Chasing Saturn

The year is 1995 and it is the height of a pitched battle between console manufacturers. These are Thunderdome rules: five systems enter, one system leaves. The stakes are much greater than just the current generation of console hardware; what happens here will set a course for decades of game development. Five contenders vie for the crown: the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, Atari Jaguar, Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64. The winner, of course, was the upstart PlayStation. The unexpected magnitude of its success would make Sony a gaming powerhouse that continues to succeed today.

In the midst of this fight, Origin Systems was setting the PC gaming world on fire with what they called the first true interactive movie, Wing Commander III. Porting the game, then the most successful PC title of all time, to as many of these consoles as possible was a natural choice. Two options were impossible for technical reasons: the cartridge-based Jaguar and N64 did not have the storage capacity needed for Wing Commander III’s then-massive video sequences. That left three viable candidates: the Interactive Multiplayer, PlayStation... and the Saturn.

Electronic Arts was most eager to support the 3DO, the system being helmed by their founder and former CEO Trip Hawkins. Work on the 3DO port of Wing Commander III began at Origin proper in Austin in late 1994, before the PC version had even shipped. The game was released on June 12, 1995 to excellent reviews (it remains one of the greatest PC conversions of all time)… and a looming recognition that they had backed the wrong horse. In early 1995, EA made the decision to contract out additional versions for the Sony and Sega consoles.

The PlayStation version would be released on March 28, 1996. It was a much more literal port of the PC version, boasting better 3D graphics than the 3DO release while still including some of the extra cutscenes. Unlike Wing Commander 3 3DO, Wing Commander 3 PSX was not developed by Origin or in Texas. A dedicated EA Playstation team in California ported and tested the game (with some QA support from the Wing Commander veterans at Origin late in development.)

At the first-ever Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 1995, Sony announced the “price heard around the world,” sweeping the legs of the competition with the $299 price point for the PlayStation. The 3DO and Saturn, already launched at $700 and $400, could not compete. Origin would go on to port Wing Commander IV to the system, insisting on an internal team to preserve the quality. But in 1995, that outcome was not yet clear. Instead, the Sega Saturn seemed like an extremely promising option. Sega had disrupted the console hardware industry just a few years earlier with the Sega Genesis, slicing up Nintendo’s dominant market share to a degree thought to be impossible. Supporting their first ‘grown up’ release seemed like a no-brainer. Electronic Arts assigned a team to port Wing Commander III to the system… and that’s where the trail goes cold.

Wing Commander III Saturn is part of a fairly exclusive group. While ‘cancelled’ Wing Commander games (which can range from pitches, tech demos, proposals and just napkin scribblings) were common, cancelled Wing Commander games that were formally announced and advertised are not. Wing Commander III Saturn appeared in magazine ads in late 1995/early 1996, it was announced and shown at E3, it was followed by magazines… so what do we know about it? The answer, sadly, is: not much.

Because the Saturn port was developed by Electronic Arts proper or a contractor, there is very little information available from ex-Origin developers familiar with the series. We do not even know what studio was responsible for the title or how much work was really done (the slightest clue is that the Saturn port of Origin’s Crusader: No Remorse was done by Realtime Associates; whether they were involved with Wing Commander is anyone’s guess.)

Here’s what we do know. First, Electronic Arts announced the game in May 1995, with a press release touting that it would be shown at the first-ever Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3):

LOS ANGELES, Calif., May 10, 1995 Electronic Arts (Nasdaq:ERTS), the leading publisher of interactive entertainment CD-ROM software, today announced three titles designed for the Sega Saturn, the advanced entertainment CD-ROM based system from Sega of America. The products are expected to ship in the fall.

Unveiled at the industry trade show, Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the first Sega Saturn titles from Electronic Arts are Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, the industry's first interactive movie; Viewpoint, a space combat simulation; and FIFA Soccer '96 , a totally redesigned sequel to last year's award-winning FIFA Soccer.

The Sega Saturn provides an exciting platform for bringing Origin Systems' groundbreaking Wing Commander III to the advanced entertainment system market. The Sega Saturn's built-in texture mapping and impressive 640 x 480 high-resolution graphics provide exceptional video quality and realistic gameplay. In true interactive style, the player controls the intriguing twists and turns of the plot by engaging face-to-face with such legendary actors as Mark Hamill (Star Wars trilogy), Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Star Trek) and John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

While the press release suggests that the Saturn version will be demoed, a contemporary Usenet post from an attendee suggests that only the 3DO release was playable and that the Saturn version was only the intro cinematic. That fits with what we know about the timeline; development of the port would have only just started at this point.

