I’m sitting in front of a blank screen. The computer is on, it just doesn’t display much beyond the letter C, a colon, and a blinking cursor. I type my way into a directory, load up a
.exe file and wait while it performs memory checks before I get to fly off into space to shoot up the aggressors from the Empire of Kilrah.
It’s 1991, I’m 10, and I’m playing Wing Commander for what must be the hundredth time. I don’t just mean I’ve loaded the game up that many times I mean I’ve played through it that many times. Believe you me this is no easy feat; Wing Commander is not a short game.
It is a cool game though. Set in the 2650s Wing Commander puts you in the cockpit of a space fighter fighting an ongoing war between humanity and the Empire of Kilrah, a race of large bipedal cat people. You get to fly several different fighters over the course of the game, in several types of missions.
It plays out in full 3D space and was one of the first I remember doing so. Every fighter has it’s own cockpit details and strategies for flying combat. Each of the enemy ships (both fighters and capital classes) had their own distinct set of strengths and weaknesses as well. There’s no difficulty scale either so everyone who plays it gets as close to the same experience as can be given the fluid nature of the story (more on that in the moment). The graphics are sprites, not rasterized, however the game still looks amazing to my eye. The amount of detail they were able to cram in in an age where system resources were so limited is kind of amazing. The sound is all midi tracks, but they do sound great.
The cockpit (pictured above is the cockpit from the Rapier, the last fighter you fly in the game) is where the action happens. You go out on sorties to accomplish various goals but you always get the chance to fight the fur balls. How well you fight them and accomplish mission goals dictates how the war goes in the system you are currently in and after a few missions your carrier, the Tiger’s Claw, jumps to the next system.
Here’s the brilliant bit though: if you win the current system you go one way, if you lose you go another. I have played this game dog knows how many times and I doubt I took the same route through the systems twice until I got really good at it (and even then not so much).
The game has two distinct endings (one where you win the war, one where you lose) and you can take any number of different paths to get to either.
This is kind of awesome as it encourages you to accept your failures. Because you can fight your way back to the winning path at almost any point (or start to lose at almost any point) there’s no need to save your game and obsessively play each mission until you win it, just go with the flow and see how you do. You can almost count on not winning every system in fact, because there is one mission which is nearly impossible. I can only remember beating it once, but my ship was so beat up by the end that I couldn’t dock with the Tiger’s Claw, I had to eject and get picked up.
Even if you lose it’s nice to just enjoy the story; and there is a story. Between missions you go to the officers lounge and speak to two pilots sitting in the bar and the bartender. They give you some battle strategy, news on how the war is going, but all in pre scripted conversations between them and your character.
Unless of course they were killed in a previous mission. Now, other pilots don’t die unless they are on your wing, but the knowledge they have is sometimes incredibly useful. You get a new wingman in every system (and you’re usually reassigned to a new squadron/fighter) but if you’re out fragging hairballs and your wingman is killed you have to complete any remaining missions without them and you never get the benefit of their insight at the bar.
In addition to being transferred from squadron to squadron at the end of the mission set in each system, if you perform well enough you can also get promoted or awarded medals for valour.
The above screenshot was taken near the end of my most recent play through the game, major is the highest rank and I’ve been awarded multiple bronze, silver and gold stars.
I know there is a metric for how they are awarded but I don’t really care. They are kind of nice to receive, but they don’t affect the story. That screenshot could be in the final system to win the game or to lose. You can go the whole game without ever being promoted or awarded a medal and the story still plays out to the win or the loss.
There’s obviously a lot of nostalgia in this title for me, I’ve been playing it in some form since I was 10 years old. Don’t let my dad hear this, but 1990 was a long time ago and things have come a long way but I still fire up Wing Commander every now and again because I still love playing it. If that doesn’t mean it’s a great game I don’t know what does.
Wing Commander is still available, packaged with it’s 1992 sequel Wing Commander II: Wrath of the Kilrathi for Mac and Windows for about 6$ USD as of this writing so don’t take my word for it, fire it up and see for yourself what I’m talking about. You won’t regret it.