Good Cause, Old Games: Wing Commander II

By Alec Meer on January 23rd, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Presenting the second in an occasional series of features in which RPS writers scour their local charity shops for weird and wonderful/terrible PC games they’ve never played, then attempt to play them. This time it’s Origin’s 1991 space combat simulation Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, found for £1 in a Mind shop in Hove. Better still, it was in a twin-pack with Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (but I have played that one before).

I’ve never played a Wing Commander game before. Not quite sure how that how happened, given how much they were part of the PC gaming furniture in the 90s. I blame being too poor to afford many games, let alone a joystick. (Me personally, not my family generally – I mean, they owned a PC in the mid-90s, for heaven’s sakes).

In one respect, starting with the second game some twenty-three years after it was released is a ludicrous thing to do, but a) hey, I’m at the whims of charity shop donors in East Sussex here and b) Chris Roberts is now a news mainstay, what with his earning twelve million pounds per second from Star Citizen. It’s, er, about time I knew more about the games that made his name and could create such devotion in fans. Before I instructed trusty DOSBOX to act as interpreter between this dusty CD and haughty young Windows 8.1, all I really knew about the Wing Commander was that it involved Luke Skywalker arguing with Lion-O.

There’s no Hamill here, or indeed much of anything I was already familiar with. Wing Commander II doesn’t try hard to make me any more informed. From its first moment, it’s convinced I’ve played the first game, memorised its plot and know exactly how to fly a starship, understand why humanity’s locked in intergalactic war with a race of dastardly cat-people. I felt like I’d unexpectedly found myself at military school and had been angrily informed by an acid-eyed drill instructor that I was already half way through my training and if I didn’t know what I was doing by now, it was three weeks of 3am potato-peeling chores for me. No tutorial, no plot summary, just a bunch of cross men and cat-men I didn’t know grumbling at each other, then – bam – in a cockpit, the 320×200 stars my destination. I should remember the way Wing Commander II treats new players the next time I’m whining at some FPS sequel that spends ten minutes telling me how to look up.

But what a strange and ancient thrill it felt to have to refer to the manual. There wasn’t one included with or on this CD, which seems a collasal oversight by whichever probably long-moved-on EA drone complied this budget package of Origin hits, but as the Wing Commander community thrives to this day (charmingly GeoCities-esque fansites and everything), finding a PDF copy was the least of my challenges.

So there I sat, ancient 256-colour game designed for a 13″ monitor blown up to a 2560×1440, 27″ one, occasionally glancing away to refer to a 1920×1080 slab displaying a scan of a 23-year-old black and white manual – all the power of what would have seemed an impossible future in 1991, purely to recreate the experience of what, in an ever so slightly alternative world, 12-year-old me would have got from buying a big cardboard box from a dark shop in Worcester staffed by a fat man wearing a black t-shirt and a vaguely malevolent expression. (I am not stereotyping here- that shop existed and I visited regularly, though I cannot recall its or the greasy gentleman in question’s name). It’s so needless, so cumbersome. I love it.

I also, at least once I’d grasped the core controls of speed and autopilot and giving orders to my straight-outta-saturday-morning-cartoons wingmen, came to feel like I could love Wing Commander II. I mean, it’s achingly earnest and it seems to think that people who use keyboards have hands half a metre wide (whether it was following some now-archaic key layout standard or one of the programmers was just doing their own thing unchecked I don’t know), but at the same time I get a kick out of the vibrance of the presentation and the learning of a (to me) new control set.

The latter isn’t particularly elaborate really, but clearly it’s a far cry from the scroll wheels and pop-up menus of today. Where’s early PC Zone with its perforated cardboard keyboard overlays when I need it? I also really, madly, deeply regret binning my Sidewinder joystick a couple of years ago. Mouse control’s fine, but this is ultimately a game about wrestling with a cockpit view, and one ideally needs the tactile, more 3D-space arm-wrestle of a joystick for that.

