CGOTW - Wing Commander

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.

Comments

Great submission to the CGOTW series.

Does anyone know if there are digital distributions of some of these classic games anywhere? I just checked for a copy of the Kilrathi Saga compilation on Amazon.com and you can get it used for a little under $150!

Privateer was the bomb.. man that was gaming goodness

I remember picking up the Kilrathi Saga, one of 3 or so import copies that made their way into Tokyo's Akihabara district...

and then putting it down. What a mistake. It would've been a nice set to hold onto.

It seemed like the Wing Commanders marked different hardware updates for me. I played WC1 on my old 386 with my first VGA card. I missed the 486, but played 2, 3 and Privateer on my 90 Mhz pentium with my VESA compliant Viper Videocard .
I think 4 mightve been around the time of my Pentium 2.

Not to forget Strike Commander. I missed out on Wings of Glory(?) but had a little fun with Pacific War, which i think is generally regarded as the buggiest of games based on one of this series' tech.

Man! I so loved playing those games! For some reason even though the movie was so terrible I still love to watch it anyways. It's up there with Hackers and some others that are so bad that I love them. And seriously the movie was leaps and bounds better than some of the series cut scenes. Which isn't really saying much I admit.

If you like Privateer (and who doesn't?), you would do well to check out the Gemini Gold remake of Privateer using the Vega Strike engine. The Vega Strike software is open source, so there's Linux, Mac and Windows versions. It's basically a complete fan-made remake of Privateer with the Righteous Fire missions included. It was released in 2005 and was covered on Slashdot at the time. It's totally awesome, especially if you're a Linux user like myself.

Official site: http://priv.solsector.net/

I'm still bitter that Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger was a better movie than Wing Commander. Anyway one of the few games I enjoyed on my 3dO.

Just occurred to me I've never played this series on the PC. I started with Wing Commander on the super nes, then Super Wing Commander on 3dO, and finally Wing Commander 3.

Great read. I was a bit late to the PC scene. I think they were at the third one when I got my first PC.

I wish I could have played that when it came out, I bet I'd have loved it.

The first space sim where bits were flying off the crafts you were shooting at. This single feature sold me. Also, chalk me up as one of the nostalgic Privateer fans. Too bad Privateer 2 wasn't as entertaining.

I can't remember how many hours I logged on Priavteer. So great. The rest of the series was amazing as well. Wing Commander for me was always about the interaction between the pilots too. Your wingman was important, and you actually got attached to the other characters. At least I did.

I played the original Wing Commander on the SNES of all things. It was fun.

I loved all of these games, and the Freespace games, and Starlancer, and so on and so on...can we have some more space flight sims please?

I played Wing Commander late, after I had already had a love affair with X-Wing. But I definitely have the same nostalgic love of X-Wing, so I completely understand. And I second spider_j, more space flight sims please!

On a side note, I just finished Star Trek: Legacy, which is more of a lightweight RTS, but still had dog fighting reminiscent of these games. Worth checking out if you are a Trek fan.

O, Wing Commander, how I miss thee. I remember guys from Origin running the demo for WC2 at AggieCon in 1991 - little more than the opening cinematic, really - and being absolutely transfixed. Thrakhath and the Emperor were TALKING! It was the Jazz Singer of PC gaming; so what if we all had to buy Sound Blasters to hear it?

The WC Combat Information Center is a terrific resource for all things Wing Commander-y: http://www.wcnews.com/

And I never got to play Privateer, really, but I've always been interested in Gemini Gold, and the original version seems to run well via DosBOX on my netbook. I feel like its turn is finally coming.

I just this weekend cleaned out my closet of most of my gaming boxes. In addition to Perfect General and solo flight was Wing Commander and Privateer.

I remember playing Wing Commander on the SNES at a friends, and thinking how amazing it was. Luckily it was released for Sega CD a few months later. I read that entire Sega CD manual, including the awesome Claw Marks (I believe was the name) manual. Wing Commander games really got the packaging right with the extras.

I later got the PC version of Wing Commander hoping to find the Secret Ops package, but I never got around to it. Other than Secret Ops, I own (and played through) every other Wing Commander game.

One major "mistake" they made in the creation of this game was to make full branching outcome trees based on whether you won or lost battles. If you did well, your carrier would advance; if you did poorly, it would fall back. Eventually, assuming you survived but kept failing missions, you could be pushed back all the way to Earth, mounting a desperate defense with weak ships against a very strong enemy.

Problem was, with save games, people just replayed each mission until they got it right. They refused to go down the 'bad outcome' paths. All the work in creating that tree was wasted.... nobody ever saw the missions!

This resource misallocation was a lot of why later games have become so linear. Wing Commander allowed you to fail but recover, but people simply refused to fail at all. So now, failure is just GAME OVER; succeed and advance down the preordained plot path, or fail and die.

If games weren't linear, as WC1 so clearly demonstrated, we'd make them linear.

Wing Commander
Privateer
Freespace

Definately the some of the last good Joystick games.

But I think the real swan song was Falcon 4.0. Or maybe Longbow 2

Who would've thought that games made by a frustrated movie director could turn out well.
Oh, how much did Chris Roberts actually want to be in movies and not stuck in games.

