Playing Wing Commander 4 DVD The Old Fashioned Way

As something of a follow-up to my attempts to get Wing Commander 1 running on an ancient Tandy, I thought I shouldn’t neglect what was for a long time my Wing Commander game of choice, Wing Commander 4. The only version ever sold in stores was on CD-ROM’s but in the mid to late 90’s, Creative released a bundle with a 2x DVD drive, MPEG-2 decoder and best of all a DVD-enhanced edition of Wing Commander 4. This bundle was the only way to get hold of this DVD as it was never made available in any other way that I’m aware of.

I seem to recall that I already owned the rest of the equipment at the time but still wanted that DVD enough to buy the whole package when my first DVD drive bit the dust. The hardware is long gone but I do still have the DVD in its unassuming packaging. It’s a single layer DVD but is a flippy disk with the video on both sides. Any earlyish adopters of the DVD format will remember movies coming on these flippy disks and you had to get up and flip the disk half way through the movie.

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Before I get going, I should point out that this is basically a pointless exercise since thanks to the hard work of various people over at the WC CIC, the DVD version is already available to play through GOG. Of course all that ease of setup and convenience wouldn’t be the authentic 90’s experience so with that in mind my aim was to get it running on something approaching the original hardware. Step one was a trip to Ebay to buy one of these:-

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This is a Sigma Designs REALMagic Hollywood Plus DVD Decoder. In the 90’s PC’s were simply not powerful enough to decode a DVD on the fly so they needed dedicated cards just for this one task. Creative’s variant was called the DXR-2 but used the same chip if I recall correctly so it’s the same card to all intents and purposes.

Something I didn’t recall until after I’d got the card was that it needs a special cable to operate correctly. The way these worked in that you would pass the video out from your VGA card into the decoder card with a cable, then connect your monitor directly to the DVD decoder. When doing any DVD decoding, the VGA card would render anything else on the screen leaving an empty box for the video which would then be layered over the top when the signal reached the decoder card. Early 3D cards worked the same way and I’m sure I had to loop my video signal through 3 cards at some point in the 90’s which didn’t do a whole lot for picture quality. These cables are completely non standard but I had a search in my big bag of old cables and lucked across exactly what I needed.

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Getting everything installed then was relatively easy. I’ve already got a Windows 98/DOS PC for just this sort of thing. I did have to swap out the CD-ROM for a DVD drive ruining the beige aesthetic but this PC will never be a thing of beauty. Tracking down some drivers for the decoder was simple enough so I soon had that set up.

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Getting the DVD version to run was slightly tricky. It’s Windows only and refuses to start at all unless your desktop is in 640×480 in 16 bit colour. Of course the readme file neglects to mention this whatsoever. When I figured that much out, the video ran fine but the game would give a DirectDraw error as soon as the spaceflight sections started.

I’ve got 2 video cards in this PC, a Voodoo 3 and an older PCI Trio64 card. I can choose which I want to use by swapping the BIOS over to use AGP or PCI for graphics. The reasons I have 2 cards are firstly because the VFX-1 headset is extremely picky and on the rare occasions it gets used I have to be using the PCI card. Secondly, a whole lot of old software doesn’t like using the Voodoo 3 as it’s just a little too new for it. Usually it would be display corruption rather than actual errors but in this case, swapping to the PCI card fixed the problem and I could finally shoot down a few pirates in WC4.

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So what’s it actually look like? Well, the DVD video quality isn’t too bad at all off the Hollywood Plus and looks much like any DVD player. It’s a far cry from a modern Blu-ray though and has a visible wobble that is hard to describe. It was impressive enough back when the only competition was VHS but considerably less so these days. I seem to remember it working far better through a TV. The decoder has a tv-out for this purpose and I used to watch the video parts of WC4 on my TV while playing the game on my monitor when I first got this. I do like playing these low resolution games on a CRT but it’s only the gameplay segments that benefit here so that was no doubt the way to go back when everything I owned was in my bedroom. The TV is a bit too far away to try that these days.

As ever when I start playing WC4, I didn’t want to stop at any rate and it somehow feels more correct playing it with a creaking 90’s Thrustmaster joystick. If all we had was the CD-ROM version to play these days, this process would definitely be worth the effort. As it is, I do like using the original hardware when possible but for 99.9% of people I’m sure you are better off sticking with the GOG version.

