Wing Commander FM Towns – A Second Look

Finding the time to play it has been tricky in recent weeks but I’m far enough in to offer an opinion on the FM Towns port of Wing Commander. When I started, I was hoping it would be the definitive version of the game. Having reached the end of Secret Missions 1, I’d struggle to call it either way as it gains in some areas and loses in others.

Let’s start with the sound which is where the biggest differences lie. The entire soundtrack is played directly from the CD rather than the MT-32 original. The music hasn’t been rearranged as far as I can tell but simply mapped to another fairly similar synthesizer with some more realistic samples for some instruments than were available on the MT-32. Usually I would always prefer the MT-32 in these circumstances but here the new versions are an improvement. Where they do suffer is by taking about 2 seconds to start each track due to that single speed CD-ROM. This is particularly jarring when the music switches up in combat.

I also prefer the digital sound effects for shooting, space debris etc. It would have been nice if they didn’t always play at the same volume but it’s not a big deal. I even like the Japanese voices for the pilots. The language being unintelligible to myself doesn’t really matter given that there are English subtitles. I do wish they had done a Scottish accent for Paladin just to hear what Scottish Japanese sounded like – probably more convincing than the Scottish American in WC2 I expect. On the whole, the FM Towns wins on the sound front.

It doesn’t win out anywhere else however. Graphically, it looks identical to DOS but the speed of gameplay and animation is much slower than you might expect on the FM Towns given that the original Wing Commander would run on a 286. The cutscenes are particularly slow and jerky. The FM Towns has some extremely capable sprite hardware which is clearly being entirely ignored in this port. Surely adapting the Origin FX engine to use the hardware would have been relatively straightforward. Games like Viewpoint or Tatsujin Oh pushing sprites all over the screen show just what is possible on even the slowest FM Towns machines. Ports like this don’t exactly show an expensive bit of hardware at it’s best and it might be one of the reasons Wing Commander never took off in Japan.

When you get in the cockpit, the game runs reasonably well at standard clock speed for Wing Commander 1, if still a little less smoothly than I might have liked. When it came to the Secret Missions levels though, it slows to a crawl and I’ve had to run the machine in turbo mode. At this speed, the gameplay is fine but the cutscenes now whizz by in fast forward and the mouse is uncontrollable so I have to use the joystick to move around between missions. I’ve played the final mission of SM1 below (in turbo mode) which gives an idea how this plays on the 486SX 25 Mhz version of the Towns.

The only way to get a half decent picture on my phone was to play this in the dark. One of these days I might buy myself a decent camera for this job but it hasn’t happened yet. Using a strange foreign keyboard with extra keys when I couldn’t see which key was which gave me no end of grief as you will notice but I made it through the mission…. just.

With turbo on, Wing Commander does play pretty well apart from occasional glitches where the music randomly switches itself off. These may be to do with using a 25 year old CD drive but I’m not convinced and they only seem to happen when turbo is on. I’m sure I could have got the DOS version working at a more consistent speed and it certainly didn’t need a 486 for a decent framerate. I’m left with the impression that the FM Towns got a bit of a quick and lazy port and the results are far less than they could have been. Having said that, the Towns does have the power to get away with it so this is still a decent version of Wing Commander by any standards. Maybe it outstrips the original because of the sound but they are similar enough that there really isn’t much to choose. Wing Commander isn’t really the reason to own an FM Towns but it’s been a good excuse to play it again if nothing else. I’d forgotten how tough those Secret Mission campaigns were. There was also a port of Wing Commander 2 which I’ll be trying out next, but first I have to finish SM2.

PC Gamer Top 100 -1997

By “popular” request, here is a scan of PC Gamer’s top 100 games article from July 1997, exactly 20 years ago. This time period just about marks the end of the non 3D accelerated era as evidenced by some of the new entries on the list such as Tomb Raider, MDK and Carmageddon which were initially released without 3dfx support and patched shortly after.

