The original Wing Commander was literally a bolt out of the blue. Chris Roberts and the team at Origin Systems would set the benchmark for what was to be expected from space combat sims with its advanced graphics and cinematic storytelling. To put it into perspective it launched more than eighteen months before id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and then two and a half years before LucasArts would take their own first steps in the genre with X-Wing.
You know from the beginning that the game is aiming to be something above the games of the time. How many can you think of would open with an animated conductor and symphony as the music starts? It’s a bold statement for sure but the game followed it up with a movie style opening cinematic and credits. With the epic style music score pumping out you can’t help but think that the game is certain to deliver on that first impression. They weren’t cutting any corners in quality that’s for sure.
Starting off as a rookie pilot on the carrier TCS Tiger’s Claw the game’s campaign gets you acquainted with the game’s controls through some basic missions before pushing you into the main campaign and fighting against the cat-like Kilrathi. A great touch from the start of the game is that your first introduction to combat is via an “training simulator” that quickly gets you used to the controls before the real missions begin. You can even return to it later for a spot of practise and to improve your score. It’s a perfect way to get a taste for what the rest of the game offers.
When playing it’s amazing seeing how much the developers got right in Wing Commander that would clearly inspire the many games that followed. Navigation points, wingman communications, even mission briefings… these admittedly were often a staple for military sims but seeing them executed in a space sim was a rarity. If you’ve played any Star Wars space sim that followed you’d recognise many of these features too. Having your pilot’s hands on the flight stick responding to your movements in the game does not get old.
The gameplay loop when it comes to the missions themselves is simple enough:
- Launch from your base. It’s automated but I love the opening cinematic. Exiting the carrier is very old-school Battlestar Galactica. 🙂
- Follow the course assigned – in some cases you’re flying patrol routes in others it might be single target or location for an attack.
- Complete any assigned objectives… ie. shoot, protect and avoid!
- Keep an eye on your ship’s status as well as that of your wing. You might need to retreat if you’ve suffered too much damage.
- Return to base. You might be flying towards a blocky sprite but you still need to aim for the hanger.
But how the story wraps around all this is where the game stands out. You find there’s NPC’s back at base for you to chat with that reveal more of the story and help fill you in on the details. Even some combat tips are thrown in too! These conversations change as you progress in an almost RPG like fashion. They’re not really necessary for playing the game but they help immerse you into the world that’s been created for you. When you think about military sims of the time they mostly would stick with the briefing, then the mission itself and finally would close off with a review and any medals or promotions resulting from it. Here you get all that but then get to see what happens between those missions too… yes, it’s all talking heads but these games had to start somewhere!
In 1990 Wing Commander was the perfect advertisement for VGA and Adlib/SoundBlaster cards of the era so seeing all this is now possible to emulate through software shows how much times have changed. The sprite scaling and rotation methods used are convincing in presenting the ships moving in 3D space and it’s a neat trick which I’m surprised we don’t see used much anymore. The passage of time hasn’t been as kind to Wing Commander’s low resolution sprites when viewed up close but they still work well enough. I do wish we could see someone try this again at higher resolutions but soon after this everyone went the polygon route instead. Explosions have some cool details thrown in such as debris flying off ships that are damaged. There’s a lot of these little things in the game that you notice and may not have been necessary but are easy to appreciate. Running it now on modern systems is helped immensely through a little piece of magic known as DOSBox that emulates pre-Pentium DOS PCs plus video and audio hardware of the time too. It’s nice to know that now we can FINALLY play the game at a steady(ish) framerate. 😉
The controls are worthy of mention in that they are very concise with movement and weapons all conveniently located near your controller of choice and with additional options kept to a minimum. And when I meant controller of choice I’m serious as there’s two options for keyboard (arrows and numeric keypad) as well as a mouse or joystick. And the game’s reference card had all of this information fitting neatly onto a single page. So… which controls come out on top? Without a doubt it’s the joystick that is the winner here as the game responds more fluidly than it does with the mouse which I found a little too sensitive for my taste. By default Wing Commander only supports two buttons with one for firing weapons and other being a contextual button that not only managing speed but roll and missiles too! If you don’t have a joystick/controller I even feel that the keyboard is a much better option than the mouse and it also has the advantage of keeping the other commands close by too. Once again the old PC flight stick wins out in this “battle” but you may wish to remap a few more buttons to your controller which you can thankfully do in DOSBox (CTRL + F1).
Mastery the controls at your disposal is a necessity because the game isn’t afraid to make life difficult with Kilrathi forces fighting hard and your failures tend to stick. It can be pretty easy to find yourself facing off against a wing of enemy ships and getting blown to space dust under a hail of weapons fire so learning to be nimble and pick your targets is key to a successful mission. Failures both big and small aren’t always clear in their overall impact in the game but they can chart the course of your campaign if you fail too often. Losing a colony because I failed to protect a transport was not a great feeling and I wonder if I’m going to suffer the consequences of that in the future…
In spite of its once advanced technical accomplishments now dating the game significantly it’s amazing to play Wing Commander again and see how much of the game holds up even now. As a title for the PC it set a new benchmark for production values that hammered home the truth that this was going to be the future platform for computer games. It also succeeded in creating a world that makes sense for your character and the path they follow whilst providing plenty of action as you work your way up through the ranks. The story around the game was just as important and the developers went as far as they could to ensure that aspect was given its fair share of love too. To borrow a quote from a film that likely inspired it: she may not look much (now) but she’s got it where it counts.
Note: The version of Wing Commander I’ve been playing can be found here via GOG.com. Seeing as it’s running through DOSBox it can likely be played on any system that has a version of that available too. 🙂