Published: 29 April 2014
Wing Commander. There are few names that are to me as synonymous with my childhood as Wing Commander, save perhaps the other major series developed by Origin Systems, Ultima. Before meeting it's unfortunate fate at the ham-fisted hands of Electronic Arts and a movie adaptation that was utterly terrible, Wing Commander was a titan of PC gaming. If you had a DOS PC or an Amiga and you were a gamer, chances are that the 1990 (1992 on Amiga) When I asked myself what games to feature in a little Nostalgia Train series to tide over a time when I'm otherwise rather ill, there was no question in my mind that Wing Commander would be that series. It remains a classic grandfather of gaming that has aged gracefully and earned those accolades and acclaim honestly.
Unlike many other games that are recognized as helping to start a genre but might not hold up in the modern eye, the classic Wing Commander holds a gameplay and visual style that while dated in the case of the latter, is eminently playable to this day. The style remains a great example of pixel art, the controls were always responsive, and the gameplay mechanics haven't become any less solid over time. A little tired, perhaps, but this is the game that standardised the conventions of the space combat genre, and it still is one of the best examples of them. Newtonian physics are rendered in a fairly arcadey fashion at best, but as later sims would demonstrate, arcadey may be best for most gamers. Piloting in more realistic sims becomes dicey at best. The controls are realistic, the AI is simple given the time but still presents a challenge in later missions, and the gameplay is kept varied with different ships which fly differently and have varying loadouts. To say nothing of the expansion packs which added a ton of additional content.
The one thing that Wing Commander did brilliantly for the time, which was quite unusual for games of the time, was it had a narrative, a story to progress through. It doesn't seem like a big thing today, but back in 1990 - you got gameplay or a story - not both. Games with actual story were almost exclusively the domain of arcade cabinets and text adventures. Consoles had the ability to tell those stories, but it wasn't until the Super Nintendo came along a little later that we got into these sorts of narrative more regularly. Wing Commander wasn't the only game to do narrative like that, but it was one of a rare few, and it was one of the best examples of storytelling in gaming at the time. It still remains a good story well told to this day.
And that overarching sentiment, that Wing Commander still holds up brilliantly, is perhaps the thing I'd wish one to take away from this here. I spent so many childhood hours enjoying this game growing up, and the thing I love most about it is that it is not just a memory, something remembered well through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia - its a game that to this day I can pick up again and enjoy the hell out of.