As great as X-Wing was, I had always had a soft spot in my heart for Wing Commander and its sequel. X-Wing was a great first step for Lucasarts, but Origin Systems’ own series was still unbeaten in certain respects. And all that started with the first game in 1990.
Though the space combat sim genre has been around for years reaching as far back as Star Raiders in 1979 and Elite in 1984, Wing Commander embraced technology in the same way as its forebears by pushing the envelope in innovative ways. Origin Systems set out to create a sim like none other and to a large extent, they had succeeded. By this point in time, World War II sims were also a dime a dozen and when Chris Roberts was quoted as saying that Wing Commander was meant to be “World War II in space”, he meant it.
It’s almost ironic to think on the origins of Wing Commander and that of Star Wars sharing something in common. George Lucas wanted to make films based the old, 1930’s film serials for sci-fi legend, Flash Gordon, but he couldn’t get the rights. So, he went off to continue his work on Star Wars, writing himself into history.
Chris Roberts, on the other hand, had ideas kicking around in his head for years on what he wanted in a space combat sim. A big fan of Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, he wanted an “F-16 fighter but in space” and the seeds for Wing Commander began to sprout. It was a far cry from when he had programmed helicopters to fly and land at the age of 13 on a PET. While other kids were more concerned with what to do in Manchester, England, he was busy laying the groundwork for what would become one of the space sim genre’s most innovative steps forward.
Another driving idea for why Wing Commander had to push the technological edge was something that he had learned while growing up thinking code and the games that he could make with it. He noticed that no one asked what was the “best CGA game”. They had only asked what was the “BEST” game. Period. And that left the impression that the best way to get anyone’s attention would be to build a cutting edge experience on the latest hardware available. A killer app. And in many ways, Wing Commander was exactly that.
The game used pre-rendered 3D graphics to give the 2D maps depth and detail allowing them to stand out whether they were zooming right by the cockpit or exploding in your face while dodging asteroids. It had a detailed cockpit packed with equipment showing shield strength, weapon status, a radar system, and a comm window showing the face of whoever wanted to chew your face off.
The alien Kilrathi, which Chris Roberts had patterned after the Japanese from WW2 with their own bushido-like code of conduct, were a cat-like race who became humanity’s worst enemy turning a typical space sim into something far greater. This was the “WW2 in space” that Roberts had been gunning for complete with hard grit and a touch of Hollywood drama worked into its characters.
Because this was a game that told a story through its world as much as the action did and I couldn’t help but be pulled right into every waking moment on the Tiger’s Claw where you character was stationed. Old “Blue Hair” as he was called because of the blue highlights of his black hair to distinguish it from the background was your default face in the world of Wing Commander, but others would also be as instantly recognizable as wing men watching your six. There was the old reliable, Paladin, ace-of-aces Iceman, and the always unpredictable Maniac – all of whom had their own profiles written up in an edition of Claw Marks which came with the game and who you could also meet at the bar on the Tiger’s Claw.
And each of these would follow your orders according to their talents. You could ask them to cover your six, go after the enemy on their own, maintain radio silence, or stay on your wing. And they often did a really good job at doing so according to their profiles. Sometimes you had to go out and help, but for the most part, they were lifesavers in the game especially in keeping enemy pilots off of your back. Well, except maybe for Maniac who almost always got in trouble. Flying with him often felt like punishment for doing something wrong in the game, even if you were doing pretty good on the kill board. And these wingmen could also die off. Though it didn’t dramatically change the story, that empty spot at the bar still left an impression.
But for something like Claw Marks, extras in PC games aren’t new as companies such as Infocom loved to include these with their titles to enhance the immersion. Wing Commander probably didn’t need as much help given its visual and audio fidelity, but something like Claw Marks would only further demonstrate Origin’s motto of “We Create Worlds” by taking that extra step which was already something of a tradition with the Ultima series.
Claw Marks was packed full of interviews, commentary, a brief on the war and how we got there, ship specs for vessels on both sides of the line, and even entries on enemy aces such as Khajja the Fang otherwise known as “The Machine” for his unwavering focus on an objective. I devoured everything in that book so when I faced off against Khajja for real, my thumb poised above the missile release and my trigger finger trying to find his six, it was as every bit as exhilarating as the writeup on his tactics rolled through my head. These weren’t just faces on pages. They were actually in the game, and you could fight them!
