One of the more surprising announcements at last weekend's PlayStation Experience was the revival of Windjammers, an obscure cult classic Neo Geo sports game from 1994 where players try and toss a disc into their opponent's goal. It's basically Pong with Street Fighter characters, and thanks to DotEmu, it's hitting PlayStation 4 and Vita in early 2017 with online multiplayer.
"In the office, we are all passionate about retro gaming and Neo Geo games," DotEmu CEO Cyrille Imbert told me recently. "We play them all. Actually, Windjammers is the one that we play the most. We organize tournaments in the office, we're always talking about it. It was a dream to bring it back. We knew that SNK didn't have the license, so we were wondering how to do it. So, two years ago, we said 'Let's do it. Let's try to find a way to bring it back.'"
SNK, the company behind the Neo Geo, originally published Windjammers, but it was developed by Data East, the studio best known for Burger Time Karnov, a long line of pinball machines, and loads of Neo Geo games. (My favorite was Magical Drop.) Data East went bankrupt in 2003, scattering their games, including Windjammers, to other companies.
I became aware of Windjammers because my former editor at Giant Bomb, Jeff Gerstmann, made the game an in-office multiplayer favorite in 2013. The larger public's awareness of Windjammers is so low, in fact, that Gerstmann's self-driven revival is even noted on the game's Wikipedia page. Over the years, I'd heard that various studios, including Iron Galaxy, had looked into getting the rights to Windjammers, but for various reasons, it didn't happen.
Here's a clip of a segment from Giant Bomb, where, by the way, I used to work. (Hi, Jeff.) Since the timestamp doesn't seem to be working, jump ahead to 31 minutes.
When pressed, Imbert claimed Giant Bomb had nothing to do with his decision to bring back Windjammers, but called it a "nice surprise." I have my doubts, Mr. Imbert, but we'll just have to take you at your word on this for right now. He noted, however, that several Giant Bomb fans had asked the same question when they were playing the game at PlayStation Experience.
A retro gaming diehard, Imbert has a list of Neo Geo classics he wants to revive, and Windjammers was high up there. But he wasn't sure where the rights were held, nor did SNK. Whenever DotEmu is trying to figure out the paper trail for an old game, they start looking for clues in the same places as everyone else: Google searches and Wikipedia pages. Nothing came up, so he asked some business friends in Japan to poke around. A few days later, they came back with an answer: Paon DP, a mobile company formed by some ex-Data East folks.
DotEmu was founded to specialize in porting old games to modern platforms, having worked on everything from adapting R-Type for mobile to updating Final Fantasy VII for PCs. That means they're constantly working with Japanese companies, and it's given Imbert insight into the right way to present yourself as a foreigner who wants to license a Japanese property. To that end, DotEmu set up their meeting with Paon DP at the French embassy in Japan.
"That's just to add some credibility to the Japanese businesses that we are serious," he said, laughing.
Paon DP had apparently turned down previous offers to acquire Windjammers, but partially driven by the amount of other Japanese games DotEmu had worked on, they signed off on their pitch.
But even with the technical rights to Windjammers, Imbert claimed he couldn't feel comfortable without the blessing of the game's original publisher, SNK. Fortunately, DotEmu's deep ties to Japanese developers paid off once again; he was able to arrange a dinner with the company and get a tentative approval. And once they saw the game in action, SNK got completely on board.
Though tracking down Windjammers wasn't exactly simple, it's hardly the most complicated deal that Imbert's had to put together. One of the company's other big projects, a remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap for the Master System, proved an enormous headache because one company, LAT, owns the copyright to Wonder Boy, while another company, Sega, owns the trademark to Wonder Boy. Both companies had to be convinced for it to work.
"For maybe six months," he said, "we didn't know if we were gonna have the trademarks or not. It took quite a long time, to the point where we went 'OK, maybe we don't do the project.'"
Eventually, it worked out.
"These games have been made by very talented people at the time, and they're handled very cautiously by their new owners," he said. "You have to respect that. You have to be humble. You can't be like 'Hey, I'm here, I want this, and I'm going to do that, it's going to be awesome. I'm going to kick everyone's ass.' You have to go and say 'Hey, please, I really love your game. I know it by heart. I know it's not easy, but we want to do that because we think people would really love it.'"
Imbert has aspirations for Windjammers to find a community in the competitive scene, which means it needs to be arcade perfect. To that end, he quickly recruited Windjammers France, a group of hardcore fans who've been organizing tournaments for 10 years. These folks know what the fuck they're doing, as evidenced by this tournament finals video:
Windjammers France is DotEmu's way of making sure the controls are responsive, latency during multiplayer is acceptable—everything needed to transition Windjammers into the modern era.
And though DotEmu hasn't had much luck reaching out to Windjammers' creators, it did acquire the game's original ROM. Whenever DotEmu starts working with a new classic, they drop the game into their custom emulator software and see how much work needs to be done.
"Sometimes it works instantly and we're like 'Yes!' and some take a long time," said Imbert. "It's really some deep code research. It's a lot of R&D, basically. […] Every time we launch a new game from the Neo Geo emulated game, we try to improve the emulation."
But work on Windjammers is progressing, as the game is scheduled for early next year, alongside one of DotEmu's other big revivals, Ys Origin. Being able to bring back older games is clearly a passion for Imbert, but it's more than just finding a way to sell old games again.
"We don't want this game to get lost," he said. "A good game will always be a good game, whatever the graphics, whatever the platform it was on. The idea is that people can play these awesome games, so future designers, future developers, future artists can get inspired by these games and not forget about them, forget about that legacy."