The Short, Strange History of WC4 DVD

It's 1997 and the future of media storage is here: DVD! With 'interactive movies' like Wing Commander taking three, four and even six CD-ROM discs to store hours of low-resolution video, the immediate benefit of DVD for multimedia games seems clear. With so much space, a game like Wing Commander IV could be stored on a single disc... with plenty of room left over for higher quality video! And that was exactly what Electronic Arts did, outsourcing DVD conversions of existing games to a dedicated studio founded by a Wing Commander veteran, Daylight Productions.

BUt first, the hardware. The first DVD 'upgrade kits' were announced in late 1996 and began shipping in Q1 1997. Much like the CD-ROM drive rollout just a few years earlier, the product arrived before the technology had been standardized. Unable to rely on the Pentium processors of the day for on-the-fly MPEG-2 decoding, each DVD kit shipped with a 'decoder card.' These were PCI cards which processed and output the video separately from the rest of the PC, meaning that the computer itself really just needed to know when to leave the screen blank for a video to be played over it.

What the industry could not agree on, however, was a standard for how these decoder cards should work. Instead, multiple manufacturers including Sigma Designs, Toshiba and SGS Thompson developed their own unique cards. The impact on game development was immediate: instead of creating a budget release to take advantage of the new format, you needed to either divine which of the competitors would last or develop multiple SKUs for multiple platforms.

For many years, it was believed that Origin chose to address this problem with two SKUs: a single-sided 'dump' version of the game for early upgrade kits and then a two-sided 'enhanced' version built specifically to support the Sigma Designs RealMagic decoder board that was being pushed by Creative Labs (a sound decision, given Creative's track record for establishing eventual hardware standards.) Following a surprise discovery and some research, we now know much more about how this played out.

The first generation of DVD upgrade kits began shipping in early 1997. The first units could strongly be said to be for early adopters only. They were slow, had significant problems with compatibility and wouldn't even play CD-Rs at all.

We now know that it was in this some of the first group of kits that the 'dump' version of Wing Commander IV was included. This release was essentially all of the data from the CD-ROM release put on a single DVD-ROM disc that you did not need to switch (the CD version of the game had been designed with this in mind, knowing not to prompt you for a disc change if the files it needed were available.) Two companies included this version of Wing Commander IV: Dynatek in their 'DVD-471TII Upgrade Kit' and Hi-Val, in their 'DVD Entertainment Solution Kit' (available as either a $500 'value' edition or a $700 deluxe version which included a wireless link to play movies on your television. Both of these companies adopted the SGS Thompson decoder, but lacking MPEG movies, Wing Commander IV was not adapted for this specifically.

Technology moved quickly during the 1990s multimedia boom: the SECOND generation of DVD-ROMs hit the shelves in time for Christmas, with Creative shipping their Dxr2 bundle in October. This is the release that includes what we generally remember to be Wing Commander IV DVD: a double-sided flipper disc that features a Win9x port of the game that displays high quality VOB files instead of the original Xanmovies. With a massive visual improvement to the game, finding a copy became objective number one for Wing Commander fans... which meant looking out for the most visible DVD kit known to include the game, Creative's boxed release.

For many, many years that was the entire story of Wing Commander IV DVD. We knew that OEM copies were bundled here and there, but it was generally believed that these were either the decoder-agnostic original release or the RealMagic version created for Criterion. Wing Commander producer Mark Day, owner of Daylight, did note at the time that they had developed versions for multiple decoder cards, but the assumption was always that this referred to the two known releases.

Fast forward to 2017 and a discovery by Joel McCoy of the Big Box PC Game Collectors group. Mr. McCoy had purchased a lot of Wing Commander games on eBay which claimed to include the DVD. From the auction listing, it seemed to be in a custom 'fan made' case much like those offered for download here in the past (replacing the disc-sized cardboard slip for the Creative version.) But closer inspection revealed that it was not a custom case at all, it was an old-style printed digipak! Some research through old hardware magazines and the Usenet revealed a genuine surprise: this was a third, distinct version of Wing Commander IV DVD developed for Toshiba-brand decoders!

Further study has found that this version of the game was included with several products, including the Diamond Maximum DVD Kit (June 1997) the Gatway 2000 Destination DVD Bundle (May 1998, shipped with select Gateway 'big screen PCs') and the Compaq Presario 4880 computer (June 1998.) It is not known how many of these OEM discs were made or whether any other distinct packaging exists (the Gateway disc seemingly sports a serial number specific to Gateway computers.) It's possible that they are incredibly rare... or just that no one has ever thought to look for them in the first place!

An image of the third type of Wing Commander IV DVD is now stored in the WC:CIC offline archive and we will continue to search for variations. Who knew we could still find new Wing Commander games in 2017?