There were a handful of other DVD-enhanced games and I also had these in mind when I was getting this set up. Especially Tex Murphy – Overseer which doesn’t have a decent method of being run on modern hardware that I’m aware of and I’ve not played it for some years as a result. Other than that, the only other DVD game that springs to mind is Zork – Grand Inquisitor which I’ve not had the chance to try at all as of yet. DVD technology arrived slightly too late for the FMV crazed mid 90’s or I expect more games would have seen DVD releases.

Wing Commander Orchestral Soundtrack CD

It’s not often I get anything new that is Origin related these days so one of the more welcome things to pop through the letterbox recently was the CD for the orchestrated Wing Commander soundtrack. This was a result of a Kickstarter back in early 2014 by composer George Oldziey to bring his music to life with a real orchestra.

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Like nearly every Kickstarter, it’s been quite the wait for the physical product. Unlike plenty of other Kickstarters I could mention, there has been steady progress and updates throughout and it’s a prime example of crowd funding done right.

The orchestral recording itself was done back in October 2014 and released to backers digitally a little later once mastered. The $42,000 raised wasn’t exactly a huge amount when paying for a full symphony orchestra so the recording was done in Bratislava with the Slovak Symphony Orchestra where the wages are more affordable. They might not get paid as much but it has to be said they did a fantastic job. The original WC3 + WC4 soundtracks were undoubtedly some of the best to ever come out of Origin probably only beaten by Ultima 9 several years down the line. The new recordings surpass those and then some. The music was already symphonic so the transition works perfectly. Most of the music chosen is from WC3 and WC4 which is just what I would have wanted. There is also a track from Prophecy which is more atmospheric and alien.

In addition to the orchestral recordings, Oldziey has done some digital re-orchestration using modern equipment to add another 15 minutes or so to the CD. Technology has come on to the point where these don’t sound all that much worse than the real thing. If I recall correctly, these weren’t actually funded in the Kickstarter but were added on anyway.

 

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As far as the packaging, it comes in a little cardboard sleeve with the CD on one side and a booklet with some more photos and the names of all the backers above a certain level. For what is such a limited release, it’s a smart looking package. This is one Kickstarter than I’m definitely not sorry I backed and has in the end delivered more than I expected. It could never have happened without crowd funding and is a reminder as to why it took off in the first place.

The soundtrack is actually still available to buy at http://oldzieymusic.com/wingcommanderCD.html for an admittedly pricey $40 for a physical non-autographed copy but that’s considerably less than the original backers had to put in. I seriously doubt it will ever see a wider and cheaper release as it’s about as niche as it gets. For anyone who enjoyed those games as much as I did, it has to be worth the money. You can also get a digital download if that’s your preference at half the price.

Wing Commander 4 (PS1) – Part 3

This post has been a while coming as it must be a week since I finished off WC4 but better late than never. From where I left off last time the latter stages had far fewer cuts than the PC with the main point of interest being the choice of missions offered about two-thirds of the way through. I would normally get to pick from commandeering fighters and equipment or rescuing civilians. Here the choice is made for me and I get to chase after the new fighters.

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I do still have the choice of which 2 of the 3 missions we carry out in the system. Unlike the alternative route, there are no planet missions here of course so that issue is neatly avoided.

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As the game draws on after that, it gets more and more in line with the PC version with all the ending missions playing out exactly as I remember including the final showdown with Tolwyn. With so little changed, there isn’t much for me to say so it’s straight to the final verdict.

With the right controller this is a good port with better looking movies and playing just about exactly how it should. The CD access times on the real hardware are a little tiresome, especially when saving. The PS2 also struggles when streaming music detracting strongly from the soundtrack which can’t keep up when you start to get kills. None of this detracts majorly and the real drawback is all of the cuts which seem like a bizarre decision. Why not add $2-3 to cover manufacturing costs and put the whole game out? Without these cuts it could have been competing with the PC version, with them it’s lacking a lot of spark especially in the early stages of the story. What is left is still true to the original not leaving much new here to justify playing it in addition either. Unless you have to play every one, stick with the DVD edition on the PC as it has this beat in every aspect. Where this port would possibly shine is playing it on a mobile device like the Vita provided you can get used to driving a starship with your thumbs.

I should be continuing the space sim theme next with a game I’ve wanted to try out for some time, Deep Space – Operation Copernicus.

