Battlefield One has been a big topic of conversation for a few months now. When debuted opposite Activision’s Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, it was EA/DICE’s game that received overwhelming plaudits against (arguably undeserved) hostility toward its competitor. This was partly due to its setting; World War One is a rich vein of drama and story telling relatively untapped by games. Valiant Hearts was a sensitive, human look at the Great War, BF1 seems to have more Hollywood bombast for better or worse. Yet arguably the best game that concentrated on WW1 merged the action packed with the sensitive, the explosive with the harrowing. It was called Wings, and if it was up to its designer, would never have gotten made.

wings big

 ‘In addition to my design responsibilities, I was the Director of Product Development at Cinemaware at the time, and I had a lot of irons in the fire,’ recalls John Cutter. ‘So I was more than a little dumbfounded when Bob (Jacob, Cinemaware co-founder) came into my office one day and said, “I just hired a 3D programmer named Tim Hays and I want to make an accessible WWI dogfighting game.  I need you to design it.”‘
Jacob would tell Matt Barton in a 2010 Gamasutra interview that the concept was born from buying Spectrum Holobyte’s dense flight sim Falcon. ‘(It) came with a 365 page manual, and I quickly realised I was not going to invest the time it took to learn this thing in order to enjoy a flight simulator’.
Yet the working brief for Wings was for more than just an arcade style flight sim built to show off a proprietary 3D engine. As Cinemaware’s name suggested, the developer had already earned a reputation for ambitious attempts to capture a silver screen experience that were ahead of their time in terms of tech and storytelling. Formed by Bob and Phyllis Jacob in 1985 and having debuted with the much lauded, and subsequently much ported Amiga technical showcase Defender of the Crown, Cinemaware brought Cutter on as employee number one.
 
Extremely impressive is Wings' shunning of a conventional HUD, even by today's standards. The pilot looks in the direction of nearby threats, and bullet holes indicate damage.

Extremely impressive is Wings’ shunning of a conventional HUD, even by today’s standards. The pilot looks in the direction of nearby threats, and bullet holes indicate damage.

‘I’ll never forget my interview.  I arrived at the offices and he immediately lead me back to a small dark room with an Amiga — the first one I’d ever seen.  He took out a floppy disk, inserted it into the machine, and after a short load the Defender of the Crown title screen appeared.  My jaw just about hit the floor’.

The cinematic approach that Cinemaware became famous for was ahead of the curve by at least a decade. Where many developers attained movie director aspirations in the mid 1990s with FMV on CD Rom, these were often strong core games wrapped with cutscenes rendered with Deluxe Paint. The art of Cinemaware games quickly earned a reputation as the Amiga and its ilk emerged from the fading embers of the 8 bit micros.
‘I think we were one of the first game companies to hire real artists and train them to use computers,’ Cutter remarks. ‘A lot of companies back then were still getting by with programmer/designer art.  Sometimes that was enough for 8 bit computers like the Atari 400/800 and Commodore 64 — but the Amiga’s advanced graphic capabilities really highlighted the weaknesses in someone’s art skills. Meanwhile, the sky was the limit for us designers and creative types’.
Cinemaware games were known not just for graphical performance, but also ambitious narratives. While many developers were focused on mechanically driven experiences plucked from the air or derived from games made before, these were narrative experiences, with cinematic inspiration, as Cutter explains. ‘We were always experimenting with new ways to do or show things, inspired by our love of films, of course.  A lot of that came from Bob.  He was a real aficionado of movies and even old timey serials like Commando Cody, Which was the inspiration for Rocket Ranger‘.
Strafing and bombing were added to lend variety to the 3D sections. Strafing is the most visually impressive.

Strafing and bombing were added to lend variety to the 3D sections. Strafing is the most visually impressive.

The narrative of Wings was inspired and fueled by the tales of derring-do that existed in the early era of aerial warfare. ‘The day after the project landed in my lap, I went to the public library to do some research and within five minutes I was hooked’, Cutter says. ‘I still remember reading stories about incredible men, and boys, who were climbing into these brand new things called “airplanes”, and then engaging the enemy in aerial combat.  I got so into those tales that on my drive home that night I kept thinking that the cars behind me were enemy planes, and they were about to start shooting at me’.

