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The Golden Age of Flight Simulations:

Where Have the Good Times Gone?

Andy Mills, 29 January 2013

Andy gets all misty and nostalgic looking back at flight sims of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Remember the good old days of flight simulation? I’m talking about pre-1996 – the year which served as the “Great Divide” between sims with modest graphics and those sporting CPU/GPU clogging, texture-mapped models. I know my memory has probably been clouded by nostalgia, but back then flight sims seemed to have so much more character and the genre was full of life and energy.

The Good ‘Ole Days

Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Microprose was a heavyweight contender in the flight sim market. Star designers, such as Andy Hollis, Sid Meier, and “Wild Bill” Stealey helped Microprose create hits like Gunship (and the follow-on Gunship 2000), F-15E Strike Eagle II/III, and F-19 Stealth Fighter (which spawned Night Hawk: F-117A Stealth Fighter 2.0). These sims came to epitomize the genre and established the benchmarks by which all other would be judged. Not to be outdone Spectrum Holobyte released the now classic Falcon 3, and Digital Integration unleashed Tornado (and later Tornado: Desert Storm) a strike fighter sim with excellent mission planning tools. Although these simulations had solid design features, the development of powerful CPU’s, along with early video accelerators, left the classics sporting dated graphics and few sound effects.

 

flight

Tornado was great for sim heads who loved flying low-level strike missions

 

Things Change

By 1993 discontent at Microprose had reached such a level that Hollis and Stealey decided they would venture out on their own. Origin, which had previous success in the sim market, was quick to forge an alliance with Hollis. This led to the creation of the Origin Skunkworks and a creative relationship with Jane’s Information Group. “Wild Bill” aligned his company, Interactive Magic, with the Digital Integration Team. A third and unexpected power player in the sim market was DID, a civil contracting company that created computer-based sims for the military. With a group of talented designers taking on new projects and more powerful PC hardware available to the average user, it seemed inevitable that older sims would be forgotten as they were replaced by more aesthetically pleasing and realistic products.

 

flight

Locking a Hellfire missile on a Russian T-80 in Jane’s AH-64D Longbow

 

The New Wave

As a wave of new simulations began to hit the market a strange thing happened. Flight sim BBS’s (remember those), web sites, and magazines greeted these products with a luke-warm reception. Fixed-wing sims from the Origin/Janes partnership, such as US Navy Fighters and Advanced Tactical fighters were praised for visual achievements, but criticized for oversimplified weapons systems and flight models. Interactive Magic also met with moderate praise upon the release of helicopter sims Apache and HIND, but wingman interactivity, bugs, and poor AI haunted both titles. DID’s EF 2000 was a visual masterpiece (for the time), but also suffered from a number of bugs and mediocre mission design. The only new sim to be received with a truly enthusiastic response was Jane’s AH-64D Longbow. The new wave of sims also had to compete against popular games, such as Quake, Diablo, and Civilization II. These games were easily accessible and a number of players appeared to prefer instant action over spending time learning more complex flight sims.

 

flight

Flying Nightmares II looked like it had a lot of potential, unfortunately it was never released

 

Friendly Fire

Flight sims are subject to intense scrutiny by players. Virtual pilots demand authenticity and like to regurgitate performance, armament, and variant specs from memory. So how do you please a bunch of gearheads who sleep with a copy of Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide by their beds? Good question. If a developer works hard to release a title and it gets torn apart by a vocal minority in web forums or print media, publishers may find first person shooters or real-time strategy as more attractive options. I strongly suspect that overly critical sim fans were one of the key factors responsible for the demise of the genre.

 

Saying Goodbye to the Good ‘Ole Days

Depth, not graphics, makes a great simulation. By the 1997 very few publishers were willing to devote the amount of resources required to create a quality flight sims with a dynamic campaign and solid flight modeling. Companies who planned to fight for market share and release some very ambitious titles met with varied success. EIDOS (which was formerly Domark) tried to develop a Flying Nightmares II which was going to incorporate Marine Corps strike aircraft in close coordination with ground troops. Unfortunately, EIDOS never finished the sim and it faded away into obscurity. DID did release F-22 Total Air War, which was one of the few successes during this time. A few gems surface between 1997 and 2000 such as Jane’s World War Two Fighters, F-15, F/A-18 and USAF, but the genre was clearly in decline.

 

flight

DID’s F-22 Total Air War was a great sim with lots of depth

 

Memories

Up until recently I maintained a DOS 6.22 PC just for playing my old flight sims. The graphics were dated, but this weakness was more than compensated for by the depth of gameplay. Current flight sims are by no means bad games, but good ones are few and far between. Flight sims are now niche products that may never see any type of mainstream resurgence among PC gamers. Will things pick-up in the future? Who knows? I’m just glad I was there to experience the “Golden Age” of flight sims.

 

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