Wing Commander Fan Site Of The Year!

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I’m slightly shocked to say that this site has apparently won Wing Commander fan site of the year at the Wing Commander CIC! I wasn’t expecting the nomination let alone a win. Of course I wouldn’t have stood a chance if the Wing Commander fan site of this and every other year wasn’t the one running the competition. Tempting as it is to post a lengthy acceptance speech, I’ll just say thank you to all that voted and moreover to everyone who is keeping the community alive and helped make 2012 such a great year for Wing Commander.

I think the award is purely honorary but if there is a golden Loaf statue in the post I’ll do my best to find a spot for it.

Wing Commander/Ultima Compilation Advert

Hope you all have had a good Christmas. Apologies for the lack of posts in December but spare time has been at a premium in recent weeks. This isn’t going to change anytime soon but I thought I should dig out another random item from the collection for a quick post:-

Ultima/Wing Commander Advert Separates Ultima Trilogy 2/Wing Commander Deluxe Advert

This is the separates and proof for a 1/3 page magazine advert for the second Ultima Trilogy and Wing Commander Deluxe which dates to March 1992. The $79.95 price for the Ultima trilogy puts the recent GOG sale into context where you could get nearly all the Ultima games for around $15. The trilogy still sounds like good value compared to Wing Commander Deluxe at the same price – it’s a whole lot cheaper to be a gamer these days. I love the “more than 5.5 megabytes, for long-term play value” quote which truly shows the age of this particular advert.

On a different topic, I’ve been informed that there is an issue with the Ultima Patcher on Win 8 64 bit not installing the Ultima 5 graphics/music patch which I’ve replicated. This may well affect all versions of Windows as I’d be more likely to blame GOG’s version 2.0 installer having changed something. I’m not going to be able to look at this for at least another week but will take the opportunity to add the new default install locations into the search directories when I do and have a quick check of all the other games. If there is anything else I should be fixing/adding, now would be a good time to let me know.

Wing Commander – Amiga CD32

Gaming room #2 is slowly taking shape, although there is a severe lack of hardware at the moment as I’ve been concentrating on things like storage and furniture. Getting a large sofa-bed up my ridiculously narrow stairwell proved to be a tortuous experience but it’s now back in one piece and where I wanted it. I can’t say the same for a door frame I had to remove along the way but I’ll put that back another day.

So far I only have a couple of unfashionable 90′s consoles in the shape of the 3DO and more particularly for this post a CD32:-

Amiga CD32

The CD32 was advertised as the worlds first 32 bit console although in truth the FM Towns Marty beat it by a narrow margin in Japan. It was basically an Amiga 1200 with a CD drive but without a keyboard and was released by Commodore late in 1993. They had component supply issues which meant they couldn’t keep up with demand and went out of business a handful of months after the CD32 release resulting in the console being discontinued. There were no real standout games on the CD32 in its short life but it is compatible with the Amiga back catalog and there are numerous homemade CD’s which can be downloaded with hundreds of Amiga games on each. This is a major appeal for me and one of the reasons why it was up the top of my list to own. I’ve been having great fun with games like Gods, Xenon 2, Wizkid and Project X.

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There is also the fact that on release the CD32 was bundled with an Origin game in the form of Wing Commander together with Dangerous Streets on a CD. I was expecting Dangerous Streets to be a Double Dragon style scrolling beat-em up but it’s more along the lines of a cartoony Street Fighter clone. I’ve not played it for long but from what I saw it is truly awful. Other content on the CD includes an FMV demo of Rise Of The Robots. This is not the most illustrious company for Wing Commander to be keeping.

I tried the Amiga version of Wing Commander earlier in the year which played well but suffered from a reduced colour palette to get the game to run on A500′s. With the improved hardware of the CD32, the game was tweaked to run in full 256 colour mode and now looks every bit as good as on the PC:-

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The downside is that even the CD32 still struggles for speed and isn’t really up to the job when there is a lot going on. Battles in asteroid fields drop to 1-2 FPS and it’s fair to say that playing this on the CD32 is never going to be a test of anyone’s reactions. The game is still Wing Commander in all it’s glory though with nothing cut or left out. The only change I spotted to the regular Amiga version was a grid system to put my name in at the very start to make up for the lack of a keyboard.

