Saturday, 20 December 2014

Wing Commander (Amiga CD32)

Wing Commander title screen
The first 'W' game on Super Adventures this year is... Wing Commander, on the Amiga CD32!

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.

Wing Commander was developed by Origin Systems, the same folks who brought the world the legendary 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.

Set in the year 2654 (that's around midway between James T. Kirk and Battlefield: Earth in the grand scheme of sci-fi, 350 years each way), Wing Commander is the story of the pilots of the Terran Confederation strike carrier Tiger's Claw as they get hang out together and get drunk in their free time between missions. Also there's some missions.

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.

Well okay you can't really talk to people, but you can get talked at by them and that's good too.

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.

Man, I love this music for the barracks: 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.

The other pilots... they have no eyes!

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.

These people really need to install some of those sideways elevators from Star Trek. We wouldn't even have to run like this if the commander hadn't forced us to stay seated until the end of the briefing. Like I give a shit what the other wings are doing!

Hang on, are those shoelaces? Are these two planning on going out in a spacefighter without a proper spacesuit on?

Spirit and I are in the Killer Bees Squadron, who ironically fly these Hornets. These are light fighters designed more for patrol and recon than for kicking ass, so I'm sure we'll end up having to fight off 20 enemies with the things while we're out.

Straight after the Battlestar Galactica fighter launch, I remembered to hit autopilot and sent my fighter wing on its way to Nav Point 1. There's no way to accelerate time in this, but I can make long journeys more bearable by skipping them entirely in a short cutscene.

Oh hang on something's up. Spirit just appeared on my computer monitor to tell me that she's noticed enemy ships. Now I can use the vid-com system to tell her to break and attack, shut up, or go home. This seems to be the limit of my actual wing commanding in this game.

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.

I have to hold down one button and hit another to do anything more complicated than pulling the trigger. This isn't the most sophisticated space combat game, but it's got enough features to make this awkward.

Dammit, what a senseless waste of a missile! It's never going to get old though, watching these things explode into giant metal rings and coiled pasta tubes, especially with the dynamic music playing a little victory fanfare each time. Sure I want to save the human race from the evil cat aliens, but I'm really in it for the happy 'enemy killed' jingles.

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.


Oh right, how did I forget about the asteroid fields? They're such an intriguing blend of tedium and instant death, and I've been blessed with two of them on this first level. Granted I probably shouldn't have started doing a barrel roll for no reason, but I was so bored.

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.

Oh NOW they're wearing their space suits!

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.


This time around I made it past the second asteroid field and found a few Salthi light fighters to dogfight with. Then I figured I'd get this far on a few other game systems to compare them, in the interests of science.

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.

Speaking of asteroids, I've got another field to fly through now, thanks to Commander Halcyon's dumbass nav point placement. I should've done what I used to do in the olden days: zig zag from the Tiger's Claw to Nav 1, Nav 3, Nav 2, Nav 3 again, then Nav 1 again, to make it home without hitting a single asteroid field.

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)
Alright, I've made it through the second asteroid field and I'm back home at last. Wait, that's not the Tiger's Claw, it doesn't look anything like my carrier!

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.

This is what the proper Tiger's Claw looks like if you were wondering. Actually ignore that screenshot, you can't make out a damn thing. Hang on, I'm sure sure they've put a proper painted image of it on the box art...

Wow, that's... I can't even tell if it's meant to be the Tiger's Claw, but it looks cool. This is from the FM Towns version of the game, which looks and plays the same as the DOS version so I don't know what those two pilots in red with the giant gun are about.

Speaking of mystery ships, here's another strange starfighter from the Super Famicom box that doesn't ever appear in game to the best of my knowledge. They got that Dralthi on the left correct though weirdly. It seems that no one fucks with the design of the Dralthi: not the FM Towns cover, not the Famicom box, not even Super Wing Commander.

I brought my Hornet up to the Tiger's Claw, brought up the communication screen, and requested permission to land. Then I slowly brought her in... and nearly smashed right into the side of it. It took a bit of messing around, but eventually I worked out that this landing cutscene only kicks in if I approach it from the front.

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.