The trail then gets much colder. A number of magazines covered the E3 announcement over the next several months, culminating in a late-1996 GamePro feature that discussed upcoming games. All of these articles are small capsules rather than full previews, and none are especially clear about what will make the Saturn version special (there are references to improved framerate, textures and sound quality.)

Here are three magazine references which have been discovered. The first two are from Sega-specific magazines and were written based on the E3 appearance (the first is from issue 25 of Sega Visions, the US official Sega magazine and the second is from issue 34 of Mean Machines Sega, a UK publication.) The third comes later, and as such is probably the most valuable for knowing how long the game continued: it’s from a late-1995 special edition of GamePro which previews games scheduled for Spring 1996.

This French article, unfortunately unsourced, shares the same screenshot as one of the above, which suggests it was part of a press kit provided to magazines. These may be shots taken from the already-completed 3DO port (the PlayStation port has full color comms but no cockpits.)

Finally, we have the advertisement. Origin ran these ‘universe expanding’ magazine ads in video game outlets starting in late 1995 up until the release of the Playstation version in early 1996.

When was the game cancelled and how far along was it? That’s the biggest question and at this point we don’t know. An unsourced February 1996 Usenet post claims the game has been axed at this point, which seems likely… and seems to indicate that the game may have had almost a full year of development put into it. Sega-specific magazines even suggest that it may have survived much longer, with release dates that range from January 1996 to January 1997 (this last date may be wishful thinking, as it would suggest the game was in development for 18 months!) Sega Retro has kept a running tally of future releases are an interesting source:

How much of Wing Commander III Saturn was finished? Is there an early build out there somewhere, or documentation or other material? With a year--or more?--of development there is likely something interesting somewhere. The quest continues!

(Note for the sake of historical accuracy that the fifth generation of game consoles includes several also-rans beyond these five that never made it to worldwide launches. Two of these--the FM Towns Marty and the Amiga CD32--had Wing Commander ports. Additionally, as you will note from the advertisement, Origin also developed a Macintosh port of Wing Commander III which released in September 1995.)

--
Update published on . View all news from that day.

Wing Commander CIC - Visit the front page

Official news, fan projects and topics of particular interest to Wing Commander fans. Recent updates:


Wing Commander Music Kickstarter Relaunched - With Extras!
2017-07-27 -- George Oldziey is back for a third attempt at creating a second album of reorchestrated music from Wing Commander 3, 4 & Prophecy. He's learned some good lessons from the last two trips out, and this time he's significantly retooled the effort with some exciting changes.For starters, he's framing today's launch as Volume 2, Phase 1.

Happy Birthday Wing Commander Arena!
2017-07-26 -- Today we're celebrating the 10th anniversary of Wing Commander Arena's release! We're used to a steady stream of 25th birthdays ticking by as the classics from the early '90s each reach a quarter century, but this one's a little different. The baby of the family has reached double digits, and while it really just seems like yesterday that we were eagerly awaiting its release, a lot of time has passed!

Light Carrier Arrives At Spacedock
2017-07-25 -- The popular Spacedock YouTube channel has chosen Wing Commander as its latest subject. They are dedicated to profiling the specs and history of spaceships from across the vast swath of science fiction, and it's pretty cool to see the angle they took on this. WC's Yorktown class light carrier is the primary feature, and there's some fun highlights from WC3 pulled in for good measure.

Gemini Workhorse Gets Upgraded
2017-07-24 -- Here's a pretty sharp ship from DefianceIndustries' massive fleet. This is his impressive Talon model. He originally built the fighter several months back, so give him a poke and see if there's a finished version stashed away in some hidden asteroid base somewhere.

Top Shelf Library Contains Wing Commander Music
2017-07-23 -- On Friday, we shared the Royal Marine Bands playing the Wing Commander movie overture… and then we got to thinking: just how do you license music from Wing Commander, anyway? Investigation revealed that FOX Music handles licensing songs from composer David Arnold. The overture recieves two listings: one for the original soundtrack and one for a 2006 library of production music.

Lost WC3 Object Appears on Radar
2017-07-22 -- Here's another cool lost 'ground target' asset from Wing Commander III: a Kilrathi radar station! It's not clear why this didn't make it into the finished game, but it's possible it was hard to place a wide flat object... or there may have been issues animating the radar dish as intended.

