Wing Commander Amiga – Part 1


Wing Commander was published on the Amiga in 1992 after being ported by a single programmer Nick Pelling. Loaf has written up a history of its development so rather than repeat it all here I’ll instead point at the thread here.

I imagine that a port of Wing Commander would have been a point of honour at the time for Amiga owners. When it came out the Amiga was way ahead of its time and easily the most advanced gaming computer commonly available. Wing Commander perhaps more than any other game heralded the start of the power shift toward PC’s.

When I decided I was going to play this I bought the regular version off Ebay, except the seller decided that he didn’t actually have one to sell after I won the auction. Rather than wait for another I figured that I may as well get a compilation edition instead in the form of Space Legends. This was released for DOS and Amiga in 1993 and also contains the excellent Elite Plus and Megatraveller 1 (which I’ve never played).

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The decision to aim for a target audience of A500 (the affordable model) of the Amiga, was a little surprising and led to the game being done in only 16 colours to get performance up. It’s certainly contrary to how Origin usually worked which was to make the games you wish you could play if only you could afford the system. Games like Wing Commander drove PC hardware more than anything else in the early 90’s and were the first thing you would buy for your new PC when it became affordable. There must have been a plan to also release the mission packs for the Amiga since SM1 is in the opening menu but these were never seen on the system.

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The 16 colour dithered graphics are better than I might have expected but could have been better still in the sense that some of the dithering isn’t needed. On occassions, even the text at the bottom of the screen ends up being dithered.

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The colours are at their worst with the spotlights in the background which look like giant pool balls more than anything else. These are the exception though and the game looks fine the rest of the time.

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Looking for changes in the Amiga version is tricky as it is incredibly close to the original. The starting screen for the arcade game in the bar is the biggest change I’ve found so far with its spinning ships.

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Other than that, the briefings are there in full….

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… and the launch sequence looks much more like the PC version than the demo I tried out a couple of days back, as does the landing sequence.

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In the cockpit, everything is as it should be and I’m instantly at home with the keyboard controls which are copied over from the PC. The speed through the emulator is excellent although I am playing with it cranked up to maximum. It does grind along if I drop it to A500 speed so it may not have been the best way to play the game even with the reduced colours.

There is one major hitch in that the game doesn’t support analog joysticks. I was looking forward to finally playing one of these Wing Commander ports with a real joystick but I’m stuck with digital controls once again. The emulator does allow me to use my analog joystick but it’s only turning it on and off when I move it enough in one direction and this just didn’t play right. I tried using a gamepad but this left it hard to use the keyboard commands so I’ve ended up resorting to playing the old-fashioned way with cursor keys. I can’t have played a Wing Commander like this since the early 90’s.

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The handling of the ships is exactly as I’d expect other than having to repeatedly press tab to keep my atferburn going because it doesn’t allow me to steer and afterburn simultaneously. That aside, if it wasn’t for the lack of analog control’s this could almost have been the EGA version on the PC (if there had been such a thing) except for one thing which I haven’t mentioned so far, the sound.

Back when all of us PC users were stuck with beeps, the Amiga had a multi-channel sound system which allowed 4 sampled instruments to be played simultaneously. These instruments were created with digital samples which were tuned up and down in a slightly similar manner to a soundfont. In theory this allowed for much more diversity than General MIDI, although the small number of channels was a serious compromise. When used well the audio on an Amiga could be quite something although I always through it worked better for some types of music than others. PC programmers eventually figured out how to do the same thing with games like Pinball Dreams being among the first to support it, although it had already been seen in demos before this. The only Origin games to generate their music this way were the Crusader games which I would have thought must have been among the last games to support it.

This very different format means that the original Wing Commander soundtrack has been given a complete overhaul. It’s still all the original pieces but they never sounded quite like this before. I have heard it described as the best version of the audio. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who thinks this doesn’t own an MT-32 but you could certainly make the case when compared to Ablib. Some of the music translates better than others but there is a definite loss in subtlety and it’s apparent that instruments are being forced to cut off short or are missed out due to the 4 track limitations. It’s still my favourite music out of the Wing Commander ports but I’d rather have the original.

