Art Assets Reveal Never Before Seen Cockpit (August 14, 2016)


Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
It's certainly not every day we get to see new Origin concept art or unused designs from the classic Wing Commander games, but we've got a birthday treat today! Joe Garrity recently uncovered an amazing set of cockpit art and animations from a fighter we've never seen before. The lock and autopilot lights are unmistakable, and there are vertical and horizontal bars that could definitely be for a gun capacity and afterburner fuel. However, there are some remarkable differences as well. There seem to be two radar displays, and the VDUs flip open and closed. There appear to be supplemental heads-up VDUs that overlay on the windscreen, as well as something that resembles a very large targeting crosshair in the center of the dashboard. It has a very cool illumination startup sequence as well.

So, what is the ship? And what's up the functional differences we don't see elsewhere? Joe uncovered these on a 5.25" floppy labeled "DISK 9 - PANEL X-LBM SCREENS.ANM" from artist Dan Bourbonnais. He had to get the proprietary "Deluxe Animator" software going to read the files properly. The still screenshots are dated April 22, 1991, while the animation has a December 11, 1992 date stamp, which could be artificially delayed due to backing up or disk transfer. The brown durasteel could imply a Kilrathi design, but it lacks overt alien markings that the Dralthi II and Jrathek art contained. It's also interesting that this concept dates back to the time Secret Missions 2 was released, but the animations are ahead of their time and the different dashboard elements (quadruple 5.25" floppy drives are a nice touch though!) raise more questions than answers. LOAF's thoughts on the subject are below. Do you have any theories about what this could be? Post them in the comments!

A potential Wing Commander mystery is afoot!

Dashing game archaeologist Joe Garrity recovered it from an old Origin-internal diskette... it certainly looks like a Wing Commander cockpit, but it isn't one that ended up in any of the games (and it doesn't quite /work/ like other WC cockpits.) Any ideas?

What we have herea?? is a good, old-fashioned mystery! To preface this: I dona??t KNOW what it is, but I can make some educated guesses as to possibilities.

First: I know that this immediately screams a??Kilrathi cockpita??a?? but I would caution that I think thata??s a bit of an anachronism. It is the same color as the Kilrathi cockpits we see later in the series, including the Jrathek and the ships in Wing Commander Armadaa?? but in 1991, that color scheme had not yet been established. Wing Commander II (in development) was using the lighter tan color for the Kilrathi space camoa?? but it also used this same color for the cockpit of the human Rapier (as did Wing Commander I.) This would have also closely followed The Secret Missions 2, which showed the first Kilrathi cockpita?? which was steel and purple. Finally, therea??s no Kilrathi writing. At the time, Kilrathi text was a series of dots and dashes arranged vertically. The Dralthi Mk. II cockpit in Secret Missions 2 is full of them (and has human text on sticky notes added over them! Immersion!) while this cockpit has only English writing. [One other thing that makes it feel like a Kilrathi cockpit is the fact that the large, red central display immediately looks like the red Kilrathi armor indicators used in all five of their cockpits in Wing Commander Armada. Ita??s not the same graphic at all (and Armada was three years later, an eternity at the time), but it feels very similar at first glance!)

One thing I can say for certain is that it is NOT a a??workinga?? (gameplay) Wing Commander cockpit. While the cockpits in Wing Commander I and II vary wildly in shape, color and overall design, they have several common elements that this lacks:
  • Identical blank spaces for VDUs. These need to be the same size because the images the game overlays in real time are the same for all the ships. The mystery cockpit has two small black squares that imply the same VDU setup, but theya??re proportionately much too small to function in the game. (After the a??flipa?? animation, there is more spacea?? but the shape still isna??t right.)
  • Similarly, Wing Commander ships have all have identical (across each game) circular radar displays. Again, this cockpit seems to have one (two, actually!) but theya??re again much too small and when you look closely youa??ll see they arena??t Wing Commander radars at all. The Wing Commander scanners divide space into four quadrants with an X, while this uses a cross +. That seems like a small thing, but it means the radar wouldna??t be functional in a WC game because ita??s not showing you whata??s in front of and behind you. (Credit to Toast for noticing this one!)
  • There is no shield/armor indicator. These DID have a different style in each ship in the early games, but they were always distinct enough to be identified. I dona??t see any equivalent here.
  • There is no space for the set and actual speed indicators. (Though, one small point in favor of a Kilrathi ship is that the Dralthi didna??t have such indicators either and instead had a small computer a??addeda?? by humans to display them.)