Wing Commander in Concert
2017-07-21 -- Here's a crazy surprise: the United Kingdom's Massed Royal Marine Bands recently opened the annual Mountbatten Festival of Music at Royal Albert Hall with… David Arnold's Overture from the Wing Commander movie! The result is a brilliant live performance of the excellent overture, which is now available on popular music streaming services. Want a physical copy?

Arrow Kit for Sale!
2017-07-20 -- Alfred Wong's Arrow model is here! The promised plastic model kit that allows you to build your own 1/48 scale Terran Confederation Arrow fighter is now shipping. The unfinished kit costs $165 Canadian plus shipping and measures 9.

Countdown To Party Time!
2017-07-19 -- An important date is fast approaching, and as we're just about a month away, it's time to firm up details for the CIC's 19th Birthday Party! The milestone technically arrives on August 10, but this year we'll be observing the event on Saturday, August 19. Everything gets going at 7:00 pm EDT (4:00 pm PDT and 11:00 pm GMT) in #Wingnut on irc.

Destroyer Updated
2017-07-18 -- Murphy's law! Wing Commander Prophecy Model Upgrade Pack... and it's very handsome indeed!

Greetings, Starfighter
2017-07-17 -- Did you know that Lockheed Martin build a real starfighter to play Wing Commander? Well, kind of. Today we have an interesting oddity in Wing Commander history: the packaging for a Real3D Starfighter AGP graphics card.

Lost Tank Found
2017-07-16 -- What secret lurk in the heart of Wing Commander III's TRE files? Well, this Kilrathi missile tank, for one! The general design of this tank should be familiar to WC veterans… but you haven't seen it with a missile turret before!

Super Wing Commander Trailer Hints at Lost Ship
2017-07-15 -- Yesterday, we reported on footage of an early build of Wing Commander II digitized by the University of Texas. Today, we have a second treasure from a VHS provided by Origin producer Warren Spector: early footage of Super Wing Commander in action! The video clearly shows an early, unfinished build that has a more elaborate 'loading' screen for the VDUs (and is still using some Wing Commander I art as placeholders!

Early Wing Commander II Footage
2017-07-14 -- The University of Texas at Austin's Briscoe Center for American History has digitized several VHS tapes donated by famed Origin producer Warren Spector including a VERY interesting tape previewing Origin's 1991 lineup. The tape, likely created for a trade show or as a preview for distributors, walks through all of Origin's current releases. It includes a lengthy trailer of the already-released Wing Commander I, The Secret Missions and The Secret Missions 2: Crusade… and then a VERY exciting preview of Wing Commander II.

Cheat Sheet: WC4 Turrets
2017-07-13 -- This is a followup to our article on Wing Commander III capship turrets. Wing Commander IV did not include a printed manual with detailed ship specifications, so this is not so much a correction as it is an addition! These counts are most interesting where they differ from those in Wing Commander III; in several cases, the same ship model is used with a different turret setup.

Cheat Sheet: WC3 Turrets
2017-07-12 -- It's easy to find 'mistakes' in the ship stats published in Wing Commander manuals. The biggest reason for this is that physical manuals needed to be locked down for print before the final testing and balancing of the games would have been finished. Changes to ship stats to better balance gameplay are common, meaning that a booklet like Victory Streak gives a better look at how the team thought the game would work rather than how it actually does.

Fusion Visits Wing Commander IV
2017-07-11 -- Fusion was a short-lived magazine which ran for seven issues from 1995 to 1996. The publication billed itself as the "magazine of interactive entertainment," which is about as 1990s as a gaming magazine can make itself sound! The November 1995 issue included a wonderful set visit report from the Wing Commander IV film shoot.

Cerberus and Friends
2017-07-10 -- Set desktop backgrounds to stunning! DefianceIndustries has created an extremely cool 'Cerberus Fleet' image using only assets from his Wing Commander Prophecy Model Upgrade Pack.

More French Advertisements
2017-07-09 -- Here are three fascinating Wing Commander advertisements! The first is a 1992 ad produced by Electronic Arts for the European market, which does not have a US equivalent. In 1992, EA was particularly interested in establishing that they were now the sole distributor of Origin games (which had previously been put out by companies like Mindscape and Ubisoft on a case-by-case basis.

WC4 Remaster Reaches the Razor's Edge
2017-07-08 -- Pedro Is working on a pretty exciting project: a fan-made remaster of Wing Commander IV's gameplay! Today, he posted the first test images, showing one of the game's Razor pirate fighters… and you can certainly already see the possibilities! You can learn more about the project (including how you can help!

Follow or Contact Us

Forums: Recent Posts

Current Poll

Where to Buy

WCPedia: Recent Contributions

Site Staff