In 2020, a group of French developers are launching a sequel to Windjammers, a Japanese arcade game first released in 1994. It’s an improbable story, even before you get to the fact that this obscure title nearly faded from history – with what seemed like little chance of a re-release, let alone a follow-up – before a small, fanatical community of players nurtured it back to health, and helped raise it to new heights of popularity. But, for the uninitiated, what even is Windjammers? I’ll let a panel of (French) experts answer that for you.
Cyrille Imbert – CEO, Dotemu: “Windjammers is a mixture between Pong and Street Fighter.”
Kévin ‘Keikun’ Creff – Windjammers Pro: “It really is the Street Fighter 2 Turbo of Pong.”
Arnaud de Sousa – Head of Marketing, Dotemu: “The game is crazy. It’s like muscular dudes throwing frisbees with fire, and it’s crazy fun.”
Romain ‘Pyrotek’ Godart – Windjammers Pro: “It’s crazy.”
Édouard Ardan – Musician and Windjammers Fanatic: “It’s a crossover between a Street Fighter game – with Kamehameha, Hadouken, things like that – but the game, it’s a Pong game. But with dynamic fire!”
Windjammers (or Flying Power Disc in Japan) was released for Neo Geo MVS in February of 1994. Described as a Battle Sports Game, it took an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master approach, adopting the fundamentals of Pong, adding the technicality of Street Fighter 2, and slapping on the looks of some kind of California spandex muscle beach fever nightmare.
Because of the sheer cost of the Neo Geo home console and its cartridges, you’d find it most commonly in arcades, its clean neon looks contrasting with the explosions and gunmetal on neighbouring attract screens. It went down… just fine. No one really went crazy for it, but (and I may be editorialising here) no one could truly dislike a game this vibrant, silly, and easy to pick up. The exception to that relative disinterest came in France, where a community of players began to take notice of this arcade oddity.
Édouard Ardan: “25 years ago [on] the arcade game, the Neo Geo MVS. You know, the big one? And I remember there was Metal Slug 1, Metal Slug 2, and I saw the Windjammers game with, again, the cool powers, visual effects. That was amazing when you were a child. And 10 years after, I worked for 6 months to save a lot of money to buy a Neo Geo AES with Windjammers. That was a crazy thing to do. But now I’m cool, I have the game. I’m a big fan of this game.”
Romain ‘Pyrotek’ Godart: “I think I was 12 or 13 with a friend on the Neo Geo CD.”
Arnaud de Sousa: “[At] every tournament there was Windjammers. It’s like, yeah, it’s the game in the corner you look at it: ‘Oh looks nice, but I have my tournaments to do, so maybe another time’. And [then] you see people get excited and you say, ‘OK, I need to play that game.’”
Such was its popularity, that some I talked to weren’t fully aware that it was such a French phenomenon. When I start to tell Ardan that it never really made an impact in England, he interrupts me:
Édouard Ardan: “What? No, I can’t believe that.”
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Uncaring of the rest of the world, that little French fanbase kept growing, and getting more and more fervent. Kévin ‘Keikun’ Creff – who’d go onto become one of the world’s highest-ranked Windjammers pros – tells me he bought a Neo Geo cabinet, and hired vans to drive it to fighting game tournaments across the country. He didn’t do it for any reward other than introducing people to the game. Eventually, some of those fans organised – Windjammers France was born, a community with the sole, virtuous purpose of helping people learn and play the game, long after Neo Geos had disappeared from shop shelves.
Cyrille Imbert: “There was this association called Windjammers France, they started to gather people around, because the game is really cool to play. So it was, kind of, I would not say easy, but it was not that hard to gather people around. And then […] the founders of the association just decided to go all the way into the game, and because of that people saw the level of complexity and depth that Windjammers could bring. Basically, because of a small team of French players, they started to really nail the game and understand all its core mechanics and show people the possibilities behind it – and other people gathered around it and developed a whole culture around this game.”
