Retrovision: Wing Commander (1990)

For me, Wing Commander is one of those nostalgia glazed games. I was a young kid, maybe 11 or so, when I played it for the first time and it hit me like a hammer: for the first time I experienced that Star Wars kind of a sci-fi epic space combat that only movies had managed to present before. And not only was it smooth, smooth space sim, it also was a cinematic experience, starting from the first opening intro:
An orchestra conductor begins the game, or better yet he starts the music that introduced Origin FX logo.

It was sweet. A peculiar, interesting opening, that Origin, now ages since defunct and not to be mistaken for Electronic Arts' digital distribution platform, used for a while for their titles. The intro scene still makes me smile. It makes me wait for something grand in a very different manner than any modern game company logo can. Though I guess a lot of it has also to do with the fact that it just provokes something in me, just like the old Lucasarts and Sierra logos do. In a way, I remember how it felt to be a kid in 80's and 90's and experience something this advanced for the first time. But I digress, it's Wing Commander we are talking here.

Say what you want, that's a sweet logo
Yes, Wing Commander, a game that put Chris Roberts on the map as a game designer. A game series in which he tried to mix a cinematic experience to a space sim, lacing it with an epic story of human race in a war with cat-like (or maybe lion like would be more appropriate) Kilrathi race. Wing Commander, a series which on part 3 did not only enter in real-time 3D but also employed FMV video starring such names as Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, and Davis Rhys-Jones. But again, I digress, the first Wing Commander didn't have FMV, just a bar with talking heads to discuss
with and help the plot go forwards. And some other little cutscenes for mission debriefing and what not. And all that in true early 90's pixel glory.

This is your menu. Beds for save games, left a door to a bar, the
one with warning signs is the exit game and almost hidden
on the right is the way to the missions.

Wing Commander tried to take the immersiveness of the cinematic experience in a whole new level. After all, it doesn't really work with using in-game menus in things like saving and loading. It has barracks with beds, which serve the role of saving and loading and a cabinet from where you can check your awards from killing the fur balls. It's not the world's greatest menu system mind you. For a couple of times, before you get used to it, you can accidentally click the save part of the little beds instead of restore.

 It's a small annoyance really, but an annoyance none the less and it says a lot about this particular design as Wing Commander 2 ditched it in a favour of an in-game computer screen showing your saved games.

This is the place where you get to know what the people aboard the ship really think about the war effort and your progress in the field of battle. There's also the arcade machine meant for tuning up your combat skills as well as the official killboard.

The bar, or a cantina, or whatever you recreational space you want to call it, is the centre of the storytelling. There are some cut scenes here and there, but in the bar, you get to meet your wingmen and hear the general gist of what they think of you and how they feel about the ongoing war efforts.  Here you can also check the official killboard and train your space fighting skills by using the arcade machine placed there.

It's not strictly necessary to talk with the people at the bar, but it does help in giving some flavour to the campaign and underlines how your own missions have gone. If you muck up the missions or let your wingmen die, you'll hear about it. It's not the kind of a "choose your own adventure" kind of a thing Telltale does for an example, but it at least makes it look like things have a meaning: you don't have to win every mission and that has an effect on how people react.

This is it, people. Listen to your commander telling you stuff
that has very little merit, as you'll be going to nav to nav.
After you've talked enough it's time to get cracking. As this is a space sim, after all, you probably are interested in other things besides pretty pictures of balding bartenders and wingmen sipping drinks in bars. But before you can actually go into space you need to see a small, cinematic display of mission briefing, where you're told that you need to fly from nav point A to nav point B and so on and so worth as long as it takes your route to be completed or you flying back to the base with a tail between your legs if the kitty cats have given you a thorough beating by being better than you in the combat. After the briefing though, you're almost set to go. Though before that you'll get to see a yet another little cinematic, accompanied by a thrilling music, this time showing how you and the other pilots scramble to the fighters, finally getting on the ship and the canopy closing up, with engineers making sure that everything is hunky-dory.
Space is so close now, that I can almost smell it. Or does space smell? I doubt there are that many astronauts out there who've taken their helmets off in order to try and smell it.

And when all is good and well, there's a short launch sequence and you're finally in the glorious, glorious early 90's presentation of space. No 3D models here, just pixels and bitmaps, flying criss-cross all around you. It's definitely different than other space sims, like Elite, that came before it, especially graphically. Though there's a trade-off, as Wing Commander isn't nearly as smooth what comes to enemy animations, as there are no 3D models here. Sure, the wireframe vectors of Elite don't look very nice, but they did animate much nicer way, making all look a bit smoother (though that's a relative concept I guess).
Space at last!

So, the big question now is, is it any fun? How's the flying itself? And, I guess, it's okay. It's not a simulator, despite some call Wing Commander a space sim. To me, it feels more like an arcade game. Elite, X-Wing and Tie Fighter feel more like simulators, but all Wing Commander games have always felt a bit more like arcade games, which is fine by me really. WC games have always tried to be the cinematic option among space sims and that's evident even when you look at Chris Roberts's newest game in the making, Star Citizen, or at least the Squadron 42 part of it.

As such Wing Commander is not a great great game, more than it is an interesting game. It hasn't aged horribly, in fact personally I think it still looks pretty nice and it has some interesting concepts on how a narrative could work in a game like this and how the story itself reacts if your wingmen die or you flunk a mission. The controls work fairly well, especially if you have a flight stick. There's also a possibility to fly by using a mouse, but that might require some additional tweaking of DosBox (yes, it needs to be run through it, as there's no native version made for modern OS's), as I felt the setup done for a digital release is a bit too sensitive.

In today's perspective, WC is also an interesting title, as it gives a glimpse of where Chris Roberts is coming from now that he's trying to create his version of the ultimate space game with Star Citizen. It might be a tad simplistic and plain in places, but at places, it has a surprising amount of depth. Not only the story perspective but missions as well, as you can give simple commands to your wingmen and they all do behave a bit differently. Some are cautious, steady fighters, whereas some might be more reckless, while some are from between.

So yeah, Wing Commander isn't a bad game. When talking about old games I'd even say it's relatively well dated, with warts and all. If you want it you can get it from GOG or Origin. GOG has the better deal for WC1+2 as they're sold as one item about 6 bucks, whereas Origin sells them separately, about a fiver each. But on the other hand, Origin does on occasions tend to give older games as freebies so you might want to stalk there as well if you're not THAT interested in them.