With my mission completed I got a short debriefing from Commander Halcyon (who sounds so much like Cam Clarke in the Sega CD game), who informed me that I'm great and Spirit sucks, and then I dragged myself back to the bar.

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)
Meanwhile on the boxy 3DO Tiger's Claw, the bar looks completely different, and so does everyone in it. The characters have basically been recast, and it wouldn't be the last time.


CHRISTOPHER 'MAVERICK' BLAIR:

Wing Commander Super Wing Commander Wing Commander IV Wing Commander Movie
Chris started off nicknamed 'Bluehair' in Origin's in-house bible, became Lieutenant "Hotshot" Hotshot in the Sega CD version, took the name Jason "Maverick" Armstrong for the 3DO game, then finally got his official name in Wing Commander III when Mark Hamill took the role. Blair seems to be a shortening of 'Bluehair', which is ironic considering that after he got the name he never had blue hair again.


TODD 'MANIAC' MARSHALL:

Wing Commander Super Wing Commander Wing Commander III Wing Commander Movie
There's never been any mystery over this guy's name, though it is kinda strange that his helmet's got 'Joker' written on instead of 'Maniac' in Wing Commander 1.


JAMES 'PALADIN' TAGGERT:

Wing Commander Super Wing Commander Wing Commander III Wing Commander Movie
Paladin is all over the place when it comes to his look, with his hair getting darker, his moustache becoming a beard, and an eyepatch making a one-off appearance in the 3DO remake. He starts off comically Scottish but becomes French when Tcheky Kariyo takes over for the movie prequel.

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.

Plus to be honest, the pilots as depicted in Wing Commander 1 are a bit... Star Trek: The Original Series, and not in a good way. By that I mean you have the Scotsman, the Belgian, the Australian, etc. and each likes to play it up. Spirit talks about her 'honour' a lot, Angel seems to have forgotten what the English word for 'yes' is, and Paladin would have James Doohan telling him to tone it down.

DOS
Don't get me wrong, I think it's fantastic that the entire Earth has come together to fight for survival against the alien cat menace instead of just America, but the dialogue just doesn't ring true to me.

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
Oh man, what have they done to the 'pilot rushing to his fighter' cutscene in the 3DO game? He gets a bodysuit applied with a press, then the rest of his space suit assembled around him like he's Iron Man. I would not want to be in that thing on the day it inevitably malfunctions... or ever.

Mission 2 is about escorting a Drayman-class transport on its route to a jumppoint, and then returning to the Tiger's Claw directly via an asteroid field (hah, no). Sorry, this is the best shot I could get of the transport; the game is kind of bad at external shots. It's also bad at making it clear where I am in relation to the ship I'm escorting and there's no 'target the vessel's nearest attacker' key to get me back on track.

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


Uh... Commander?

Thankfully it turns out that he just wanted to reward me with medals and promotions due to my superlative performance. Apparently getting any kills at all is a big thing for our crew, as most of the time my wingmen come up empty.

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.

Hah, took a while but I got that Kilrathi destroyer in the end! Oh shit, I should've got on the coms and sent him a really cutting insult first. It's always nice to play a game with a taunt option.

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.


LATER.


Oh shit, I've ran into a Kilrathi ace called Bhurak Starkiller (seriously) and he's wrecking the ship I'm supposed to be escorting! On the DOS version I kept accidentally running into my transport while chasing him, because you can hit invisible parts of their collision box I guess, and he blew the thing up while I was trying to get my fighter back up to speed.

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.

DOS
Interestingly my defeat didn't lead to a game over and I was able to carry on to the next set of missions, though the cutscene I got isn't all that cheerful.

On the other hand, the Kilrathi spacesuits have little ears on the top! So adorable!

Meanwhile, back on the CD32 version, my gun energy ran out again while I was trying to keep the Drayman intact, so I just rammed that asshole Bhurak with my ship instead. Job done and the scientists are saved!

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.

Calm down mate, it's over, you won. Angry 70s guy is currently yelling on his mic for someone to come and take the bad cats away as we speak.

With further success comes more promotions and a better ship, but now I have to wonder... what happens if I really fuck up? How screwed up can I get this plotline to be?