Ad Ben: Where's Wing Commander?

There's plenty of room for debate about the coolest Wing Commander print advertisement: that first image of a Hornet cockpit, Seether hidden in the shadows behind Blair and Tolwyn, the Nephilim fleet massing in a centerfold, the Dragon-as-a-car-advertisement... the list could go on! Today, however, we would like to introduce you to what is unquestionably the most simple Wing Commander advertisement. This monochromatic affair was printed by Mag Force 7, developers of the Wing Commander CCG, in mid-1996 in specialty magazines (the page in question comes from the May 1996 issue of Inquest, then a leading CCG periodical alongside competitor Scrye.) It is, quite literally, a block of text telling you where and how you can buy the Wing Commander CCG with absolutely no attempt to explain how cool the game is.

Why? Because audiences already knew. Wing Commander III and IV were the hottest games in the galaxy at the time, an animated series was being prepared and the first script for a major motion picture based on the property was making the rounds in Hollywood. So what was wrong with the CCG? The answer there is that it had the misfortune to follow Mag Force 7's previous effort, a similar card game called Star of the Guardians. Star of the Guardians was an excellent game which was mechanically nearly identical to Wing Commander. Guardians was one of the first science fiction-based games to follow in the wake of the 'Magic' craze, with fantastic painted art and unique spaceship cards. Unfortunately, all of that meant that retailers over-ordered. Audiences were unfamiliar with the source material (a trilogy of books by Mag Force 7 founder Margaret Weis) and boosters languished on store shelves.

With unsold cases of Star of the Guardians cards, many retailers decided that audiences were not interested in either science fiction CCGs or these specific mechanics and opted not to make strong orders for Wing Commander (particularly damaging was the fact that software retailer Babbages, who had championed Guardians and seemed a natural place to sell Wing Commander cards, turned down Wing Commander.) The team at Mag Force 7, who were especially active on the early internet, were inundated by requests from desperate gamers eager to find the cards. And so, this very simple advertisement was born!

Who's that Music?

There's great news for fans of Wing Commander music: composer George Oldziey is back at work orchestrating his classic Wing Commander music! He tweeted on Friday:

Spending a rainy LA day diving into orchestrations of more of my #WingCommander music! Stay tuned!

Wing Commander fans were disappointed last year when a crowd funding campaign for a second volume of Mr. Oldziey's Wing Commander Orchestral Recording Project failed. Mr. Oldziey promised he would carry on, and now it looks like that is happening. We'll be standing by to support any future campaign he launches, as the world needs more Wing Commander music!

Mr. Oldziey also posted a piece of Wing Commander sheet music from his work, asking followers if they could identify it (below.)

The answer? It's from the endgame of Wing Commander III and specifically the destruction of Kilrah (mouse over to reveal!).

The Wing Commander Art of Alan Gutierrez

Last week, we showed you how the developers behind the 1995 Wing Commander CCG used a single painting to create two different cards. Today, we'd like to share another example by walking you through the incredible art of Alan Gutierrez. Mr. Gutierrez is the extremely talented artist behind much of the game's 'space art,' used for Modifier and Nav Point cards; he also painted several unique Luck cards. In total, he provided fifteen paintings for the game which were used for a whopping twenty four cards!

The first and most visible duplication is in Nav Point cards. Nav Point cards were not part of any deck and were instead part of the playing field. Every game started with players laying out five of these cards (or more, in some variations) between their carriers. These cards featured beautiful environmental space art such as planets, stars and nebulae without Wing Commander-specific ships or characters. There were a total of ten designs, five by Alan Gutierrez and five by Robert Daniels. Each card had a Greek letter, harkening back to the wing assignments of Wing Commander I.

As the game needed to be playable using any sealed starter deck, these cards were printed with both Terran Confederation and Kilrathi card backs. To make sure every starter deck included at least five, they were printed with the game's commons (as a side effect, Nav Points would show up in booster packs.) The front card artwork is identical for both factions and there is no impact on gameplay, but each Nav Point appears twice in the card list. Carriers were also printed as commons, and were also reprinted on the starter boxes to make sure every player would have a home base! Here are Alan Gutierrez's five (or ten) cards: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon:

Next, each faction in the CCG had a set of blue-bordered Luck cards. The official rules describe Luck cards as follows: "Luck cards represent the effects of karma, bio-rhythms, bureaucracy, human natue, a cat's nine lives, and fate. They may affect any of the other cards, subject to the text on the card." These cards can be played at any time during the game and are discarded after use. Players are not allowed to have multiple copies of the same Luck card in their deck.