The sound effects in the cockpit are lacking also with no noticeable sound when I score a hit. After the clunking digital effects on the Sega CD this is quite a change and it’s not always easy to tell when I’m on target. It’s only a minor quibbly though and not an entirely fair comparison. An MT-32 would probably have cost about as much as the A500 on it’s own. The Amiga does have the advantage of digital fx for firing guns and the like.

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Another tiny change I’ve noticed is that when I link up with escort ships, they say “Well done Sir” for some reason and I don’t see them when I autopilot. Other than that, it’s business as usual. The difficulty level is the same as the PC from what I’ve seen, making it slightly harder with these controls. My wingmen have been getting occassional kills which wasn’t the case on the Sega CD but I’m not so sure about the PC version. They may be more intelligent but I’ve played that many versions of Wing Commander recently they are all blurring together. I’ve been skipping through a lot of the conversations for that reason but they have been identical from what I’ve seen.

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I’ve got as far as the second cutscene, almost halfway through the game. Unless it starts to vary more from the PC original, part 2 of this could be an extremely short post.

4 thoughts on “Wing Commander Amiga – Part 1

  1. For such a well written blog I find it terrible nobody had a response within themselves. Thought I’d share a few opinions with you.

    I had an Amiga 500 and was 7 years old when Wing Commander came out for that machine. No video game had ever affected me like that game, at that time. We had the NES, Sega Genesis, and plenty of games for the Amiga and this was instantly my favorite game on any of them.

    As a kid watching my father play it, I felt like I was watching a movie. I played the crap out of it but for the longest time could not figure out how to land! The first time I was forced to read the manual to a game. I carried the manual around everywhere and even tried convincing some adults it was a legitimate magazine. I went through this phase of using small metal airplane toys and with my friends pretending they were space jets.

    It just blew my mind away, and to this day I would say this series is my favorite video game series of all time. I had no concept it was running slowly, the game was my first experience with a good 3D like game, I thought it looked gorgeous and had no idea there might be other versions that look better. The dogfighting music had my heart racing, ALL of the music I found utterly amazing.

    By the way, I own an MT-32…I bought one specifically to hear this game… And I still think Wing Commander sounds better on the Amiga. I find it kind of insulting you said “the case can be made the Amiga sounds better than Adlib”… No, the sound on the Amiga is better hardware wise then any late 60’s sounding mono FM device. I understand there are some FM nuts out there, but I think everyone could agree that the majority of people would prefer the Amiga or MT-32 to FM. I would say the case MUST be made to say FM comes close to the others, just as an opinion, because the technology was so out of date.

    With the proper people behind an Amiga, you could have realistic sounding anything… Every instrument was accessible, which was not true for the MT-32, which couldn’t do a decent piano to save its life (an incredibly important instrument. See the intro for the Amiga game Agony for better sounding piano than the best General MIDI cards), nor could the MT-32 do guitars. It did Strings, Woodwinds, and drums well. It also featured good unique sounds.

    As for the MT-32 and Amiga, I’d say the case can be made for either. This is a matter of opinion, and both sound great. Where you say the Amiga lacks the subtlety of the MT-32, I would agree. However I list that as a positive. This is not a subtle game… It’s a monster of a space opera. The Amiga version I find to be much more powerful and in your face. My favorite track on the Amiga version is the crew bunks music, which is my LEAST favorite on the PC due to its incredibly boring subtlety. I do think the MT-32 in Wing Commanders case sounds more “realistic” due to the abundance of orchestra instruments, but the Amiga could also do those instruments well. Every note hits you in a wonderful stereo effect. The way the channels were designed on the Amiga we had a plethora of stereo effects which the MT-32 also had, but again, much more subtle.

