A No Bull Look at the Wing Commander Box (September 27, 2020)


Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
As part of Wing Commander's 30th birthday celebrations, people have had a lot of questions about the history of the franchise. A frequent topic is the famous box art used for the original game, which was highly unusual for featuring what purported to be a screenshot. Although it's not an actual reproducible image from the game, that's for good reason! LOAF goes into the details on why this is the way it is below. You can also find our previous coverage on this topic for a line-by-line rundown of what's different between the cover and what actually ends up in space!

I’ve seen a lot of folks talking about the “bullshot” used as the cover of the original Wing Commander and thought I’d try and provide a little background.

First of all: yes, it’s “fake” and not as is sometimes rumored an early build with different graphics. The image itself was created in DeluxePaint by pasting together work-in-progress game elements to try and show how the finished gameplay SHOULD work. Some iterations:

Basically, they collected the art that was finished—the ship tender, the cockpit frame, the stars, etc. and stitched it together like Frankenstein. But why? Because things worked very differently in 1990 as far as physical publishing went! When Wing Commander came out, desktop publishing was still several years away. That meant that things like box layouts were pasted together physically and then photographed. And they had to be ready weeks or months before the actual game might even play correctly! Even taking game screenshots was a careful physical process of photographing the screen with a film camera. Even if your game was playable, catching an action shot was a real challenge.

Think back to 1990, though... the odd thing about the Wing Commander box wasn’t that it was a fake screenshot, it was that it purported to be a screenshot at all. Marketing typically opted to avoid these issues entirely by using a fancy painting or (groans) models:

For Wing Commander, it was felt they had to show off how stunning and different the game really looked... so a whole bunch of bullshot were created for the marketing as early as possible. Here are the other two famous ones:

Magazines and catalogs were FULL of screenshots like this back in the day... that’s why you so often notice little differences between the photos in a review (typically provided by the publisher in 1990) abd the real game.

Original update published on September 27, 2020


Rear Admiral
Yes, I remember being baffled by many box and magazine screenshots that couldn't be reproduced in the actual game.

Even when desktop publishing tools that could accept image files appeared, how could you capture the screen? In the days before multi-tasking operating systems, this wasn't easy.

DeluxePaint came with a tool called "Camera". It was a TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) program that could capture screenshots, and there were other tools of the same type. By default, you pressed Alt-c while running some other application and it would capture the screen and save it to a file. It even claimed to recognise some absurdly high resolutions in the days when I thought 640 x 480 pixels was too tiny to see. Here is its help screen, obtained by typing "Camera /?".

DeluxePaint Camera.png

However, Camera didn't work on the high-performance games we most wanted to capture:
  1. TSRs took up memory, so if you were already near your 640 kB low memory limit, the game might not even run.
  2. Games often seized direct access to the keyboard to be more responsive to multiple keypresses at once. This prevented the keyboard interrupt for any keystroke combination being called, so the TSR never ran.
  3. Games often did weird things with graphics memory. For instance, nothing which used MCGA Mode X would be captured properly by Camera. Just once, weird memory management worked out well: when I used Camera to take screenshots of Crystal Caves (a dual-scrolling platformer), it managed to capture the entire level area as a 640×480 image! What was the game doing with screen memory?
  4. If everything else worked, there was a good chance that the first screenshot you took would lock up the game, requiring a hard reset.
Of course I tried using Camera to take screenshots of Wing Commander. Wing Commander I suffered from problem (2): no key combination would get through to Camera. Wing Commander II was more permissive: you could take screenshots, although I seem to remember it was prone to locking up during flight if I had Camera in memory.

I remember some games where I could capture CGA or EGA graphics but not MCGA or VGA. This would have been due to either (1) reduced memory requirements or (3) no graphics memory weirdness. I suspect some magazines discovered this too, since I saw a few articles illustrated with terrible-looking CGA graphics for games that I knew had an MCGA mode.

Around the era of the first Quake, some games provided a built-in screenshot function. This probably started so they could get testers to report errors in rendering, and left it in so players could record their favourite moments.