I haven’t checked but expect that Origin’s contribution to the list are much the same as the year before with System Shock at 16, Ultima Underword 1/2 at 28, Ultima 8 at 60, Crusader No Regret at 74 and Shadow Caster at 95. Wing Commander however gets emitted entirely with a nod only in the special award for perseverance! UK PC mags really didn’t like Wing Commander in this era.

There are at least some genuine favourites of mine among the new entries, especially Dungeon Keeper and Toonstruck. Some choices look very odd in hindsight and it goes without saying that my list would be entirely different but that’s always the case with these things. I do find picking Ultima 8 out of the whole series indefensible but it’s nice that someone likes it I suppose.

It’s the games on here that I haven’t tried that interest me the most so I’m coming away from reading through this list thinking I really should get that copy of D/Generation off the shelf and actually play the thing.

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Replacing an FM Towns II CMOS Battery

This isn’t something I was originally planning to write about but after all the recent posts on fixing up the FM Towns I thought I may as well finish the story off. I’ve found so little information when Googling, I’ll try to spare someone else the trial and error I’ve gone through.

At any rate, shortly after finishing a long awaited playthrough of Wing Commander, I decided it was about time to sort out the dead CMOS battery on my FM Towns II UR. I had no idea where the battery was located or how to take the machine apart which is where this guide comes in. Most of these photos were more for my reference than anything else and not with this purpose in mind so bear with the quality.

Taking the back of the case off is easy enough. Just undo the 4 screws + remove the memory slot flap and the back of the case will slide straight off. This just presents you with a second inner case of steel panels, the top of which needs to be removed by undoing the many, many screws holding it in place.

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That will expose the built in monitor and the various boards surrounding it. Hopefully this goes without saying but CRT screens act like giant capacitors and are more than capable of giving out lethal electric shocks. You either want to discharge the tube or be extremely careful not to touch it. The good news is that you don’t need to go near this part of the system much so the latter should be fine. The computer part of the unit is on a separate caddy that can be slid out of the back once unscrewed.

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Before sliding this out, you will need to unplug the monitor cable at the front left, the speaker cable at the front right, a connector cable at the back right and another at the top left of the case (the grey three pin plug in the photo above). It should be obvious which cables once you start sliding the unit out.

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Having got this far, you need to remove the fan at the back of the case so that you can then remove the board it is attached to. You can unscrew the fan through the metal grill. There is nothing attached to the circuit board at the bottom, it just needs unplugging, unscrewing and lifting out.

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Since I had no idea where the CMOS battery was, I continued stripping parts after this. A lot of these clip into place on the plastic frame so you simply have to pry the plastic clips open to release. It’s quite a neat design but doesn’t exactly give easy access to the motherboard since it’s at the bottom.

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I was expecting the CMOS battery to be attached to the motherboard and that I would need to strip everything right down to that level. As it happens, I could have stopped earlier. Just below where the fan was is a little space with a black plastic tab over the top. The CMOS battery is hiding just underneath the tab. It’s attached to the motherboard via a plug and short wires so you can easily remove it.

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The metal plates at the ends of the wires are firmly attached to the old battery. I pried these off as far as they would go, snipped off the remainder and soldered what was left to a new battery. Soldering to batteries isn’t exactly the best of ideas but it does the job. It’s a CR2450 battery you need if you want an exact replacement. I wrapped this up in tape and started the rebuild.

Once I had the machine back in one piece, I endured a lot more messing around before I was sure my fix had worked. I’ve been using Towns OS to set up my hard drive each time I started the PC. I still found the settings weren’t being saved if I powered off. The clock on the other hand was now keeping time so I knew my battery was working. I had the idea that maybe there was a second battery in the unit for a while but it turns out that all I needed was to use a DOS boot disk, with the setup2 program (as described in a previous post) to set up the hard disk. This then saved the CMOS settings correctly.

Installing Towns OS is nice and easy. There is a utils folder on the towns CD with an install program (it’s the icon with HD and an arrow). I did find out that this wiped my hard disk after I’d done it. Not a big deal but I won’t be importing my Wing Commander pilot into Secret Missions as a result. I had been planning on doing a video showing the last mission but I’ll do the last mission of Secret Missions II instead (when I make it that far).

