A lot of my gaming time in the early 90s was spent on flight sims. It was an offshoot of my childhood interest in aviation. Fighter planes are awesome – they’re fast, they’re loud, they do crazy maneuvers, they fire machineguns and rockets and make stuff explode. I used to devour books on aircraft, built dozens of airfix model kits, and regularly visited museums (I can recommend one in Newark, near the junction of the A1 and A4 lots of early cold war jets). Of course I wanted a chance to sit in the cockpit and fly a warplane myself. Not just by playing a some arcade shoot-em-up, but rather a proper simulation.
These can be quite complex games. You have to learn the basics of controlling an aircraft, the three ways the control surfaces can make you turn in the air. There’s a bit of physics to consider; for example there are limits to how quickly you can climb, before your plain stalls and the nose drops. There’s also often a lot of information to take in, looking at little gauges, dials and maybe radar screens. Not to mention lots of buttons to push to make the flaps go down or change some setting on the heads up display.
It’s for reasons like this that flight sims often felt more grownup than other games. They were entertainment, but also at the same time, they were Serious Business. That let me feel a bit smug and superior over my gaming peers, and forget for a while that I kind of wished I had a SNES instead of being stuck with the beige family PC.
Most of the sims fell into one of two categories. A lot were based in the second world war, such as the Aces series from Dynamix. I relished the chance to be an old fashioned fighter pilot, flying a Mustang or a Spitfire. I was taking part in the Battle of Britain, fighting to keep the Nazis from gaining air supremacy over. Or I was attacking formations of American bombers bearing down on German factories, or chasing Zeros over Pacific Islands, seeking revenge for Pearl Harbour. It was immensely satisfying, after frantic wheeling and diving through the skies, to put myself on the tail of an enemy fighter, then riddle them with machinegun bullets.
I did also enjoy sims in modern settings. Or, rather, what was then modern t day, a couple of decades ago now. The stealth fighters and helicopter gunships that I flew were the military hardware I saw on the news going into action during Desert Storm, or that I read about in Tom Clancy novels. The cold war was still very recent memory for us then; in fact some of the sims I played were released the same year the USSR fell. So scenario like Russians deploying forces in Libya, or threatening Scandinavia, were regular features. (funnily enough, looking at the news we’re now getting worried about that sort of thing all over again).
What I wasn’t a fan of though, in any setting, was landing. It’s all about dealing with the ultimate threat to an aircraft, solid ground. I suppose it’s not exactly super difficult if you practice enough, it’s just a tedious way to end a mission, a chore that requires several minutes of concentration. Come in too fast and, whoops, all your past hour’s successes are thrown away in a fireball and a crater. Most sims offered an option to just fly back to friendly skies and hit an “end mission” command, and that’s what I usually used, and yet it always felt a bit unsatisfying, like I was cheating.
I suppose that’s one sign I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm. I’d have to admit to often putting difficulty levels to mid or low settings. While I knew the basics of dogfighting, I tended to just charge at stuff than pull circles trying to get on someones tail; not exactly a lot of finesse.
My years of sim fandom – or at least, the years I was most aware of – ran from around 1990 to 95. After that, interest started to tail off. I think TFX did a lot to put me off. It looked amazing, especially with its “cinematic flyby” view mode with your Eurofighter blasting past the camera, but I didn’t have the first clue how to actually do anything apart from spin around the sky firing missiles randomly. Looking back, I see people describe it as “arcadey”, which is a bit depressing. Maybe I should have just paid more attention to the manual, but I never felt compelled to go back and try it again.
I continued to enjoy space-sims like Freespace for a while, but the will to play real-world flight sims diminished. There was a sense that the realism, that had once attracted me, was increasing to the point where it brought more hard work. With advanced flight physics, radar modelling and so on that’s more buttons to press, more to remember, more complexity to deal with. I’m told some sims offer a highly accurate depiction of an entire theatre of war – squadrons to manage, supply lines to protect, etc and that just has me thinking there’s far too much going on for my limited brain to handle. Like a hardcore strategy game and a sim going on at the same time.
By the 2000s, I’d pretty much stopped playing. I did at one point, 7 or so years ago, try to rekindle my interest by grabbing Janes USAF from my local GAME (these being the days when it had a PC section worth speaking of). I then failed the very first training mission, by crashing into another plane while taxiing to the runway. Oh and I once tried a game called Aces High. Here’s my trying to get off the ground:
I, uh… yeah. I can’t really explain that one.
I suppose I could go back to the genre. I could just put in some effort, do lots of training missions, and these days probably watch a bunch of youtube tutorials. Nowadays though I have less free time, and that puts me off games with steep learning curves. The prospect of doing hours of homework just to get the hang of a game feels like neither entertainment, nor doing anything useful with my time. I know this sounds kind of terrible, but games have to provide at least *some* immediate gratification.
