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 here… is a good, old-fashioned mystery! To preface this: I don’t KNOW what it is, but I can make some educated guesses as to possibilities.
First: I know that this immediately screams ‘Kilrathi cockpit’… but I would caution that I think that’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 Armada… 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 camo… 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 cockpit… which was steel and purple. Finally, there’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. It’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 ‘working’ (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 they’re proportionately much too small to function in the game. (After the ‘flip’ animation, there is more space… but the shape still isn’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 they’re again much too small and when you look closely you’ll see they aren’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 wouldn’t be functional in a WC game because it’s not showing you what’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 don’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 didn’t have such indicators either and instead had a small computer ‘added’ by humans to display them.)
It also has some elements that are distinctly not functional in Wing Commander II:
On the other hand, it DOES include elements that ARE unquestionably from Wing Commander:
- The large, central ‘target’ area doesn’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 there’d be no reason to ‘use’ it. (Which I believe suggests that this was for a cinematic; more on that theory later!)
- I can say from experience that it’s unlikely the 5.25” 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 Privateer…) In fact, I’d venture to say that having the ‘cute’ diskette drives there is much more the sort of nod you’d see in a Richard Garriott or Warren Spector project.
- No Wing Commander ship at this time had used a ‘glass cockpit’ where displays appear over the game area (as this does in the animation.)
- The fact that it has a ‘startup’ animation means that it doesn’t match any of the other Wing Commander cockpits at the time. There’s nothing in those games that has the cockpits turn on/off with resultant changes to the lighting.
So, what games COULD it be from? To narrow down the options, I went back to the Point of Origin (Origin’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:
- The ‘LOCK’ and ‘AUTO’ lights are from Wing Commander II’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 aren’t specific to Wing Commander II, though, they were originally created for the Rapier in the already-published Wing Commander I.
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 weren’t on the table yet.)
- 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)
- “Air Command” (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 ‘Air Command’ was a working title for Strike Commander rather than a cancelled project, as it vanishes the next month and mentions of Strike begin.)
With all that analysis, I’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 wouldn’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 Verne’s spaceship (you see the ship take off and then in the next shot landed.) It’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 Tiger’s Claw: if it’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 doesn’t have parts needed to function, why there’s a startup animation (as it’s decloaking) and then large central ‘target’ area, since the point of the cockpit would be to see it lock and fire a torpedo at the ‘Claw.
- It could be for a totally unknown sales demo or a failed product pitch. Origin’s sales team was aggressively pursuing distributors at this time, and we know they showed demos of all these games at CES in 1991. It’s likely the Wing Commander II demo was the version which currently survives (featuring an alternate version of the first part of the intro)… but there may have been some other, unspecified behind-closed-doors tease this was done for. As for failed pitches, ‘Wing Commander but you’re a Kilrathi!’ was certainly discussed from the day Wing Commander I came out (and unexpectedly eventually became System Shock!)… it could be lookdev for that sort of project pitch.