Kévin ‘Keikun’ Creff: “Yeah, we’re a big part of the coming back of Windjammers, and what Windjammers is today, and it’s part of that French love.
The community only kept growing from there, to the point where it became as much a talking point as the game itself – the first time I was ever told about Windjammers, it was introduced to me as an amazing game with a weirdly big following in France. If you want to know how much some people like Windjammers, Édouard Ardan is a founding member of Powerdisc, a band inspired by and named after the game. Seriously:
All of this leaves me with a major question. Why is this odd little game quite so popular with French players?
Cyrille Imbert: “It’s a very good question. I think it’s a bit random. Video games are really big in France, particularly video games from Japan. France is one of the biggest markets for Nintendo in Europe, contrary to other consoles. So, I think there was a fertile background for Windjammers, I would say.”
Édouard Ardan: “It’s cool in France because we love the California vision from the ’80s – you know, the frisbee, the dog, the girl, the sunshine. That’s cool, that’s a cool vision.”
Arnaud de Sousa: “Maybe we’re super-competitive, so that’s why, maybe, French people really thought it was cool to build a community around it. For me it’s more like a fighting game than a sports game – there’s a lot of debate around the office about that – but for me it’s more like a fighting game, so there’s a lot of mind games, stuff like that. And we love our fighting games in France, there’s a huge community.”
Édouard Ardan: “Windjammers, it’s magic. I don’t know why. Because, again, the frisbee.”
But no matter how much some people liked the game, a true revival for Windjammers seemed highly unlikely up until recently. Developer Data East ran into financial troubles not long after the game’s release, stopped making games in 1999 and, by 2003, had filed for bankruptcy. Its properties and trademarks were systematically sold off, primarily to mobile game company G-Mode.
But not Windjammers. Aside from a Japanese-only Wii Virtual Console release, France’s favourite power disc game seemingly disappeared altogether, with emulation the only meaningful way of playing the game on modern machines. That is, until French retro gaming experts Dotemu went looking:
Arnaud de Sousa: “Bringing back the first one was a big surprise, because everybody thought the rights were lost. And it kind of was, actually – they were a bit lost. The game was released in ’94, and wasn’t released until the release on PlayStation 4 which was in 2017, so it’s almost 25 years. The rights holder never thought about bringing it back […] But we thought differently.”
Cyrille Imbert: “So I said, ‘OK, let’s find who has the license and let’s try to do something with it.’ I don’t remember exactly how we tracked it down but usually what we do is we do some research on the internet – very basic research – and then with our contacts in Japan we try to ask around: And basically we narrowed it down to Paon DP, which is the actual owner of the license, because former employees of Data East joined this company at some point. And so we met Paon DP four years ago I think.
“We explained that there was a huge community in France, that we were ourselves playing a lot of Windjammers in the office, so they kind of felt that we were the right people to take care of that. They really saw that we had passion for it. Because it’s not a super-famous game, right? It’s famous within the fighting game community, it’s famous within the Neo Geo fans, but it’s not that famous, so they kind of knew that we were not there to have an easy cash grab, you know? It was more about something that we were passionate about, and that we wanted to spread a bit more because the game really deserved it. And especially because we had this long-term strategy of not saying, like, we’re just going to do a simple port of the game and that’s it.”
Windjammers, somehow, was back. In its 2017 port for PS4, PS Vita and, later, Switch, Dotemu created a game that looked and ran exactly as the original did in ‘94, primarily by digging into Data East’s code to perform digital archeology. The only major addition came in the form of online play, finally allowing people to play Windjammers across continents without emulation. It played perfectly into Dotemu’s goal to spread the game to more people.
Across the world, people began to talk about the game – helped massively, it must be noted, by some tireless campaigning by the team at Giant Bomb. Some even began suggesting it deserved a place among the great and the good of the fighting game community. In 2017, Windjammers unexpectedly broke into the upper echelons of the Player’s Choice poll for games at Evo, the world’s biggest fighting game tournament. The next year, it would do even better.
