I love the ’90s
Last year’s sudden resurgence of Windjammers blew right over my head. I never owned a Neo Geo as a child, don’t keep up with the crew at Giant Bomb, and am certainly not French. So when it reappeared in the spotlight last year, the news went in one ear and out the other. This was August and I couldn’t really pay attention to some old game most people had never heard of before when I had a copy of White Day sitting on my PlayStation 4.
I figured I’d be content never bothering to try the game out and until PAX West weekend, that was true. It wasn’t until I got a hands-on with its sequel that I realized what Giant Bomb and the nation of France had been raving about for all these years.
In a decent size hotel room not far from The Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, Dotemu was giving the press an early look at two of its upcoming games. In years prior, we probably wouldn’t have booked the appointment. Up until recently, Dotemu was only known for the various ports it had published over the years. In early 2017, it made its first stride toward the zeitgeist when it published Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, an absolutely stunning-looking remake of Wonder Boy III. It’s a game I own for Switch and while I love the look of it, I don’t particularly care for the actual gameplay.
After that, it ported Windjammers to the PlayStation 4 and Vita, putting a company on a path to where it is today. After years of dealing exclusively with the work of other developers and publishers, it would now start creating its own games from scratch, albeit without actually owning the rights to the game’s they’re creating. Nintendo revealed Windjammers 2 from Dotemu in an Indie Highlights reel on August 20, and several days later the publisher set the internet on fire when it announced it was developing Streets of Rage 4 alongside the team behind The Dragon’s Trap.
When I arrived for my demo session, Streets of Rage 4 wasn’t quite ready for me. The television inside the hotel wasn’t up to snuff and the Dotemu team was awaiting a team of interns to return with a freshly purchased television, a common occurrence, I’m told, at trade shows like this. So I sit down with one of the developers on hand to try out Windjammers 2. The demo is light, with only two playable characters, but it does showcase the beautiful new art direction and the new EX Moves, powerful shots unleashed when I score enough throws, points, and saves to fill the EX meter. These moves appear quite powerful, but lucky placement allows me to deflect both EX attempts my opponent makes on my goal.
Because I’m not at all familiar with the concept of Windjammers, my ass is handed to me in both matches I play. I’m losing, but I’m having a great deal of fun doing. Even in these early months of development, Windjammers 2 is lightning fast and the controls are tight. I just need to get a better grip of them. The back and forth between the developer and me is the stuff great competition is made of and competition is on the mind of the development team. The original Windjammers made appearances in the fighting game circuit over the past year and Dotemu sees a great deal of potential for esports with the sequel. Finally seeing the game in action, seeing what the hype is about, I can totally see myself watching professional Windjammers on Twitch.
As I play this first game, the massive new television for Streets of Rage 4 arrives. It’s quickly set up, but it needs to be calibrated. Rather than have me wait any longer, they switch the laptop running Streets with another being used to show off Young Souls. This co-op game from developer 1P2P is being published by Arcade Crew, a sister company to Dotemu that’s also publishing Blazing Chrome. Young Souls features two red-headed twins fighting adversity in their ginger-hating town while also fighting monsters to save the very people who reject them.
Like the other two games in the hotel room, Young Souls is gorgeous looking and plays quite well. The twins hack and slash their way through hand-crafted dungeons while sporting unique, vibrant armor and weapons that change up their stats. The final game will have portions take place in town as well as in the dungeons which is fantastic because while the dungeon I play is certainly enjoyable, it’s not very creative. Each battle is just a straight line away from the next and I’d hate to have a passion project such as this blemished with repetitive dungeon crawls.
When it comes time for me to finally play Streets of Rage 4, it does not disappoint. Like Windjammers 2 it’s still early in development and the demo only has two playable characters in Axel and Blaze. It’s enough to show me this is a franchise in the right hands. The Streets of Rage series has been in hibernation since 1994 and in this era of retro revivals, with a company that considers itself a sommelier of said revivals, I don’t think I’d trust the game with anybody else. The artwork and animation from the Lizardcube crew are simply stunning and both Axel and Blaze have never looked better.
That’s true of the background art as well. If The Dragon’s Trap felt like playing a watercolor painting, Streets of Rage 4 is like playing a comic strip. There are three sections to the demo: a dank street at night, an office building, and a Chinatown district. The office building in particular looks like it was pulled from the pages of Marvel and I can’t help but gush over the small details, such as the Asian men playing mahjong in the background of the final stage.
At the end of the office building, there is a mini-boss fight with a whip-wielding dominatrix, presumably Electra, that makes me appreciate the era the original games released in. Streets of Rage is certainly a product of its time. Watch any movie from the 80s that deals with thugs, crime, and lowlifes and you’ll probably see the style of those characters influenced in Streets of Rage. Rage 4 doesn’t back away from those outdated designs. In fact, the game is doubling down on them, giving the 16-bit henchmen and punching bags gorgeous makeovers.
Beyond the beauty of the game, Streets of Rage 4 feels like an honest evolution of the beat’em up formula. Character attacks and combos are fluid, and the action of the game is noticeably faster than previous titles. The controls are still extremely simple as they were during the Genesis era, but everything looks thoroughly modern. That’s because this is a game 10 years in the making.
Guard Crush Games, the third developer working on this project, is best known for Streets of Fury, a gimmicky beat’em up that combines the action of the Streets of Rage series with FMV characters. Not content with just putting a game out and being done with it, Guard Crush has spent the last several years listening to fan feedback and tweaking the game as necessary. It’s learned a lot from working and reworking that game, and every lesson is finding its way into the development of this project.
The demo has a lot of hiccups, symptoms of the early development and use of a custom engine, and all of the music and sound effects are from previous entries in the franchise. All of that is easy to look past when the core gameplay is this finely-tuned and the art direction is this stunning. If the final product at all matches the ambition of this sample, it may stand a chance of being the best beat’em up of the modern gaming era.
Of course, there’s going to be a long wait for us to see if that’s true. Both Streets of Rage 4 and Windjammers 2 are still months, if not more than a year, away from release. The demos I play are extremely early builds of both games and questions about playable characters, platforms, and more go unanswered. While we’ll have to wait until at least 2019 to get our hands on these titles, they certainly show immense promise right now. Dotemu may have spent its first 10 years of existence porting old titles to new systems, but if these games are a sample of what the company is capable of, I don’t imagine it’ll spend its next decade surviving off the scraps of others.