Luck cards were generally unique in terms of art, though in several cases they were duplicated from a mechanics standpoint so that each side could have the same ability. For example, the Confederation and the Kilrathi both have cards that turn pilots into traitors or disable them for a turn for drinking too much. Alan Gutierrez's work includes two of these in the form of four paintings: CAPTURE PILOT and RECOVER PILOT images for each faction. It's interesting to see these grouped together; you can see how all four are thematically connected (note also a great attention to detail in how the space suits match from card to card.)

Mr. Gutierrez painted two additional luck cards, SKILLFUL USE OF MISSILE DECOYS and MAGNUM LAUNCH for the Terran Confederation. These are distinct paintings and each is worth a closer look. In my mind, MAGNUM LAUNCH remains the signature piece of artwork for the game; it's both unique and captures the spirit of Wing Commander perfectly. Then the missile decoy card features an outstanding Thunderbolt VII front-and-canter. There are no directly equivalent Kilrathi Luck cards in either case.

Finally, we come to Nav Point Modifier cards. These were cards that the player could summon during the Mustering Phase and place on any Modifier-free Nav Points. As the official rules explain, "Modifier cards include natural phenomena, such as asteroids and enemy obstacles such as capital ships and mine fields." The roster of Modifier cards included capital ships, which used renders from Origin and varied from faction to faction, and four 'space weather' for each cards painted by Alan Gutierrez. Here, again, four paintings were used to represent eight different cards: two each of NEBULA, MINEFIELD, ASTEROID FIELD and PULSAR SNARLS COMMUNICATIONS. For the Nebula card, you can see that each side's card was identical save for the logo.

The same is true of the Pulsar Snarls Communications card. What makes this card a little more fascinating is the fact that Alan Gutierrez has posted the original painting to his DeviantArt site, giving us a better-than-ever-before look at the work behind these two cards! His comment on the extremely piece:

Commissioned by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman 1996, for the card came "Wing Commander"
I did about 10 small illustrations for the card game, with various celestial effects, that might affect the outcome of the game.
This was the only one I ever scanned from the original art.
It's been many years, but my understanding is that a collapsed star-burnt out and becoming more dense, emits electromagnetic radiation (the blue streaks) and, spins very fast, with the light (the eruption in orange) "pulsing" as it spins.
There may be other more accurate depictions, but this was done just for fun, so I'm not interested in the specifics. Just the wonder of outer space...
Gouache on masonite, 7" x 10"

It turns out Mag Force 7 had one more trick up their books for keeping the art budget down: cropping different parts of an image to represent it differently for both factions. Check out the Asteroid Field modifier card. This is one of those small things that has been looking us in the eye for years but that you rarely have cause to pick up on!

For the final painting of the set, the same trick is used. Here, Mr. Gutierrez has scanned the original artwork so you can see exactly how it was cropped to create two different views of the same Minefield!

Finally, we are able to answer an age old question: what do you get when you mix it all up? The answer is that you get a (sort of) new piece of Wing Commander art! In December of 2016, Alan Gutierrez digitally updated the Minefield painting to include his fantastic Thunderbolt from the Skillfull Use of Missile Decoys card. You can see the original post on his DeviantArt here.
From the Wing Commander card game, commissioned and published by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, 1995
This is the combination of 2 traditionally painted works, "Minefield", and "Skillful Use Of Missile Decoys" from the game. Since I had the original scan from "Minefield", I digitally added the ship (unscanned and had to be digitally restored from the printed card) to present this new variation.
Top half gouache on Masonite.

All card scans are courtesy of Jetlag. You can find much more of Mr. Gutierrez's incredible work at his DeviantArt page.

EA Gives Free Access

Still on the fence about this whole Wing Commander thing? Electronic Arts has announced that they are adding a seven day free trial to their Origin Access service (previously reported here.) Origin Access, the PC equivalent of their Xbox-based EA Access program, gives you the ability to play a host of Electronic Arts games free of charge. It also makes new titles (like the upcoming Mass Effect sequel) available early and includes a 10% discount on Origin store purchases. Origin Access includes Wing Commander, Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom and Wing Commander: Privateer. You can learn more and sign up for a seven day trial here.

Retro Ad Highlights Tricky Windows Transition

Anatoly Shashkin of DOSNostalgic shared this awesome advertisement for System Commander. Although it shares no relation to the Wing Commander series, it still has a pretty cool name, and this ad includes a shout out to WC4. "Win 95 is cool, but sucks with DOS games!" is the warning at the top. While that may sound overblown today, there was quite a stretch of time in the late '90s and even early 2000s when DOS/Windows compatibility was a big problem. DOS games often required specific drivers and memory management that simply weren't compatible with Windows. Or in other cases, sometimes hardware that needed special software to run in Windows created further conflicts with games. So boot loader programs like this were one helpful way to maintain distinct DOS and Windows environments to keep your gaming going. Today we have programs like DOSBox to help that along, but in the long history of PC gaming, that's a relatively recent development! It's worth noting that WC4 eventually got a downloadable Win 95 Upgrade and boxed editions preloaded with the patch were eventually sold in stores as well.

