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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.
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.
served as the game’s director. Writer Jeff George, who had worked
with Roberts before on the game Bad Bloodand 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.
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
The opening ceremonies of the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
already been made to expand and supplement the franchise with novelizations
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”.
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.
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
“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.
As with the
other entries in the Extreme Team--Savage
Fighter, and Mortal
Kombat: Defenders of the Realm—Wing 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.
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.
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
Ito 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.
“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
“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
“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
“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
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