Combat holds up well – I mean, these are really the core rules of starbound dogfighting, ones still used in those few games that fear to tread the undiscovered country, and while perhaps it feels slower and less dramatic (in terms of sound, vibration and explosion effects) than we might call for noawadays, in the main it hasn’t aged. There’s an appropriate edge of desperation to trying to keep a bead on a target that can move anywhere in what feels like an instant, the cockpit looks/feels fragile and claustrophobic, the right sounds and music play when you score a finishing shot – it’s all there and it all still works. I’m not particularly far in so haven’t been able to play with too many weapon systems but hell, I’d like to.

It looks great too, it really does. I’m sure it was a high-budget game for its time and it shows, but even so, and even despite all its fart-huffing fascination with its own fiction, it’s got a Saturday morning, Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon serial ethos in both presentation and tone that somehow keeps it appealing low-key no matter how much its cast preen and posture. Perhaps it’s because the dreary browns and greys that were the unfortunate necessity of 3D games old and new hadn’t yet turned up to assert their dreary dominance, or that a mere 256 colours made a brash, comic book palette unavoidable, or that the games’ industry idea of escapism and the desires of adolescents were a little more innocent, a little more cartoon-inspired.

Or perhaps, as I prefer to believe, it’s simply deliberate design that this is a game rich in vibrant blues and yellows, space combat as unabashed derring-do rather than posturing towards reality or militarism. The 23-year vintage shows, of course it does, but its gaudy, chunky, space opera tapestry remains immediately appealing and enticing. I do suspect I’d have balked more at the later games’ use of FMV and ageing Hamill than I did at this one’s unselfconsciously lurid pixel-people cutscenes.

I don’t really know what’s going on though, other than that those cat people sure are cross and I’m supposed to shoot all their spaceships down. That, I suppose, is war for you.

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38 Comments »

  1. GallonOfAlan says:

    Collasal?

    • Soman1979 says:

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      http://www.Jobs84.com

  2. Malcolm says:

    I remember the intro being the pinnacle of graphical fidelity at the time (on anything that could justifiably be called a “Home” computer at any rate). It was about the first time that PC games demonstrated that they could outshine the Amiga.

    • Vinraith says:

      Indeed, that intro was so exciting that seeing it again is still kind of exciting. The images in this article are a veritable blizzard of nostalgia.

    • GallonOfAlan says:

      I was going to argue that Wolf 3D and Ultima Underworld had already done that – but once I checked I found that this indeed predates both of them.

    • Shakes999 says:

      Great music too. Never did get the speech pack for it but I liked it better without it.

      I got to the last 3-4 missions (Somewhere near the end of the game) and just would get incesscantly clobbered within a minute of combat, had a blast playing but was definitely unforgiving near the end. Still haven’t beat it, considering booting it up.

      • Shakes999 says:

        Ugh. After watching the linked video, protip for anyone playing for the first time, turn the voices off and just go subtitles. Yes, im going to be that guy. Just don’t.

  3. Arathain says:

    Ah, WC2. I played 1, I played 3 and 4, but I missed 2. I’ve always wondered how the first one would be if I went back to it. Maybe I could finally successfully complete that mission I could never do, where you had to escort a captued Kilrathi capital ship. It kept getting hammered by too many heavy fighters for me to deal with.

  4. sinister agent says:

    The first Wing Commander (Amiga, obv, if nothing else because the music was infinitely better) is still one of my most cherished memories. I got so caught up in that game, and those last few missions were brutal but felt so damn good to complete.

    I skipped the middle few games, but Prophecy ( It hink the 4th or 5th) was all up in the FMV zone… but it works. While it’s a very different style and feel to the first one, it has its own slightly tongue-in-cheek charm. It’s just the right kind of cheesy, so it avoids the horror of most FMV games.

