There are three online modes—casual, ranked, and private matches. Private matches are the only matches where you can adjust the rules and invite friends. Here, you can adjust the score limit, the time limit, and choose which court you’d like to play on. Casual and ranked modes will pit you against another random player. I’m not entirely sure why there are even two modes here, as the rules in casual and ranked are entirely the same, except in casual you might be pitted against a player of much higher (or lower) skill than you. Ranked, on the other hand, does a good job of finding players with a similar rank to your own, and every time you beat another player and earn points to increase your rank, you have the sense that you’re climbing a ladder, which is nice. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the game, matches are so quick that sometimes you might feel like you have very little time to adjust to your opponent’s play-style before the match is already over. On top of that, while you can rematch a player who beats you one time, if that player wins again, you can no longer face them and will have to move onto another opponent.
High-level play is definitely a possibility in Windjammers, and it will be interesting to see if this game takes off as a competitive multiplayer game. If it did, it would have to follow the model of competitive fighting games. However, where spectating competitive fighting games is much like watching an intense boxing match, Windjammers feels much more like watching tennis. There is a built-in community around this game that basically forced the issue of porting it to PlayStation 4 and PS Vita, but it’s unclear if that community will have the genuine zeal for Windjammers necessary for a competitive scene to thrive after they play the game, or if they will simply hang up their ironic pro-Windjammerssuits now that they’ve gotten an unlikely game ported to a modern console.
Modern multiplayer games live or die by their communities, whether that’s by visiting forums, finding YouTubers who make videos about specific games, or watching streamers play games on Twitch. Endlessly combatting a string of practically anonymous individuals isn’t the best way to create a community. While it may work for some fighting games, at least those games offer more variety in the characters you can use. This lack of variety in Windjammersmeans that every match feels the same after a while, and while that might be fine if you’re playing on the couch with friends, it doesn’t feel so great when you’re playing alone. Again, this is where a progression or reward system would have made a huge difference. I’m much less likely to feel bored with playing the same match over and over if I’m grinding toward a new character skin or a new court to unlock.
That being said, Windjammers is worth checking out, even if only for the occasional couch multiplayer sessions. It doesn’t take long to learn the mechanics, meaning it’s the ideal game for a goofy time with friends. The gameplay itself is a blast and only gets more fun the longer the back-and-forth rallies go. It’s the kind of game that anyone can pick up and quickly learn how to play, which nowadays is kind of rare when it comes to competitive multiplayer. But if you’re looking for a deep, complex, rewarding multiplayer experience, you might want to temper your expectations before giving Windjammers a try. While the true-port nature might retain the frenetic fun of the original, it also means that it won’t have all the modern bells and whistles that today’s players expect.
Windjammers is really fun while it lasts. But how long it lasts depends on how long you’re willing to play the same mode. Its tight, responsive, strategic gameplay doesn’t quite hide the fact that it’s lacking in areas that contemporary multiplayer games almost instinctively include at this point, such as character and match customization.
E - Everyone
|Windjammers is available on PlayStation 4 and PS Vita. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by DotEmu for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Michael Goroff has written and edited for EGM since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @gogogoroff.