Wing Commander 1 FM Towns (First Look)

I’ve been gathering old computers a good number of years now and had managed to get near enough all of the one’s I really want with one exception. The FM Towns was a Japanese PC variant which came out in 1989. It was a 32-bit machine with 640×480 SVGA like graphics, 2Mb of RAM, 8 channel music + 6 channel PCM, built-in CD-ROM, sprite hardware and was basically years ahead of anything here in the UK where I was either still using a 48K ZX Spectrum or just getting my first 8Mhz CGA PC. The name apparently comes from the Nobel physics prize winner Charles Townes but the spelling was changed to make sure people pronounced it correctly. The FM stands for Fujitsu Micro.

As a massive fan of DOS era PC games, the FM Towns is particularly intriguing as it got enhanced ports of many familiar titles of the era. Most famously, several Lucasarts/Lucasfilm Games adventures and the Ultima series. I’ve emulated some of these in the past but I’m far more into real hardware so I decided it was about time I spent some of that pay rise and got myself one of these:-

IMG_20170528_072618 (1)

This is an FM Towns II UR which is a 486SX, with 2Mb of RAM, a pair of 3.5 inch floppies up the front and a really tiny (about 8″) but extremely sharp built-in monitor. Allegedly a few FM Towns did make their way to the UK but the only realistic way of getting one of these is to import it from Japan. They aren’t cheap and they definitely aren’t light so this is one for the real “enthusiasts” only. The power supply over there is only 100V so it needs a transformer to work in the UK. The one I’ve used on my machines from the USA is 110V (presumably deliberately in the middle of the two standards) and this seems to work fine.


Round the back are some expansion slots, monitor in/out sockets RS & printer ports and most importantly from my point of view a SCSI port for adding an external drive. FM Towns machines didn’t usually come with a hard drive and needed to boot the operating system from a CD. With just 2Mb of RAM as standard, that doesn’t leave much room to play with and from what I’m seeing, a hard drive is a near essential extra as we’ll see shortly.


The keyboard has some interesting keys that I’m not used to including an extra 8 function keys and a ‘000’ key. I can’t say I’m a fan of having extra keys directly below the spacebar but I won’t be doing a lot of typing on this. The mouse is taken from an MSX which has compatible controllers and the gamepad is a fairly simple affair that I’ll probably ignore in favour of keyboard whenever given the opportunity.


It’s high time to play a game on here and what better to start with than Wing Commander. The FM Towns release comes with some fancy new artwork for the cover and features CD audio, cockpit speech (in Japanese) and digitised sound effects throughout. On starting it up, however I was greeted with stony silence which was something of a let down. From reading through the installation sheet that comes with the game I gather that on 2Mb machines that are running the game from CD, it defaults to no audio to stop the gameplay getting interrupted. It is possible to switch them back on by pressing ‘M’ for music once you start the game. The sound can’t be turned on until you are in the cockpit with ‘S’ to turn on speech and ‘Ctrl + S’ to turn on the sound effects. The reason for these being off is readily apparent as the game constantly loads off the CD and the music and gameplay grind to a halt every time it does it. I recorded a quick and dirty video playing through the first mission below which will give you an idea of what this runs like on a stock FM Towns. Expect a whole lot of loading from that single speed CD drive:-

The music and sound effects are fantastic. I especially like the crescendo at the end of the briefing but the effect is slightly ruined when the next scene has to load. From what I’m seeing, this could well be the best version of WC1 but the loading times and constant pauses are jarring to say the least. It clearly needs that hard disk so I’ve ordered a cheap refurbished 2Gb IBM laptop hard disk + a 50-68 pin SCSI cable off Ebay. I’m hoping that I can more or less just plug that in and be good to go but I can’t profess to knowing anything at all about SCSI drives or installing them in obscure Japanese computers. I’m also looking into memory expansion. The Towns uses a standard 72pin SIMM (non parity, non EDO) so if I chuck in an 8Mb chip it should in theory greatly reduce the need to load data all the time.

Much like the Turbo button on old PC’s, the Towns has two modes with the slower being compatible with the original machine (386SX). I did try running Wing Commander in fast mode (hold down T at boot) but it clearly ran too quickly and slow mode is the way to go. Other games I’ve tried like Ultima Underworld and Alone in the Dark benefit greatly from the extra speed of fast mode. Alone in the Dark actually caches screens to floppy disk when playing the intro in order to not stop the CD music. When you are using a floppy drive as virtual memory, I think it’s a clear sign that you need a hard disk.

The Ultima games on the other hand are much less demanding and run fine without the hard disk, even the famous Ultima 6 talkie version. Underworld I would have benefitted but didn’t run too badly. Underworld II actually requires a hard disk to run at all although it doesn’t appear to mention this on the outside on the box, only when you read the setup instructions. I’ll play through some of these properly when I get the chance.

For now, and pretty much as ever when buying an old machine like this, I need to throw a bit more money at it. Compared to the IIGS which was a serious money pit, I may have got off lightly this time. I’ll wait for all the bits to arrive and then see if I can take a proper look at Wing Commander.

The Tandy TX And Getting It To Run Wing Commander

The Wing Commander CIC has been flying the flag for Wing Commander for 18 years as of this week so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d look at something to do with Wing Commander. I’ve been looking for games to play on that Tandy I recently acquired and was slightly surprised to see that Wing Commander supported Tandy 16 colour graphics so I thought I’d give it a go. This was never going to work on my EX but I did have a chance of running it on Tandy #2, the Tandy TX.


