Update: We've now managed to play some Windjammers 2's online since the game went live yesterday and, we're pleased to say, it all seems to be working fine and dandy on Nintendo Switch, with a solid connection maintained during matches which we were able to jump into instantly. Good news, as this one really is all about that competitive online aspect!
It's not an easy task, to take a game as mechanically perfect as 1994's Neo Geo classic Windjammers and put your own spin on it. How do you modernise such a wonderfully simple and addictive thing? What do you change about it to give it a lift, to add even more in the way of strategy for fans to sink their teeth into without ruining the streamlined ebb and flow that makes the original so endlessly endearing?
Well, somehow, Dotemu has managed to find a way. Windjammers 2 is everything we love about the original game reimagined, emboldened and delightfully expanded by a slick new art style and a bunch of new mechanics that make the core gameplay loop here even more alluring than ever.
Dotemu, you've probably noticed, has been on a bit of a roll lately having published the excellent Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap and the absolutely sublime Streets of Rage 4, and demonstrating just how good these folks are at taking classic gaming experiences and remodelling them for a new generation of gamers. They — and the teams they partner with — just seem to get it, tweaking and adding to much-loved gems without betraying what makes them great in the first place. With Windjammers 2, Dotemu has given the chunky old Neo Geo graphics a facelift — perhaps the most divisive aspect of this new game — swapping out the beautiful pixels of old for hand-drawn characters and stadiums that are a match for the artistic overhaul we saw in Streets of Rage 4. We still love the old Windjammers style, and this new look takes a little getting used to, but give it a chance and we think you'll grow to love it.
On top of the aesthetic refresh, there's been some superb changes to the core mechanics of Windjammers. If the first game was like a frenzied mixture of Pong and Street Fighter 2, this sequel definitely feels like a shift towards full blown tennis tactics with that same fighting game intensity left intact. There's now a jump function that enables you to smash shots from the air at your opponent, alongside a slapshot that carries your disc just over the net, making for a game that requires much more in the way of consideration of your play space, sucking your opponent into the net, lobbing to the back of the court, lining them up for smashes and so on. It's Windjammers as you remember it, but with so much more to think about at the same time.
There's an all-new EX gauge, too. It builds steadily as you pull off offensive and defensive manoeuvres and, once full, can be deployed in order to hit your opponent with a screen-blasting shot that's almost impossible to respond to. Almost. Yes, once you get used to these EX super shots — each of the ten characters here has their own variation — you'll begin to be able to read the seemingly impossible, returning shots back with equal ferocity in rallies that get harder and faster as they go on; beautiful face-offs that require perfect timing and consideration of your surroundings if you're to emerge victorious. There is nothing quite so satisfying as blasting a disc shot right into a corner here, timing your super so your opponent has no chance, or drawing them in only to zig-zag them into oblivion with a bevvy of well-considered ripostes that land just out of their reach. It's outrageously addictive.
Each of the ten characters on the roster, six of them returners, is slightly different in terms of their power/speed, just as in the original game, but now you also get to consider your favourite based on their specials. It's such a delicately handled shift in the core of proceedings, old hands should be able to jump right in and get on with things, but there's so much more to learn now, and it hasn't affected the overall tempo or that perfect balance between pick up and play and deep strategy that made the first game such a timeless banger.
We haven't been able to play online yet, which is a bit of an issue as it's what will give this game real legs, and it's a shame that the Switch version doesn't support crossplay, as it does on Xbox and PC, but we have faith. Dotemu has done such a great job with everything else here that we reckon they'll go the distance and support the online aspects of this one. They've certainly had the time — Windjammers 2 was originally announced for a 2019 release. Fingers crossed, then.
In terms of overall modes, if we're being picky, you could say it's all a little anaemic, with just a barebones arcade mode with three difficulty settings, the aforementioned online and a versus mode that lets you take on the CPU or another human in local competitive play. But, listen. A vast suite of modes is the last thing Windjammers is really about. You don't need unlockable skins, trophies or achievements, an in-game store, XP, skill trees, big towers to climb up, emojis or any of that dross here — this is just pure arcade magic. Just one more turn stuff. Get your pals round for some games. Who's on first? It's sweaty, strategic, beautiful arcade action that looks and plays like a dream.
We've been swapping back and forth like mad during this review, switching between the original game and this new version to see what's changed, what's different, how one or the other is better or worse, and it speaks volumes about the quality of what Dotemu has produced here that in every regard this sequel is an absolute improvement. An improvement over near perfection. An improvement on a game that people have been playing and enjoying for 28 years. We'll take that.
With Windjammers 2, Dotemu has taken the fiendishly addictive core formula of the Neo Geo classic and improved upon it in every way. The core gameplay here remains as immediately endearing as ever whilst being enhanced and given a real strategic kick by a bevvy of new moves and skills that add to the fun without detracting from or overcomplicating proceedings. Yes, there's not much in the way of modes, and we've yet to see how online fares here, but this is another banger from Dotemu, an all-time classic improved upon, an arcade classic refined for a new generation.