Memories of Wing Commander

There aren’t many things from my youth that I truly miss, but one of the members of that elite group is the space combat flight simulator game. Once quite common, they are all but unknown today, and that’s a shame. For me, personally, my regret at the genre’s passing is about much more than the fact that I’ll never get to play Freespace 3. (Though that is also a source of nigh-overwhelming anguish, obviously.) My own first encounter with the genre was one of the things that really expanded my ideas of what a video game could be.

While the genre’s main home was always on the PC, my own discovery of it was actually the Super Nintendo port of the PC classic Wing Commander, released on the SNES in 1992, two years after original. I rented it from my local video store one Friday afternoon simply out of curiosity–the front of the box had a rather nifty-looking image of a space battle, and I was an 11-year-old boy who liked science fiction and had a weekend to kill.

It was like nothing I’d ever played. I’d played flight combat games where you fought in three dimensions and had a first-person inside-the-cockpit perspective before, but Wing Commander was an order of magnitude more complex. Your ship could have several types of guns with varying ranges, damage levels, and energy consumption, which you could choose between at will–and the fact that you had a limited supply of energy to fire them that took time to regenerate meant that you couldn’t simply use maximum firepower in every situation. You had several types of missiles with distinct capabilities to choose from, and your supply of them was large enough that they were a part of regular combat tactics instead of something reserved for special occasions or dire emergencies, but still  small enough that you had to give serious consideration about when to use them. I was accustomed to shooters where the optimal weapon strategy was usually “start pushing the fire button and never stop, ever” and the need to manage resources was either nonexistent or limited to deciding when to use your one-off everything-currently-on-the-screen-that-isn’t-you-dies bomb, so this was quite a change.

Most novel was the fact that you flew each mission accompanied by another pilot who fought alongside you, who you actually could give orders to–when to split off from you and attack on their own, attack a specific target, help you out when you were in trouble, and so on. My experiences with computer-controlled allies in games was limited, and my experience with games where those allies were actually supposed to be an integral part of gameplay were even rarer, so this was another change.

(The only example of the latter that comes to mind is the astonishingly bad The Uncanny X-Men on the NES, which saddled you with an AI-controlled partner when there wasn’t a second human player. And there seldom was a second player, since that would require two people simultaneously present in the same physical location who were both willing to actually inflict that game upon themselves. In keeping with that game’s dedication to being absolutely horrible in every imaginable respect, your AI-controlled “ally” was so shoddily programmed and incompetent that you were actually better off once he’d been killed. Which, since the computer-controlled ally’s preferred method of combat was usually to thrash about and attack the empty air at random like an alcoholic in the throes of a withdrawal-induced seizure desperately trying to get the hallucinatory bugs off of him, usually happened pretty fast.)

Wing Commander differed from what I was used to in another significant respect, as well. Outside of Ninja Gaiden on the NES and a few RPGs, I had little experience with games where there was a detailed story that continued to progress and evolve throughout the game. If you were a console gamer in the early 1990s, “plot” in a video game usually meant a few paragraphs in the instruction manual and a few sentences at the end of the game, all of which not-infrequently read as if it had been machine-translated from Japanese to English and back to Japanese several times before finally arriving in the American release of the actual game as something that only superficially resembled actual human language.

By contrast, Wing Commander had a plot that developed with each mission. The basic premise of Wing Commander was fairly standard fare:  you are a fighter pilot on a space-going carrier called the Tiger’s Claw, fighting for the Terran Confederation in a region of space called the Vega Sector in a struggle to save humanity from conquest or extermination at the hands of an aggressive alien race called the Kilrathi. The Kilrathi were pretty much Larry Niven’s Kzinti with the serial numbers filed off, the Vega Sector was fairly nondescript, and interstellar combat in the 27th century bore a suspicious resemblance to Pacific Theater carrier battles during the Second World War. The execution, however, was a remarkable experience for me at that age.

Missions had multiple outcomes, and the game had multiple paths depending on those outcomes that allowed the story to go in very different directions. Depending on what had gone before, the final mission of the game could be either a successful assault on the Kilrathi’s main base in the region that drove them out of the Vega Sector, or a frantic delaying action to defend the Tiger’s Claw long enough for her to escape to safety as the Vega sector falls to the enemy, putting the Kilrathi on Earth’s doorstep.

Between missions you could talk to the game’s large cast of characters (your fellow pilots on the ship) to find out more about their back stories and personalities, get advice for combat, and learn more about the war and the larger universe in which the game is set. A lot of the other pilots were basically stock characters–the Brash Young Hothead, the Grizzled Scotsman, the Cold Emotionless Badass Out for Vengeance–but they worked. The sort of NPCs I’d had the opportunity to interact with in previous games had mostly been limited to generic townspeople whose social skills were limited to repeating the same sentence ad infinitum throughout the game, usually profound stuff like, “You can buy weapons at the weapons store!” so a game with lots of characters who had interesting things to say was quite unusual for me at the time. To this day, some of my fellow pilots on the Tiger’s Claw are among my all-time favorite video game characters.

The transition to a console definitely wasn’t seamless. The game was a bit hamstrung by the limitations the Super Nintendo’s controls, since they had to somehow make a game that had been controlled with a mouse or joystick and 20+ different keys on a computer keyboard somehow playable with a directional pad and 8 buttons. (Seven, really, since Start paused the game and so couldn’t be incorporated into anything else.) This caused some awkwardness, since it meant a lot of functions had to be performed by pressing multiple buttons that were already used individually for other things. I recall  using the communication system to send orders to your wingman to be a particularly big pain in the ass, especially if you wanted to give new orders while a battle was already in progress. Which, aside from ordering your wingman to break formation and engage the enemy when you’ve first detected them, is pretty much the only time you’d want to be giving new orders.

In subsequent years I’ve been spoiled by the ability to play later games in the genre with a PC flight joystick and an entire keyboard, so if I tried to go back now, having to carefully press the Select and X buttons at the same time four or five times in the middle of a frantic battle that already requires my full attention and several more thumbs than I actually have in order to tell my wingman to attack the enemy fighter on my tail before he kills me would probably drive me nuts. But for a kid accustomed to games where space combat meant watching from a bird’s eye view while my ship puttered along as the screen scrolled forward, feeling like I was actually in the ship’s cockpit and had been thrust into a scene from Star Wars was magical no matter how laborious the process of telling my wingman “Attack that guy!” was.

– originally published 9/14/2011

John Markley is a writer from Illinois. He writes the video game commentary/humor site Pointless Side Quest and also blogs about science fiction and fantasy at Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic. His other interests include history, science, heavy metal, anime, movies, speaking of himself in the third person, and awkward, uncomfortable conversation.