I picked this up some weeks back when I figured I would never find a memory expansion for the EX only to then find one days later at a decent price. You can never have too many old PC’s as far as I’m concerned so it’s now been added to the ever expanding collection.

The TX has several things going for it over the EX. For a start it comes with 640K of RAM as standard. It has a 3.5 inch 720K drive by default, built-in DMA, and normal 8 bit ISA slots opening up a world of expansion options. It’s quicker than the EX with a 16 bit 286 processor running at 8 Mhz although it’s not quite a full 286 as all the peripheral interfaces (including graphics) are still 8 bit. Perhaps the only disadvantage over the EX is that it can’t be made to run at 4.77Mhz to support the oldest of DOS games but it does have a half speed mode.

I bought the TX, untested and as is. Getting it to a state where I can actually use it has been a bit of a project. First problem, it didn’t come with a keyboard and this being a Tandy it has a proprietary keyboard using an unusual DIN plug. The same goes for the joysticks. It has native support for two which is a nice feature in a PC of the era but they also use a Tandy only DIN socket. To compound this, you can’t disable the ports meaning that it’s not possible to slot in a joystick card to one of the expansion slots.

Despite a worrying amount of rust on the case, I did manage to establish that the machine would switch on and run a program using a boot disk and an autoexec.bat. I added a 360K drive while I was at it. The machine came with a hard disk expansion card which would have been a nice bonus had it actually worked so that needed sorting out as well. It came with a VGA card installed but that’s far too modern for my purposes so it got removed in favour of the built-in Tandy graphics.


First things first then, the keyboard was simply a matter of tracking one down, not all that easy but they are out there. It was a little temperamental when I first got it but seems to have settled down after a liberal spraying of switch cleaner.


The joystick was along the same lines. It’s not exactly the flightstick I would choose for Wing Commander but then I’m not expecting it to be playable anyway. This joystick was certainly cheap but when it arrived the rattling sound and the fact it flopped up and down was not a good sign.


Sure enough, on opening it up the bracket connecting the vertical axis to the potentiometer had sheared In two on one side. Nothing some araldite wouldn’t fix at least.


I was less sure about what to do with the hard drive expansion card. It’s a curious one piece card with an ancient Western Digital hard disk attached directly to the 8 bit ISA card. I thought at first, I could maybe swap out the hard disk but the edge connector it uses put me off this. I discovered a much better alternative in the Lo-tech 8 bit IDE adaptor card. This is a modern card allowing you to add IDE devices to any 8 bit PC. The snag is they only sell the circuit board and you have to build it yourself. I took the far easier but pricier option of buying a pre-built one from Ebay. The device is made with CompactFlash cards in mind but also requires an IDE->CompactFlash adaptor if you are going this route.


With the ISA card in place and connected up, I decided to carefully mask up the CompactFlash>IDE board to insulate it and shove this through one of the expansion slots at the back.. Once taped in place, this lets me remove the card when the case in closed.

Getting Wing Commander onto this PC would have been quite time consuming since it doesn’t support HD disk drives which is what the game shipped on. This solution allows me to just slot the CF card onto a modern PC and copy any software I like to it which is going to make using this PC a whole lot easier.


At this point, I could nearly run Wing Commander, except for a lack of memory. The original PC-Jr shared graphics and system memory meaning that the Tandy graphics mode eats into the 640K and the game didn’t have enough RAM left to run. One more trick the TX has going for it over the EX here is 4 expansion sockets to drop in some extra DRAM chips. These add another 128K which is exclusively used by the graphics and frees up the whole 640K. These are regular DRAM chips which I thought would be dirt cheap but the price over here was a ludicrous £7.99 each and I needed 4. I took the far cheaper option of importing a set of 5 from Hong Kong for not much over £2 including the shipping.


I noticed while I had the case in bits that it’s been arranged with the speaker at the front of the case where you would expect except that it points into the case, presumably to shield the components from the magnet. It’s not the most obvious arrangement but doesn’t affect the sound as much as you might expect and it’s still quite loud with the volume switched up to full.

Some time later, the chips arrived from Asia and I was finally able to give Wing Commander a go this week. So after all this effort, how well did it play? My hopes were never exactly high. The recommended specs are 12Mhz or higher. I know all too well how Origin games run on the “recommended” specs by now having experienced it back in the 90’s. My Tandy is only 8Mhz and not really a true 286 putting it considerably below recommended. The results could be described as just about playable but in truth this is Wing Commander – the turn based strategy.

I do quite like some of the PC speaker sound effects actually which I’ve never heard before. I’m not so sure they aren’t better than their Roland equivalents. The graphics hold up far better than I would have expected in 16 colours too. The installation program just converts the 256 colour graphics as part of the install so they haven’t been created with the Tandy in mind. This does result in some odd character graphics such as Spirit looking decidedly red during the initial briefing. Some of the in mission text is completely illegible suggesting that Tandy mode didn’t get all that much testing at Origin. A lot of the screens still look great such as the launching sequence. On the whole I reckon if it was about twice as fast, I’d have been pretty happy playing this back in 1990.

VGA is still clearly the way to go but Wing Commander running on a CGA monitor isn’t exactly a common sight so for the very few who might be interested, I pointed my phone at the screen and had a go at the first mission. I met an ignoble end, afterburning into an asteroid but it gives an idea. Apologies as ever for picture quality – next time I do one of these I’ll figure out how to turn off autofocus on my phone.

It may not have been the best way to play Wing Commander but the upshot of all this is that I now have another fully specced and working Tandy which I will definitely be playing a good number of games on over the coming months.

Wing Commander Fan Site Of The Year!


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.


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:-


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.


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.


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.