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.

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