Flight Simulators, Part 2

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

While the original “Flight Simulator” back on the Apple hardware sparked something of a revolution in computer gaming, it would take some time before this ever bore any really good fruit. The “simulation” genre didn’t even exist back in these early 1980s days (an article in the old Commodore magazine Compute! attests to this, when the writer says that “simulation” needs to be a new gaming genre!)

IMG_0190

An ASCII character-graphics “simulator”.

The woefully-inadequate hardware of the day even caused some valiant souls to try and program “simulators” in – get this – pure text and even ASCII character graphics. You can see one of these oddball simulators here, in the screenshot. The runway, due to the nature of the ASCII character graphics, goes upwards, instead of towards the horizon, and it ran at a clunky speed… but it did manage to roughly convey the sensation of landing.

Text Only Flight Simulator

Text-only “simulator” from an old book.

Contrast this with the “flight simulator” that I typed in (this was back in the era of where magazine subscriptions gave you the actual source code of games, for free, to type-in and play!), that attempted to represent flight in pure text. Printed over the course of eight pages in the book entitled “Replicating Reality: Exploring Computer Simulations” by one Tim Hartnell, this was a deeply-fascinating book in my childhood. It described what a simulation attempted to do, principles behind the mathematics and programming – and this was the coolest part that made my geeky mind all a-quiver – contained the source code for 18 full simulation games and programs!

The book contains much novel, and historical, interest. You can even (if you ever so wished) type in the full programs onto a C64 emulator and run them. But, they are very, very primitive. Hardly worth the time.

Never-the-less, I am making available a full, scanned-in PDF of the book here. Download and enjoy. =)

Attempting to land at Meigs Airfield, off the shore of Chicago.

Attempting to land at Meigs Airfield, off the shore of Chicago. The black line in the distance is the Willis Tower (formerly called the Sears Tower).

THE 1 FPS BEHEMOTH

The success of the first Flight Simulator on the Apple platform prompted, naturally, a sequel. Simply titled Flight Simulator II, it didn’t merely remain on the Apple hardware, but also was ported to IBM platforms, and even the ubiquitous Commodore 64.

Since the C64 was my platform of choice during this era, I quickly snatched-up a copy of this, and I had a sort of love-hate relationship with it.

This sucker took 2 minutes and 40 seconds to boot-up (this was literally the first message you saw upon loading it: Please wait 2:40). And once you were inside it, it creaked at a painfully-slow 1 FPS. Yes, you read that correctly: This flight simulator ran at 1 frame per second.

This was a gawd-awful frame rate, even during its time. The guy who ported the game to the C64 did the best he could, but he simply had to make some concessions for the poor C64: He made every single runway twice as wide, because it was actually harder to land the plane in this clunky “sim” than it was in real life. LOL

Despite these shortcomings, this was the most flexible and semi-realistic simulator of the era. It certainly was the one with the most depth, if nothing else.

Created, again, by Sublogic (helmed by Bruce Artwick), the simulator started a plethora of supplemental materials and expansions: Scenery disks started to cover the bulk of the United States with primitive airfields, white lines for major roads, wireframe cubes for major landmarks … and literally every single armchair pilot in the world knew where Meigs Airfield was located (it would be the default starting point of the Flight Simulator series for ages, up until the most recent version!)

For the first time in history, armchair pilots could navigate cross-country, using real-life navigation aids (such as VORs, NDBs, and major roads), and land at familiar airports.

I also bought two books that were chock-full of adventures for you to fly. I have uploaded both PDFs here: Compute’s Book of 40 Great Flight Simulator Adventures, and Compute’s Book of 40 More Great Flight Simulator Adventures.

For a 1 minute clip of some flight from this old clunker of a sim, click here.

NEXT: Why Frame Rate is more important than graphics…

Flight Simulators, Part 1

ROOTS

Even back when I was a wee tyke of single-digit age, I’ve had a deep fascination with aviation. I’d read endless books about it at the school library, build plastic models (rather poorly I must add). Naturally, since my entire life is so deeply rooted in computers: My fascination turned into actual learning once I got my hands on an actual PC flight simulator.

A lot of game types still hold actual merit, even if just barely a little, for today’s gamer. For example, playing old arcade games is certainly endless fun. Old text-based adventure games can be fun. This entire blog is dedicated to finding those old retro treasures and offer them up to try. Heck, the Internet Archive just hosted 2,000+ DOS games for you to try in your browser!

Flight simulators, though … don’t hold up so well. The reasons for this are rather simple: Simulating aviation is based on principles of mathematics (to simulate the physics) and graphical fidelity (to simulate the scenery necessary for visual navigation, or at the least to give high fidelity to the instruments). So, in these two respects: More modern simulators unquestionably put older retro simulators into their graves as dusty relics.

There are some exceptions, and I’ll be sure to highlight them – but those exceptions are rare.

DEFINITIONS

Before we start, some definitions have to be laid (These aren’t just definitions I’m inventing. In order for a simulator to qualify in the eyes of the FAA (the regulatory guys in aviation), these basic requirements must also be met. It should also be noted that while the majority of home-based simulators don’t always meet FAA regulations, the fans of said simulators still have some requirements in mind before they will deem a piece of software a “simulator”.)

Basically: A simulator is a machine with a similar set of controls designed to provide a realistic imitation of the operation of a vehicle, aircraft, or other complex system, possibly to be used for training purposes.

