Flight simulators are probably next only to adventure games as a genre of game that has been under-represented in the market. Unlike adventures, however, flight sims have never really had a heyday. In the early days of computers, adventures were THE genre. More than strategy games, more than role-playing games (RPGs), more even than the simple arcade games that were common in technology's early days, adventures were once the hottest thing in computer gaming, simply because of the joy of being able to explore a fantasy world in an intelligent way. (As opposed to an utterly mindless way, which is the RPG method.)
But flight sims have never been truly popular. Ever. Certainly there have always been people who played them, but they never achieved the mass popularity the other genres enjoyed, for one simple reason: They're too complicated for most people. The average "hard-core" (i.e. realistic) flight sim has literally dozens of keys to remember with associated functions, lots of HUD symbology and other avionics to learn, and gameplay that doesn't quite satisfy the pyro in people. (It's more fun to blow up something in a first-person shooter than to drop a bomb on it and barely be able to see the explosion through your plane's mirror.)
Yet flight sims offer an undeniable appeal for a special class of people: Those who enjoy learning new things. Because when you come right down to it, a flight sim is not a fantasy game about a fantasy land with fantasy characters in it. It's real, usually based on real-world aircraft, events, and laws of physics. And there is nothing else in life quite like guiding a heavier-than-air machine through the air and feeling it respond to your guidance. For some people, the thrill may be too costly in terms of time and effort, but for others, it's unique and special.
The world has seen many flight sims come and go throughout the years. Many have been quickly forgotten. But many stuck out in people's minds because they were notable for some reason or other. This page is an attempt to compile a list of the most noteworthy flight sims of days gone by. As it stands, I believe it is fairly complete (the list of such sims is small enough that one person can list them alone), but if there is a sim which is more than 2 or 3 years old which you feel I have missed here that deserves inclusion, let me know.
The list is in alphabetical order.
(If you want a list of just about every flight sim ever made, good, bad, or otherwise, you would do well to check out MiGMan's excellent flight sim museum. It's part of MiGMan's Combat Diary, at http://www.migman.com.)
In the mid-90s, MicroProse was riding high. Long a leader in the field of PC flight simulators, the company was bought out by Spectrum Holobyte, another major name in the computer game industry. It was said MicroProse was entering an era of a "new MicroProse", one which would produce even better games. They also started branching out into adventure games, producing "Rex Nebular And The Cosmic Gender Bender", "Dragonsphere", and "Return Of The Phantom", all of which were excellent and received with praise. It was around this same time that 1942: The Pacific Air War was released, following the success of the excellent Fleet Defender. It was to be their last flight sim before their sudden collapse following the misguided and disastrous buyout of MicroProse by Hasbro.
One of the first games which let two people play against each other in real time over a modem connection. In a sense, it was a pioneering product. In truth, the flight model and lack of much scenery meant it wasn't good for much more than a few minutes of fun. (And that counts on you defining "fun" rather loosely.)
The only major simulation of the low-flying, hard-hitting "Warthog", until Activision's A-10 Cuba. The A-10 doesn't dogfight worth a darn but it sure can hammer ground targets, loaded to the teeth with bombs and its famous cannon which fires milk-bottle-sized bullets.
Following the success of Red Baron, still remembered as one of the best World War I flight simulators, Dynamix followed up with Aces Of The Pacific, which, in my humble opinion, is still the best WWII flight sim. It had a pretty huge stable of planes you could fly, various different types of missions, a broad game world to fly over, and computer enemies that could be both very good (for experienced pilots or someone who wanted a challenge) and very bad (for beginners or anybody who didn't). After AOTP became a big hit, Dynamix did what came naturally and followed up with Aces Over Europe, the European counterpart to AOTP. AOE was just as good.
Totally unique in that it simulated all eras of air combat from the beginning to the present (meaning you could pit a German Fokker triplane against an F-16 or something similar), Air Duel nonetheless suffered because of its absurdly simplistic flight model. It was obviously meant to be a "light" game for a few minutes of fun, which it succeeded at being.
