Recording this week's podcast we were asked what games first transformed gaming from some simple and silly pasttime into something more powerful and more meaningful. Within a moment my mind's eye was transported into the cockpit of a Rapier blasting the supposedly evil and decidedly feline Kilrathi from the skies around the TCS Tiger's Claw, Meson Blasters and Tachyon Cannons blazing the night.
I describe Wing Commander as my Classic Game of the Week, when in fact what I mean is the series of major PC releases that populated my monitor for nearly a decade. Christopher Blair, the hero of the Terran Confederation time and again, holds a special place in nostalgic corners of my game-brain, both as the later incarnation that bore a striking resemblance to Luke Skywalker as well as the early blue-haired pilot whose hands could actually be seen handling the flight stick if you had sufficient technological capacity.
The series was a sweeping epic of grand proportions for a young industry. It described and executed a possibility for gaming, to be as majestic and affecting as cinema, that many had never dared to suggest was possible. It is a game that unlike almost any other I love as much because of its cutscenes and story as its gunplay. It is also somehow a striking metaphor for the evolution, both good and bad, of the young business of gaming.
With the possible exception of Descent Freespace, this was for me the last, great stand of the joystick. I recall with deep fondness leaning into my Microsoft Sidewinder, thrusters at full, rotating and spinning through the void of space to get in position to lead that perfect shot that dispatched my umpteen-thousandth Dralthi Fighter. I have moved on to tiny nubbins of plastic console controls and mice/keyboard combos, but I have never felt like my games have been as tactile as they were when I held those joysticks of old.
To list out the Wing Commander series of games is to count out some of the greatest games of all time. Not a one of the five major canon releases was a disappointment, each upping the ante to the point where Hollwood level talent breathed powerful life into characters like Maverick, Tolwyn, Paladin & Maniac. Even Wing Commander: Privateer stands in my mind as the father of high-profile, open-world gaming, and while Chris Roberts offered a hint of that genius years later with Freelancer, I'm not sure anyone has ever managed to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Privateer.
I suppose I will always be resentful at the mismanagement of Origin by Electronic Arts, a bungling powerplay that left some of the greatest franchises in PC gaming virtually ruined in its wake. Wing Commander Prophecy, a 1997 reboot of the franchise that seemed poised to bring Wing Commander into the modern era in a meaningful way remains a promise unfulfilled. But I hate to close on a sad note.
Forgetting for the moment some less than stellar console spin-offs and a tragically bad film, Wing Commander on the PC stands as a titan of gaming. I wish so much that I could go back and play them again for the first time.