Yet the human toll of the Great War was something the team at Cinemaware was keen to convey. Its missions were punctuated by diary entries and letters home from pilots, giving player characters a sense of humanity. The 3D dogfighting sections were third person affairs with a camera directly behind your pilot. That had a neat gameplay benefit; this was the age before radar and the game was lacking any kind of HUD. Instead, the pilot would turn his head to look at nearby threats, letting you know which direction to turn. It also made for one of the more harrowing gaming scenes of the era; when shot down the camera would switch views, alternating between an out of the plane view of the aircraft spiraling to the ground, and then back inside of it, as you saw your character sprawled unbreathing over the controls of the flaming craft.
‘I wanted players to get a feel for the life of a WWI pilot.  Yes, at times it was heroic and even convivial, but I didn’t want to over-glamorize it, or ignore the harsh realities,’ as Cutter explains. The mortality rate of those involved in the conflict, and the desire for a hard edge presented some interesting challenges, though.
‘In 1915 the average life expectancy of an allied pilot was something like 11 days. I really wanted that reality to be a huge part of the game, but of course that’s kind of ruined when players can simply reload their last saved games.  How could I make death an integral part of the experience?’
‘Eventually, I decided to use a diary to tell a story about a single squadron. Players would take on the persona of a rookie pilot, and the journal allowed us to get an intimate glimpse into their life and thoughts. When that pilot died a new one would take his place. This solved all my objectives.  (Writer Ken Goldstein did a great job writing the diary entries!)’
What that meant for was a rare game for 1990; one that wanted you to finish it. The tides of war rolled on regardless of player death, and the narrative took over on the 3D dogfighting and sprite based strafing and bombing sections. The game would rank your individual pilot’s kill count alongside other pilots on both sides of the war, and in reality the game itself was little more than a high score chaser with permadeath; you’d fly sorties and engage in ever more difficult ground attack runs or dogfights while cutscenes provided background.
Bombing evokes Xevious, again smartly communicating information without HUDs. Your plane's shadow indicates where bombs will fall.

Bombing evokes Xevious, again smartly communicating information without HUD elements. Your plane’s shadow indicates where bombs will fall.

Revisiting in 2016 shows gameplay that can feel somewhat repetitive, and the lack of agency hard to ignore. At the same time though, the structure brings a ‘once more unto the breach’ feel, and the lack of agency those laying their lives on the line had on a brutal conflict. This is communicated effectively through the writing, and the story is definitely the reason to stick around, as Cutter agrees. ‘I don’t think I ever finished a single Cinemaware game — even the ones I designed.  They got pretty hard and I just never had the time.  I was worried about players not finishing Wings, and missing some of the awesome narrative’.

Wings would receive a glowing reception by press, though its appeal would be resolutely cultish. Perhaps because of technical demands and difficult timing between console generations, Wings wouldn’t be as widely ported as Defender of the Crown, despite being a superior game. Its Tim Hays developed 3D engine would never be used again, as Bob Jacob felt that Cinemaware’s future output should stay 2D and Hays would be let go (‘I always felt bad about that,’  Cutter laments). Soon after Wings’ release, 20% of Cinemaware was bought by NEC to bolster the PC Engine/Turbo Grafx 16 in the west. NEC would have their own issues (Jacob would say the sale was ‘what really killed Cinemaware’), and after a failed take over by EA, it was over.
Ken Goldstein's writing mainly focuses on the camaraderie and respect between pilots of incredibly dangerous machines on both sides of the war. It's hard not to grow attached to the game's cast, though death is inevitable.

Ken Goldstein’s writing mainly focuses on the camaraderie and respect between pilots of incredibly dangerous machines on both sides of the war. It’s hard not to grow attached to the game’s cast, though death is inevitable.

Wings would receive a Game Boy Advance port in 2002 after company rights were picked up, but a limited run made the game hard to seek out though. Then the trail on Wings would go cold for a decade, resurfacing in 2012. As part of yet another resurrection of the Cinemaware name, Wings Remastered had an attempted Kickstarter in 2012, but would fall short of its goal. A more conservative remaster was crowd funded in 2014 for PC, Mac and iOS, and while its atmosphere and narrative definitely shines through, its structure, copied exactly from the original, shows its age and could have done with the higher original budget.

Or perhaps a change of presentation. Spring 2016 saw Payday 2 developer Starbreeze buy the rights to Cinemaware’s back catalogue specifically with a view to create VR experiences. Cutter agrees Wings would be a good fit. ‘How cool would it be to play “Wings” in VR?  It’s kind of perfect, actually, because being able to look around for enemies was critically important back then.  No fancy radar or HUD displays in 1915’.
Wings remains Cinemaware’s finest hour, and technically, conceptually and in design, remains relevant more than 25 years on. EA’s will undeniably be the most popular videogame take on the WW1 conflict, but hopefully it’ll learn some lessons from one of the first.

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)