April 08, 2023

WING COMMANDER ACADEMY

 

WING COMMANDER ACADEMY
(USA Network, September 21-December 21, 1996)
 
Universal Cartoon Studios
 

 

  

            Chris Roberts had always been fascinated by science fiction movies and shows. He liked the special effects, the variety of imaginative characters, the futuristic alien worlds, and the space battles. He decided he wanted to bring that experience to the home computer; creating a game that would be as much like an interactive movie as possible.

Chris Roberts standing next to a display full of Wing Commander II games.


            Already a freelance author for Origin Systems, Roberts proposed the idea to Vice President of Product Development Dallas Snell. Snell gave him the go ahead to develop a workable concept to present to the company, and Roberts spent the next few months working 16-hour days to learn how to use 3D programming and achieve his vision. What he ended up with was enough to convince Snell there was something feasible behind his idea and allowed Roberts to use one of their artists, Denis Loubet, to work on some designs for it. Loubet came up with the cockpit display, a few ships and explosions. Roberts also pulled in a long-time programming associate, Paul Isaac, to help write the code. Together, they whipped up an impressive-looking demo where you could fly around in space and blast a few enemy ships. Origin was convinced and the game, then titled Squadron, officially entered production in early 1990.

Battling in space.


            Roberts served as the game’s director. Writer Jeff George, who had worked with Roberts before on the game Bad Blood and the unproduced sequel to Times of Lore, as well as helped produce the pitch for Squadron, was brought onto the project to write the storyline and conversations between the characters. One of his contributions was to talk Roberts out of making the heroes out to be a vast human empire as, in science fiction, “empire” usually has a villainous association, as well as to nix an ethics-based decision system in favor of keeping things unquestionably black and white (good guys are good, bad guys are bad). Artist Glen Johnson joined the crew early on in the development. He came up with the characters from scratch, not having been given any kind of description beforehand. He assigned them call signs upon completion, and after Roberts approved them, Johnson would transfer them from paper to computer renders. Loubet, meanwhile, would use basic ideas for scenes from Roberts as a springboard to design a wide array of ships and sets. Programmers Stephen Beeman and Ken Demarest would join later on in the process and designed all the dogfighting sequences; with Demarest implementing a limited artificial intelligence system for enemy ships.

The Deluxe Edition game box.


            Roberts envisioned the game having a dynamic musical soundtrack that would change given the events going on in the game. The MS-DOS computer and 604K of RAM they were working with finally gave him an opportunity to explore that notion, and he devised up to 30 different tunes with producer Warren Spector. George “The Fatman” Sanger and Dave Govett were then tasked with composing songs that could seamlessly flow into each other as the game dictated.

The opening ceremonies of the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show.


            When it came time for that year’s Consumer Electronics Show, resources had to be pulled away from actual game development to whip up a workable demo and artwork to present at the show that may never be used in the actual game. It also yielded a problem: Origin couldn’t trademark the name Squadron. Rechristened Wingleader, the game was a hit at the show and generated huge levels of excitement and anticipation for its release; now set for that September. And as the replacement name was too similar to some earlier published game titles, the game received its third and final title: Wing Commander.



        Wing Commander released on September 26, 1990 for MS-DOS, and was later ported to the Amiga, CD32, Sega CD and Super Nintendo. A space flight simulation game, it was set in the 27th century and told of humanity’s war against a race of cat-like humanoid beings called the Kilrathi (inspired by Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars stories). Standing against them was the Terran Confederation: an alliance of systems and regional governments that provided unified protection and economic growth. Players took control of a nameless rookie pilot (later called Christopher “Maverick” Blair), known internally as “Bluehair” due to his, well, blue hair, aboard the TCS Tiger’s Claw; essentially a galactic aircraft carrier. The core feature of the game was an AI-controlled wingman that the player could give orders to for support. The game featured a branching open-ended story told through a number of cinematic cutscenes, and overall performance in missions affected the campaign. Completing mission objectives earned medals, promotions in rank and the opportunity to pilot better ships. Failing these objectives led to more difficult missions and inferior ships. It was designed so that losing players could return to the winning path and winning players could make enough mistakes to end up on the losing one.

In-game cutscene.


        Wing Commander became a best-seller, credited as redefining the genre and raising the bar for other developers to compete against. In the wake of the game’s success, Roberts wanted to release expansions that would contain content they were forced to cut due to the limited number of discs they could include for the game in order for it to be profitable. In November, Origin released the first expansion pack for the game, The Secret Missions, which added new ships, a new storyline and increased difficulty; however, it lacked the branching paths of the original. A second expansion, The Secret Missions 2: Crusade, was released in March of 1991. In 1994, the game would be re-released as Wing Commander I and would receive an enhanced remake called Super Wing Commander.