How many games let you fly a bomber? This was the first. It sucked, but it was still the first. As you might guess, flying a bomber just isn't that much fun; It's a slow, un-maneuverable, big plane. However, MicroProse lent their magic touch to this definitive game, and it ends up being at least good for several minutes of play, if not several hours (as a really playable sim would be). B-17 Flying Fortress emphasizes teamwork between the individual members of the crew, and lets you take on any of their roles at any time. The result is a sim with more diversity than you'd expect, as you can man any of the gunner's positions (probably the most fun part of the game), the actual bombardier's (line up the target and hit the bomb drop switch when the light turns on), and of course the pilot's (or co-pilot's). It's an unusual game that's well-executed, but even the best execution can't make a highly entertaining game out of a concept this limited.
BoP may well have more planes available to fly than any other major sim. It also may well have the most styles of play, as you have several types of missions to choose from, including things not usually put into a sim, like reconnaisance. Too bad it still sucks. The keyboard controls seem to have been designed to encourage joystick sales (to the point where one suspects EA was planning on selling joysticks at one time). And the flight model, always the centerpiece of any sim, is mediocre at best. BoP stands out as a sincere effort to be everything to everyone, but it ultimately failed at being anything at all.
One of very few realistic shareware flight sims, Black Knight is a very good (if somewhat lacking in innovation) sim of the F/A-18.
Another case of a unique concept marred by poor execution, Blue Angels let you fly in an airshow, doing stunts with your fellow pilots. While this is not something I've seen simulated anywhere else, the flight model is so obviously hokey that it's almost not even funny. Still, Blue Angels *is* worth playing just because there's nothing like it.
Although it was not really remarkable in any way, CYAC succeeded at something very important: Being a good, solid all-around sim. It did not have any special features which made it stand out, but unlike other games which try to simulate just one plane or one aspect of flight, CYAC was amazingly well-rounded, featuring a solid manual with all the basic information a pilot needs to learn how to fly and dogfight. It had several historical missions spanning three eras (World War II, Korea, and Vietnam). For each era, you could fly two planes: One for the good guys, and one for the bad guys. (For example, the Vietnam era lets you take the F-4 Phantom (the good guys' plane) or the MiG-21 Fishbed (the bad guys')). Because it is so thorough and the learning curve so gentle, CYAC makes an ideal beginner's sim. If you've never played a flight sim before in your life, this may be the best to start with.
Comanche was the game that made helicopters cool. Its style set what would become the norm for NovaLogic: Stunning, ahead-of-the-state-of-the-art graphics, coupled with reduced realism. (The original Comanche game had a collective that worked like an elevator: Instead of controlling your rise or descent, it would just move you to a higher or lower altitude and keep you there.)
The only major shareware flight simulator. This alone makes Corncob a remarkable and unique program. But Corncob is also notable for its unusually realistic flight model. This was the game which taught me that you do not turn with the rudder, as is popularly supposed; If you try to, the plane will simply yaw sideways, but continue flying in the same direction. For example, if you're heading north and use the rudder to snap your plane to the right so it's heading east, you will still continue going north... You'll just be facing east. At a time when most flight sims used simple "the plane flies wherever the nose is pointed" models, Corncob's model actually allowed for the plane to skid sideways through the air. Impressive, as it shows an attention to realism that was lacking in most sims.
Quite possibly the very first flight sim ever (certainly the first major one) to make plot a major element of a flight sim. It should be noted, though, that Crimson Skies is an "alternate reality" historical sim which takes place in a history that has been somewhat altered. Purists will be turned off.
The sequel to F-19 Stealth Fighter basically feels like an updated version. It's got 256-color VGA graphics, sound card support, and slightly revamped flight mechanics. Otherwise, it's practically the same game.
A popular and long-standing MicroProse line of three games, each one an amazingly huge improvement over the last. These games stand as the definitive sims of the F-15 (at least until Jane's F-15 was released).
