When the name Cinemaware is mentioned to retro-gamers there’s good chance their eyes might gaze off into a dreamlike state and get a bit misty. Without a doubt, Cinemaware created some of the most visually engaging games on and for the Amiga in the late 80s and early 90s. They pushed the hardware artistically further than most believed possible, and their commitment to excellence filtered down to other computing platforms as well.
Released in October of 1990, Wings is no exception. At a high level, Wings is a WWI action arcade game with bits of aviation sim thrown in. But it took the genre to heights to be sure.
The game starts off with a beautiful long shot across a somber grassy field, showing the historic Wright Flyer coasting (flying) a few feet off that ground at Kitty Hawk in 1903. The scene then transitions to two biplanes chasing each other, a large black tree silhouetted in the foreground.
In the beginning of the game you need to name your pilot and “earn your wings”. This consists of succeeding in beating one of the three trainer versions of the missions Wings has to offer. Once you beat one, you get activated to fly on real missions.
In all, there are 230 of them. According to the manual, there is no winning or losing the game. But that’s not entirely true. Yes, if you die, you can create a new pilot and keep going. But that death is poignantly displayed in the form of a breathtakingly beautiful funeral scene with your pilot’s name carved into a stone cross grave marker.
The various screens that are interspersed throughout Wings are vintage Cinemaware. They are drop-dead gorgeous, dripping with history, and the writing is obviously coming from the heart of a pro. The time and care that went into the design is palpable, and the experience as a whole is very compelling.
And, as is often the case with Cinemaware games, the controls can be a bit of a mystery at times to understand even after reading the manual more than once. If there is ever a knock on Cinemaware games it almost always the lack of intuitive controls. That is, the effort is so weighted on the visual that the basic game mechanics sometimes take a hit, if not an outright backseat.
There are essentially three different games woven into the fabric of a very compelling narrative of Wings. In the 3 game types presented, in my experience the bombing runs were by far the easiest to understand and perform with little training. Using a bird’s eye view looking down at the top of your plane and the world below, you simply locate your targets and pull back on the joystick while pressing fire to drop a bomb. This isn’t Xevious, though, so don’t waste any bombs. You have to get a direct hit on each target or your mission will be considered a failure. No pressure!
The strafing game is more of a 3/4 isometric view (think Zaxxon) with a bit more of a top-down view, which is really a lot of fun. But again, these missions are extremely challenging at first as the bar for success is very high. When you’re first trying to figure things out, just know that you will fail. A lot. But the game is cool enough you keep coming back for more.
The third game, and most recognizable, is a semi first-person 3D-view “aviation sim”.
You control a British bi-plane, but rather than being in the pilot’s seat your vantage point is somewhere between the back of his head and the tail of the plane. It’s a bit difficult to get used to at first as your view of the world around you is rather limited. The plane’s wings are in your way, as is your own head! Since there is no radar (nor the ability to move your head left or right to see what’s around you) you have to rely on the pilot’s head movements to give you a clue which direction your enemies might be located. If he looks hard right, you better turn your plane in that direction. Oftentimes when I located enemies and fired - and hit them - I learned after a mission was over I hadn’t actually shot them down. My wingman apparently always finished them off, baffling me to no end. Bottom line: don’t stop shooting until you see them crash. But even these somewhat frustrating experiences were peppered with absolute brilliance. I’ll never forget the first time I was shot at from behind - and hit! Machine gun bullet holes raked across my upper wings making me catch my breath and desperately try to evade.
As an overall experience, Wings is a marvel to behold built across an immense level design that can be enjoyed across multiple weeks. It really is gorgeous and a pretty cool arcade-type of experience. The cut-screens and personal diary add a level of maturity that, I think, push the game to a higher level of sophistication. If the game had only been a flight-sim, it would have felt sorely inadequate technically. But the nod to realism, a heartfelt narrative and arcade action create a mixture that is memorable and really quite unique to the WWI genre.
Wings is a classic and a pretty impressive demonstration of what the Amiga could do.
Notes: I’ve read some old boards with a handful of folks complaining about frame rates and overall game speeds. I have to think these might have been bare-bones A500s running in PAL mode. I think if Wings is played in NTSC mode (which it was created in) most would have found the game totally fluid and seamless. If they had at least 1MB chip/video RAM, too, well…
Also worthy of note is the impressive 76-paged "Aviator's Briefing Manual" that came with the original game. Very much like something one might expect from Lucasfilm/Arts, this booklet is chock full of WWI history, including stories that lead to the war, tales of dogfights, details on weapons and pages on the various aircraft involved. Very cool stuff, and quite educational. Oh, it it is also used as a reference as a means of copy protection.
Finally, Wings supported a hard drive installation. Interestingly, in my copy, the previous owner left a handy hand-written technical note in the box. It reads (there may be typos as the handwriting is hard to read):
“There is a problem when installing Wings on a hard disk.
When you run HDInstall on disk 2, you get
“RAM: T already exists”
“Real2: C/Makedir failed
return code 20.”
To cure this, simply delete the first line of the HD Install script.”