Back in the early to mid-nineties, arcades were still booming. Sure, they had carpet that was matted and sticky, some machines in a constant state of disrepair, and their fair share of creepy old guys who wore Zubaz and hung out at that old “Krull” machine no one played (kids, ask your parents what Zubaz and Krull are. I can’t be responsible for warping your innocent mind with relics best left in the past).Windjammers title screen

I thought arcades were magical places. Places where, as a kid, you could be free. You didn’t have to worry about committing to one single game. You had a sea of games to choose from and so many looked so cool. No worries, though; if you made a poor choice, you had more quarters and you played something else.

Nothing epitomized this magical freedom better than a Neo-Geo cabinet.

Neo-Geo cabinets were fantastic because they always had multiple games to choose from, usually four, and each arcade had different games in theirs. Whenever I saw that bright red machine, I immediately went over to see what games were inside of it.

While those Neo-Geo cabinets are known for many classics like “Metal Slug”, “King of Fighters”, and “Samurai Showdown”, there was always one game that always got overlooked. One game that was never favored over its more badass peers. That game… was “Windjammers”.

See, I know “Windjammers” was a misunderstood misfit because I ignored it, too. I remember playing it once as a kid, vaguely, but remember nothing of the actual experience. It wasn’t until maybe eight years ago that I encountered it on a homemade arcade cabinet in the back of a now defunct mom n’ pop gaming store.

It was a cabinet running “MAME”, an arcade emulator, and it had a VAST assortment of ROMS to choose from. I don’t know why I ended up picking “Windjammers” that day, but I can only imagine that it had to be some combination of destiny, miracles, and awesome.

It hooked me.

On the surface, “Windjammers” looks like a “Pong” knock-off dressed up in 90’s fashion. The game consists of two players trying to throw a disc into the opposing player’s goal. You score points, you win. It’s as basic as gaming gets. Throw in some period clothing styles, beaches, sunglasses, and some guys that look like they didn’t make the cut for “American Gladiators”, and you’ve just make “Pong” radical, dude.

It’s simple. Except, not at all…

However, cutting deeper into the real meat of the game, you realize that it is so much more than a simple “Pong” rehash. It has real depth. It has real strategy and subtleties that make it an incredibly satisfying game to play.

To start with, you can throw the disc straight or you can lob it, similar to most tennis games. The strategies surrounding that are also similar to tennis: if you have someone aggressively playing at the line, then you can toss a lob over their head for some points. Not only do you score for shooting into the goal, but if the disc drops, then you also score.

There are also varying speeds that you can throw the disc. The longer you hold onto it, the slower the disc will be released. Now, you may think you always want to chuck that thing as fast as possible, but that becomes predictable. If, in the middle of a heated volley, you condition your opponent to react to certain timing and then you suddenly change that up, you’re going to score.

For some graphical flash and eye-candy, you also have powerful special attacks at your disposal. If you time your catch perfectly, then the disc bounces into the air and your character will go “Super Saiyan” while standing under it. When thrown, it releases unseen fury upon your opponent in the form of extremely quick and powerful attacks that are also tricky to predict.

Having trouble scoring? Fire, and lots of it!

You also have options while you’re on the defensive. You can do quick dives to nab discs just out of reach. This is a crucial move to master as you need to react incredibly quickly to oncoming attacks and this is usually the only way to grab them. You can also turn your opponent’s special attacks back on them. If you have one coming in, timing your catch perfectly will reverse it right back at them. If both players are good enough, you can see special attacks being tossed back and forth until someone screws up. It’s chaos.

There is one more hidden element to the game, though, and that is the ability to control the disc’s spin. By doing half-circles on the joystick, you can alter the flight path of the disc. This is when things get really tricky since the disc will bounce off the walls differently and can sometimes curve right past your opponent.

To make things more interesting, you have six characters to choose from and they all have their own special attacks and strengths. Some characters move quicker and can spin the disc better but don’t have as much power, while other characters have difficulty getting around effectively, but can throw the disc hard enough to knock the other characters around, even into the goal if they’re close enough. Picking your favorite character in “Windjammers” is like picking your favorite character in a fighting game. You’re going to find someone to latch onto that fits your style.

Poor Japan and UK, stuck in the bush leagues

“Windjammers” also has six stages to choose from and they all have their own style. Some change up the goal pattern and change the sizes of the scoring area. Some add bumpers in the middle of the stages to really screw with things. One stage even adjusts the scoring areas according to who is winning and who is losing. If you find yourself behind, you’ll find the higher valued scoring area get bigger and bigger so you can mount a heroic comeback.

Even going over the game’s finer points might not make it sound all that compelling. How good can this obscure arcade sports title be, really, if no one played it then and no one has made any real effort to preserve it and bring it to light for future gamers? Well, you just have to have a little bit of faith on this one because anyone who plays the game ends up instantly getting drawn in by its charms. It’s an addicting experience. It’s also the only game I’ve seen come close to rivaling the competitive, one-on-one ferocity of fighting games.

Unfortunately, explaining how the game works and even going over the game’s nuances can really do nothing to compare to actually playing it. But… playing it legitimately is tough. Unless you’re one of those special people to own an expensive and rare Neo-Geo AES console or a Neo-Geo CD, then you’re out of luck. Even still, the game is still quite expensive to get a hold of. Plus, the CD version kind of blows due to the system’s incredibly lengthy load times which really get in the way of the arcade experience. Everything about this game is incredibly fast-paced, even menus, and the load times just kill the flow.

Still, you should find a way to play this game because it is one of the all time greats from that era. It’s quickly moving into one of my favorite competitive games of all time, it’s that good. I even featured it as the final game in a gaming competition I held over Labor Day weekend, Tyler’s Ultimate Iron Man of Gaming Decathlon + Awesomefest™. I know you crafty Internet patrons know methods of playing such things.

This game deserves a revival, or at least some sort of release on newer consoles. It is available on the Wii Virtual Console, but not in the states. I’d buy a digital version of this the minute it came out. Unfortunately, it will probably never happen. “Windjammers” is owned by Data-East which hasn’t existed since 2003. A company called G-Mode bought most of their assets, including “Windjammers” but they don’t seem too concerned with re-releasing any of them.

Do what you can though, because “Windjammers” is an epic arcade masterpiece. One that will immediately become timeless to anyone who picks it up.

Oh, and I got dibs on Biaggi.