The loading times from the CD drive are noticeable but quick enough to still be palatable for a modern gamer. The Amiga soundtrack sounded great through a couple of decent speakers and a definite improvement to using an emulator. I still think it lacked the subtlety of the MT-32 but it’s not far behind.

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The CD32 controller has 7 buttons + the d-pad and this proved just enough to make controlling the game intuitive. There are some quirks such as having to continually tap green to use afterburners since holding it down only gives a very short burst but it’s by far the easiest I’ve found any of the console Wing Commander games to control. I quite like the CD32 controller in general, it’s nice and large, comfortable to use and everything is in easy reach. On the down side, it does feel cheap and not exactly built to last + I always want to hold it the wrong way around whenever I first pick it up.

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I played Wing Commander through to the end and this is yet another great console port. It’s the truest of all of them to the PC version, I just wish the CD32 had a little bit more grunt to get that framerate up. The 256 colour graphics looked spot on in this but I’m unconvinced that it wouldn’t have been a better game in 32 colour and running at full speed. As I also recall from the Amiga version, the asteroids were unusually deadly and had the unfortunate tendency to appear out of nowhere at times.

I ran into a few curious bugs such as when afterburning through asteroid fields, I would occasionally hit one and not get damaged but get bounced back about 50,000 clicks at warp speed. Odder still, in the penultimate mission, I found myself fighting an invisible Ralari which was inevitably tricky to shoot and I ended up smashing straight into it and blowing up.

Those bugs were few and far between. Even with the slow speed, I reckon this would still have been a brilliant game if you only owned a CD-32. If you had a PC as an alternative, then it doesn’t look quite so good and there were arguably titles that used the hardware better. It’s always fun to play WC1 again though and it’s becoming a habit this year with this being the 4th port so far. Each of those ports had something in it’s favour and I’d struggle to pick one over another but it was nice to be able to play this one on the original hardware. I still have one port left unplayed but the FM-Towns version can definitely wait until 2013.

Through the Portalarium

It already seems a long time ago but just over a week back, I got the unlikely chance for a tour of Portalarium and questions with Richard Garriott. The offices are on the 7th floor of an unassuming office block in downtown Austin.

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They had just put the Halloween decorations up when we arrived. Letting LOAF lead the way, we were ushered into a small conference room barely big enough to get us all in. It was immediately apparent we were in the right place though as there was an entire wall of Ultimate RPG concept art on the near wall. I’m unfortunately not allowed to talk about this but I can mention some of the other adornments such as the original Ultima 9 tapestry artwork and a trio of cover art pictures for Chuckles’ 3 games including Caverns Of Callisto:-

Caverns Of Callisto - Origin Artwork

A brief wait later and we are getting the tour from Richard Garriott himself. The hub of the tour is a central corridor in which Garriott has placed some of the significant items from his gaming history. The plan is to bring more of this collection out of storage as Portalarium and the offices grow but even now it’s still the sort of display that any Ultima fan would have to remortgage their house for:-

Portalarium Akalabeth Display

This is the first section with the bottom left being some of Garriott’s pre Akalabeth games on paper tape + his written out code which never got punched in. The earliest Computerland Akalabeth case contains a version on cassette as Akalabeth actually predates the Apple II disk drive. He doesn’t think he sold any of these but wasn’t entirely certain so there may be one out there somewhere.

Going further down the corridor there is the original artwork for just about every Ultima game as well as some Destination Games displays but I don’t have photo’s to share unfortunately.

Wing Commander Artwork

For the Wing Commander fans, in the next room off to the side there is some more artwork including the original Wing Commander logo as well as a very familiar looking Wing Commander Prophecy movie style poster. Also in this room is Garriott’s pre Akalabeth D&D games map which was fairly massive and had some very familiar town names. He explained that it formed the basis for Ultima 1 although interestingly it was more or less all one large land mass. This fits in with an ancient RG interview I read elsewhere that Ultima 1 & 3 were in fact based on the same game map with the 4 continents of Ultima 1 being chopped up/rotated around versions of the same world as Ultima 3. This looked to fit with what I saw but I wish I grabbed a photo. Maybe next time…

We strolled through some of the developer’s offices after this. One of them was working on removing the Garage Sale text from the Ultimate Collector artwork so it looks like it’s going to have a name change. The name Ultimate Collector was apparently “borrowed” when a TV show of the same name contacted Garriott and he liked the name so much he thought he would use a variant on it.