(of course, this is going from Warren Spector's talks)

Origins, great designers but also lucky accidents.
Too bad luck doesn't last and eventually, like with many studios over the years: EA happened.

Ahhh I remember convincing my parents to get me a PC so I could play this one. I also remember the 5 1/2" floppies it came on and eagerly installing and swapping disks waiting to get to play.

Yeah, Chris Roberts did want to get into movies so badly, and it shows from the 7 CDs of Wing Commander IV, which I suspect was almost entirely cutscene video content. (The game itself probably only took up 1 CD, if that.) Almost all of the WC4 video is available on YouTube, which saved me the trouble of getting the game itself to work properly. Origin was well known for proprietary memory management systems, which makes it hard to get them running on modern machines, DOSBox or not.

Plus, I didn't care for the WC game mechanics (especially in WC3/WC4/Prophecy), much preferring the X-Wing system and later the far superior Freespace 2 flight/weapons/damage model.

If I remember correctly, there are at least 2 (and maybe more) Privateer remakes out there. Annoyingly they feature different sets of improvements. Some include the full set of WC2 military ships, etc. I consider Freelancer to be the spiritual sequel to Privateer, more so than Privateer 2 at any rate.

- Alan

Brizahd wrote:

I'm still bitter that Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger was a better movie than Wing Commander. Anyway one of the few games I enjoyed on my 3dO.

Hell, the *original* Wing Commander game was a better movie than the Wing Commander movie. The short cut scene of the pilots running to the hangar decks at the start of a new mission was way more cinematic than anything the movie gave us.

Of all the sins that EA has committed over the years, canceling Privateer Online is one of the worst. Yes, it was in development; the suits decided that it would compete with Earth & Beyond though and killed it before it was formally announced. Apparently much of that team went on to do the space combat bits of Star Wars Galaxies, which was an awesome game hampered by a relative lack of content. Despite being turned off by the shenanigans with the ground game, I'm still tempted to re-subscribe to Galaxies so I can fly my starships again. Hopefully Jumpgate Evolution will deliver this summer.

R.I.P. Origin. You had your flaws, including your leader, but you produced some fantastic memories for me.

Ultima 8 was the first PC game I ever played and Ultima 7 ranks as my favorite game ever. I still have the midi files from each on my computer today. Listening to them brings me back to those days immediately. Stones, anyone?

I didn't get into PC gaming until the summer of '95, so it was X-Wing and TIE fighter for me, not WC 1 or 2. Though WC3 was interesting, if flawed. I remember the buzz for it being intense: a budget in the millions and the super-high system reqs (a habit of Origin).

What a fantastic series Wing Commander was. From the time spent in the bar to real up-close dogfighting, Wing Commander defined the perfect flight sim experience for me. Okay, so maybe it wasn't terribly realistic, but there's simply no topping the feeling of getting right up behind an enemy and blasting them to pieces while they cuss you out over the comm link. If another one were released I'd be first in line to buy a new joystick and a boxed copy. Great GOTW. And since we're on the subject of Origin, might I suggest Ultima Underworld as a future GOTW?

Compulsion wrote:

Stones, anyone?

Always.

Hm. I wonder if I can get away with having that at the wedding or reception.

Umm, when you say that you "cleaned out your closet" does that mean that you still have Solo Flight? If so, I'd love to chat with you.

Privateer was alright, but Elite did it far better.

You may be surprised to hear that I enjoyed that game.

Wing Commander is one of my ever-green memories of being a young PC gamer. I had a 286 and a friend had some damned 8088, if I remember right. Then along comes our "rich" friend who owned a cutting-edge 386 with a Soundblaster card. The first time I heard actual speech coming from a computer game, I felt as though the world had suddenly started moving in a direction orthogonal (hi Julian!) to the one I had been on just moments before. Whole new vistas opened up before me.

Those were heady days, back then. The foundations for the dot-com boom were being laid, my beloved BBS dial-in lines were being joined by this new-fangled IRC thing, and the web (such as it was) was in its infancy. AOL appeared, and we didn't kill the beast when it was small enough to do so. I distinctly recall a woman hearing me talking avidly about computers and games at my sales-clerk job at the time. Her eyes filled with the gleam of a financial predator, she asked what recommendations I'd make in terms of investing in technology companies. I replied, "well, if I had any money to invest, I'd definitely go with Blizzard. They're one of the few companies I'd buy from sight-unseen." This was shortly after the release of Warcraft II. I sometimes idly daydream that she invested heavily based upon my advice and, once a year, they raise a glass to the young man whose insight brought them fortune.

But Wing Commander...if I could go back and just watch over the shoulder of my younger self once more, it would be that series I'd want to see.

Chris Roberts cut his teeth on the same system that Elite was originally released on: He programmed Stryker's Run for the Acorn BBC Micro, with Martin Galway doing the music on the Master version.

I was a bummed when I realized that Wing Commander Arena was not going to be a remake of Wing Commander: Armada. Armada was one of the first excuses for hooking two PC's together (for a lan party of 2). I enjoyed the single player campaign too. I found it here.