100 Years of Flight, 20 Years of Sims17 Dec 2003 0
December 17th marks the 100th anniversary of man's first flight into the air, led of course by the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Explaining how those 12 seconds over 120 feet would re-shape the world is largely unnecessary. Since The Wargamer is a gaming publication, we thought we might instead look back on the past 20 years of flight sims.
Although flight sims are actually a more than 20 years old, modern computer-based flight simming is largely thought to have begun with Flight Simulator 1.0 in 1982, released by what was then a small, unknown company called Microsoft. This first iteration of the civilian flight sim franchise, which continues on today, had its roots in the realities of flight: Flight Simulator 1.0's instrument panel was so accurate that it met FAA qualifications (and so would be born the storyline that terrorists could use them to train to fly into buildings). Run on what were some of the earliest home PCs, Flight Simulator 1.0 offered green-on-black graphics which presented actual first-person perspective motion, a substantial accomplishment for any computer or video game for its time. The Flight Simulator game is credited as being the first widely available flight sim, and its focus on detail and authentic flight would define the direction of the genre like no other game. Although arcade franchises would come and go, it was the serious flight sim franchises that would latch on to the true core of the flight sim fanbase.
Falcon Defines Hardcore
As home consoles rapidly gained popularity in the mid-80s, it drove not only the demand for console-based flight games, but also similarly themed PC/Apple platform games. Those years saw the rapid growth of the flight sim genre, but most of the games were arcade-oriented, ranging from the shoot-em 'up (Konami's Afterburner and Nintendo's Top Gun come to mind) to casual combat flight sims like the Jetfighter series. However, as the decade came to a close, the dedicated flight sim fans were treated to a set of classic sims: the Chuck Yeager series, Gunship!, and the Falcon series. While each of these serious sims contributed to the blossoming of flight sim genre in the 1990s, Falcon stands out as the classic game of that era. Its release established developer Spectrum Holobyte and publisher Microprose as serious contenders in the flight sim biz and its use of a massive manual and insane system requirements would shape the expectations of fans through the present day. Falcon AT, effectively the sequel which followed just one year after the original, is perhaps the game most remembered: it sported dramatic EVGA graphics and realistic flight sounds.
The during the rest of the '80s and into the early '90s, a series of popular and recognizable flight sims were released. Microsoft's Flight Simulator moved up to v3.0 and v4.0 with color graphics, Their Finest Hour was LucasArts and Lawrence Holland's entry into the flight sim genre (followed closely by the more famous Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe), Dynamix's World War I biplane classic Red Baron with its 3D graphics, the F-15: Strike Eagle and A-10 Tank Killer single-plane series, and Falcon 3.0 continued the legacy in 1991 with online multiplayer support.
The Jane's License
The first few years of the '90s saw dozens upon dozens of flight sims released, but for the most part, no major new franchises were developed. Computer hardware and flight sim oriented joysticks began taking on a more prominent role, and the rapid turnover of new titles set the stage for the rapid increase in popularity of the flight sim genre. In 1995, mega publisher Electronic Arts signed a licensing deal with a British civilian outfit specializing in military intelligence known as Jane's. EA's Jane's Combat Simulations series of games would produce a series of popular, mainstream games which bridged the gap between the hardcore and arcade flight sims of the previous ten years. The license was used to create a series of modern survey sims, which included Advanced Tactical Fighters, Longbow (a helo sim), Israeli Air Force, F/A-18, F-15, and US Air Force. Although none of the games were truly hardcore titles, their widespread appeal marked what was perhaps the height of the flight sim genre, offering attractive graphics, authentic information thanks to Jane's, and superb replay value with accessible multiplayer and mission editors. Although the game was supposedly quite popular, the Jane's legacy is probably best remembered for its cancellation in 2000, when EA dropped the brand to what it attributed as a high cost of development vis-a-vis niche sales results, signaling a different take on the flight sim genre in the 21st century.