Variants on a Theme

In honor of Mike Winterbauer's Kickstarter we thought we would take a look back through the history of 'that look.' What look? The classic Wing Commander cover art! The original version premiered in 1990 and has been redone in several different styles over the years. Here's a quick tour:

Wing Commander (1990): The original, enduring classic. The Wing Commander cover was created digitally using game assets by artist Denis Loubet. This artwork has been used countless times since for advertising, re-releases, compilations, the official guide and other ports (including the Amiga, DOS/V and SegaCD versions.) The artwork is very true to the Wing Commander experience, although it does have a number of differences from the completed game.

Wing Commander: Freedom Flight (1991) and Wing Commander: End Run (1992): In late 1991, Baen launched a series of Wing Commander tie-in novels which were heavily supported by Origin. It was only logical that the covers should bring to mind the game series. Artist Paul Alexander was comissioned for four cover paintings, the first two of which were patterned after the Wing Commander I art. It's not clear exactly what we're seeing in either image; Freedom Flight may be the cockpit of the Bonnie Heather as it sneaks behind Kilrathi lines... End Run, on the other hand, suffers from the same problem as the Wing Commander II box: the carrier's registry number doesn't match the one in the book (the TCS Tarawa was CVE-8, not 12!) The Freedom Flight cover was also available as a poster; both paintings were reused for the German translations of their respective novels.

Wing Commander (Super Nintendo) & Wing Commander (Super Famicom) (1992): Mindscape licensed the original Wing Commander to adapt as a Super Nintendo game in 1992 (and followed it the next year with a standalone version of The Secret Missions.) As noted recently, the American and European boxes used a new painting by Michael Winterbauer as the cover. In Japan, an entirely different version was created showing a significantly different Hornet cockpit, an exploding Fralthi and a Gratha. Collectors of odd items should note that this artwork was also used on a Japanese phone card!

Super Wing Commander (1994): The last canonical use of the Wing Commander I cover composition was, appropriately, the 1994 remake for the 3DO and Macintosh. This version is clearly a rendered scene rather than a painting of a stitch of existing game assets... but in many ways, it's actually the closest to the original: unlike many of these contenders, it features a Dralthi exploding through a Hornet cockpit!

Unofficial Versions: Sybex's Secrets of the Wing Commander Universe adapted the pose with Drakrhi instead of Dralthi... and even Chris Roberts' latest game, Star Citizen, gave a nod to it in an issue of Jump Point magazine. Know of any other games or products that use the same design? Let us know on the forums and we'll include them in a future post!

We have also collected 'unboxed' versions of several of these pieces over the years, versions that aren't covered by the frame or advertising present in the finished versions. Enjoy!

Laser Gun for Hire

Yesterday, we reported that Wing Commander SNES cover artist Mike Winterbauer has re-launched his Kickstarter project to create a printed art book of his work. The project is going great, already nearing the 50% funding mark in less than 24 hours... and today we can reveal that it turns out Mr. Winterbauer has been proud of his Wing Commander artwork for quite a while! The scan below is from the August 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World. It's a self-published advertisement from the same artist offering his services... and showing the then-recent Wing Commander cover painting as an example. This was not a common tactic at the time at all, and was a pretty clever way to drum up interest for a freelance artist in the era before services like DeviantArt and ArtStation. Pretty neat that the same painting is still loved and sought-after today! (And let's be real here: the cowboy lasso'ing a planet while flying a rocket shark on the surface of the sun is also pretty rad.)

BREAKING NEWS: Game Cover Kickstarter Re-Launches

How do you save the Ralari? You just keep trying! In exactly that spirit, SNES Wing Commander cover artist Mike Winterbauer has re-launched his Kickstarter project. Mr. Winterbauer aims to publish a print version of his ebook Classic Game Covers, Confessions of An Art Junkie, which he released as a free download in 2014. Of interest to Wing Commander fanatics, the book includes several pages on the creation and history of the cover painting (and features a Dralthi on the cover!) He says:

This is the second campaign for Classic Game Covers as the first one came up short of the funding goal. I have lowered the goal and all offerings, including my painting offers substantially! Be sure to check out all the cool new offerings which include a special package for my awesome Wing Commander fans. I have also included many super nice signed prints and printed material as part of the new offers. Scroll down to check out more info and pictures of the new offers! We will succeed in getting this cool book printed with your help!

