The long-awaited and unlikely sequel to 1994 Data East cult classic Windjammers is headed to Switch and PC later this year. In our Windjammers 2 interview, we asked Stéphane Perez, the game’s creative director at Dotemu, about retaining the exact feel of the arcade original, crafting the sequel’s aesthetic and creating new characters.
Graham Russell, Siliconera: Before we get started, could you tell our readers a bit about the game?
Stéphane Perez, Dotemu: Windjammers 2 is the comeback of the popular franchise – here in France it’s very popular, in fact – and yes, we are making it a sequel, not a reboot of the game. There’s a lot more stuff in it and different kinds of gameplay, even if we take the base of the first one. We’re making it for three years now, and we’re about to finish it… soon, I guess, I hope! It’s our first game, so it’s kind of challenging and we are very excited about it.
Windjammers 2, as a concept, seems like a tricky proposition. Windjammers is a game with a cult following, sure, but not one so big that you don’t want a full-scale sequel to appeal to a larger audience. But if you change things about the core game, that player base won’t be happy. How have you decided what was worth adjusting and what you needed to preserve as-is?
Perez: We preserved everything that was already there in the first game, because as you say, it’s very important to make it just as it was in the beginning. There is a huge base in France, and we are working with Windjammers France. They are five guys who are really involved in this game. During development, we called them a few times to do some playtests and get their opinion about it. It’s exactly the same game as the first one.
In fact, we did reverse engineer the first game to see how everything was programmed. It was basic, very old development language. We took everything from the first in the second one, so every movement, every disc direction, every angle… that’s exactly the same. Even the speed of the disc is the same. The only thing we changed, because it’s a new game, is the court. The dimensions of the court are a bit wider because it’s not the same size of the screen now, but that’s it.
Then, when we had this background, we started to put some new gameplay stuff in. We did a lot of iteration to get exactly what could be interesting. We don’t want to put some crazy stuff in it, like bullshit just to put something in. So we put four new mechanics that people… deserve, in fact, to change a bit of the game and to make it more fair sometimes.
Was there anything in particular that Windjammers France wanted to be in the sequel that wasn’t in the first game?
Perez: They didn’t ask us for anything. We just proposed mechanics, and they said “okay, that’s good,” “that’s not exactly functional yet,” “you should push in that direction” and things like this. But they didn’t propose stuff. We already have brand-new ideas, thanks to our game designer Jordi [Asensio], who worked on a lot of it. We just proposed mechanics, and they helped us to fix things and make it work really great.
Was there anything about the original game’s design that you were most excited to, well, scrap?
Perez: Scrap? (laughs) To change?
Obviously not about the core gameplay, because as you said you tried to replicate that as much as possible.
Perez: We could not touch on the core gameplay. It seems very simple as you play it the first time in the arcade version. You see it’s just like Pong. And when we started to do the reverse engineering stuff, we discovered a lot of micro-features that change a lot of the game. All this little stuff that’s invisible when you play the game, that we discovered and put into Windjammers 2. All this stuff was very important to make the game work, not just a simple Pong game but the true Windjammers. It’s very important to get the same sensation when you play.
There was just one particular bug that we noticed in the first game, with the character named Miller. When you use his Super Custom, sometimes the disc will just fall on the floor. (laughs) This is a bug, we fixed it and that’s it.
So are you going with S. Miller? Bringing up Miller in particular: it is a controversy in the Windjammers community as to his true name, which is different in some territories. In the sequel, where are you going with that?
Perez: I can’t say much about this character now. I maybe already said too much! (laughs) No, this is a surprise about Miller and his second name.
How did you decide what nations would receive new characters? France is, we suppose, obvious for a number of reasons, but readers may not know.
Perez: When I started, three years ago now, I was thinking about new characters. There’s something curious about the lore of the original game: there was not a lot of information about them. We were talking with the Windjammers 1 team, because we also want them to support us and give us advice, and they gave us a lot of game design documents. We discovered a lot of funny things about the characters, like they all come from specific sports. Biaggi is an Italian soccer player, and Miller is a tennis man. And also Mita! So we thought about what kind of new characters we could include in the game, and how we could extend the lore and the universe of the game.
We thought about different kinds of guys that come from wrestling and stuff like this, and so we were thinking about how they could interact with each other. Like there was something in particular between Mita and Miller, I guess? They were very powerful characters even if we didn’t know anything about them in the first game when you were an arcade player as we were… there is not a lot of information.
So when you think about Windjammers 1, there is Wessel, the German guy, strong personality, and Miller, and Mita. We thought about people growing up with these characters, and how there would be the next players in the game. So that’s what we did with the young boy, Jao. he’s a Brazilian guy, and he’s inspired by Miller and Mita’s styles, so he’s a mix between them. We did a lot of things like this for each new character that we introduce in the new game.
Prior to the game’s revival, Windjammers was known for being part of a difficult, tangled web of confusing transactions over the years that made it a nightmare to track down and try to license. How did you manage to talk to the members of the original game’s development team, and what did they think of the project?