Possibly one of the most famous and popular flight sims ever made. The F-19 (which in real life later became the F-117) was the original stealth plane, and this game came out before the "stealth fighter" had become entrenched in the public knowledge. Still, it was popular simply because it approached military flight simming from a whole new angle: Instead of going up and being shot at, the point here was to avoid being shot at by sliding past radar detection. In this way, it's a more strategic sim than most: The point isn't to go out with your guns blazing, it's to plan the best way to get in and out without being seen. Oddly enough, to this day, the concept has not been imitated by any other major sims (save for F-19's sequel, F-117 Nighthawk). A minor notable point on F-19 Stealth Fighter is that it was one of the first sims to make serious mention of the "angle of attack" (AoA), the angle between where your plane is flying and where the nose is pointed. It explained the concept in the manual, including why it matters, and the game even has separate HUD indicators for where your nose is pointed and where your plane is actually flying to.
The first flight simulator of many computing old-timers, F/A-18 Interceptor was bundled with many Amiga 500s. Although it wasn't too incredible, it was a good solid game, and certainly one of the best sims to have been produced in its primitive time. (It also seems to have inspired much of Jetfighter II.)
To this day, Falcon 3.0 may well be the most revered and remembered flight sim ever made. Since it first showed up in 1991, it has earned huge praise from just about everybody who's ever played it. Except for me. For many years after I first played it, I roundly criticized the game for its utter lack of any form of play value. When I opened the throttle to full for takeoff (as you are supposed to do), my plane always blew up on the runway. What kind of sim is that? I had to take off at about half-throttle, and once in the air, things didn't get any better. There is no word in the English language to summarize how thoroughly emetic the flight model was. I dismissed the game as over-hyped garbage, until years later when I came up with a pet theory that perhaps it had something to do with running the game on too fast a computer. I pulled out an old 486, tried Falcon 3.0 on it, and my theory was immediately vindicated. Falcon 3.0 does, indeed, run like garbage on Pentium-class computers, but it is a treat on 486s. If you have one, I would encourage you to try it.
Some years after MicroProse got bought out by Spectrum Holobyte and the two companies essentially merged, the "new MicroProse" released the follow-up to one of the most respected flight sims ever made. Falcon 4.0 did not receive as much hype or acclaim (either critical or public) as Falcon 3.0, but it was a pretty darn good sim in its own right.
Click here for my Falcon 4.0 tutorial
Still one of my favorite flight simulators ever created, and possibly the best as well. Fleet Defender simulates the F-14 Tomcat, a somewhat misunderstood aircraft, partly thanks to its role at the front of the definitive movie about fighter pilots, "Top Gun". Contrary to what you saw in the movie, the F-14 is not a dogfighter; It's an interceptor. It is a plane quite unlike any other, and Fleet Defender captures it in all its oddities and nuances. This game also does a good job of capturing the feel of operating from an aircraft carrier, and the special problems associated with being surrounded by nothing but ocean for 300 miles all around. It's not a glorious dogfighting sim, it's more of a strategic planning sim. As such, it may turn off fighter jocks who just want to go up and shoot something; For serious pilots, though, it is an experience not to be missed.
This is the only open-source flight sim project I know of. It's been around for a while already, and it's taking shape rather nicely. The official homepage is at www.flightgear.org
The only game I've ever played which lets you fly the A-6 Intruder. FOTI also came with an excellent, epic manual which was actually a whole lot better than the game itself.
If you're a flight enthusiast, but you also happen to be one of those people who loves creating things, FST is a dream come true for you. It lets you create your own world (in which you can terraform the terrain and add scenery items), objects (mostly scenery), and aircraft (including aspects like wing shape and engine type). Then, when you're done, it lets you fly your plane in that world, of course. Although FST is a pretty good product, it has one horribly annoying trait that makes it aggravating to an extreme: Although all the design tools are Windows programs, the flight simulator itself requires pure DOS mode, meaning you have to keep kicking back and forth between DOS and Windows as you're playtesting your work.