Richard Garriott's Apple II

The Portalarium offices are quite a modest affair at the moment and we were soon back in the main corridor where at the far end there is the original Apple II used to write Akalabeth and the early Ultimas, permanently set up running Akalabeth these days. There is also a small but growing new collection of toys which has been inspired by all the cool items the team has come across making Ultimate Collector. Another recently acquired item is a teletype machine exactly the same as the one used to punch in the pre-Akalabeth D&D games.

With the tour concluded it was back to the conference room and a Q&A session. I can’t speak for everyone else there but this isn’t the sort of thing I’m used to and it’s hard not to get more than a little starstruck. It’s not like RG isn’t an easy-going sort of guy but I’ve thought of a lot of questions I should have asked afterwards. In no particular order, this is what I remember from a week later much of which I’ve already covered in a previous post.

One of the questions that came up was whether he would be able to help track down a copy of Wing Commander 2 on the SNES. This has been a holy grail for Wing Commander fans for a long time. The game was sent out to reviewers and full write-ups appeared in magazines back at the time but it never went on general sale. It even had some enhancements to the original version such as colour communications screens. The good news here is that RG was extremely positive that he may have a copy. He said that he made sure to get a copy of every Origin game and 10 copies if it was Ultima and thinks that with WC2 getting that far he will almost definitely have it in storage. The downside is that he wouldn’t just let us rummage around for it so we will have to wait some time.

I took the chance to ask if that could also mean he had a copy of The Lost Vale. He didn’t think it had ever got finished but I’d take the word of Sheri Graner Ray here and assume that he just didn’t follow it too closely at the time. Going on what he said previously, there must be at least be a slight chance that he may just have a copy but we’ll have to wait for that alongside WC2 SNES.

There was some talk about Ultimate RPG although it’s clearly in an early stage. He discussed how Portalarium’s Poker and Ultimate Collector games are necessary building blocks towards the technology needed to make Ultimate RPG within a small company like Portalarium. He confirmed that he would be appearing in Ultimate RPG and it would always be him playing his own character just like in Ultima Online.

Inevitably there was some talk of space travel (which he thinks will be as affordable as a first class airplane ticket within 20 years). Although he is now an employee of NASA, it turns out they were less than helpful with his journey to the space station despite the fact that he was doing experiments on their behalf. I gather that NASA didn’t want to be seen as spending USA tax payer’s money on “some rich yahoo’s” jaunt into space.

For instance, Garriott had to sign a fairly standard disclaimer before travelling to the Space Station. NASA never got around to countersigning this and 3 days before the flight tried to change the terms so that RG wasn’t allowed to take photo’s through the windows owned by NASA, take photos of the NASA owned portions of the station or actually go on the NASA side of the station in the first place (more or less negating the first two). The rest of the astronauts thought this was as ridiculous as he did and advised him not to sign it since they could hardly stop him flying at this point. After being further pushed to sign it however, he had the bright idea of getting NASA to agree to add a final clause that all terms were under the guidance of the mission commander on the space station (this was actually already the case anyway and this would just reaffirm it). The moment he arrived the commander welcomed him on board, told him he could go wherever he wanted, take any photos he wanted and not to feel the need to ask again.

To get back to Earth and Ultima games, the topic of Mount Drash came up somehow. The story is that Keith Zabalaoui (a friend of Garriotts who was credited on Akalabeth) had already written the game but Sierra weren’t going to publish it unless they could use the Ultima branding to increase sales. The game was never intended to be an Ultima but Garriott gave this his blessing to help his friend out, hence Ultima – Escape From Mount Drash. This makes it a legitimate part of the Ultima series as far as I’m concerned and a whole lot more collectible (if that is possible). I might even be prepared to fork out the money myself now if the chance ever arose although I’m not so sure I wouldn’t rather buy another bookcase full of less extreme vintage software for the same price.