    I got the Kilrathi Saga when it came out, which featured a full orchestra and STILL thought the Amiga version sounded better! But I also think the MT-32 sounds better than the Kilrathi Saga. Even the General MIDI of WC3 I find better than the Kilrathi Saga.

    This is the reason why people play this version. They don’t play it for the graphics, or different features since it’s so faithful to the original. They play it for the music! Even if they have an MT-32 and love it, I have found many Wing Commander fans think they should play the Amiga version at least once for the music. Practically nobody owned an MT-32 at that time, practically nobody owns one now. There is still no good MT-32 emulation available. So most people are stuck with Adlib. If you want to hear what Wing Commander should sound like then you should get the Amiga version. Even though the Fat Man did the Adlib as well, that is NOT how it is supposed to sound! The Amiga version is how it should sound, with a little umph, if you like that.

    By the way I always heard a very good and noticeable sound when hitting an enemy on the Amiga version. A very nice, absorbing shield sound with guns, and a bang when a missile hit. I also never noticed a “well done sir” and never recall an escorted ship not in the autopilot sequence. Perhaps these were emulation issues?

    The Amiga wingmen are better than the PC ones. They steal kills from me, which I also find nice. In the PC version I can go many missions getting all the kills. I do wonder how they managed to improve that.

    I don’t think Wing Commander was the death of the Amiga, or showed a definite shift toward the PC. It certainly was outselling the Amiga, but we were fine. For several more years after Wing Commander, Adventure and RPG’s were still the top selling games on all computer platforms (In America that is. Lots of platformers sold elsewhere, which the Amiga also did well with). The Amiga 500 was still well suited for most of those.

    While Wing Commander sold some new PC’s, most people did not fork over thousands of dollars for one game. Years after Wing Commander, EGA and even CGA games were being released. The upgrade cycle was longer than “New Wing Commander Release!!!” And in 1991 and 1992 very good Amiga games were still being ported to DOS and not doing justice even with VGA.

    The Amiga did things that computers did not fully catch up to till 1995. We had that machine until Windows 95 came out. I think many Amiga owners waited that long or longer. 640 x 480 resolution (and Commodore) was what finally killed that beauty.

    The Amiga version is not what an EGA version would have looked like. First off Wing Commander used 64 colors out of a palate of 4096 and THEN dithered them down to 16 in game. EGA had the same ugly 16 colors that were there for business purposes, not gaming purposes. I don’t think dithering would have helped an EGA version, it probably would have looked like crap.

    My opinion on the Amiga version has changed throughout the years. Playing it from 1992-1994 on the Amiga I thought it was the best game of all time. Getting the Kilrathi Saga version, having not played the Amiga version for awhile, I even thought the Amiga looked better. It must have been because of the impact it had on me at the time. I just knew everything about the Kilrathi Saga version didn’t seem right.

    In the late 90’s I got into Amiga emulation and my opinion on the game changed to thinking it was a piece of crap port. Seeing the dithered graphics of the Amiga and putting the game into A-500 mode and seeing it crawl, I started hating it. Other than the music, which I will always think is better.

    Now, with the wisdom of years and again having my Amiga up and running, I have come to an all together different and proper opinion.

    When you have a good game for YOUR current system, it does not matter how slow that game runs. When Grand Theft Auto III came out for the PC, I played through the entire game with it skipping along and I was happy to do it. Unless Amiga users were already aware of how fast the PC was I don’t think they would have cared, they were playing a good game. I know my dad didn’t care.

    So I no longer fault how slow the game runs. It was the proper decision to get it running on a 500.

    Graphically, what you see on an emulator is not a proper representation of what you would see on the actual hardware. The dithered graphics that are so very apparent in emulation truly do their trick when played on an Amiga monitor which had interlacing. Some people even had TV’s hooked up to it which would have made the dithering unnoticeable. On actual hardware, I remembered why I thought it looked better. Unless you have the two side by side you wouldn’t notice. The dithering also gave a kind of “aged” effect to the game, like everything was just a bit beat up, it looks more authentic in a way.