I will note that none of that excludes it from being concept art for a Wing Commander, and in fact many of the same failings this cockpit has are repeated in another bit of lost cockpit that we DO know is from Wing Commander from three years later (pictured right). This so-called mystery cockpit was used in advertising for Super Wing Commander, but does not match any of the art used in the finished game. It, too, lacks VDU spaces, reuses art from earlier Wing Commanders, is missing certain displays and so on!

It also has some elements that are distinctly not functional in Wing Commander II:
  • The large, central a??targeta?? area doesna??t match a function in the early Wing Commander games. It seems to be the focal point of the cockpit, but if this were a ship you fly therea??d be no reason to a??usea?? it. (Which I believe suggests that this was for a cinematic; more on that theory later!)
  • I can say from experience that ita??s unlikely the 5.25a?? drives on either side of the cockpit would have made it past a Chris Roberts art review! :) (Though there did seem to be a pair of IBM M-Type keyboards in the Orion in Privateera??) In fact, Ia??d venture to say that having the a??cutea?? diskette drives there is much more the sort of nod youa??d see in a Richard Garriott or Warren Spector project.
  • No Wing Commander ship at this time had used a a??glass cockpita?? where displays appear over the game area (as this does in the animation.)
  • The fact that it has a a??startupa?? animation means that it doesna??t match any of the other Wing Commander cockpits at the time. Therea??s nothing in those games that has the cockpits turn on/off with resultant changes to the lighting.
On the other hand, it DOES include elements that ARE unquestionably from Wing Commander:
  • The a??LOCKa?? and a??AUTOa?? lights are from Wing Commander IIa??s cockpits. I believe the specific buttons here match the Epee cockpit.
  • The rectangles of green and red lights adjacent to the diskette drives are modified from similar panels on the Wing Commander Rapier artwork. They arena??t specific to Wing Commander II, though, they were originally created for the Rapier in the already-published Wing Commander I.
So, what games COULD it be from? To narrow down the options, I went back to the Point of Origin (Origina??s internal company newsletter) archive and found that the very first issue was published just under a month after the date on these files.
At that time, Origin had five product development groups working on four original games:
  • Martian Dreams (Scheduled for May, shipped on time)
  • Wing Commander II (Scheduled for Summer, shipped in September)
  • Ultima VII: The Black Gate (Scheduled for Christmas, shipped April 1992)
  • a??Air Commanda?? (Scheduled for Christmas, likely shipped April 1993)
  • (The fifth group was working on the CD-ROM conversion of Ultima VI for the FM Towns. I strongly suspect that a??Air Commanda?? was a working title for Strike Commander rather than a cancelled project, as it vanishes the next month and mentions of Strike begin.)
I include the scheduled release dates because it tells us where each game was at the time. Martian Dreams went to beta about a month after these images were finished, which suggests that it was getting close to wrapping up. Wing Commander II would have been midway through development, making it the most likely to be having new art created at that specific time. Ultima VII and Strike Commander were very early in the process, but demos of both were being created to show at Summer CES around this same time. (It also lets us rule out a few other projects that might have been tempting options: Wing Commander Academy, which DOES feature a similarly-colored Kilrathi cockpit, and Privateer werena??t on the table yet.)
With all that analysis, Ia??ve come up with several possible theories. I suspect Strike Commander and Ultima VII are not likely (while Ultima VII had a Kilrathi ship, it wouldna??t have been the focus at this point in development!), which leaves Martian Dreams and Wing Commander II. I believe it could fit into either game:
  • It could be a cutscene from Martian Dreams. Martian Dreams does end with a cutscene in which the characters return to Earth aboard Jules Vernea??s spaceship (you see the ship take off and then in the next shot landed.) Ita??s possible this was created for that sequence and then cut to save disk space. In that case, the Wing Commander elements (and the disk drives!) would be intentional nods of the sort Origin was often fond. The startup animation would then be where you see it take off and rocket out of the Martian atmosphere into space.
  • It could be a cutscene from Wing Commander II. We have hard proof (from the box itself!) that backgrounds and faces were cut from Wing Commander II, including a younger Blair head and courtroom backgrounds. The intro was rewritten late in the process to cut down on disk usage (and so instead of seeing young Blair at a trial, you have old Blair talking to Admiral Tolwyn in his same office set used for the rest of the game.) The place I can imagine this is the attack on the Tigera??s Claw: if ita??s a Kilrathi cockpit (as noted, not a given!) then I could see an alternate version of the shot where you see the action from inside one of the stealth fighters. This would also explain why it doesna??t have parts needed to function, why therea??s a startup animation (as ita??s decloaking) and then large central a??targeta?? area, since the point of the cockpit would be to see it lock and fire a torpedo at the a??Claw.
  • It could be for a totally unknown sales demo or a failed product pitch. Origina??s sales team was aggressively pursuing distributors at this time, and we know they showed demos of all these games at CES in 1991. Ita??s likely the Wing Commander II demo was the version which currently survives (featuring an alternate version of the first part of the intro)a?? but there may have been some other, unspecified behind-closed-doors tease this was done for. As for failed pitches, a??Wing Commander but youa??re a Kilrathi!a?? was certainly discussed from the day Wing Commander I came out (and unexpectedly eventually became System Shock!)a?? it could be lookdev for that sort of project pitch.
Original update published on August 14, 2016
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Unknown Enemy
Very interesting.