DOS
One sure way to fail a mission without dying is to eject right at the start. You may think that's a bit cowardly, but this guy's basically got nothing but a jacket and a motorcycle helmet on right now to protect him from the inky blackness... dark blueness of space. He's not even wearing gloves. Would you have the guts to jump out into space with just a coat on?


DOS
With ultimate failure comes... medals surprisingly. Well only the one medal actually, for surviving the destruction of my fighter. Next time I get nothing but yelled at.

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.

The game has 13 different systems, with around 3 missions per system, but you'll only visit half of them in a full playthrough. Doing well will put you on the winning path like Captain Awesome on the CD32 a few screenshots back, flying his shiny new Raptor and getting all the medals. Ejecting every time on the other hand sends you straight to the Hell's Kitchen system, where humanity is on the ropes and things are looking bleak.

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?

DOS
Hey the Tiger's Claw makes it! I'd call that a win. The End.

For now..


CONCLUSION

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.

Though it is going to give a Gold Star to me.

If you want to share your thoughts and feelings on Wing Commander or leave me some feedback on my website, then why not drop a comment in the comment box below? Constructive criticism is welcome, compliments doubly so.

15 comments:

  1. You're right, the Mega CD theme seems to suggest that it is The Legend of Zelda: Wing Commander.

    Also, the costuming scene in Super Wing Commander suggests that the uniforms are provided by Syndicate's Eurocorp.

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    Replies
    1. Hopefully limb replacement is voluntary in the Super Terran Confederation though.

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  2. Fantastic review as always. I love the cross-platform screenshots! I must admit though I never got into the Wing Commander series, mostly because I could never acquire anything more then demo versions. Instead, I did have Tie Fighter so I wasn't really that deprived.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I'd call that the opposite of deprived really.

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  3. If you like the graphic style then you'd better check what some devs are producing with Unity: http://www.wingsofstnazaire.com/
    It's amazing!

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    Replies
    1. For sure, I've had my eye on that one for a while. Well, I've spent ages hypnotised by the gifs they did anyway. Whenever I get into discussions about space sims, cockpits and why people put up with them taking up half the screen space (which happens less often than you'd think), that's the game I use to justify their existence.

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  4. I have always thought there is something off with the various cockpit views of this game.
    I mean they look cool and all, but whe I look at the pilots feet it seems to my eyes that:

    A) Either the windshield (or space equivalent) is on the floor and the pilot is hunched over his lap to see out of it...
    Or
    B) Tthe fighters are flown by lying on your back in the seat while holding your legs unergonomicaly crouched in the air and balancing the joystick on your stomach...

    ...Actualy, I think I have played the X-Wing Alliance in that last posture myself.

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    Replies
    1. Nothing wrong with laying back on a couch, putting your feet up, and getting comfy while you're dogfighting cats. It's just like riding a space bobsled.

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  5. Angel's not French. She's Belgian.

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    Replies
    1. So she is. Thanks for that, I'll make the correction.

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    2. Yeah... one of three famous fictional Belgians I know, the others being Tintin and Hercule Poirot.

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  6. This is not only about your Wing Commander review but about all of your reviews (and those by the guest writers as well). Thanks, I had a blast reading many of them during the last 2-3 days, so much nostalgia and games I had never known even existed :)

    - Bob77

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  7. The mystery ship's are a Japanese artist's interpretations of a Fralthi cruiser and a Gratha fighter. They must have looked at the line art in Claw Marks and went to town. The Super Famicom manual also has funky anime portraits of all the pilots.

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  8. Thanks for the awesome review. I played a majority role in the performance of the WC1/WC2/SO ports on the FM Towns, and I felt I received little to virtually no internal recognition for my successful effort to produce a bug-free, smoothly operating flight simulation, something that could not be said about the DOS versions from which the ports were derived. Countless bugs from the original DOS game were removed and did not make into the FM Towns port. The port was a full port to 32 bits from 16 bits; providing fully virtualized memory, a new internal graphics engine, timing synchronization improvements to run predictably on faster processors, ... I loved being able to show my grown children that it wasn't just me that saw the result in a positive light, especially in the context of a performance comparison to other WC ports, after so many years of making the claim that I have always produced quality work, starting with my first real job out of college (the FM Towns port at Origin).
    Best Regards, RB

    ReplyDelete

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