It came out at around the same time as Comanche: Maximum Overkill, and the two ended up being the primary helo sims of the mid-1990s. Gunship 2000 was the "realistic" one.
Easily one of the best flight simulations ever made, F/A-18 is not for those who want a game they can quickly jump into. Filled with more buttons, switches, and other controls than any flight sim I've ever seen, it nonetheless rewards the player patient enough to learn what everything does. The Hornet is a fine plane, and when you learn how to handle it, you'll have a blast with it.
Click here for my Jane's F/A-18 tutorial
Another sim which isn't actually notable for any one reason, but just as an overall package. There are few games which quite capture the nifty feeling of going up, locking up a target, and knocking it down with an AMRAAM the way Jetfighter II does.
Notable as the only semi-famous all-text flight simulator. JETSET is a simulation of flying a Boeing 747 from Philadelphia International Airport to your choice of 10 other cities in the American Northeast (6 of which you can actually land at).
JETSET is available in several places online, but there seems to be a notable lack of documentation for it. I was lucky enough to happen to download it from a BBS that included a lengthy doc file with the program, which appeared to have been lovingly hand-typed by someone. Since I haven't found this documentation anywhere else online, you can get the ZIP containing the program and documentation here, or just the doc file.
The only major sim of the B-52 Flying Fortress. Too bad it's not that great. Megafortress has the same fundamental flaw that B-17 Flying Fortress did: It's a sim of a bomber. The gameplay is monotonous and there's really not much room for any kind of creativity or skill when your plane turns about 10 times as slowly as any other in the area. Still, Megafortress is fun to play once. Just don't play it twice.
Probably the first flight sim available for the PC. FS is the longest-running flight simulator series ever, and certainly a pioneer in the field of civilian aviation, amidst an industry concerned almost exclusively with military aviation.
The Korean war has been curiously under-represented in computer flight sims. Only a handful of games have attempted to simulate it, and most of them were forgettable. (Chuck Yeager's Air Combat did it, but it was only a third of that game's focus.) Mig Alley is the Korean war game that the flight sim world has been desperately needing. Everybody who's played it seems to love it, and with good reason: Mig Alley is indeed a great sim, with plenty of attention to detail and enough realism to satisfy anybody (and to turn off those who just want to shoot down the bad guys with a minimum of fuss). The Korean war was a unique era for air combat: For the first time, pilots were flying jet-powered planes, but it was also the last war fought before the advent of smart missiles, meaning guns were still the only way to shoot down your opponent. The result was some of the most fast-paced dogfighting ever, the likes of which were never seen before and probably never will be again now that dogfights are usually fought at distances of 30 miles using AMRAAMs. Mig Alley is a difficult game. A very, very difficult game, and even ace armchair pilots will find it so. If you want a challenge, you've got it here.
The definitive World War I flight sim, even though some better games did come out after it.
A trilogy of helicopter sims which, in my opinion, have always been wildly under-exposed in the gaming world. They are singularly unique, being, to my knowledge, the only dedicated commercial simulations of non-combat helicopter operations. In SAR, you'll be making pickups and dropoffs of people and other objects, dropping fire-retardant chemicals on wildfires, and performing aerial photography. The focus is on the helicopter flight model, and not on destroying things, an absolutely refreshing change. Although InterActive Vision is a relatively small, independant developer and as such the SAR games are not quite up to the graphical level of bigger-budget games, they are the only "real" helicopter sims I have ever played that weren't in a military setting. They are hard to find; The best way to get them may be to order them from Global Star Software's website.
Although it may seem like just another WWII flight sim at first, SWOTL had a few interesting innovations that made it a notable mid-90s game. Among these was the use of bitmapped aircraft graphics, which made the planes look a little nicer but also led to the "cut-out" effect which means that each plane is basically just a static graphic sliding around on the screen, instead of a real 3-D polygonal object. SWOTL also had a strong historical focus, as each mission came with historical background on the mission you were about to undertake. Finally, as the name suggests, instead of being a general-purpose WWII sim, SWOTL concentrated on the secret weapons which the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) used during the war, from the legendary Me-262 (the world's first jet-powered fighter plane to actually see combat operation) to the unusual (but remarkably effective) Jagdfaust weapon.