As he explained, for this second attempt the Kickstarter has been modified significantly, with a much lower $4,800 ask (almost 25% funded in the first few hours.) Most exciting, however, is that in addition to the $35 book pledge there are two tiers with special extras for Wing Commander fans! The $65 pledge includes a signed 14"x20" print of the game's cover painting and the $85 pledge comes with both the large print and a set of six smaller ~7"x10" prints which follow the piece from initial sketch to final box cover. Totally cool!

The campaign launched today and ends on April 18th at 1:03 PM Pacific. Given the level of interest from his previous attempt, this one is almost certain to fund--so let's show the Wing Commander community's support and take advantage of this rare opportunity to buy Wing Commander art directly from the artist! You can read more about the project and pledge here. We will update on the campaign's progress and with some historical background on Wing Commander SNES over the course of the next month.

Pre-Christory

Ever wonder what came before Wing Commander? Chris Roberts sold his first game at age 13, and had released seven games before Wing Commander in 1990! I recently took some time at my day job to run through some of the basiscs of that early history on our weekly livecast... and I'll bet Wing Commander fans would like to see how our favorite games were shaped by Chris' early years, too! Here is RSI Museum presents Pre-Christory, an Origin Story:

False Alarm: Book 7 Pre-Orders

The ebook release of Wing Commander: False Colors is less than three weeks away and the first pre-order options have just launched! Amazon and Apple are now listing the book, with Barnes and Noble and Kobo still in a holding pattern. We will update the chart below when the other options come online... but for now, get your Kindles and iPads ready to read a great Wing Commander novel!

You can also pre-order directly from Baen as part of their 'April 2017 Monthly Baen Bundle.' The monthly bundles are a special deal Baen runs that include all the books the company publishes in a given month. They're only available as pre-orders, so if you're interested pick up a copy before the book's April 4th release date. The bundle release will also give you access to the first three quarters of the book immediately, DRM-free. Grab it here!

    End Run
  • Baen Ebook
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Apple iBooks
  • B&N Nook
  • Kobo

Leading Different Boxes

Hey, that's not how I remember it! Did you know that four Wing Commander games had significantly different box covers in Europe? While the original boxes were designed by Origin, Electronic Arts had regional marketing departments which would then adapt and change designs when they believed it would better suit a different audience. Many wingnuts don't know that multiple boxes exist... so here's a quick visual guide!

For Wing Commander IV, Origin went with a very distinctive box intended to catch eyes at retail. It is larger than usual, red and features markings that suggest it may be an in-lore artifact. When the slipcover is removed, the small key art is replaced by a simple Black Lance symbol. In Europe, Electronic Arts' local publishing arm opted to be much more conservative, developing a traditional black game box that is very much patterned after what was used for Wing Commander III.

The Darkening, released the next year, is the reverse: "Origin UK" (later Warthog) developed a surreal advertising campaign with a distinctive 'eye' box. That was apparently considered a little too 'weird' for American audiences, and a more traditional space painting was commissioned for the US release.

The Privateer speech pack had a makeover for its European release. The reason for the change is clear, as the changed screenshots are much more diverse and exciting in the second version... the only problem is that most of them are parts of the game that do NOT have speech added (remember, full speech didn't happen until the CD-ROM release... the speech pack adds only in-flight dialog. Interestingly, to meet the challenge of how to 'picture' speech, both versions of the expansion exclusively use screenshots where the pack is NOT installed!)

Finally, Righteous Fire had a cool, distinct piece of artwork for the original release that displays the surplus Salthi that figure heavily into the plot. Europe ended up with a far less interesting version: the original Privateer art with a new set of titles. Is this laziness? No, it's branding: EA thought it very important to keep the 'Wing Commander' of the original game in the UK, France and Germany.

Did your region have an 'uncommon' Wing Commander box? Let us know on the forums and we'll feature it in a future article!

Happy First Contact Day!... Maybe

It's March 15th and as everyone knows that means it is the pre-anniversary of the 2629 destruction of the TCS Iason, mankind's official first contact with the Kilrathi! Or was that March 16th? Or was it April 15th? Or was it in August and ten years later? There's no one answer... so it's time to run through everything we know about the event!

