Yeah I realise that the original PC DOS version is likely to be a better experience, but I got this version bundled with a CD32 years back (on the very same disc as that piece of crap Dangerous Streets in fact), and I really should give it a try at least once.
Wing Commander is one of the big games from the early 90s like Doom and Myst that made the PC into a serious rival to the 16-bit game machines of the era, with its advanced 256 colour VGA graphics and... music. Sound cards existed a couple of years before Wing Commander, but this inspired people to buy their first Sound Blaster and turn their sensible personal computer into a gaming platform. Amiga owners were already jealous of the Genesis/Mega Drive at this point, they were getting ready to be jealous of the upcoming SNES, and now they had to be jealous of really expensive 386 PCs too! Sure all three systems eventually got a Wing Commander to call their own a few years down the line, but none could pull the game off with the same speed and visuals as the PC. Probably.
Anyway this is going to be the same deal as ever: I'll play it for an hour or two, share my opinions of how it's been so far, and then leave a comment box at the bottom for you to tell me that it's a good game and my 'review' sucks.
Ultima RPGs, and released late 1990. This was a couple of years before they were bought by EA, 14 years before the studio was scrapped, and 21 years before their good name was exhumed and repurposed to rebrand EA's less than beloved download service.
On the original PC game, those spacefaring silhouettes would be playing midi instruments, but on the Amiga the theme has been reconstructed as sequenced MOD files, even on the CD32 CD version I'm playing: youtube link. That right there is one of the best opening themes in video game history in my humble opinion.
This music's catchy too... HEY, what the fuck? It said I had 25 seconds there, the lying piece of crap! That's the fastest game over I've gotten since Karateka.
Actually it was all just a clever way to get me to enter my name and callsign. Canonically the guy I'm playing was finally christened Christopher Blair in 1994's Wing Commander 3, and got the callsign Maverick in 1997's Wing Commander: Prophecy, so that's what I'll put in. Maverick though, seriously? That's not a subtle nod to Top Gun, that's breaking in and stealing its stuff.
I usually complain about menus disguised as rooms, because having to click the trash can for graphics options, the toilet door for controls, and the bemused cat to enter mission one is the opposite of intuitive. But this screen on the other hand makes immediate sense; you click on the people to talk to people, click the scores to view scores etc.
If you chat to Angel here, she explains that Kilrathi Dralthi fighters go down in about seven hits, while Paladin mentions that their Salthi fighters always turn to the left. Uh... cool, good to know.
Oh by the way, the game doesn't go out of its way to make this clear at first, but mankind is currently locked in a deadly war against the cat-like alien Kilrathi right now. To be fair it's not a situation that requires a great deal of explanation, and there's plenty of info in the manual for those that read such things. It originally came with four posters featuring blueprints of the human spacefighters too... well, the PC version did anyway; my CD32 copy came in a jewel case with the instructions shoved onto the top half of front cover.
There's only one exit from this room, a door marked 'BARRAC', so I'll take it.
youtube link. It's so mellow.
Each of those beds is a save game slot; unless you're playing the SNES version, in which case they're just beds (somehow I get the feeling that's not going to be the best of the ports). I can also examine all my medals by clicking on the lockers, but I'll save that for when I have any.
Okay, I'm moving on to the next door.
As the lowest ranking newbie pilot on the TCS Tiger's Claw, I've been given a veteran wingman to command because... I have no idea. At least the first mission will be simple enough: Spirit and I will be going on patrol, visiting three nav points before heading back to the ship.
Hang on, are those shoelaces? Are these two planning on going out in a spacefighter without a proper spacesuit on?
I'm having a little bit of a problem here though, as the Amiga CD32 is an early 90s system with an early 90s controller, and the things don't have all that many buttons.
The ships look surprisingly detailed, considering that the DOS game came out around three years before Star Fox introduced 3D polygon graphics to consoles, and arcade games like Daytona USA started mapping textures to them. You can probably tell the trick though just by looking at it: all the objects are sprites, just like in Doom. That's why they all rotate in 30 degree steps and turn into a mosaic when I get anywhere near them.
