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.