        A year after the original’s release, Origin released Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi. It maintained everything its predecessor did while putting a greater emphasis on storytelling through sprite-animated cutscenes and included some of the industry’s first examples of voice acting. The storyline was also less open-ended, promotions and medals no longer awarded, and wingmen couldn’t be killed outside of pre-scripted moments. Again, it was successful and received its own pair of expansion packs. A standalone spin-off, Wing Commander Academy, was released in 1993 as a budget game meant to keep the franchise on players’ minds during the development of Wing Commander III. Academy was a mission builder primarily using the assets developed for II where players, said to be students at the Terran Confederation Space Naval Academy, could design their own levels that could be saved and shared with other players (think of it as a predecessor to Super Mario Maker), as well as had 15 pre-designed missions to play and new ships and weapons. Two other spin-off games were released in 1993 and 1994: Privateer, where the player took on the role of a freelancer who could choose to be a pirate, merchant and/or mercenary, and Armada, which was the first to feature a new graphics engine and to offer a multiplayer mode.



           Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger was a major departure for the franchise. The technology of the last two games were abandoned in favor of software-driven texture-mapped polygonal 3D images. The Terran Confederation and Kilrathi Empire were given entirely new designs for their fleets; made a bit blockier to compensate for the then-primitive state of polygon graphics as true 3D video cards were a few years off. It used the then-new CD-ROM technology rather than floppy disks to compensate for the high memory demands of the branching “interactive” conversations the player had with other characters, choosing responses that would affect their attitudes towards the player and the morale of the entire crew. But the biggest change was the use of extensive live action full-motion video to deliver the story to add an interactive movie-style presentation to the gameplay.

Paladin having a personal moment with Maverick.


        A number of established actors were cast to star in the game. Mark Hamill assumed the role of the player character, now officially known as “Maverick”. He was joined by Malcolm McDowell as Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn, John Rhys-Davies as James “Paladin” Taggart and the voice of Prince Thrakhath Nar Kiranka, Tom Wilson as Major Todd “Maniac” Marshall, Josh Lucas as Major Jace “Flash” Dillon, Courtney Gains as Lt. Ted “Radio” Rollins, Fran├žois Chau as Lt. Winston “Vagabond” Chang, Ginger Lynn Allen as Rachel Coriolis, Barbara Niven as reporter Barbara Miles, John Schuck as the voice of Kilrathi defector Ralgha Nar “Hobbes” Hhallas, and Tim Curry as the voice of Melek Nar Kiranka, to name a few. The overall budget ended up being between $4-5 million, and considering the game was a massive hit for the franchise, selling over 700,000 copies after it was released on December 8, 1994, it was more than worth it. The next game, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, continued on with most of the same cast and innovations.

Maverick, Maniac, Archer and Tolwyn.


        Moves had already been made to expand and supplement the franchise with novelizations and collectible card games. The next step was to expand into other media. Origin, now owned by Electronic Arts, partnered with Universal Cartoon Studios to create an animated adaption. Although it shared the name of Wing Commander Academy, the game was an entirely new story set before the events of the game series. It was also a bit misleading, as the Academy itself only appeared in the first episode. Set in the year 2655, the endless Terran/Kilrathi war has resulted in heavy losses, necessitating the early activation of Academy recruits. The 201st Pleeb class were enlisted to continue their training while engaging in routine patrols and flight training, but the unpredictability of war often meant they were drawn into the conflict. At the end of their training, the most outstanding of 12 2nd Lieutenants would receive their golden wings, the designation of “Wing Commander”, and reach the first step of “flag rank”.

The Kilrathi.


            Carrying over from the games were Hamill, Wilson and McDowell, as well as their characters. Commodore Tolwyn was the captain of the Tiger’s Claw and overseer of the cadets. He was a brilliant tactician that was tortured by his own inner demons. “Maverick” Blair was a patriotic, enthusiastic pilot with a military pedigree and a strong sense of honesty and fair play. “Maniac” Marshall was an impetuous daredevil that often got on Maverick’s nerves. Newly created for the series was Gwen “Archer” Bowman (Dana Delany), who was serious-minded and strove for perfection in everything she did. The leader of the Kilrathi forces was Prince Thrakhath Nar Kirkanka (Kevin Schon), a ruthless commander who often demanded a high price for failure from his followers. His bullheaded leadership style served the Kilrathi well in their early campaigns, but proved an equal match for Tolwyn’s command.

The TCS Tiger's Claw.


            Originally, the plan was to do a prequel to the third game only. Somewhere along the way, it was decided to roll the clock back further as a prequel to the entire game series; creating some continuity issues with the overall franchise. The cadets, for instance, wore uniforms and encountered ships that didn’t appear until the third game. Prince Thrakhath, while in command as of said game, was actually under his father, Gilkarg nar Kiranka, in the original two. The date of 2655 was also problematic, as the events of the first game dictate that Academy should have taken place sometime before 2654. The ships the cadets flew, the Scimitar fighters, were noted in the first game as being reserved for more experienced pilots. The characters of Robin “Flint” Peters (Jennifer MacDonald), Laurel “Cobra” Buckley (B.J. Jefferson), and Hobbes were to be among the cadets included in the series, but were instead swapped out for Archer and other original cadets Lindsay “Payback” Price (Lauri Hendler), the rebellious martial artist, and Hector “Grunt” Paz (Schon), a stubborn and fearless pilot who was a wounded veteran of the stalemated Battle of Repletha. Additionally, earlier character appearances and traits were abandoned in favor of their established looks and personalities from III forward, such as Tolwyn lacking his mustache from the second game and Maniac wasn’t the reckless pilot the first game made him out to be.