I asked about Ultima 4.5 which is something I’ve been curious about ever since I heard of it. According to an RG interview I read a long time back Ultima 4.5 and Ultima 5 were being developed side by side for a while and I wanted to learn more. Garriott didn’t think this was the case however and said that Savage Empire was the first time they had tried to reuse an engine.

He went into some detail about the thought process behind each of the Ultima spinoffs. The original idea was that reusing the same engine would mean that the game could be made for less than the original which is certainly what I would have expected. However with Savage Empire, it apparently was so much work to strip out the original assets that it ended up costing just as much as Ultima 6 to make. They thought could learn from this with Martian Dreams but that also cost just as much and both games sold less than the mainline Ultimas casting questions on the whole notion of engine reuse.

With the U6 spinoffs not entirely going to plan, a different approach was taken with Serpent Isle whereby the original game assets would still be used for the most part which was supposed to keep costs down but this plan failed once more. It occurs to me now that I should have asked about Crusader at this point, which I’m assuming was Plan C. If so this probably worked out better by using the engine for a completely different genre of game and thereby not just appealing to a subset of those that bought Ultima 8.

LOAF asked about the Ultima anime which was supposedly made in Japan in the 80′s. Garriott was adamant that there was never any such thing which would certainly explain why it hasn’t surfaced by now. I would assume that the screenshots that exist were simply created for a Famicom TV commercial which sounds like a far more likely explanation.

The only other things I can recall were a mention of Ultima Forever as he had just been out for dinner with Paul Barnett the day before and agreed to appear in the game travelling around in the skies. He thinks their heart is in the right place for U4E but he hasn’t seen the game so couldn’t give an opinion on it.

We also got an impromptu illustrated guide to the iconic shapes of the Wing Commander 1 fighters (and other things), which Garriott considers to be far more memorable than those in later games. I also recall asking (more to fill an awkward silence than anything) whether Time Bandits really was the inspiration for the cloth maps which of course it was but we all knew that anyway.

Richard Garriott Space Suit Badge

Our hour was up almost as soon as it had begun. We got some final photo opportunities and there was one little bonus when we were gifted Richard Garriott space suit badges. I came out slightly shell shocked and I still can’t quite believe I got to do this in the first place. Many thanks to Lord British for taking the time to show us around and also to Loaf and Chris Reid for all but one of the photo’s on this post.

10 Things I Learned In Austin

My time in Austin is up and I’m heading back for England and real life. This has been one crazy week especially Thursday when we got a Portalarium tour + questions with Richard Garriott, then went out later for margaritas and dinner with Chris Roberts. This isn’t the sort of schedule I’m used to.

I have things to write up but it can wait until I’m not just using my phone. So instead to keep me occupied while I wait for my first flight here are 10 things I learned this week:-

1. You need to have a flexible itinerary to work for a game company that is running a funding campaign.

2. Hardly anyone out here knew about this site except for Chris Roberts who uses it to check out things about his own games. I guess I can settle for that.

3. Texans apparently shop for guns like other people shop for grocery.

4. The long missing Wing Commander 2 for SNES probably exists in Richard Garriott’s archives but it could be a year before he has time to look for it. He isn’t at all confident about having The Lost Vale though which he didn’t think ever got finished.

5. The margaritas on sixth street are a whole lot better than the food.

6. Contrary to what I had heard, Garriott was well aware of Escape From Mt. Drash and agreed to the Ultima branding to help out the author as Sierra wouldn’t have published the game otherwise. The downside here is this makes it official enough for me to want a copy now.

7. The WC CIC team put a whole more effort into their site than I do mine.

8. Space Rogue wasn’t in fact the inspiration for Wing Commander but Chris Roberts did get some advice on 3D programming from Paul Neurath. Roberts already had a 2D sprite based prototype running prior to this and it definitely wasn’t a fantasy game.

9. The Ultima anime series is a myth and never existed.

10. This is how to pack a suitcase:-
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Huge thanks to all the crew from the WC CIC for letting me tag along all this week.