Sunday 16 May 2010

Wing War

1992 was the year of the Sega Model 1 arcade board. Gone were the days of the Sega System series - now was the time to embrace flat-shaded 3D polygons, wear a cap backwards and carry around large bits of musical equipment in an attempt to look cool. Sega AM2 first broke the 2D mould with the critically acclaimed Virtua Racing. And then they did it again with Virtua Fighter. Didn't get that on Nintendo... because they weren't really in the arcade industry.

But there was also this. Wing War, the last Model 1 game which saw release in 1994. It's long been forgotten as it was the only Model 1 game not to leave arcades. This is blasphemy of course, because Wing War is fantastic.

The joy of joys which is the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), claims Wing War doesn't work. It lies. Now granted, emulation is probably far from "perfect", but it's a perfectly playable title and is only held back by the fact it was built for joysticks, not keyboards. So if by the end of this blog post you feel like hunting this game down, don't be put off.

In Wing War, you have a choice of various aircraft spanning about 80 years of aviation history. Your mission? Destroy your rival. Yes kids, you too can take your World War I German Fokker Dr.I war plane and shoot down a AV-8A Harrier jump jet. Or perhaps you'd like to annoy the Russians by blasting one of their Kamov Ka-50 helicopters. It's essentially a fighting game, but in the skies, where you need to avoid enemy fire while landing a few hits of your own. Simples.

There's a few sections of Star Fox 64 where you have to combat the Star Wolf team - Wing War is very similar to this, except it's a one-on-one battle rather than a four-on-one with three extra idiots. Oh and of course it pre-dates Star Fox 64 by three whole years, which is important if you're keeping score.

There are two modes, a "dog fight" mode which ruins most of the fun by restricting controls, and the expert mode which gives you full control over your craft. The problem with the arcade game is that it's set as a tournament, so you only need to fight a few planes before you're crowned champion. The planes vary - some are fast, some are slow, some are strong, some are weak, and some are helicopters with a different control scheme entirely. It's a bit difficult to tell whether this actually affects the AI, which will always use the same tactic of trying to hunt you down. If it had received the same treatment as Virtua Racing, whose home ports got more tracks, car types and various other additions, this might have been a bit more interesting. But that sadly never happened, so you're left with the basics.

That's not to say the basics aren't fun though. Being able to fly around large (for the day) 3D worlds was something not seen in video games much before this point. It almost feels like a Godzilla game at times... except for the indestructable buildings. Might want to sort that out if a sequel was ever to be produced.

The last fight follows the same trend as other AM2 fighting games by sticking you against a non-selectable enemy - a UFO. As you can probably guess, it's overpowered and is a fan of cheap kills, but it's a UFO.

There were no home ports of Wing War, but there were plans to bring it to the craptacular Sega 32X add-on. The Sega 32X, despite being terrible, got ports of Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Star Wars Arcade - essentially every other Model 1 game apart from Wing War, so it's hardly surprising. But the 32X's short lifespan clearly meant Wing War wasn't going to sell, and the project was therefore scrapped. It's a bit sad that it didn't see a release on the Sega Saturn however... could have gone some way to combat Star Fox 64 when it emerged on Nintendo's system. There's countless great things that could have been added fairly easily.

As I touched upon earlier, the controls are a bit... broken when brought to the keyboard. Probably best to leave the helicopters alone until the MAME team make things a bit more playable. Left is right and right is left, but up is still up and down is still down, and I kept being caught out by this setup. Again, it really is a shame that it wasn't brought to a console that had analogue sticks - it could have been something very special.

There are also various other little flaws thanks to the way Sega Model 1 hardware works - the draw distance is noticeably short, the physics are a bit strange when you collide with things (you can crash your plane vertically into the ground and it won't be damaged) and the lack of textures means this game looks a lot older than it should. Model 1 games typically have more on-screen polygons than Model 2 games, but Model 2 games have textures, making them look a million times better. Proof textures are more important than fancy geometry, people.

One of the closest games resembling Wing War and its choice of vehicles is the brilliant Toy Commander on the Sega Dreamcast. Toy Commander does nullify any reason to really port this game to any modern day consoles, but the point is this could have been revolutionary for Sega if they'd released it in their times of trouble in the mid 1990s. It goes quite far to point out that what Star Fox 64 was doing wasn't so revolutionary after all (though I would still say Star Fox 64 is the better game... I mean it is pretty much one of the best rail shooters out there).

So a fine Sega game that went down the drain. We may see Wing War again - Sega are fans of re-releasing old games, but perhaps it's just too little too late.

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