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Good Cause, Old Games: Wing Commander II

The Origin of Star Citizen

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 320x200 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 2560x1440, 27" one, occasionally glancing away to refer to a 1920x1080 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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