  5. Morangie says:

    Sounds a little like you’re questioning the war against the space cats here Alec. Would hate to think you’re some kinda unpatriotic space commie…

  6. Tom Servo says:

    Great game, the first game with speech as I recall although I was outraged at the fact that the full install with speech pack took almost 20 MB. Absolutely loved every game from WC 1 – 4, the FMV in WC 3 and 4 was vastly superior to the Wing Commander movie and had a much better cast. WC 4 was the last great space game IMO.

  7. FireStorm1010 says:

    I loved that game:) .I still remember music, cutscence ( the “shocking” cutscene when Spirit died and her japanese farewell… :))

    This, wing commander 1 and Privateer ….It was pure magic,i was living for short amount of time among the stars:).

    And really this is the true amazing test how poeple loved those game , the amount of money Chris Roberts got for star citizien after freaking 10 years of absence.I mean how much did we have to love those games?Sales numbers of a game can be a mix of hype and marketing , but something like this is an amazing display…

    Tough it is hard to beleive it was so cutting edge of technology at the times:).Really everybody was shocked such good graphics could be on pc lol.

    • aldo_14 says:

      Ah, Privateer. I loved that game to bits, even though I was about 8 at the time and so scared of dying that it took me about a year to turn off invincibility and actually do story missions.

      Sad thing is that I know I’d be unable to play it now because of the ancient graphics. Oh well, bring on Elite.

      • FireStorm1010 says:

        yeah im alos awaiting Elite Dangerous:) I was cautious with hope for the project, but the trailers and the latest alpha combat footage has tottaly won me over.

  8. Drake Sigar says:

    Magic. It’s easy to dismiss the theatrics of Wing Commander now that technology has progressed, but back in 1990-1991 the first games delivered a cinematic style and presentation that truly demonstrated what gaming could do, which is basically what they should plaster on the tombstone of Origin (copyright Electronic Arts Inc). Even the orchestral sequence silhouetted against a planet is forever seared into my mind. I suppose part of what helps it hold up so well for me is there’s been so little since which has delivered anything resembling the experience (Ace Combat, a little? Shame the good ones aren’t on PC).

  9. Sidewinder says:

    After better than two decades and a half-dozen replays, I’ve gotta say: Damn, that main theme is catchy.

  10. Taidan says:

    That shop in Worcester… Format?

  11. Enkinan says:

    Man, i loved playing WC2. Either that or Privateer is the last time I ever used an actual flight stick for games. I miss that.

    And yeah, dat intro. It was pretty much insanity to think a known actor would actually voice a video game, or that a game could have any sort of cinematic feel to it. It was pretty mind blowing at the time.

  12. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Wing Commander was my first Amiga game, fresh from my release from a decade of cryogenic isolation with my Amstrad CPC464. The graphics, the game play, the story… None of it was as awesome as the music that reacted to actions in the game.

    The first time I shot down a lumbering Dralthi fighter and the music segued into a brief fanfare I jumped out of my seat with excitement. That was the day I got a soundtrack.

  13. jonfitt says:

    I came into the series with WC3, and had already played X-Wing, Elite:Frontier, and Tie Fighter. I tried going back to WC2 then, but didn’t get on with it. Even by that time (5 years later in 1995), using sprites seemed awkward. The jump between different rotation angles was jarring.

    I loved the style though, a cell-shaded 80s cartoon looking remake would be good.

    • bill says:

      Me too. I never really got on with the Wing Commander games, because I started on Tie-Fighter and X-Wing.

      The 2D sprites seemed really hard to go back to (though they might actually be easier now, being more retro) and the flight model always felt too “light”. Plus the afterburner seemed to make fights too easy.

  14. philatron says:

    And then there was Wing Commander: The Darkest Dawn
    http://wcsaga.com/

    (fan-made epic freebie, go downloads/releases to grab it…)

  15. amateurviking says:

    WC2 (on floppy) came bundled with our family’s first IBM compatible so it was my first ‘true’ PC game. Took 45 minutes to install. I still remember how that intro made me feel (it’s an overused term but my mind was genuinely blown). The game holds up too. Plays ok with and xbox pad too*!

