Windjammers: a beginner’s guide to the classic

Windjammers is back! With the PlayStation Experience announcement that the game will be available for the first time in decades in the form of a new PS4/Vita release, many are excited but others may be left wondering about this esoteric title. We’re here, then, to answer your questions!

What is Windjammers, anyway?

Released in 1994 by Data East, Windjammers (or Flying Power Disc) is a two-player disc-throwing game for SNK’s Neo Geo family of arcade cabinets and home consoles. It combines elements of various real sports and a beach volleyball-like aesthetic for a bright, cheery, semi-realistic feel. Players try to get the disc past their opponent and into the goal to score points, with the first to reach 12 or more points winning.

Why do people love it so much?

While it looks at first like a simple sports game, it takes little time to show its true colors as a true head-to-head showcase of skill. Taking the basic premise of Pong and bringing it to life in an arcade era when Street Fighter II and Puyo Puyo dominated Japan, it implements character abilities, a risk-vs.-reward counter-based system and courts that totally changed strategies. It’s inspired modern-era games like Lethal League, and it’s not hard to find one of the many fan projects and commercial games seeking in vain to recreate its magic.

What is this whole “B. Yoo”/”S. Miller” thing?

Neo Geo games released with all localizations built in to one release, with the hardware deciding which text to show. That worked well at the time, because arcade games had little text and English was widely accepted in most contexts. Sometimes it was used for other purposes, like in this case representing more relevant nations within the six-character roster. Some nations, like the U.S., saw the beginner male character as the British Steve Miller! Others played as the same character, but labeled as a South Korean, Beeho Yoo. Emulators often default to the “international” version with Yoo, so borders are no longer the best distinction between which shades-sporting star you know.

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If it’s so good, what made it disappear?

A combination of factors made re-releasing the game difficult for a very long time. Due to various litigation (someone claimed to have invented the sport portrayed in the game) and bankruptcy (we miss you, Data East), it wasn’t entirely clear who actually owned the IP and whether they could use it. The game made a brief appearance on Japan’s Wii Virtual Console through publisher D4, only to be delisted. It’s possible that, with these issues now resolved, we may finally learn what happened. (At least now, we know the rights are currently held by Paon, a developer founded by former Data East staff.)

Then why is it returning now?

The short, pithy answer (and the one you’ll get elsewhere) is that it’s due to games site Giant Bomb playing the game heavily in videos in recent years. While this does have a sliver of truth to it — a few prominent industry personalities like Jeff Gerstmann and Dave Lang can make noise and call attention to a game like this — nothing would be possible if there wasn’t a significant fan base to back that up. So here’s the real reason: emulation. A few played the game in ’90s arcades, certainly (us included), but so many more discovered the game through playing around with MAME and folders of hundreds of games to try. That’s like many Neo Geo games, actually; the system emulated well, and the games shone in a context in which they weren’t competing with bigger, flashier cabinets or foundering on a too-expensive console. But unlike many Neo Geo games, the increased demand for Windjammers was never met with an opportunity to play it legitimately through re-release, not even on the Data East Arcade Classics collection.

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What does this new release have to offer?

Online play. That’s the main thing and the real reason this should be a success: a chance to test your skills against someone not sitting or standing next to you. DotEmu, who’s handling development of this version, seems to be pushing ranked play as a key focus. In addition to that, it sounds like the interstitial minigames may be unlockable as standalone play options, and of course playing it on the go with the Vita (or again, really at all in a legitimate fashion) is for all intents and purposes new to this edition. For more, we’ll have to wait until we can play the game for ourselves!

Okay, sounds fun. What should I know to start?

First: when the game says the bottom-row characters are “Expert” level, that’s not an exaggeration: they’re very slow, and you’ll need to really know what you’re doing before you find any success using them. Hiromi Mita has wonderful speed but very little capacity to actually get the disc past an opponent, so we suggest Miller/Yoo and his wall-hugging super-shot while you learn the ropes. (Also Loris Biaggi is very useful if you want to beat us specifically.)

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