The enemy AI was actually decent, though despite my excitement over finding someone like Khajja, I wasn’t expecting it to be as brutal as a “real” flight sim. For one thing, owing to the aggressive nature of some of the ships, it could be tricked into following behind you which was useful for when you ran against a capital ship and then flew up and around it at the last minute. Often, the AI wasn’t able to compensate and would smash right into it. This also revealed one of the visual limitations for large vessels. Capital ships were often as large as fighters as you could never get too close before hitting them yourself.
At the end of the day, this was arcade action through and through, though flying like an idiot was still the surest way to get killed as I’d often be outnumbered more than once. This was a war of attrition and it showed. And it was also one where you could often survive defeat only to be demoted later.
On returning to the hangar aboard the Tiger’s Claw, battle scars right outside my cockpit told me just how close I had gotten to sucking vacuum – as if the onboard display didn’t tell me enough already. If I had ejected, I could almost expect to be demoted. Losing and living through the experience didn’t necessarily end the game because Wing Commander would go so far as to anticipate even that. There’s a reason for why, on the included map, humanity seems to have the advantage in star systems over the Kilrathi as CGW’s Dennis Owens noted in his review of the game – it’s to give the player as many fall back positions as possible to allow them the chance for redemption.
Owens even pushes the idea of intentionally taking the easy way out by going to the save/load game menu (represented on the Tiger’s Claw as a series of bunks with sleeping “savegames”, something that I wish certain games would creatively work on) and replaying a mission to “get it right”, instead going ahead and iron manning your way through the game for better or worse. Because you might actually miss more gameplay by ignoring what it’s prepared to do for you. It would be something that the other games in the series would take up complete with multiple endings.
At the time that Wing Commander came out, the Soundblaster brand along with Ad Lib were scrappy and cheaper alternatives to the then high-end Roland sound system, although the audio was still an amazing piece of work regardless of hardware. Like a film, it matched many of its scenes and changed its own tempo depending on what was going on, surrounding players with its world by filling their ears with thrilling music and plenty of pew pew pew sound effects.
Even the “menu” system was given a full-on injection of incredible. In addition to a bar area where you can rub elbows with your fellow pilots, the save system resembled a barracks with sleeping pilots as your files. The briefing area was where you started the next mission and the detailed animation work there, running to the hangar, getting into your ship, and multiple cockpit views saturated with crafted pixels were beyond bleeding edge for the time.
Wing Commander would go on to have four more sequels, ending at Wing Commander V: Prophecy. The first game, in particular, would be ported to quite a number of platforms ranging from the SNES to the 3DO (as Super Wing Commander). It would also be re-released in a collector’s tin with remastered music and sounds and in many ways, the arcade action of the first game still holds up relatively well especially now that you don’t need as cutting edge a box as you did back then.
Wing Commander would also get two “Secret Mission” expansion packs that offered up hours of extra furballs to get shot at and they could be tough. At least the first one was for me, but the plus side was that you also got new ships to play with. Picking both up was a no brainer for me. This was a series that I’d be a huge fan of for years to come, although it would be a bumpy ride as I later discovered.
Wing Commander’s legacy has left a poignant mark on the industry as a whole, something that has torn right on through genre barriers to innovate in ways that even the present generation has trouble in simply trying to mimic. Branching storylines, multiple endings, defeat not being the end of a player character, the use of music and cutting edge graphics to deliver an experience like none other…these were lessons that it had polished up from its peers and slammed down on the table with its appearance on shelves in 1990.
This wasn’t an empty boast back then, either, and the ad for it was proud of the fact that what you saw was exactly what you got to play. The movie strip festooned with screenshots to compliment the larger ones on the right continued to punctuate the kind of visual sugar-rush that awaited IBM PC players back then and the description of the action coded into the game wasn’t far from the mark.
Today, you can pick it up at Good Old Games, though without any of the expansion packs like the Secret Missions which is just a strange omission to make. In fact, none of Wing Commander’s sequels or its spinoff, Privateer, on the service get the extra missions.
Wing Commander also stands out as a testament to what Origin had used to be back in those early years in much the same way that X-Wing did with Lucasarts. Both are bittersweet reminders of when companies weren’t shy in experimenting with new ideas and approaches, when smaller teams could create magic given the right tools and talent, and the wonderful games that could emerge from that kind of synergy.
Wing Commander, in particular, is remarkable for being an original IP that acted as a medium in translating what Roberts’ childhood saw in Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. There were still hardcore flight sims for players that wanted them, but a game like Wing Commander brought the explosive power of being a heroic star down to the masses in a way that didn’t compromise its core pursuit of being fun and challenging. And at the same time, it had even managed to work in a thrilling universe meticulously worked over with its own story as a pioneering effort that had managed to grasp tightly the stars that it reached for.