The Iason story originates in Claw Marks, the initial Wing Commander manual written by Aaron Allston. Mr. Allston would later go on to fame as an author of Star Wars novels and also wrote a series bible during the development of an aborted Privateer television series in 1995. Claw Marks introduces the history of the war in a series of sidebars, with the first ('25 Years Ago') covering the discovery of the Kilrathi. Here's the text:

25 Years Ago

Exploration and colonization ships of the Terran Confederation increase their penetration into Vega Sector.

On 2629.105 (3/15/2629 Terran reckoning), the exploration ship Iason encounters a spacecraft of unknown origin. Iason commander Jedora Andropolos beams the standard wideband non-verbal greeting designed by the Committee for Interaction with Alien Intelligences. Captain Andropolos keeps Iason motionless for twenty-two minutes standard while the alien vessel waits. Finally, the alien vessel opens up with all guns, utterly destroying Iason and all hands.

The first problem with this is potentially Wing Commander's earliest continuity error: it clearly states March 15th, 2629 'Terran reckoning'... but 2629.105 is a month off: the 105th day of the year is APRIL 15th. As we will see, both numbers will be repeated several times in the future, compounding what was surely a small math error.

Additionally, many have compared this short history to Larry Niven's 1966 short story The Warriors which details humanities first enounter with another feline species: the Kzinti. At the time Claw Marks was written, The Warriors had recently been republished as part of the first 'Man-Kzin Wars' short story collection (from Baen, of all places, who would go on to print the first line of Wing Commander novels less than two years later.) The two stories have a similar setup, but the endings are vastly different: in Niven's story, clever humans turn their comm laser into a weapon and defeat the Kzinti, whereas Claw Marks destroys the human explorer ship with all hands. For his part, Chris Roberts has noted that the look of the Kilrathi was a placeholder carried through development of the game rather than a concerted effort to create a race of cat aliens. If there's a connection, it's most likely an intentional nod (such as the 'Niven Sector' in Wing Commander II.) Sadly, Mr. Allston passed away several years ago, so we will never know for sure.

The Iason story immediately became a touchstone for Wing Commander fans, with plenty of fanfic and speculation arising out of 'first contact' scenario. In 1993, Mark Minasi's unofficial Secrets of the Wing Commander Universe included an extended version with more details. The account was non-canon and several details have been changed by later official sources (for example, he has Captain Jedora Andropolos' as a woman)... but that expanded telling still lives in the hearts of Wing Commander fans.

The Iason story was not officially updated until 1994, when versions appeared in the timelines for Wing Commander Armada and Wing Commander III. Each adds unique information. VOices of War, the Armada manual, tells the story from the perspective of both sides:

Orbit 151, Sun Year 5105
While establishing footholds in the recently explored Krat’na Sector, the destroyer K’rath’kan detects an intruder. Leader Brath’kar nar Caxki reports that the unidentified ship is attempting to neutralize his shields with wide-band radiation. When the enemy fails to leave the area of trespass after three-eighths of an hour, the destroyer opens its guns to eliminate the threatening vessel.

2629.105
The Terran Confederation expands exploration and colonization efforts and penetrates Vega Sector. On 2629.105 (March 16, 2629 Terran time) the Iason encounters a spacecraft of unknown origin. Commander Jedora Andropolos transmits an international wideband, non-verbal greeting designed by the Committee for Interaction with Alien Intelligences.

Andropolos keeps Iason’s guns off-line for the TCN-recommended 20 minutes and awaits a response from the alien vessel. Finally, without warning, the unidentified ship opens fire with full lasers, utterly destroying Iason and all hands.

The rewrite of the Claw Marks story introduces one more problem: it lists 2629.105 as March 16 rather than March 15 (as previous) or April 15 (as correct.) That aside, it's an interesting expansion of the story, with unique details especially from the Kilrathi telling.