Digital Wing Commander in HD Discounted to $6.99

Vudu enthusiast Jacob reports that the company has included Wing Commander in their latest monthly HDX sale. Through March 7, digital ownership of the movie will run you just $6.99. A few months ago, Vudu phased out their 720p "medium" resolution encodings in favor of just 480p and 1080p Full HD, as the company begins to roll out 4K UHD content. If you purchased Wing Commander in 720p, you should have already received a free upgrade to Full HD. Note that on Vudu, 1080p is called HDX.
Based on the best selling video game, Wing Commander is a science fiction-war movie spectacle.

Just Play the Classics!

In 1994, Electronic Arts hit on a sales trick that has since become commonplace: re-release your recent back catalog as budget 'classic' titles using simple packaging and digitized manuals to lower printing costs. The original cost of producing these games could be further amortized, ultimately helping further support the ever-growing game development budgets needed for new titles to stand up. You could call it GOG's great, great grandson!

Initially priced between $7.99 and $14.99 each, the first wave of 'Electronic Arts presents CD-ROM Classics' contained a host of mid-1990s Origin titles alongside other EA favorites such as Chuck Yeager's Air Combat. The idea was a hit, and these and other Origin classics would go on to be re-released in several series over the years, with some Wing Commander games still being available at retail today! A simple collector's guide to these releases follows.

Black Series: Also known as the original or black series, these classics came in a one-piece cardboard package similar to Origin's add-on disks. Each box included a printed install guide booklet and a CD-ROM containing the game and digital copies of the original manuals. The black series were released in several waves over multiple years. Wing Commander games represented are Wing Commander II Deluxe, Privateer, Academy and Armada. Other Origin games in the black line included Strike Commander, Shadowcaster, System Shock, Ultima Underworld I & II and the Complete Ultima VII. The Wing Commander Academy release is among the harder classics to find.

Gold Series: In 1996, Electronic Arts began issuing the CD-ROM Classics in gold bordered boxes. These versions came in more traditional two-piece boxes made of a heavier cardboard. In some cases, these versions of the games were updated with scripts to assist in running older titles using Windows 95. Wing Commander II Deluxe, Wing Commander Privateer and Wing Commander III were released in this series. Other Origin titles included the Crusader: No Regret, CyberMage, Bioforge, Complete Ultima VII, Ultima Underworld I & II and Ultima VIII: Pagan. Completists take note: the gold series version of Privateer's cover promoted a $10 rebate for the newly-released Privateer 2: The Darkening in some printings!

Gold II Series: The second gold series of EA classics began in 1997 and ran for several years. These releases included slightly larger two-piece boxes distinguished from the earlier gold series by having only a single band at the bottom of the game box art rather than a full border. The only Wing Commander games released in this series were Privateer and Wing Commander III. Other Origin titles included the Ultima Collection, Ultima VIII: Pagan, Crusader: No Remorse and Jane's AH-64 Longbow. Other release continued into the 21st century in a similar box design dropping the 'CD-ROM' from the label; no Origin games were reissued this way.

Silver Series: The Silver Series of EA classics launched in 1997 and is, improbably, the one you are most likely to discover in stores today. These minimalist releases included only a single, silver-bordered jewel case, designed for sale in the walls of budget video game options at places like Office Depot. Three Wing Commander games appear in this format: Wing Commander II Deluxe, Academy and Armada. Keep an eye out!

Orange Series: Meanwhile, in Europe Electronic released two equivalent lines of CD-ROM classics. The first was the orange' series, a which were released in individual jewel cases. These were traditional 'English/French/German' releases with all three languages represented on the back of the box. Three Wing Commander games were included: Wing Commander II Deluxe, Armada and Privateer. Other Origin games represented include System Shock, Crusader: No Remorse, Strike Commander, Ultima Underworld I & II and the Complete Ultima VII. Depending on the country, a different install guide was included (making a total of nine total versions for anyone interested in catching them all.)

Blue Series: While the later, multi-disc Wing Commander games were generally not released as classics in the United States, they were re-released in Europe. 'Blue' packaging includes a smaller generic two-part box with a slip cover for the relevant game. Like the orange jewel cases, these are English/French/German boxes with region-specific manuals in each country. Most impressively, these versions included printed manuals rather than PDFs! FOUR later Wing Commander titles were included: Wing Commander III, IV, Prophecy and Privateer 2! Other Origin games include System Shock, Bioforge and Ultima VIII: Pagain.

Did we miss any EA classics? Have you collected them all? Let us know on the forums!

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