Wingmen.


            Wing Commander Academy debuted on USA Network on September 21, 1996 as part of the USA Action Extreme Team programming block. The series was developed and story edited by Mark and Michael Edens, who also wrote it along with Shari Goodhartz, Richard Mueller, Matthew Edens, Brooks Wachtel, Ted Pedersen, Francis Moss, Ralph Sanchez and Steve Cuden. Sanchez served as an executive consultant, and Richard Hilleman and Adam Foshko as executive story consultants. Characters were designed by producer Larry Latham with Gerard Forton and Tim Eldred, while Derek Carter designed the backgrounds. Alexander Van Bubenheim composed the music. Madhouse Animation was the primary animation studio with Koko Entertainment Co. Ltd. doing a couple of episodes. 


Maverick with The Warrior King.


        As with the other entries in the Extreme Team--Savage Dragon, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the RealmWing Commander took part in “The Warrior King” crossover event on November 16. Developed by Will Meugniot, the titular barbarian (Michael Dorn) crossed between dimensions to find and acquire the Orb of Power, which could control the weather of any planet. While The Warrior King was seen in all four shows, their respective characters didn’t cross over. It was coordinated so that each episode would air on the same day, resulting in each series being shown outside of their regular timeslots. However, the event received little to no promotion, and outside of the rearranged schedule there was no indication that there was anything special about that day.

A primitive race worshipping the Kilrathi.


            The series only ran a single season of 13 episodes before it was cancelled. The last line-up of the Extreme Team remained on the network until September 11, 1998, when USA stopped airing cartoons on the network. The complete series was released to DVD in 2012 by Visual Entertainment, Inc. The episode line-up in the collection doesn’t follow the airdate or production order. In 2020, it was included as one of the launch programs of NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock; however, the sound mixing made dialogue difficult to hear at times.



            In 1996, Roberts left Origin to found his own company, Digital Anvil, with his brother, Erin, and Tony Zurovec. One of the first projects of the company was to acquire the rights to Wing Commander and develop a feature film based on it, which would contain effects produced by Digital Anvil’s artists, that would offer a new interpretation of the franchise’s beginnings. The film was rushed into production to try and beat Star Wars: Episode I to the box office, resulting in a lot of compromises being made on top of its significantly small budget. It ended up flopping at the box office, only earning $11.6 million. As for the game series, only three more games were released to date: Privateer 2: The Darkening in 1996, Prophecy in 1997, and Arena in 2007. Arena was an attempt to revitalize the franchise and the first made without the direct involvement of Origin, which was shut down by Electronic Arts in 2004.

  

EPISODE GUIDE:
“Red and Blue” (9/21/96) – To test the recruits’ skills Tolwyn splits them up into two teams, but a traitor attempts to sabotage their war games.
 
“The Last One Left” (9/28/96) – Maverick and Maniac are captured by a legendary space fighter pilot who turned to piracy after becoming disillusioned with the war.
 
“The Most Delicate Instrument” (10/5/96) – Paranoia grips the recruits and causes them to put themselves and the ship in danger.
 
“Lords of the Sky” (10/19/96) – Maverick and Maniac crash onto a planet where a primitive race worships the Kilrathi as gods.
 
“Word of Honor” (10/12/96) – Maverick and Grunt end up stranded with their Kilrathi prey, and they’re all forced to work together to survive.
 
“Expendable” (11/9/96) – An exploratory mission goes wrong, causing Maverick and Payback to fight their way back to the ship.
 
“Chain of Command” (11/2/96) – Admiral Bergstrom pulls rank on Tolwyn to enact her battle plan against the Kilrathi’s superior forces.
 
“Invisible Enemy” (12/7/96) – Strange heavy losses lead Maverick and Maniac to suspect the Kilrathi have a new stealth fighter.
 
“Recreation” (11/16/96) – Maverick must prevent The Warrior King from taking an alien orb that maintains a pacifist planet.
 
“On Both Your Houses” (11/30/96) – Trouble lurks at a Confederation bio-research station: a Kilrathi pilot hiding there, and the suspicious administrator Dr. Sing.
 
“Walking Wounded” (11/23/96) – Tolwyn joins in on the dogfight to rescue a hospital ship from the Kilrathi where Maniac is currently trapped.
 
“Price of Victory” (12/14/96) – A downed Maverick makes a deal for survival with the subordinate of the Kilrathi princess that currently wants his head.
 
“Glory of Sivar” (12/21/96) – Maverick and Grunt are sent on a rescue mission that turns out to be a suicide mission to take out Thrakath’s ship.

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