Wing Commander 4 (PS1) – Part 2

It’s been two to three weeks since part one but I’m fully equipped to restart this playthrough once again. When I’d left off, I’d decided that if I could get hold of a PS1 dual joystick controller it would be a whole lot more fun than playing on a gamepad. I wouldn’t say they are plentiful on Ebay but they aren’t exactly scarce either or in high demand for that matter and I picked one up earlier in the week which looks something like this:-

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In terms of size, it’s a monster with those 8 buttons in the middle being as big as the usual gamepad. It predates that dual analog controller we’ve all come to know so well and was the first analog controller of any kind available for the PS1. Like most outlandish control peripherals, not so many games supported it in the end but it was a boon in plenty of those that did with Wing Commander 4 being one of them. All of the giant buttons in the middle are duplicated on one of the two joysticks with only the start and select buttons being unavailable elsewhere. The POV hat on the right stick equates to the d-pad. There is also a mode switch to swap between analog and digital for the joysticks – I can’t see that I’ll be using this thing to play digital only games any time soon so I’ll leave that well alone. It doesn’t appear to have equivalents to the thumbstick buttons so despite the size ends up with two fewer buttons than its miniature sibling. This is still far more than most Wing Commander console ports have to work with and should be plenty.

Since it’s been weeks and I’ve got a whole new controller to get used to, I figured I would restart WC4 from the beginning again. Right from the first mission before I’ve even got to grips with the layout the difference is night and day. I was constantly oversteering when using thumbsticks but the two joysticks prove to be surprisingly accurate. Playing a game with two joysticks simultaneously is a little odd but with the giant base this thing is rock steady which is just as well when I have both my hands full. The decision to have two joysticks and not a throttle control isn’t ideal at least for this game. I can nudge the speed up and down with the left stick and it holds steady when released but this is far from natural and I’d have far more control with a real throttle. You do get used to it with some practice but I only ever know what speed I’ve got set by looking at the screen.

The other minor irritation is the size of the dead zone for the two sticks. I would assume this is programmed into the game but I wouldn’t choose in a space sim to have to move the joystick so far when making minor corrections. Personally I would much rather have some drift when centered. On the whole though, it’s a little odd but this isn’t a bad peripheral at all and a lot better than plenty of other joysticks of the era.

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Back to the game then. After having such a hard time with the gamepad, I now found that I could now complete every mission within a couple of attempts at most so was soon back to where I had left off except I thought I should take the other branch where I choose not to follow Eisen when he defects. Given all the movies cut from this version, I’d expected this not to be included but it’s mostly there. I’ve only played this path once before so I can’t say I was overly familiar with it but more movies have been cut as I’m sure I remember some chats with Catscratch in the lounge which were entirely absent. It occurs to me that I’m up to the start of CD#3 and I don’t think Catscratch has had a line of dialog after his introduction scene.

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In this other path Confed start to become blatantly evil with Paulsen describing the border worlders as sub-human in a dark little scene in the officers lounge. Seether is making his presence felt in the meanwhile and displaying every nuance of the stereotype Hollywood villain other than not being played by a Brit. If you haven’t decided to defect to the Border Worlds by the time Eisen offers a second chance then you deserve what’s coming to you. Having taken that choice, the branches rejoin and Eisen heads out with his data leaving Blair in charge of the Intrepid.

Playing this straight after X-Wing was interesting as it really drives home just how imprecise the controls and lasers are by comparison. In essence, I can’t do much more than point in the general direction and hope the autoaim does its job. On the plus side, the pace of gameplay is through the roof by comparison so it’s got its pros and cons.

I’ve got as far as entering Pellias where there is the “jamming black hole”. By this point there have been enough cuts to the FMV and missions that I’m not going to attempt to list them. It’s always entire FMV clips and missions missing rather than just trimming down the original scenes. It does mean that the story ends up being rushed but I’d probably not notice so much if I didn’t know things were missing. None of this is exactly doing WC4 any favours but it still holds together. If I’d been forced to make this sort of call on cuts, I would have stripped out the branching and left as much of an intact single strand as possible. It was never the longest game to play through and after something like 90 minutes of gameplay I’m already halfway there judging on the CD count. At least what is left is up to scratch and I’m hopeful that the closing stages should be all present and correct when I make it that far for part 3.