SOON, NEAR NAV 2.
It wouldn't be so bad if I was weaving through space rocks like the Millennium Falcon in Empire Strikes Back, I've done that in space combat games before and it can be cool. No this is something else, something I've never been able to properly get my head around (or my space fighter). It doesn't help that I'm navigating it while looking through a letterbox, and these rocks don't even have to be on screen to hit me.
This reminds me of a scene in the Wing Commander movie where they shove a wrecked fighter off the flight deck and it falls over the side. In space. Yes I remember things from the Wing Commander movie.
MISSION 1, SECOND TRY. NEAR NAV 3.
Say what you like about the Amiga 500 version, it looks damn good considering that it only has 16 colours on screen, and it seems pretty much the same to the DOS version in gameplay. It's just a shame that if you try running it on an A500 you're going to get a frame rate just one step above 'turn based'. Oh, plus it loads off floppy disks.
The CD32 and FM Towns versions of the game on the other hand look basically identical to the DOS version to my eyes with only a few minor differences. The CD32 version has mods instead of midi for music (I'd call it a plus, though Roland MT-32 owners might disagree) and runs slower, but stick it on a faster Amiga and it flies. The FM Towns version runs like a dream and has (dynamic) CD audio and Japanese wingman speech in combat, which means this is the one to go for if you want Spirit to sound any way authentic.
The Sega CD and SNES versions are both playably fast, and look reasonably authentic, but they've got some major differences. The Sega game has full speech in and out of battle (and no subtitles), and they've swapped the music with something that sounds stolen from a JRPG. I mean seriously, listen to what they've done with the theme: youtube link. The SNES game has a slightly mangled version of the DOS music, but the gameplay has been really screwed with. The guns fire too fast so you run out of energy, the radar updates too slowly so it's a struggle to follow enemies, and as far as I can tell only one enemy can get in combat range at a time. Oh, also the asteroids are WORSE.
It's a shame this map's only good for navigation, as it'd be cool to see what the other ships are up to. TIE Fighter's map is amazing for this, as it gives a full 3D overview of the entire area, with every ship and station marked on it. Wing Commander has tiny pockets of dogfighting separated by autopilot travel, but TIE Fighter's missions feel like they take place in an actual place, with distant capital ships functioning as landmarks.
|Super Wing Commander (3DO)|
Yep, for the 1994 3DO and Mac remake of the game they decided to scrap the entire graphic style of the game and start again with something that looks more like Wing Commander Armada. It's not the most consistent sci-fi franchise when it comes to visuals, as the entire universe gets a visual overhaul every couple of sequels. They gave it new voice acting too, different to the Sega CD voices. At the core it seems like the same thing though, with the same script, missions and gameplay, and they even brought the tunes back. Weirdly though they called this updated game Super Wing Commander, while the SNES game is just Wing Commander.
And what a nice landing cutscene it is too, showing the fighter glide gracefully down the flight deck, come to a stop... and then drop straight down. Yep, the Hornets seem to be aerodynamic, but they're actually VTOL spacecraft without wheels on their landing gear. So that long runway that covers half the length of the ship serves absolutely no purpose except to look good.
This time I found Spirit and Hunter seated at the table, but ignore that for a minute as I'm going to compare versions again and I've only got these shots of Paladin and Angel from the start to use.