Installing Wing Commander FM Towns

All my recent posts have been dealing with getting an FM Towns II computer in a suitable state to play Wing Commander. In the last of these I took a quick look at the analog controller I’ll be using and prior to that managed to upgrade the RAM from 2 to 10Mb. This time I’m dealing with the matter of getting a hard disk drive up and running.

Near enough all FM Towns computers include a SCSI interface for connecting up external SCSI drives and mine is no different having a SCSI-1 50 pin centronics connector on the back for this purpose. SCSI connectors have come in many shapes and sizes over the years but there are cables to convert between these and in theory it’s all backwards compatible. As such, my first thought was to find the cheapest SCSI hard drive I could with an appropriate cable to connect it up and go from there. With that in mind I bought this:-

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This is a 2Gb IBM drive pulled from a laptop. It’s a SCSI-3 device with a 68 pin half pitch connection on the back. I found plenty of manuals on the web and tried various jumper settings on the hard drive (of which it has many) but was unable to get anywhere at all with it. Initially I was trying to set the drive up using a Towns 2.1 OS boot disk that came with the machine but found another guide on hard disk installation at http://illusioncity.net/guidefm-towns-how-to-create-and-format-an-hd-image-and-install-dos-with-cd-support/ .

The snag with this guide is that I needed to create a DOS boot disk and the Towns doesn’t even use a standard 1.44Mb format. I’ve managed to source a complete download of near enough everything released for the FM Towns (not one I can share unfortunately) which included the DOS disk images. To write a disk I had to connect up a 3.5 inch floppy drive to my modern PC and used a program called Omniflop. 1.44Mb floppies appear to work fine for this purpose. Omniflop is an old program but works perfectly in Windows 10 at least at the time of writing. It’s a simple enough process – just follow the instructions at http://fullmotionvideo.free.fr/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=1187.

The working boot disk didn’t actually help out as I still couldn’t detect the hard disk from the setup program. I clearly needed another plan so searched the web and came across the SCSI2SD device. This is one of those fantastic modern gadgets that makes retro computing so much less grief than it would have been a few years back. It emulates up to 4 SCSI devices at once including hard drives, CD-ROM and floppies, storing all the data on a swappable micro sd card. I ordered mine from Amigakit where it’s currently listed as SCSI to Micro SD Interface Adapter. I was slightly wary about this as there is a long list of supported devices on the Wiki which doesn’t include the FM Towns but it seemed the best shot.

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I also ordered a case for the device from Ebay. These are 3D printed and include the cabling on the inside to connect to the board. This one has a 50 pin half pitch connector on the back. I can’t honestly say I’m too impressed with the quality of the case but it does the job. Just don’t expect to be able to get the SD card out without tweezers. You don’t want to take this thing apart too much either as the screws had barely any purchase on the first assembly.

SCSI2SD

Setting up the SCSI2SD is a matter of sticking in an SD card, connecting it to your PC with a USB cable, running the utility software and selecting a drive size. I set up a 1Gb drive but found out afterwards that Towns DOS won’t take partitions over 127Mb. You can set up multiple partitions on one large drive if you wish and there are different file table formats that you may be able to use if you know what you are doing. I stuck with MS-DOS since I know it will work.

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There is no fdisk to partition hard drives on the towns and the system has a more all-encompassing setup program instead. The illusioncity guide linked above details what you need to do, although you can do the same job in Towns OS 2.1 by the looks of it. I’m glad to say that the Towns detected the SCSI2SD without any problems whatsoever and I was soon up and running. The power is drawn directly from the SCSI connection so there is no need for any power source other than the Towns itself.