As well as giving up on flight sims, I’ve never even written much here about those ones that I played back in my youth. I guess I never felt competent enough to give a properly informed overview. Furthermore, I have little knowledge of the modern state of the genre to give any sort of frame of reference for the oldies. Still, I thought I might free myself from the need to provide any sort of objective review, and share some of my experiences of playing them.
This trilogy of World War 2 sims ran from 1988 to 1991, and quickly looked very dated. The planes were sprites, and the ground was totally flat, without even the tetrahedron hills of the day. I mean, southern england isn’t exactly known for its rugged terrain but it’s not literally as flat as a snooker table.
Still, Their Finest Hour: The Battle Of Britain was I think quite well regarded at the time. It was also my first real flight sim, in fact it was one of the first major commercially released games of any sort that I played, on our family 386. This was where I learned the fundamentals of flight, along with basic skills for combat such as deflection shooting to hit a moving target. I spent many hours patriotically shooting down Messercshmits and Heinkels over the English Channel. Stukas were the easiest target – despite their fearsome reputation as dive bombers, they were fairly defenseless against fighter planes.
Even though two decades on the 5.25″ disks within are useless to me, I’ve still got the packaging, as it was real big-box luxury. For a start you had the extensive manual, which was obligatory for a sim. Also though there was a newsletter from Lucasarts, and the box art was an actual painting! It makes the later days of DVD-style cases look a bit sad.
Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe meanwhile was based around the American bombing campaigns over europe, but was primarily known for featuring a bunch of advanced Nazi warplanes. In reality these fighters only flew in limited numbers or in some cases never got off the drawing board, but if more had been built they could have devastated the allied air forces. There was certainly a thrill in gunning down Flying Fortresses in the world’s first operational fighter jet. Then maybe a feeling of slight moral confusion as you remember you’d just struck a blow for fascism.
I fired up the game briefly just to take this shot and was reminded just how much of your view is swallowed up by the cockpit instrumentation. Some other planes are even worse than the one shown here. Also I immediately recognised that heavy thump-thump-thump that means someone is firing heavy 20mm cannon.
As well as flying fighters, both of these games let you take control of medium and heavy bombers. That had a certain novelty, as you could take control of any of the defensive gun turrets – the B17 in Swotl had 6 of them. However, I never had a clue how to actually successfully bomb something. You’re at several kilometers up and this is well before the age of guided munitions. So you try and line up the target through some sort of primitive sighting device, open a hatch and then just let a few tons of munitions drop. Good luck with that!
The stable of flight sims from Microprose was once one of the mainstays of PC gaming. Looking back, I think they somehow struck an ideal balance between realism, and accessibility. They weren’t arcadey shoot-em-ups, and certainly felt authentic but also they weren’t ridiculously complicated or totally unforgiving. Or to put it another way, it was a good idea to read the 200 page manual, but you didn’t have to just to get off the ground. I wonder if that sort of midpoint still exists – if so, that’s the sort of sim I might return to one day.
I played a great deal of two of these. In F117 Stealth Fighter 2.0, I was creeping around the night skies bombing Libyan shoe factories. Or, er, hopefully something more military in nature. Stealth certainly played a major part in your operations, with gauges to show how close enemy radar was to spotting you, so you had to either pick your way around missile sites, or risk fighting your way past them. What I wasn’t doing much of was landing. I think I only ever managed a couple.
Also there was Gunship 2000, which was all about thundering around at 200 feet blowing up soviet tanks. It gave you wide range of American helicopters, although I never really saw the point in dinky little scouts and always took the heavily armed Apache Gunship. I also had to play with the controls set to easy mode, which basically means the “go forward or backwards” control doesn’t affect your altitude.
Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat
“It’s a great day for flying” said Chuck’s tinny digitised voice when you loaded this up. He would also chastise you for screwing up a mission. Nowadays Dosbox’s soundblaster emulation goes all screwy and badly distorts the speech clips, so instead he just mutters some kind of garbled demonic curse.
This sim’s main selling point, aside from the celebrity endorsement, was that it spanned the three major conflicts during which Yeager served. Each of these saw a new generation of fighter aircraft. First up you have the second world war, which was all about propellers and machine-guns. Next is Korea, one of the first major conflicts where jet engines were commonplace. Basically the “secret weapons” of world war 2 were now standard issue. So everything is going about 200mph faster. Then you have Vietnam, where the planes are even speedier, but also now carrying radar and guided missiles.
The game had plenty of historically based missions, but also a custom mission builder that let you freely mix up all the available aircraft from the three eras. So of course I’d gleefully, and rather unsportingly, go chasing second world war bombers with technology two decades more advanced.