    The Amiga version ran on a 7 MHZ processor on just 3 disks. No way in hell the PC could have done that. Love and care went into the Amiga version. When Monkey Island 2 came out for the Amiga it was on like 12 disks! Just because the programmers wouldn’t take the time to code the game properly. Most Amiga users did not have hard drives! Still some people call Monkey2 the best “Amiga” game ever made. Just goes to show you, it’s all about the game, as long as it’s faithful to the original or up’s it in some ways you will be happy.

    And Wing Commander on the Amiga was very faithful. So I look at it as the best port there is, and worthy of a play.

    Having said all of this, I will note that for the last 15 years I have probably played Wing1-4 (sometimes Prophecy) around 3-5 times a year. When I play Wing1, I play it on my DOS PC with an MT-32. It looks better, runs faster, has the mission packs, and sounds great (but not the best, in my opinion). So the best version is the original PC obviously. I would also recommend the original over the Kilrathi Saga.

    I really did enjoy reading your thoughts on the game, it was well written. I just wanted to give the Amiga some love and say that I bet you would have fallen in love with Wing Commander just as easily on an Amiga as you did the PC. I know I did, and so did many others. I was crushed when my dad was reading an Amiga Magazine and it said they wouldn’t be releasing Wing Commander II. When we got a PC in 1995 and Wing3 came with it, I was again in love!

    • Second opinions are always welcome. I certainly didn’t intend to bash the Amiga if that’s how it came across. It was an awesome machine and what I retrospectively wish my parents would have bought me in the late 80’s instead of a CGA 8088 PC. I have plans to finally own the real thing at some point this year.

      I am no doubt a little biased toward the MT-32. The fact that it’s not all that realistic in terms of traditional instrument sounds never bothered me and I usually prefer it to the Sound Canvas support that followed. I did play the CD-32 Wing Commander more recently on the real hardware though and I thought the music on that sounded almost as good, definitely better than it was on an Amiga emulator. The port was still slower than I would have liked but it looks every bit as good as the PC so it could be your ideal version if you’ve never tried it.

      I’ll never be one of them but I know you aren’t the only one to prefer the Amiga audio by a long shot. I wonder if anyone has ever tried splicing a recording of the audio from the Amiga into Kilrathi Saga? It just uses raw audio to store the soundtrack so in theory it shouldn’t be that hard…

      • I look at the CD-32 as too little, too late. Technically the AGA chipset was better than VGA, but wasn’t mind blowing like the original Amiga had been. I do have quite a collection of computers and consoles, but I’m not looking to clutter up space with a machine that doesn’t offer enough of an improvement over DOS or Amiga games. Must have been a bit of a pain with no keyboard as well. If I recall for Wing Commander the CD-32 used the same on board sound chip as all other Amiga’s, rather than go with CD audio, good choice. As nice as the Paula sound chip was, you would have thought they might have improved on it a bit by that time. Another example of that system not being worth it.

        As for splicing audio into the Kilrathi Saga, that wouldn’t appeal to me either. It wasn’t just the audio that made the Kilrathi Saga a bit subpar; it had a few graphical things as well. There were no planets or stars in space in Wing 1 and 2. That one thing really hurts the atmosphere of the game. In Wing2 they made the dialogue run just a bit too fast, sometimes it even skipped a sentence. I never really did like that version, and found it very strange that to this date it is the ONLY game I own that has gone UP in value. I guess with DOS Box it’s probably gone down a bit since I last checked, but it boggles my mind that so many wanted that thing just for Windows support. Even though the last time I tried it, it was a pain in the ass getting to work in XP, though I was able to do it through some tricks. It did have a nice manual though. I wish it would’ve included the FULL Wing1 manual however.

        I was aware of the Kilrathi Saga using WAV files at that time. I even customized my windows sounds with some Wing sounds, as well as Queen music. My dad thought that was really cool, until he had to keep rebooting the machine and hearing it over and over again. Ha.

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