In my last post, I was reminiscing about Cinemaware. This trip down memory lane was prompted by my purchase of Wings Remastered – a 2014 PC update of their 1990 classic WWI flying game. In that post, I promised you a review, so here it is. Never let it be said that RetroReactiv8 doesn’t keep its word!
Wings casts you as a British WW1 pilot as you take to the skies in your rickety old bi-plane on a variety of missions to take on the German army and air force and – if possible –establish your reputation as a flying ace and a pilot to be feared.
Wings – like a lot of Cinemaware games – really should not work. There are only really 4 basic missions: shoot down enemy planes, shoot down observation balloons; strafing runs on the trenches and bombing missions to take out specific targets. Essentially, these 4 mission types are repeated endlessly with minor variations in difficulty and/or core objectives. The missions are all very short and on-rail – you are taken straight to the combat zone and the level ends as soon as you achieve your objective (or die!) Wings is having none of that new-fangled open world nonsense!
As I said, it shouldn’t work. It should be boring and repetitive, but it’s not. There are two principal reasons why the game worked in 1990 and why (despite 27 years of advances in game design) it still works in 2017.
Perhaps the most important reason is that each of the sub-games is fun and challenging. It didn’t matter how many times I set off on a mission to take down enemy planes, I felt a genuine sense of excitement and wanted to bag as many enemies as possible to add to my tally. I wanted to be the one who took down those enemy planes, not let my co-pilots bag all the glory; I wanted to make sure that I took out the train that was my primary target. And, of course, I wanted to make it home alive.
The second reason is that although it is fundamentally little more than a shooting game, it actually has a plot in which you become invested. Immediately after joining your squadron, you are given the task of keeping a journal documenting its progress, the missions undertaken and pilots killed in action or joining your merry band of fliers. This effectively acts as the narrative which drives the game forward, linking together the various missions and setting them against the backdrop of the wider conflict.
As a means of storytelling, this is simple but effective mechanism. It means that you get more deeply invested in the story. Rather than just seeing each mission as a series of things to do, you understand what the success or failure of each will mean to your immediate colleagues and for the war in general. You celebrate each time you make it home successfully or rise up the Top Pilots chart; you feel a sense of sadness each time one of your fellow pilots is killed. This emotional core is critical to the success of Wings. Without it, it would just be a series of repetitive missions; with it, you buy in the game and are anxious not to let your fellow flying comrades down.
It also ensures that you build a real bond with your character. You feel a genuine sense of anxiety that each mission might be his last. If he is in a badly damaged and mechanically failing plane, you are genuinely nervous that the next hit might be the one that takes you down. You feel a real sense of elation when you make it back to base alive and a genuine sense of sadness when you get him killed. This emotional investment in a character is one which few games achieve, but Wings succeeds thanks to its strong narrative.
The “scoring” system (a tally of missions flown and enemies killed) is also hugely effective at building a competitive element. You want to get to the top of the pilot charts within your own squadron and also the highest ranked pilot in the war. This can sometimes drive you into taking risks to keep ahead of the competition – a tactic which can, of course, be fatal. Like so much else in Wings, it’s a simple, but effective way of notching up the tension just that little bit more.
Even in its Remastered edition, Wings isn’t much to look at when compared with more modern titles. The graphics are the trademark big, bold ones that marked out the Cinemaware titles. Like the levels themselves, the same images and animations are recycled endlessly but this also works in the game’s favour giving a sense of continuity; that you really are stuck in the same place with the combat dragging on and on, with little sign of progress. The graphics that were pretty gobsmacking in 1990 might not have quite the same effect now, but they still suit the game perfectly.
The same is true of the sound. If you’re looking for CD quality soundtracks lasting 40 minutes, or stunningly realistic sound effects, then you’ve missed the point of Wings Remastered. Although sound effects have been cleaned up and beefed up, they are still instantly recognisable as being from the 16 bit era, and all the better for it.
Wings Remastered is an excellent example of a remake done well. It’s taken the original game, preserved everything that made it work and given it a lick of paint and a few other tweaks. It’s an unashamed, on-rails, mission-based action shooting game. And that’s exactly why I love it. Any attempt to update it to incorporate longer missions, open-world gaming, inventory management or any other aspects of modern game design could have seen the game lose its appeal. By taking a “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, Wings Remastered remains as much fun in 2017 as it was on its Amiga release in 1990.