I have just finished my first play through of WCEAR, and feel the need to collect my thoughts thus far -- this seems doubly important given the sad lack of attention that the so-called professional gaming press has put into reviewing this package. Wing Commander fans deserve to know exactly what they are getting here.
WCEAR is very, very hard.
This is a good thing, as far as I am concerned. A game that makes you believe you are getting better as you go along is gold. The original Wing Commander did this fairly well, and Origin's Wings of Glory perfected the experience. WCEAR does this in spades; it may take half an hour to finish an individual mission... but by the time you get home, you will feel that you have truly earned you rfive kills. Would that Wing Commander III had given that same emotion.
At the same time, let us admit that this is not wholly intentional. At best, it is half intentional, the result of the Mindscape team's best efforts to copy the gameplay of the original Wing Commander. The other half comes from the controls and the engine limitations on the (emulated) SNES A veteran space fighter pilot who has perfected the experience with a keyboard, throttle, rudder and joystick will have trouble adapting to eight buttons and a directional pad.
With some practice, though, it becomes second nature. EA Replay explains that the 'triangle' button is the "modifier". Keeping this thought in mind allowed me to figure out the controls with much more ease than previous console ports... they're intuitive once you put yourself in the right mindset, but they're maddening until that point. The amount of work you put into it is ultimately proportionate to the reward -- you will feel good when you shoot down your first Krant, you will feel good when you earn that first Bronze Star.
On to more specific things. As we expected, these are the SNES ports of Wing Commander and The Secret Missions run on some type of proprietary emulator.
This allows for a few neat features, including the ability to save anywhere in the game. This is especially valuable because Wing Commander has no internal save feature. After every system the player is given a password which he can use to resume the game at any point. Thanks to the external save feature, you can stop flying in the middle of a mission if that becomes a necessity. Perfect for Wing Commander on the go, or just making the SNES experience easier.
I also believe that the controls are slightly easier than the SNES version -- mostly because the PSP is layed out so that you are always "looking" at the buttons and the screen at the same time. The PSP also adds a digital joystick, which takes some work to get used to. Once you've mastered it, it improves the experience... until you do, though, you may find yourself switching back to the d-pad (which I was still doing when I hit the Venice star post!).
A major worry for fans when the title was announced was the 'aspect ratio'. The PSP, designed to play useless UMD movies, has a "wide screen" style display. I can happily report that these fears were groundless: expanding Wing Commander's graphics to 'fill' the screen look much better than the original SNES release, which squashed them to fit a square TV display. For purists, in so far as they could possibly exist in this sense, there is an option to play in the TV-ratio.
The immediate reaction of many people was that EAR should have included the PC version. This is not a reasonable request. While the PSP has the processor power to emulate DOS, there is no good way to replace the elaborate keyboard requirements of the original game. Even if the original Wing Commander source code still eixsts, it's doubtful that it could easily be adapted to a console.
There is a grand missed opportunity here, though. Most of the games in EAR are Genesis ports, and much more work was done integrating them into the package. Only the Genesis games feature 'unlockables' and they are the only games that have been edited in some way (Desert Strike, for instance, has been changed to show the proper PSP controls rather than the original ABC buttons).
In light of all this, it seems like a shame that the excellent SegaCD port of the original Wing Commander was not included. The collection takes up some 80 megs on a UMD as it is, which leaves ample space for the CD game... and with its full speech and superior graphics, WC would have become the unquestioned star of the collection.
(Aside: the unlockables, while a fun idea, are fairly silly. They are pictures of the original game boxes bordered with 'Empire Strikes Back' style 1980s card edgings. The SNES games, which includes all three Origin titles, come with their three cards already 'unlocked'. Wing Commander fans can thrill to seeing three slices of a Hornet cockpit shooting at Dralthi... and Ultima fans can thrill to one card that's actually entirely black (thanks to the post-modern box art for Ultima VII).)
Wing Commander fans not familiar with the SNES port should be aware that it is not identical to the PC release. Here is a brief survey of changes:
* Script changes. Figuring out exactly which pieces of WIng Commander dialogue were edited over the various ports is a research project for someone interested in earning their PhD in Wing Commander. In this case, the most noticable change is that the "Blue Devils" (the Scimitar squadron) are now the "Blue Angels" -- an odd product of Nintendo's strange early-1990s licensed content restrictions. Instead of a callsign and last name, your player has one all-encompassing "handle" (a new screen for inputting your personal information was added to the game).
* Cutscenes. They have been, sadly, cut. Gone are the amusing animations of scientists defending their lab and of Mopokes capturing Kilrathi marines. Instead, they are replaced with a less fulfilling sequence where a camera zooms in on a planet while the winning or losing narration scrolls across the bottom of the screen. The introductory and concluding cutscenes remain intact, including the Iwo Jima flag raising.
* Ships. Due to memory limitations, one Kilrathi fighter did not make the cut. If you do not already know the story of the 'Green Salthi'... then you haven't been reading the CIC long enough. In so far as horrible memory budget constraints go, though, this was a very clever swap.
* Graphics. The SNES version uses a 32-color pallette, which ends up somewhere between the EGA and VGA modes included in the original PC release in terms of complexity. On the PSP display, the graphics look clean and sharp! Individual screens are changed from the PC release in subtle ways: the Tiger's Claw's barracks, for example, have six beds rather than eight (and no pin-up girls). There's a fun SNES-only easter-egg during takeoff -- look to the right as your fighter launches... the Tiger's Claw has a HAL 9000.
A few other notes. The menu system is nice and intuitive. It's a pretty blue "museum" of the games, which includes a tiny animation for each game and then various other material -- key lists, game descriptions (which contains some embarassing spelling errors), trading cards, etc. It plays some nice music, and is especially notable because it has a much cooler logo than appears on the actual box. The in-game EAR logo is a stylized cartridge with the title on it.
What's the bad news, then? It's the same as the good news -- the game is hard. This means that your little sister can't pick up the package and immediately become a Wing Commander... it takes effort, which is good for fans but is probably ultimately bad for attracting new fans. It is much easier to jump into a helicopter in Desert Strike than it is a Hornet in Wing Commander. I certainly hope some newer gamers will give WIng Commander the benefit of the doubt, because it really is the best title in the collection... and anyone who gets far enough to experience the rewards of the game will probably be an especially *good* Wing Commander fan.
So... do I regret spending $230 to play this game? Not in the least. I'll pay the extra thousand once they port it to the PS3 and the Wii. Come on, EA, I *dare* you!
Now, on to the Goddard Colony! I'll put together a full review when I'm finished with The Secret Missions.
P.S., Please include Wing Commander 2 SNES on EARPS3... and, for good measure, Metal Morph.