Again the DOS, FM Towns and CD32 versions look basically the same. The Sega CD version has less colours and JRPG music, and the SNES one looks and sounds a bit ass. Weirdly the ultra low colour Amiga 500 version actually looks better than the original game in places, like the chairs and tables on the right (but not the characters).
|Super Wing Commander (3DO)|
CHRISTOPHER 'MAVERICK' BLAIR:
|Wing Commander||Super Wing Commander||Wing Commander IV||Wing Commander Movie|
TODD 'MANIAC' MARSHALL:
|Wing Commander||Super Wing Commander||Wing Commander III||Wing Commander Movie|
JAMES 'PALADIN' TAGGERT:
|Wing Commander||Super Wing Commander||Wing Commander III||Wing Commander Movie|
When the games turned live action in '94, Blair became the guy from Star Wars, Maniac became Biff from Back to the Future, and Paladin turned into the guy from Sliders (later known as the guy from Lord of the Rings). I guess 15 years of combat can change a man... into an entirely different looking man. It's hard to consider Mark Hamill, Tom Wilson, and John Rhys Davies as anything less than an upgrade though, seeing as they're amongst the first FMV pioneers to prove that you actually can have proper respectable acting in a video game.
And then a million shitty horror games killed the idea for good, and the idea of live-action cutscenes was forever abandoned to history, replaced with motion captured 3D; the occasional Command and Conquer and Need for Speed sequel aside. I still believe that there's a place for live-action in modern games though, especially when the characters only appear outside of gameplay.
Right, I'm done chatting in the bar, so it's back to the barracks to save, then I'm off to the briefing room for the next exciting mission!
|Super Wing Commander|
So really in the end this turned out to be much like the first mission: press autopilot, shoot fighters, press autopilot, shoot fighters, go home.
LATER, DURING THE DEBRIEFING
With success comes reassignment to a different squadron, so now I'm flying these slow piece of crap Scimitars. They've got plenty of armour, shields and missiles, but their gun energy runs out so fast that I'm often left killing time, waiting for it to recharge. It's not like the X-Wing games, where you can redirect energy between ship systems to adjust charging rates, I'm at the mercy of the my fighter's own power management.
Though I can't say I was entirely enthralled by the process of kicking his ass. I flew past, shot him up a bit, used my afterburners to get some distance, flew past, shot him up a bit etc. There's no sub-targeting weapon turrets to systematically strip him of his defences or anything like that.
With my wingman gone, my damage display endlessly cycling through wrecked systems, and my guns floating off into space somewhere, I was forced to make a daring retreat back to the carrier to report my utter failure.
On the other hand, the Kilrathi spacesuits have little ears on the top! So adorable!
I have no idea how protecting a transport ended up saving these guys though, they seem to have gotten the job done all by themselves. I dunno, maybe it was carrying Weetabix to the colony or something.
Funnily enough though, he keeps on putting me back in new Hornets, even after I demonstrate time and time again that I'm only going to eject the moment that I'm clear of the Tiger's Claw.
So basically I am the only pilot who's even remotely competent on this boat, and removing me from the equation results in inevitable disaster for my ship and the entire human race. It's nice to be needed I suppose.
But what happens if I eject on the final mission too?
Wing Commander really was groundbreaking in its day, but it really hasn't aged all that well in my opinion. In fact I'd say that it was rendered hopelessly obsolete the day TIE Fighter emerged into the world, as this is the Wolfenstein 3D to its Half-Life. Wow, that came out sounding harsher than it did in my head...
I have a massive amount of nostalgia for this game, and I love the way it looks and sounds. This is an early example of cinematic gaming done right, with the inter-mission intermissions immersing players into the world in a way that TIE Fighter and later space combat games have tended not to focus on, without it getting in the way of the gameplay. Not that there's been much of an actual story so far, at least not involving the pilots. If you want to learn about fighter statistics they're great company, but all of the actual drama happens outside.
The trouble is that the gameplay just hasn't been all that great so far. Hit autopilot, shoot some fighters, hit autopilot, dodge some rocks, hit autopilot, shoot some fighters, hit autopilot, dodge some mines etc. The dogfighting can get challenging when you're outnumbered, but 90% of my losses came from those bloody asteroids, and I soon came to dread them. Plus I dread the escort missions. And any mission with a minefield on it. Basically I don't even want to leave the carrier any more.
Everything about the presentation and setting of Wing Commander seems custom engineered to appeal to my tastes specifically, and yet I still barely want to get any further in it. I love the game, but I can't recommend it, so I won't be giving it one of my humble Gold Star awards.