All things considered, I think the Martian Dreams theory can be blasted out of the water straight away - there is nowhere in the game that this cockpit could conceivably work, particularly given its radically different visual style.

I do think there's enough similarity to make this unmistakeably a WC2 cockpit. But it's equally clear that with so many things missing, this could not have been intended to be a functional cockpit. And of course, we can discount the idea that this was just a first draft, which would be made more functional later - the artists working on these knew all the elements that were required, and would have incorporated them immediately to save themselves the trouble later. By the way, note also that the cockpit is missing one of the other key mainstays of WC cockpits - the pilot. While the flightstick hand is never a part of the cockpit files because it's animated separately, the legs always were present - and there are no legs here, and very little room to squeeze them into.

Overall, I'm inclined to agree that the most reasonable place we could imagine this cockpit being used, is the Strakha scene in the intro. The cockpit start-up animation as an indication of decloaking would make absolute sense, too. Of course, this would beg the question of why the cockpit doesn't structurally match the Strakha, but I suppose it comes close enough to matching it.

An alternative idea - again, keeping with the notion of a cutscene-only cockpit - would be the encounter with Prince Thrakhath. IIRC, the way things are right now, Thrakhath simply appears after the previous wave, with only his prior conversation with Khasra serving as an introduction. There may have been some intention of having him talking to Blair immediately before the fight. This theory seems rather weak, though, because it doesn't explain the animated lighting.


Rear Admiral
This is a very peculiar image, because of its palette. In the bottom right corner of the video, you see the first 32 colors in the 256-color MCGA palette. Color 0 is in the upper left, and they increase first down and then to the right.

That's a unique set of colors to have in the first 16. Could we possibly have a screenshot of the whole 256? You can open the palette viewer in DeluxePaint Animation by pressing the "p" key or clicking on the big color swatch above the smaller color squares. Or, if the .ANM files can be shared, I can view it myself. (I have DA backed up to my DOSBox directory now, but I still have the original wire-bound manual and everything.)

It certainly doesn't match any existing palette from an Origin game I could find. I badgered Denis Loubet with questions about this during this thread.

WC1 had a black-to-white gradient. This was strictly used everywhere in the game; individual graphics and sequences had no palette, and relied on this being present to display correctly. Also note that almost every other gradient here runs light-to-dark, in the opposite order from the orange-to-cream seen in cockpit colors 16 to 31.
Palette WC1.png

WC2 began with the 16 EGA colors, a choice that shows up in many games. This too was used throughout the game.
Palette WC2.png

Academy used the WC2 palette for its flight sequences. The opening scenes each have unique palettes with shades of brown and blue which I can post if anyone is curious, but they're certainly nothing like the ones here.

Privateer had a white-to-blue gradient in its first 16, but was otherwise mostly like WC2.
Palette WCP.png

Armada started with a black-red-yellow-white gradient, and overall a very disciplined and sombre color scheme.
Palette WCA.png

According to the palettes built into WCNAV, WC3 and WC4 used some quite peculiar sets that can only have been useful in whatever paint tools were used to build them.

What about the Worlds of Ultima games being developed around this time?
Savage Empire used a near-exact match for the WC1 palette for its Origin Logo sequence - a logical choice.

Its titles used the EGA 16, and some special pastel gradients.

In play, it used this set, once again with the familiar EGA 16. The odd sequences of red and blue at the right edge are due to color cycling, a palette trick used to create flame and water effects.

Martian Dreams, like Savage Empire, uses a near-match for the WC1 palette for its Origin Logo, despite the different planet.
All other palettes have the EGA 16.
The opening sequence uses this set up to and including the main menu.

In play it replaces the menu bronze colors with some flame and water color cycling.

Even Ultima 7 still had the EGA colors in its introduction, if only in segments that didn't need all 256 colors anyway. Its gameplay palette was a bit more specialised.