Perez: They are very cool and they were very excited about the project. In fact, we contacted them because Cyrille [Imbert], the boss of Dotemu, got the right to make a sequel, so we had the opportunity to talk about the new game with the original team. They gave some advice, and they are very excited.
By the way, we’re working with [Seiichi] Hamada-san, the original composer of the first game, so we asked him if he would be okay to work with us for the second one. He was super-excited with it, so he did it! He worked on the original songs and made some remakes of the court songs. Every song he made, he reworked them again and he made some new songs for the new courts also.
It’s very funny to work with this kind of guy because he’s a true musician. He has a band named Gamadelic, which is popular in Japan, so it’s kind of exciting to work with real musicians. They’re not just working on the computer and that’s it. No, they first make the song on the computer, and then we discuss it. Then, they go to the studio and they record the song with true instruments. That makes a really good song in the end, that makes something very strong. Very different from other video games, I guess. It’s a real band that’s playing behind.
At this point we’re used to musicians kind of being able to do what they want in modern games, but there’s this process of “game music” that feels very of its era.
Perez: For the original songs, it’s just a rework of the song. For the new songs, Hamada-san – and there’s also another composer [Harumi Fujita] that joined the project – they’re really free to do what they want. We just gave some examples of what the music could be.
I like to be involved in the music, and there’s a lot of guys in Dotemu who also play music. As a studio, we’re very close to the music, all kinds of music. As we are also band players, we have a lot of influence. For example, there’s a song in the new game that we wanted to sound very ’80s, very Italo disco, even with the instruments. So we gave some examples about this and they were free to do whatever they wanted.
That sounds like a good collaborative process.
Perez: It’s a creative process, in fact. My job is to make the artists feel free about what they’re doing. When you give the opportunity to a creative to do whatever they want, but you just give some examples, just to give them a way to work, you get a better result.
The aesthetic of Windjammers was, more than anything else, a product of its time. With Windjammers 2, the treatment seems to be that of a period piece, trying to evoke the sensations of that era with a modern-feeling game. What led to that, and were any other avenues considered for the game’s look?
Perez: We didn’t want to make a pixel game again. There are a lot of studios that play on the retro gaming style, and they’re making pixel art stuff. I didn’t want that for Windjammers 2. So we had the opportunity to work with Simon Périn, who’s the lead artist, and he’s very involved in the new kind of art and animation and illustration. It’s kind of a mix of Japanese and European art.
Because we are French, we grew up with a lot of Japanese shows, like Dragon Ball or Hokuto no Ken or things like this. We also grew up with comics from Belgium and France, so it’s a bit of a bizarre mix in the end, but it’s very original, and I think it’s very popular now. It’s the thing that we had to do. I thought about this, and I think that the best way for us to do something in HD is with hand-drawn characters and a hand-drawn game – the whole game was drawn by artists – so it’s important to me to have this kind of result. I don’t want the game to look like a pixel art game or something. It looks like a cartoon. It’s kind of alive and I like that a lot.
It looks nice and fresh and new, but also the color palette is straight out of the early ’90s.
Perez: Yes! Because we have to put the game back in its time. It was a game from the ’90s, so the colors are very flashy. And we just set the game ten years after the first. We want it to be a bit futuristic, but the future that we imagined back in the ’90s when we were kids. We thought about flying cars, about ETs, they’re around us and it’s not a big deal, we are working with animal guys or stuff like that…
It feels like a very Back to the Future II type of future.
Perez: Exactly. That was the idea, to remember how we imagined the future when we were 15. None of these things happened (laughs), except that we can use FaceTime to call our friends. There is no flying car, there is no hoverboard (or it’s not working very well), but we want all this stuff to be in the game. It was very important for us to keep this spirit of what the future could be back in the ’90s. So it looks a bit like Back to the Future II. (laughs)
What’s your favorite fun little thing that you’re including that most may not notice?
Perez: It’s very different for each member of the team. Some of them think about the colors, some others think about the characters.
The crowd is very interesting, because there is not much of a view of them in the first game. The screen is different now, the courts are a bit different, and we have this kind of camera movement that we took from the first game. We can see the public now much better, so we created about 70 characters just for that with animation. I think this is the thing that’s interesting that the original developer wanted to do, and we did it! We fit in more people than they did in the first game, and we explore a bit more what kind of characters there could be. There are also some jokes!
I’m sure people are looking forward to playing it! When should they be looking out for more information on that?
Perez: I hope people get information very soon! (laughs) We wanted to give some information in the next two months, but now it’s a bit complicated because of the situation.
We have a lot of stuff to show to the public. There’s a lot we want to talk about what we did and the new ideas we put in the game. I really can’t tell when we’re going to make some announcements, but I hope it will be soon, like before the summer! I hope. Fingers crossed.
Thanks to Stéphane for taking the time to talk with us! This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Windjammers 2 is slated for release on Nintendo Switch, PC and Google Stadia sometime in 2020.