That just leaves the matter of actually installing Wing Commander. I would like to think there would have been an installation program but the extra instruction sheet bundled in with the game says to manually copy all the files to your hard disk from the CD. This proved more tricky than it sounds since I’m dealing with an unfamiliar operating system in a foreign language. My first thought was to use DOS since the commands are the same. This appeared to be going OK until I noticed how just many different subdirectories I was going to have to copy one by one (there is no xcopy command on my DOS disk).

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I swapped to Towns OS at this point. The file browser on this defaults to just showing some icons to run programs rather than the actual file structure. After randomly trying options, I realised that you can swap to showing the files by clicking the double folder icon at the top right of the window and selecting the second option down. After this point it’s a case of drag and drop. Wing Commander can then be started by running wc.exp and apparently defaults to English which is just as well.

It’s been a longer journey than I anticipated getting to this point but I’m there at last. I highly recommend Google Translate for anyone messing around with one of these machines that doesn’t have much Japanese. My phone struggles at times to pick up the screen clearly but it’s meant I’ve been able to decipher the menus in Towns OS and work out all the basics.

I do still have to set up the hard disk every time I start the machine since I need to replace the BIOS battery. This would be no small task in one of these things and would mean complete disassembly of the machine and probably soldering the new battery in place. I’ll leave that job for another time (if ever). For now, it’s about time I played some Wing Commander.

Sharp Cyberstick

My quest to get an FM Towns set up continues. I’ve certainly learnt a bit but still had no success with my first attempts with an external hard drive so am going to try a SCSI2SD device next. More on that when it arrives and if I actually get it working.

In the meanwhile, I have received one more relevant bit of kit which I’ll take a quick look at here:-

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This is a Sharp Cyberstick controller and is about the only option for an analog joystick on the FM Towns as far as I’m aware. There are some more conventional analog gamepad controllers but it has to be a joystick for Wing Commander.  The Cyberstick is also supported on the X68000 (should I ever happen to get one) and apparently on a handful of Mega Drive / Mega CD titles. Those Mega Drive titles don’t include Wing Commander I’m sorry to say.

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It’s a fairly high end device with a good deal of customization options available. The most striking of these is the ability to remove the stick and throttle and swap their positions around. A little side benefit of this is that all the working parts of the analog controller can be easily exposed and serviced should it be required.

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The unit is quite large but not as large as I might expect. Comparing it here to the Sony dual analog controller, there is a marked contrast in size and I would prefer the joystick especially to have been considerably bigger. I suppose this was aimed squarely at the Japanese market who presumably have slightly smaller hands on average. As for myself, I’m left holding on with my fingertips. The resistance on the stick is extremely low so it’s still very controllable like this.

The throttle on the left isn’t a true throttle as it returns to the center position when released. When using it in Wing Commander, it essentially acts as a switch to raise and lower speed. A true throttle would have been far more satisfying but limited the controller in other games no doubt. A switch to turn the centering off/on could have cured this but no such luck.

I’ve not played a lot of Wing Commander with the Cyberstick as of yet as I’m waiting until I get a hard drive. My main complaint would be that the controls don’t appear to be re-definable and while there are nice touches like being able to use the little toggle switch on the throttle to lock/cycle targets, the D button on the throttle only duplicates the B button on the joystick to fire missiles. This means that to use the afterburner, I have to let go of the throttle entirely to reach over for the C button in the middle. It works but surely didn’t need to be this clunky.

Truth be told, I’m a little disappointed with this controller. It’s like Sharp set out to make a flight controller and then thought it had better work with other types of games and compromised. The main body of the unit is large and heavy yet the two sticks themselves where you will have your hands 99% of the time are lightweight and a bit cheap. It comes across as a bit of a toy when compared to the Thrustmaster’s and the like that were on the PC’s of that era. As such, I’d rate this behind the Sony dual analog and especially the 3DO CH flightstick when it comes to the options for playing Wing Commander games on consoles. Neither of those systems had the original Wing Commander 1 & 2 though and this is definitely preferable to using a gamepad and/or keyboard. It’s an essential extra if you want to play Wing Commander on a real FM Towns but you’d better be more than a little fanatical about such things to make it worthwhile, or have really, really small hands.