Ultimate Underworld does make that choice of having some random bright colors in its first 16. They aren't the same ones appearing in the cockpit, however.

Is there any purpose to this mess of screenshots? Here's what we learned:
  1. This cockpit has a strange palette.
  2. The choice of having the first 16 colors be a scatter of bright tones is unlike every Origin game examined here, except for Ultima Underworld. The rest start with either the 16 EGA colors or a gradient.
  3. The cockpit palette doesn't match the fixed palette used in WC1 and WC2, so was not capable of being used anywhere in those games without remapping.
  4. The cockpit palette doesn't match the flight palette used in Academy or Armada, so was not capable of being used during gameplay in those games without remapping.
  5. The cockpit palette doesn't match the general gameplay palettes of Savage Empire, Martian Dreams or Ultima 7.
  6. While Savage Empire and Martian Dreams could have unique palettes for cutscenes, they stuck fairly close to the set used in gameplay.
Given the animations involved, I still agree with Quarto. It's easiest to picture this being used in the WC2 intro. But it would not have been easy to integrate into the game as shipped.

Want to explore games in your own collection and see if any of them match the mystery screenshot? Here's what to do:
  1. Run the game in DOSBox.
  2. Press control-F5 to capture screenshots.
  3. Go to your DOSBox "capture" directory and find your new screenshots.
  4. Your screenshots are stored in PNG format using indexed color.
  5. To view the palette in the screenshot, open it in a tool like the GNU Image Manipulation Program that can view image palettes.
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Rear Admiral
This is just my gut talking , but how does this cockpit compare to the color palette used in what screenshots we have for Alien Commander?

Is there any known Origin game where this same color palette is utilized?


Rear Admiral
I love the four 5.25 floppy drives in the corners. Not much imagination for future technology. This beast runs on DOS!


Vice Admiral
@Dondragmer - outstanding detective work as always! There's a guy who knows his stuff...

I was going to take a stab at this and suggest it doesn't look like a fighter at all, rather a light capship cockpit - like a corvette, perhaps. It got me wondering if there were ever plans for an outing in a Venture in SM2, instead of the Dralthi we eventually got to fly - but then I saw this:

The cockpit palette doesn't match the fixed palette used in WC1 and WC2, so was not capable of being used anywhere in those games without remapping.
...which leaves me to ask; does SM2 use the same fixed palette? Only reason I ask is a) it's a seperate executable unlike WC1 and SM1, and b) Chris points out that the date of the files were around 1991. I really should fire up DOSBox and GIMP and find out for myself but I won't have use of my main rig for a few days.

The AUTO and LOCK light scream Wing Commander, don't they?


Vice Admiral
Actually, having re-read Quarto's opening arguments - the odds seem pretty strong this is probably a non-functioning cutscene Strakha after all. I wonder if it was rejected for the Auto light and 5.25" floppy drives making it look too human. Purely conjecture of course.


Unknown Enemy
Actually, having re-read Quarto's opening arguments - the odds seem pretty strong this is probably a non-functioning cutscene Strakha after all. I wonder if it was rejected for the Auto light and 5.25" floppy drives making it look too human. Purely conjecture of course.
I think that regardless of what it was, it would not have been rejected for the floppy drive - rather, the drive would have been replaced with a more appropriate element. If it really was a Strakha cockpit for the intro, then the most likely cause for removal is that mentioned by LOAF, which is disk space. For us today, that's a concern that seems absolutely unreal, but you have to look at the business reality of the early 1990s. The cost of adding another floppy disk to the box was equivalent (if not exceeding) that of adding a CD - and that's a cost per unit, not a one-off cost for the whole production. So, each floppy would take a noticeable bite out of the net revenue from sales. Even when CDs came along, there was always a strong effort to keep their number to a minimum, with both WC3 and WCP bearing clear signs of steps taken to reduce the number of CDs. Back in the days of floppy disks, the problem was far more significant, given that each floppy disk would only add another 1.44 MB of data to the compressed install package, so adding anything more significant might involve adding two or more disks. That's the whole reason why we saw SM1/2 and SO1/2 come into being - to make use of data that had to be cut from the original games. But whereas ships get to be recycled for expansions, in fact the most obvious place to make cuts involves the kind of data that cannot be effectively recycled into another product: images used on a one-off basis in intros and other cutscenes. If something's only being used once in the game, and might end up costing you around $1 for every single unit of the game (including unsold units that generate only losses!) by demanding an additional disk, then you're going to think long and hard about the sensibility of keeping it in the game.