Remember the 90’s? Good times. It still stands as the best decade of gaming in a lot of opinions (mine) and there are a lot of reasons for that. Reasons like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and our long-lost friend the Dreamcast and all of the timeless classics that went with them. To me, it stands as the definitive decade for gaming, where the medium made the biggest strides towards becoming the powerhouse entertainment industry it is today.
We’ve lost a lot in transitioning from the late 20th century to the 21st. We’ve gained some amazing new technology and more AAA games than we’d ever have imagined back in the day, but a lot of what made 90’s gaming so incredible has fallen by the wayside. Franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, and Nintendo’s stable of classics have been reborn again and again and strong as ever (okay, maybe RE is limping), and Final Fantasy remains a head turner even as Square seems to have no idea what to do with it, but we’ve lost a lot virtual friends in past decades. I’d like to revisit some of those friends.
This week, I’m bringing back one of my favorite SNES titles, 1990’s Wing Commander, which was ported from the PC where the series made its home. The franchise was the brainchild of Chris Roberts and developed by Origin Systems, Inc. It was billed simply as “The 3-D Space Combat Simulator”, but it was so much more.
In all honesty, I’ve never had a gaming experience that directly compares to my first playthrough of Wing Commander. There aren’t a lot of games I can say that about. This thing blew me away. It’s a typical military sci-fi premise: you are a rookie pilot in the middle of an intergalactic war with the alien Kilrathi and you have to kill stuff until it’s dead. But more than anything I’d ever played at that point, this game really put you out there and made you feel like you were part of an infinite universe and a larger story and conflict where you never knew what was going to happen next.
Most games hit you with a “game over” when you failed an objective and your partners are immortal. But in this game, your fellow soldiers could die permanently and if you screwed the pooch on a mission, the war went on. If you were about to die, you could eject and finish the mission that way, keeping your progress, but you had to live with the consequences too. The flow of the war would change based on your successes and failures and so would the available missions, leading to different endings. If you got it done, you would remain on the offensive, but if you consistently failed, you would end up on the defensive and eventually be driven from the system.
Adding to the immersion of the game’s impressive (for the time) flight mechanics, you could converse with your fellow soldiers aboard the Tiger’s Claw Strike Carrier and during missions. You could give orders to your wingmen, although different pilots had different personalities and their listening abilities were not the same. For instance, your first partner was a veteran named Spirit with a respectful personality who always obeyed orders. On the other end of the spectrum was a young hothead who went by the callsign Maniac who made it his goal to top the kill scoreboard and wouldn’t listen to a thing you said. You could even send out taunts to enemy pilots to get their attention, which was all sorts of awesome.
While most games tend to go with the “every mission is the most important mission EVER” approach for dramatic effect, Wing Commander treated things as routine in the name of realism with a lot of patrols and escorts and floating through space. If you wanted, you could set auto-pilot and go straight to the mission waypoint (unless you encountered enemies) but I remember being so enamored with the game’s immersion that drifting through space on patrols admiring the endless ocean of stars and planets while listening to the ambient music took on an almost meditative property. It was soothing to feel like it was just another day at the office and so much more exciting when my wingman would announce enemy contacts and I’d have to decide whether to engage or not.
Did I just say decide whether to shoot the bad guy or not? You heard me. Some missions you were ordered not to engage unless necessary and that was the correct thing to do. The Kilrathi would use patrols of their own to distract you from your mission, for instance drawing you away from your escort while another team swoops in after you leave to destroy it. That asshole Maniac may take off and ignore your orders to keep formation and end up biting off more than he can chew, dividing your numbers and forcing you choose who to save, or he may wreck the bait patrol all on his own, or you may just be badass enough to kill everything. The game wasn’t tightly scripted so like I said, you didn’t always know what would happen.
The series was a true trail blazer for its time and a precursor to many of the science fiction games we revere today. It also had a memorable soundtrack. Wing Commander implemented everything from branching storylines, dialogue choices, and live-action cutscenes over some eleven proper titles and spin-offs in the 90’s (many of which were ported to the PlayStation) inspiring a series of decent novels and concluding with a poor film adaptation before vanishing to never see the light of day again in a mainstream release.
Technically, there was 2007’s Xbox Live Arcade exclusive Wing Commander: Arena, but we won’t count it because it barely resembles even the shadow of the franchise. The independent fan-made Wing Commander Saga is available to play for free on the PC (and from what this filthy console peasant hears, it’s actually quite good), but what we really need is a proper rebirth for the series as there is nothing like it to be found in modern gaming. EA owns the rights, but the fact that they allowed Saga to be made and that Chris Roberts (who is working on a spiritual successor with MMO components, Star Citizen) claims they “don’t care” about the franchise doesn’t bode well for immediate plans, but we can always hope.
A modern Wing Commander implementing all of the elements of the series in one AAA game would be a sight to behold. Modern Mass Effect-like character development coupled with the real threat of losing your comrades out there in combat by itself would make for instant investment, with every engagement a calculated risk. Best-case scenario, the game would auto-save upon each death like State of Decay and make resetting impossible or even wipe your save if you don’t eject before you die to be really hardcore. There is no reloading saves in war, after all.
And then there’s the obvious multiplayer possibilities, which I don’t need to get into beyond saying that customizable ships would make for a really interesting dynamic there. 1993’s Wing Commander Academy had an innovative mission editor that allowed players to create their own scenarios. Think about how great that could be with modern tools. The Privateer spinoffs functioned in an open-world rather than as a series of missions, allowing the player to play the role they wanted and react as they saw fit to the events unfolding around them while the later main games featured impressive interactive live action full motion videos featuring known actors and branching dialogue choices.
Adding all of these aspects together (with digital cutscenes instead of FMV…just my personal preference) would make for an epic sci-fi monster that any gamer should want to play. I don’t know what happened to the space combat simulators like Wing Commander and Star Wars: X-Wing that were so revered in the 90’s and vanished like magic at the turn of the century, but it’s maybe time for devs to think about rehashing and updating some concepts from previous decades that worked instead of rehashing games from last gen and ideas that a lot of gamers are getting burnt out on. Just a thought. Maybe if Star Citizen becomes a success, we’ll see a new generation of awesome sci-fi flight sims, or at least some PSN re-releases of the old ones.