    *better than a mouse at least.

  16. alsoran says:

    All that Wing commander, Privateer stuff is available on GOG, as is Freespace and Independence war. Bit of a nostalgia fest. I played Wing Commander on a 286, slowly but good enough. Never had a Roland Sound card to back it up tho’. Pity.

  17. Simbosan says:

    Good God, did it really look like that? My memory seems to be full HD. I was utterly hooked by all the WC games… (Wing Commander smartarse!) in my yoot.

  18. Bluerps says:

    “Those fools blame HIM for the loss of the Tiger’s Claw. He will never fly a fighter again.”

    Heh. Still knew that line after all these years. Haven’t played WC2 since it was new. It was one of the first games I ever played.

  19. Grey_Ghost says:

    I think Wing Commander IV Prophecy was the only one with great mouse controls, but I definitely needed a joystick for WC1&2. I sorta skipped WC3&4, had an adverse reaction to early 3D & FMV at the time.

  20. drvoke says:

    I played and beat WC2 with keyboard controls. It took fucking FOREVER because I was so shit, but god was it beautiful at the time. It was my first game on my first 386 computer with a legit soundcard. It holds up for me, even with the low res sprites. Nostalgia in full effect, likely. But I still think the Kilrathi animations are beautiful, though.

  21. davidgilbert says:

    Note: for those that didn’t know, this is one of the first games that pushed live speech on the PC, with the sound blaster sound card.

    I remember playing this fondly when I was 12 with my brand new 386sx, I wrestled with it for months I think, and eventually won. I agree it felt like the pinnacle at the time, I think the only games I liked more was Ultima Underworld when it came out around the same time and Ultima 7, despite the painful back stabbing I am greater than thou memory system it came with. It even had a Wing Commander 2 reference in it!

    But back on track, for all those who haven’t played it, its worth it. Especially enjoyed getting behind the kilrahti shields and hearing that nice buzz/thunk of your guns when you tore through the armour!

  22. Nick says:

    I highly reccomend WC: Privateer, its kinda like Elite in the WC universe, but with an (optional) storyline. Wonderful game, great music too.

  23. dfuse says:

    Bought 1 and 2 on a GOG sale, played the first halfway on my controller, loved it! (I played it also back in the 90′s). Eventually quit after the difficulty became a bit to high, but I did watch all the cutscenes on youtube. For me that graphical style is still the best

  24. Wisq says:

    Never even knew that WC2 was voiced. Didn’t have a soundcard back then; was all just PC speaker for me. Didn’t seem to get in the way of the experience at all; in fact, the voices seem pretty off-putting now.

  25. animal says:

    Press ‘L’ to lock that target, rookie!

    I finished WC1 on keyboard when it first came out, then I scored a digital joystick from somewhere and replayed it. After completing it again I explored the tree-nature of the win/loss states for every mission; so then I intentionally lost so I could play all the missions/sequences up to and including the final defeat.

    Later on I played WC2…although I enjoyed it it didn’t have quite the same impact of 1. Then 3 came along.
    I didn’t nearly associate with the character as much as I had with WC1/2 (since its Mark Hamill playing him in the CGI and not “you”)…but even so I really enjoyed it. Damn that Hobbes.

    WC4 I didn’t care much for, fighting other humans didn’t hold the same appeal for me as going up against the Kilrathi. Then for Prophecy I managed to snag the demo from somewhere (1 level with increasing # of spawns of tougher and tougher enemy ships). I played that almost as much as I did the final game when I got it. Although it didn’t feel quite as amazing as #1 or 3 it seemed to have better AI vs. tougher enemies and ship types which made it quite enjoyable in the end. It felt strange playing a new character though.

  26. lepercake says:

    Gosh darned! I saw that picture and remembered faqueink Solar Winds… Screw Wing Commander :/

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