Victory Streak, the Wing Commander III manual, does not introduce any continuity errors. It removes the 'Terran reckoning' reference and now lists only 2629.105 (April 15.) It expands the story in an interesting way, though: by revealing that the classic Wing Commander timeline was written by 'TCN military analyst' Guthrig Andropolos, the son of Commander Jedora Andropolos of the Iason. He talks a little about his father in the intro:

Updated 2669.098 by Guthrig Andropolos, TCN military analyst

This month, the war between Terran and Kilrathi forces turns four decades old. It’s no cause for celebration – millions of lives on both sides have been lost, and deep space is filling with debris faster than our recovery crews can tractor it up.
Most of you on board TCN fleet ships aren’t old enough to remember 2629.105, when the first Kilrathi scout ship attacked the patrol vessel Iason. In fact, most of you probably only know half the story this war has to tell. You’re about to be exposed to some sobering facts. While all of us have personal reasons for this war – including revenge, glory and honor – many of us know little about its history. As dismal as this may seem, we all need to remember.

My father, Commander Jedora Andropolos, became one of the first casualties of the war. He can’t be brought back and I can’t spend my career trying to avenge his death. Yet we still have much to learn in our ongoing pursuit of victory. Perhaps, in some small way, this history can help you do your part.

2629.105

Iason encounters a spacecraft of unknown origin. Commander Jedora Andropolos on board Iason transmits a wide-band, nonverbal grgeting and waits for a response. Less than twenty minutes later, the stillunidentified ship opens fire with full lasers, completely destroying Iason and its crew. Although the identity of the attacking ship is never definitively established, Confederation deep space tracking computers point to a possible point of origin from a previously unexplored planet, soon to be known by its native name, Kilrah.

Who is Guthrig Andropolos? If you aren't familiar, the answer will surprise you! In addition to being a "TCN military analyst" he's also a doctor of psychology who served on the Tiger's Claw! Wing Commander Academy introduces a character referred to only as Guthrig on-screen (mockingly called the 'doctor who needs a doctor')... but the series' press kit confirms he's the same man:

Guthrig Andropolos -- A civilian analyst employed by the fleet, Guthrig is the much-despised medic in charge of the psychological evaluation of the cadets. And although cold and unemotional, he is ironically subject to a variety of phobias.

Guthrig has a happy ending, though: Wing Commander Arena's Star*Soldier manual references that the expanded 27th century timeline is excerpted from his "seminal Official Terran Confederation Navy History." (The manual re-uses the Victory Streak version of the story word-for-word.)

Then, there was the movie! The Wing Commander movie has two connections to the Iason. First, the finished film includes a voiceover segment in the introduction that's intended to serve as a reference to the first contact with the Kilrathi. On screen, a model Snakeir superdreadnaught is shown over a map of the Vega Sector and the following conversation is played:

PILOT: Coming up on the far side... Looks like maybe three or four kilometers long.

CONTROL: Copy that, Sparrow. Proceed.

PILOT: It's like nothing I've ever seen before. Wait. Something's going on here. [Radio static]

There are no real specifics, but the implication seems to be that the "destroyer K’rath’kan" looks like a larger Snakeir (the version in the movie is said to be 915 meters long, not 3-4 km) and that the Iason had a smaller craft flown by 'Sparrow' who was the first casualty. No date or other background is given.

There's a much more confusing story about the Iason, though! In the version of the movie initially shot, the Iason is mentioned by name... with the claim that Paladin was a survivor of the ship. Early in the movie, Blair is supposed to notice that Paladin has an unusual tattoo. As they arrive on the Tiger's Claw, Paladin explains he was a member of the Iason's crew and that it marks him as a prisoner of war:

BLAIR
So what about the tattoo?

PALADIN
You know what it is?

BLAIR
It's a Kilrathi marker. You were a prisoner of war.

PALADIN
That's right. I was on the Iason when they took her.

BLAIR
The Iason. That was the first ship to have contact with the Kilrathi. There weren't any survivors.

PALADIN
I guess not.

Elevator doors open. PALADIN steps in.

BLAIR
Why don't you have it removed?

PALADIN
Let's just say, it helps me not forget.

BLAIR
Not forget what?

PALADIN
Why I fight.

Doors start to close.

MANIAC
So what exactly do the Kilrathi look like?

PALADIN
...They're ugly.
(directly to Blair)
Good luck.

The scene was ultimately removed from the movie, but it's impact is still felt. Making it 'canon,' it also appears in the novelization by Peter Telep. Since Mr. Telep was familiar with Wing Commander I, he addresses the continuity error head on, noting there were not supposed to be any survivors of the Iason:

Blair hurried after the captain. "Marshall? I'll meet you back here." He didn't wait for the expected reply and finally caught up with Taggart.

"Before you go, tell me about your tattoo."