Cyrille Imbert: “So of course it got into the loop because we were relaunching it and people were hearing more about it. So were like, OK, we need to push for that. We did a full campaign called ‘Road to Evo’, where we tried to kind of spam Evo with, like, ‘Hey, let’s have Windjammers at Evo!’ and everything. And then AnimEvo, which is like a side tournament for fans and smaller games, they were super interested in it, until we got in basically.
“The whole idea behind it was to first get people more familiar with the license, with the original games, with the exact same game, but with online multiplayer so that people can compete online and the community can grow around this competition. And the second step was Windjammers 2.”
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Part of Dotemu’s pitch to the license holder was that, after it recreated Windjammers, it would get to create a sequel too. Windjammers 2 – which arrives on Switch later this year – is aiming to add extra complexity to the game, without ever losing the core formula. Its biggest change is in its looks, which swap pixel graphics for a ’90s cartoon style that aims to emulate the original game’s boxart. And who better to test whether those changes worked than Windjammers France, the community that helped keep the game alive for all these years?
Arnaud de Sousa: “The first time I heard about maybe bringing Windjammers [back] at the office, I was like ‘Yeah I know the guys at Windjammers France, that little community that are really into the game, so it could be nice to have them try the game, tell us if it’s good and just help us bring the best Windjammers possible.’”
Cyrille Imbert: “So right from the port of Windjammers, the first one on console, we included people from Windjammers France. It’s super practical because they’re around – they’re not all in Paris, but they’re in France, and it’s easy to make them come. And they’ve been super nice, and given us a lot of feedback. So we’re making sure that the emulation was pixel-perfect on console. That was the first step. And then, little by little, we kind of revealed that we were working on a sequel – because we didn’t tell them from the beginning.”
Arnaud de Sousa: “Of course there’s pressure. There’s a lot of nostalgia for it. So of course they’re waiting for something – they want something new but also something that is close to the original.”
Kévin ‘Keikun’ Creff: “We’re kind of patriotic, so yeah, we’re really happy. And for us it’s also reassuring to be able to talk to the devs to give ideas on how we see the game.”
Cyrille Imbert: “So we do a lot of playtests with [Windjammers France] because, for us, they’re the best players in the world, and they’re the ones that would be able to break Windjammers 2 […] The developers of Windjammers 2 here at Dotemu are really good at Windjammers, but they’re not the same level – these guys have being playing for years, they, like, read The Matrix in the game. So that’s what we really want to do, and it’s super exciting to see them playing with this new toy, trying new strategies and trying to exploit new stuff. So that gives us a really good idea of what’s the right way of doing it.”
It’s not just behind-closed-doors testing – Dotemu recently held the world’s first Windjammers 2 tournament at Ultimate Fighting Arena 2019 in Paris, with two-time Evo champion Romain ‘Pyrotek’ Godart taking home this crown too. The developers probably couldn’t have wished for a better confirmation that they’re on the right track.
Romain ‘Pyrotek’ Godart: “It has a lot of options, it forces you to be more aggressive because if you stay at the back you’re going to lose. You really feel it’s Windjammers just like the first one, but there’s more – just more dynamism to it.”
Arnaud de Sousa: “It’s the community that help make a game, you know? If the people don’t play the game it won’t go to Evo, so it’s like we all have our part to play in bringing back Windjammers and making it really crazy.”
So the pros are happy, and the devs are happy. But surely the most important group are those regular French fans, the people who quietly loved this odd little game for a quarter of a century. How do they feel about getting a sequel – a French sequel no less – after all this time? I ask Édouard Ardan, the man who saved up for a console to play Windjammers, made a band based on it, and smiles literally every time he talks about it. He drums his hands on the table, a sheer physical reaction to his happiness: “Yeah! I am so happy with that! It’s amazing.”
After 25 years of simmering delight, it feels like sheer French enthusiasm has helped summon a new Windjammers game out of nothing – some kind of emotional alchemy.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK Deputy Editor, and he will jam at a moment’s notice. Follow him on Twitter.