This is important to note: The controls must at least match-up with the systems in question, or all semblance of realism can just be ignored. In other words: If you are building a racing simulator, then at the very least a steering wheel and pedals are required. For a flight simulator, at the very least you need a stick, rudder pedals, and a throttle.

Yes, this means that any game which makes a claim at being a “simulator”, but then gives you mouse controls and a keyboard for your WWII airplane – that is NOT a simulator. No, it doesn’t matter that they are using the word – they are incorrect, and making false claims.

Viewpoints are also a requirement. For example, when piloting an aircraft, your vision is restricted to the inside of the cockpit – the back of many airplanes isn’t something you can easy view without mirrors. If the game you are playing makes a claim at being a “simulator”, and the only view is a 3rd person view, with the entire aircraft visible – that is NOT a simulator. Pilots do not have such a luxury. Having the option of such a view is fine, but a working interior cockpit view is a requirement.

Yes, this basically means that there wasn’t a real simulator to be found anywhere on home computers until the late 90s. lol

The biggest area, and often the most controversial at times, is the proper simulation of the environment outside of the primary thing being simulated (also called AI). For example, in a WWII simulator, it is important to have your wingmen act like actual wingmen.

Oh, and the final requirement: Documentation. A real simulator is a complex affair, and solid documentation is required to explain everything that is going on. At the very least charts are required that detail such things as cruise speeds, fuel consumption, N1 and N2 speeds, and more.

So, if that game you’re playing claims to be a simulator, but it violates the above: It’s just a game. =)

Another term, involving math, is fidelity. This is how accurately the simulator does things such as the flight models, simulated instruments, etc. In an interesting twist, some older flight sims actually still maintain a good fidelity even though they are MS-DOS based.

WHY FLY?
From the earliest pages of history, mankind has always been enamored with flight. We looked at these birds and insects flying about, and marveled at how they achieved such a thing. Fables and myths abound about people who master the ability of flight. From Icarus, and his waxen wings, to the real story of the Wright Brothers, the history of aviation has been one of challenge, beauty, death, and marvelous flying machines.

The history of flight simulation is much like the history of aviation: The first flight “simulators” were ponderous, barely-functional pieces of software – kinda like the first airplane the Wright brothers built.

Flight simulators, and games, allow anybody to experience flight – and also to attempt things in simulated aircraft that only an insane person would attempt.

EARLY ATTEMPTS

Flight_Simulator_1.0_short_animation.thumbThe first commercially-sold flight “simulator” was called, plainly enough, Flight Simulator, for the old Apple systems. A rather talented chap by the name of Bruce Artwick had earlier written an essay on how microcomputers could be used to simulate complex systems, and he used aviation as an example. People then wrote into the magazine saying they’d love to play the simulator he had described, so he sat down to program it.

This primitive chunk of code is hardly a simulator. lol It is, however, remarkable in showcasing what even the most underpowered of ancient computers can do with a talented person programming it. The first flight simulator featured a small visual area, with three airports, wireframe mountains, and the worst cockpit seen on any computing platform. lol Just trying to draw a circle was beyond the ability of programmers, and hardware, back in these days!

I did not have the pleasure of playing this thing, it was a bit before my time in gaming. There’s not much to really say about it either … it is a relic. Looking over the clunky thing in my Apple emulator, I was able to take off (the runways, like everything else, are just wireframe, and it hits about 1 FPS max) But I was able to climb into a standard flight pattern around the runway, and then make a semi-decent landing. So, in that simple regard: This was unquestionably a pioneering piece of software!

fifty_mission_crush_d7_2It did, however, spawn a number of other attempts, some of which I briefly saw on the Commodore 64. Some of these “simulators” actually used nothing more than text and basic graphical characters to represent the aircraft – one was called 50 Mission Crush, and had graphics even more primitive that the first Flight Simulator! It did manage to convey a good feel of trying to get your B-17 crew through all 50 mission successfully, and then get them sent home.

In fact, 50 Mission Crush represents the best of the old-era flight “simulators”: An emphasis on flavor more that actual real simulation meant for better gameplay. In the manual for it, as a matter of fact, they describe the game as an RPG – a more fitting description, though it also has been described as a turn-based strategy game.

A scan of the original “50 Mission Crush” manual can be found here, assembled by your ever-sick (but ever-faithful) writer in a spiffy PDF document. You can also play the actual game (sans saved files) via the new emulated classic games library over at the wonderful Internet Archive! Click here to open a page up and boot the game!

If you want to try your hand at the actual original game experience with the online version, do this:
– Note your original crew names on a piece of paper, and cross them off when they die. Write down new names as you go.
– Attempt to successfully do 50 full missions of the game, keeping as many crew alive as you can.
– Keep a running note of the score.

See, these were the flight games that stuck with my imagination the most back in these days: Attempts to grab the essence of flight, less so than the actual fidelity of flight.

As talked about in my previous article on The Dam Busters, the best games on the Commodore 64 were those that realized the severe limitations of the hardware, and worked within those limitations in creative ways. I’d have to say that 50 Mission Crush did this quite ably … but the game is still one heck of a clunker to play. I cannot even get the Commodore 64 version to work properly, because in order to make a save disk for the game you have to type in an obscure series of commands to properly format the diskette for the saves, and my emulator just prints back an error message to me. So, the C64 version seems to be out of the question. Luckily, the MS-DOS version works quite well – if with some graphical issues – and the Internet Archive has thankfully preserved the game for all to try.

More later…

Next post

I have an idea of what my next series of posts will be, and have started my first draft. =)

It’s going to be about flight simulation.

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