Nostalgia Lane: Wing Commander II

The first thing that hit me when I opened up my Wing Commander II box in 1991 was the avalanche of about 14 floppy disks.  No, I’m not exaggerating for comedic effect — there really was well over a dozen floppies that you had to feed into your computer, one by one, in an installation process that lasted less than the time it took for an Amish team to construct a barn.  But only a little less.

Flight simulators were all the rage in the early 90s — simulators of every sort, actually.  This is one genre that certainly faded with time, but back then it the Wing Commander series was about the hottest property on the block.   Wing Commander was a pseudo-3D space combat simulator (“pseudo” because even though you moved in all directions, everything on your screen was a 2D sprite that just grew or shrank depending on your distance to it) that dominated the charts from 1990 until well into the later part of the decade.  It spawned spinoffs such as the popular cult Privateer, a short-lived animated series on USA Network, a very unfortunate 1999 film with Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard, and even a XLA downloadable game in 2007.

Even though for whatever reason, Wing Commander II was the only one of the series (other than the lackluster Privateer 2) that I played, this game had me hooked.  Part of the attraction of the series was that it was part Star Wars, part Battlestar Galactica, part Robotech and part furry convention all rolled into one (you fought giant cats, ’nuff said).  But the biggest attraction is that each of the games used cinematic storytelling to tie the missions together, and WC2’s tale was of a disgraced pilot wrongly blamed for a big tragedy fighting to right his name and uncover a conspiracy.  Later Wing Commander games would star digitized versions of Mark Hamill and Malcom McDowell to continue with this theme.

But I think the biggest attraction of WC2 is that they gave you an assortment of ships to fly — sometimes you got to choose, sometimes you were just assigned one — from the fast but extremely vulnerable Ferret to the mighty Sabre to the Broadsword bomber.  Each ship handled differently, and you couldn’t get too comfortable with just one type.

Another attraction of the series comes from its title — that you were a wing commander who flew alongside fellow pilots, NPCs that you could theoretically command to do simple tasks.  I say “theoretically” because it never seemed to work, so I let them do their thing and I did mine.

I think Wing Commander’s legacy definitely continued through the Star Wars X-Wing/TIE Fighter series and even into today’s Star Trek Online, if only that the space combat simulator genre is pretty small and they all have to pow-wow for lack of better company.

15 thoughts on “Nostalgia Lane: Wing Commander II

  1. Slurms February 13, 2010 / 9:12 am

    I loved Wing Commander 2, though for a different reason. It’s probably the dumbest thing, but I loved getting the awards and ribbons after the missions and checking myself out in the mirror. It was probably the first non RPG game I played that really gave me a sence of character advancement as I moved through the story.

  2. Gaff February 13, 2010 / 9:16 am

    Great game–enjoyed the sequals too. Had to comb the stores to find them as I came to it late. The Mark Hamill / McDowell combo was pretty cool at the time. McDowell was in a Wing Commander TV series too. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115421/

    I must say, I was most motivated by the medals and awards you could receive.

  3. Mojeaux February 13, 2010 / 9:31 am

    Wow Syp, you just brought back all kinds of memories! I remember buying my first PC (a commodore select edition 286 which had a turbo button(!) to take it from 12mhz to a whopping 16mhz) just to play the original Wing Commander. What a blast! I loved the game and would love to see them do a re-boot of it with the new technology available today.

    Ps. This series of games is almost a complete rip-off of a series of books by Poul Anderson called the Man-Kzin Wars. Great series.

  4. Mojeaux February 13, 2010 / 10:34 am

    Ack! It was Larry Niven, not Poul Anderson that created that series of books, The Man Kzin Wars.

  5. Blacknimbus February 13, 2010 / 11:05 am

    Man-Kzin wars were set in Larry Niven’s Known Universe. Almost all of the stories were written by other authors, though.

    Niven also wrote some for Star Trek TAS and introduced the Kzinti.

    http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Kzinti

  6. toxic February 13, 2010 / 12:24 pm

    I loved Wing Commander. I don’t really understand why the genre seems to have died; it really is quite fun, and can you imagine how awesome Wing Commander would be with today’s technology?

    The last Wing Commander was a fantastic game. Still worth playing.

  7. Tesh February 13, 2010 / 1:01 pm

    Privateer is still in my “top ten best video games of all time” list. Somehow I never got around to playing Wing Commander 2, but the pedigree is solid. (P2 was a travesty, and not really part of the same creative lineage.)

  8. Robert February 13, 2010 / 6:19 pm

    Honestly one of the best things of WC 1 was the huge, and I do mean huge, blueprint schematics you got of the ships and the weapons in the game. I forget if they had those in WC 2 or not. Still, awsome series of games.

  9. Longasc February 14, 2010 / 8:49 am

    Loved Wing Commander 1,2 and Privateer – the later titles with the many movie cutscenes were not as great IMO.

    But it was a great series and I enjoyed it immensely. I could enjoy it fully as I owned an awesome 486-50 Mhz with a massive 100 MB Harddisk… how funny that sounds nowadays! 🙂

  10. PeterD February 14, 2010 / 1:52 pm

    I played WC III, IV, and Prophecy, Privateer and Privateer II, so I definiately enjoyed the games back in the day. I keep wishing someone will make a modern day version with all the bells and whistles.

    I thought Privateer was better than Privateer 2, even though 2 had much better graphics. Some people didn’t like Prophecy since it introduced a new enemy and changed the formula a bit, but it was the first one to use true 3D graphics (needed a graphics card and everything, omg!) and it looked and played amazing (in it’s day). I loved using swarmer missiles just because the graphic was so cool — granted it helped that they were extremely powerful too :p

    It was also nice that the Wing Commander series was targeted at mature gamers without being gory or obtrusive about it. The themes were dark to the point of grimness, and there was no attempt to interject pop culture or fluff. The games were memorable both for the gameplay and the characters. To this day I can remember one of my wingmates from one of the games yelling “Eat sh%t and die, gato!” every time he engaged a Kilrathi.

  11. bathoz February 15, 2010 / 3:34 am

    Heh. I remember playing a bomber mission in WC2 before going to school. I had been trying it for ages the night before, and had to give it one more go before the muscle memory disappeared.

    I died.

    This series of games stands out because it’s brought a “cinematic” narrative to games that was pretty unprecedented. It also drove the brief “sound card” revolution – think graphics cards of today. You needed bigger and better cards for the different versions of the game.

  12. DocHoliday February 15, 2010 / 9:28 am

    I do miss “flying” RPGs, maybe I’m not looking hard enough but it doesn’t seem like there’s been any decent ones lately. The WC games were a blast and there were even some traditional aircraft games around that time too that were pretty solid. I haven’t played Privateer – maybe I’ll see if it is available somewhere…

    I’m also hoping Jumpgate isn’t completely dead 🙂

  13. suxbad February 15, 2010 / 11:53 am

    Thx for this…I remember packing into my buddies dorm room at college to watch the Intro movie after ‘seemingly’ days of plugging in another installation disk. Lights off….popcorn…those were the days…..

  14. NoLeafClover August 23, 2010 / 11:53 pm

    My most vivid gaming memory was playing WC2 and listening to Guns N Roses, Estranged. Something about that song, and the feeling of being all alone in space (in that game) meshed so well together. Great memories with this game…

  15. Strydr August 7, 2012 / 3:27 am

    Awesome game,just the mention of Wing Commander brings back great memories of times past in an era of video games that younger gamers could just not appeciate today…

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