Thursday 21 May 2009

It Was Eighteen Years Ago Today: Wing Commander Special

It’s 1991. PC Plus have awarded Wing Commander 4/5, obviously a libellous hatchet-job by some buffoon who’d barely played it for two hours, because Wing Commander was the very definition of “awesome”, and not just in a misprinted dictionary that had replaced random definitions with military ranks. So what was so great about it?

I’d upgraded my PC1512 to 640k of memory and a 32Mb hard drive, but that was about as far as you could go; the power supply for the whole system was in the monitor and you couldn’t over-ride the on-board graphics with an expansion card, so I was stuck with the four colours of CGA (or, on my mono screen, four shades of gray) and occasional “beep” of a PC speaker that, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, didn’t make for the most compelling audiovisual experience. Curse of the Azure Bonds had characters, a story and the mechanics of AD&D for thoughtful, tactical combat, but the sound and graphics were more functional than jaw-dropping, and sometimes you just wanted to beat up big colourful thugs (and in the game, ah), so I’d still troop off to arcades from time to time with piles of 10p coins for Final Fight, Golden Axe and the like.

Wing Commander is the first game I can remember that made me go “whoah, dude!” (for Bill and Ted were most excellent at the time). My PC wouldn’t even run it, but a friend’s dad had it for his VGA 80386, and I’d head around there at every opportunity. Not only did this machine of awesome power have VGA graphics (256 colours? Was that even possible? Did that many colours actually exist?), it had a sound card, so even the intro had us rapt. Where today we frantically mash mouse buttons and escape keys to skip past interminable splash screens to actually get to the game, back then, to silhouettes on the screen, you heard a genuine real life orchestra[1] tuning up, then the tap of a conductor’s batten, and as the Origin logo appeared amidst bursting fireworks, a symphonic score carried you into a deep-space dogfight between gloriously technicoloured craft.

The graphics alone would have made Wing Commander noteworthy, but it had substance to back them up, and it needed to as a “space-sim” for it had hefty space-boots to fill. We’d had a chance, after all, in the early 80s to clamber into the cockpit of an actual X-Wing[2] in the Star Wars arcade game and do battle with TIE fighters; though the gameplay may have been fairly simplistic, sitting in that cabinet with the flight yoke you just needed someone to stand behind you and randomly whistle now and again, and you were Luke Skywalker. With sufficient imagination and your own “pew! pew!” sound effects you didn’t even need to put any money in, much to the annoyance of arcade owners. On home computers there was the colossus of space games, Elite (for the full story of which I would highly recommend Francis Spufford’s The Backroom Boys, an extract of the Elite chapter available at The Guardian.) Although first released in 1984, so hardly fair as a direct comparison (there were probably single sprites in Wing Commander that were as large as the 32k that the entire game of Elite took up), Elite was still going strong in 1991; the very same issue of PC Plus that reviewed Wing Commander had a brief note in the news section that “Rainbird has enhanced the classic Elite space simulation to cater for EGA and VGA, plus Roland and AdLib sound cards”. I can hardly imagine how mind-blowing it must have been on its initial release.

To challenge Elite on freedom or scale would’ve been playing right to its strengths, the universe of Elite was a massive sandbox for you to explore, and tell your own story. Elite was a cold game, though, as cold as the depths of space you flew through. Beyond the stark black and white of space, effective vector graphics but showing their age, the raw algorithms of procedural generation were veiled enough to give the illusion of a living universe, but it was a universe of data on a screen, factoids about planets, price lists, friend or foe status; you never spoke to a soul. The novella that accompanied the game may have fleshed things out a bit more, but were an entirely hypothetical individual to have perhaps obtained the game in some way that didn’t include the book, they wouldn’t have that benefit. Wing Commander was more visceral, with its dynamic soundtrack, and vivid sprites and bitmaps taking full advantage of VGA. It worked on a much smaller scale, effectively the single carrier on which you were based, but with immersive detail right down to the interface; instead of a text menu with “Load” and “Save” options, you went to the barracks, and clicked on one of the beds to save the game. Between missions you could go to the bar and chat to the bartender and fellow pilots, before combat your Commanding Officer gave you a thorough briefing on what was happening and your objectives, klaxons sounded as you scrambled into your fighter craft. While out flying you could communicate with your wingman, and even enemy pilots for a bit of taunting if you wanted. Though your missions had strict pre-set objectives as opposed to the total freedom of Elite, the path of the game did depend on your performance, successful missions leading to a strike at the very heart of the enemy, unsuccessful missions leading to your retreat.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts I like a degree of freedom in games, but I also like some structure and guidance, so while the series of combat missions of Wing Commander could be seen as more restrictive than the freedom of the galaxies of Elite, that suited me fine. I loved Elite, enough to reach the titular rank, but trading was always a pretty subsidiary part of it for me, I was a bounty killer first and foremost (by which I mean a pirate hunter, rather than a popular dancehall artiste responsible for some fierce riddims), flying around, destroying pirates for reward money then picking up any loot they might drop to sell for further profit. Hmm. No wonder I got into MMOs.

Wing Commander was one of the major factors that spurred me to get a new PC, and one of the first games I installed on my shiny VGA 386SX was Wing Commander II, taking what seemed like (and quite possibly was) hours to install from a massive pile of 3.5″ disks. The second game in the series used pretty much the same engine, but had more of a story involving wrongful accusations of cowardice and treachery. Privateer followed, giving Elite-esque freedom and trading options, as well as main plot you could take part in or ignore as desired, but I remember it more as a decent enough follow-up than anything ground-breaking. For some reason I never picked up the later games in the series that switched to polygon graphics with full motion video cut-scenes; I think when Wing Commander III first came out my PC at the time wasn’t really powerful enough to handle it, plus with all the FMV it came on an unprecedented four CDs, so if there was an entirely hypothetical group of students at that time who exchanged the odd game here and there, they wouldn’t have been able to easily copy it. The series also had stiff competition from a descendant of that original Star Wars arcade game, the excellent X-Wing series that more than sated my space-sim needs for the mid-90s. Still, the original Wing Commander will always be that “whoah, dude!” game.

[1] Revisiting it might actually reveal a MIDI-synth orchestra sounding like a bad ringtone, but don’t spoil it…
[2] Not an actual X-Wing, they don’t exist, but don’t spoil it…

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