"You know what it is?" Taggart asked, lifting his voice over the collective whine of power tools.

"I think I got it figured out. It's a Kilrathi marker. You were a prisoner of war."

"I was on the lason when they took her."

That caught Blair off guard. "The lason? She was the first ship to have contact with the Kilrathi. You served under Commander Andropolos?"

Taggart nodded. "We encountered a spacecraft of unknown origin, transmitted a wideband, nonverbal greeting, and waited. Four hours later

she fired upon us with all batteries. But you know the story."

"Yeah. And I know there weren't supposed to be any survivors from the lason."

"I guess not."

They reached the lift doors, which slid apart. Taggart stepped inside and turned around.

"Why don't you have it removed?" Blair asked, staring at the captain's neck, the tattoo partially exposed.

"Let's just say it helps me remember."

"Remember what?"

"Why I fight."

The doors began to close.

Blair stepped forward. "Wait. I've seen photos and holos, but what do the Kilrathi look like? I mean, in the flesh?"

"They're ugly. Good luck."

The doors sealed.

The Wing Commander Confederation Handbook, by Chris McCubbin, is essentially the 'manual' for the movie. It expands everything mentioned in the shooting script (it was written before the final cut that removed the traitor and scenes like the one quoted above) and it goes into a LOT of detail about the Iason. Unfortunately, it's a new version of the story moved forward in time to 'allow' for a Pilgrim War to take place and for Paladin's character to be younger. The new Iason story and the explanation of Paladin's connection is given several pages (since the movie's intro was not done or scripted when this was written, it does not include "Sparrow.")

Is it possible for both stories to co-exist? Yes, but it's a stretch. The story printed above notes that the Iason was refitted in 2633 for a different role... you could claim that the ship was scrapped by the Kilrathi, recovered and repaired and that the incident mentioned by Paladin in the novel and detailed in the book is simply it's ultimate destruction at the hands of a then-known enemy years later. Easy, right?

All of that said: did we really first encounter the Kilrathi in 2629? The answer is... no. Wing Commander: Action Stations (now available as an ebook) details a series of 'unofficial' contacts between border worlds and the Kilrathi. This isn't a continuity error, though: the book has Landreich President Blucher note that "... we knew about the Cats a full year before any of your official histories will ever acknowledge it." That would be 2628... but there's an even earlier connection!

The copy protection for the Secret Missions disk was simple: a series of 'facts' about the background of the expansion that you would look up to unlock the game. One of those facts, for Secret Missions 2, is that a man named Dr. Kohl was executed by the Kilrathi in 2621 after being captured observing the Sivar-Eshrad ceremony on Ghorah Khar. Presumably, Dr. Kohl's fate did not make it back to the Confederation... perhaps the notes were not recovered until Ghorah Khar rebelled in the mid 2650s!

All information in this article was compiled from the notes of anthropologist Dr. C.L. Kohl who was captured and executed by the Kilrathi priestesses in 2621 while secretly observing the Sivar-Eshrad ceremony on Ghorah Khar.
With that, happy First Contact Day... whenever you choose to celebrate!

The Fight for Books Continues

We have some additional news to share about two projects: the Mike Winterbauer art book and the ebook releases of the Wing Commander series! (There is, perhaps, some irony in the fact that we are fighting for physical releases of an ebook AND ebook releases of a physical book!) Mr. Winterbauer was kind enough to reply to my offer of support for a second campaign with some great news for Wing Commander fans:

I am going to re-launch this campaign with a lower goal and some added offers. One of the things I am adding to the offers is a beautiful Wing Commander print. The Wing Commander community has been wonderful, next time we will have more than three days notice.

Meanwhile, Baen has confirmed that the ebook release of Wing Commander: End Run (Book 2) is still in the works. In response to a request for a release date, their representative Tweeted: "Not as yet, thank you for your patience. We are working on it, rest assured." Baen has released their June schedule, which does not include End Run... so cross your fingers for July!

The lack of End Run is especially frustrating because it has long been the rarest of the physical books and because it introduces the 'book characters' who star in Fleet Action, Action Stations and False Colors. Meanwhile, False Colors is set for an April 4th release as an ebook. Preorders are not available yet, but until release it can be purchased as part of the April Baen Bundle. We will update once listings go up for the Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iBook stores.

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