SWOTL is actually the spiritual successor to two earlier Lucasfilm/LucasArts sims, Battlehawks 1942 and Their Finest Hour: The Battle Of Britain. These two were companion sims, the first simulating the Pacific side of the war and the second taking place over the European front. Other than their theatre, there was very little difference between them. Although they were pioneering flight sims for their time and many people remember them fondly, I personally found them both to be rather primitive; Their flight models are definitely questionable, and they lack slowdown routines for today's computers. They were pretty much state-of-the-art for their time, but in my mind they lack the endurance of truly classic sims, which by definition never go out of style. They earn an honorable mention, however, and hold a prominent place in the history of pre-VGA computer flight simulations.
A simulation of a mail plane, believe it or not. As you might guess, most of the game focuses on navigation. Although unique, the game still sucked because of horrible graphics and flight modelling.
If you've ever played Wing Commander (one of the most respected series of computer games ever), you know what it's famous for: The story. There are plenty of space-combat simulators out there, but what makes Wing Commander famous is the cinematic plot line that develops between each mission. Strike Commander, from Chris Roberts (the same guy responsible for Wing Commander), is the same idea, except it's a flight sim instead of an outer-space one. As you might expect, it doesn't have a world-class flight model (although it's actually pretty good, good enough that even hard-core pilots should enjoy it). What really makes it draw you in is the storyline, about a band of mercenary pilots trying to make a living in a futuristic, war-torn world.
Stunt Island was (is) a totally unique concept in flight sims. In short, you are a stunt pilot hired to perform aerial stunts for movie scenes. Once you have finished, you can have some fun editing the film footage and making your own little action movie. Although this concept sounds like a lot of fun, Stunt Island is a little dull because it doesn't have enough stunts to perform. Even worse (and a game-killing flaw, in my opinion) is a weird bug which makes the flight pitch controls seem to fail on some missions. On most of the missions, you can't move the nose of the plane up or down, which means the plane is basically uncontrollable. (Well, you can still roll, but you can't pull up.) I'm not sure if other people have experienced this problem, but my guess is they haven't, because otherwise they wouldn't rave about it so much. Oh well.
A simulation of the F-22, F-117A, and Eurofighter 2000. This combination of planes alone makes TFX notable. TFX was one of those "new breed" flight sims which hoped to make itself cutting-edge with fancy graphics and ultra-modern planes. It actually succeeded somewhat. TFX is indeed a good sim, but a quirky one. The flight model feels weird, and some aspects are unpolished. As a fun flying game, it works, but it doesn't quite work as a serious sim. (Ironic, considering the ads for it ran under the heading "NO MORE GAMES", implying that TFX *was* a serious sim and not a game.)
More than any other flight sim on this page, Tornado does not stand out because of any one feature, setting, or aircraft. It is true that the Tornado (a British aircraft available in two variants, the Interdictor Strike (IDS) and Air Defense Variant (ADV)) is not a particularly commonly-simulated plane in computer sims; However, this is not what makes the game really stand out. Rather, it is notable simply because it is so incredibly solid. More than any other flight sim that I can remember playing, Tornado seems, to my mind, to be undeserving of the title "game". It is not a program you can get into quickly. It is not the kind of flight sim where you can just start blowing all kinds of stuff up. And it has an unusual number of controls and avionics to learn, even by flight sim standards. If, after reading that, you are now planning to stay as far away from Tornado as possible, you should not play it. But if, instead, your reaction is the opposite; That is, if you are intrigued and think you would actually like to play it, then that is probably the case. I would venture to say that in terms of flight avionics, Tornado is the most solid flight sim of the mid-90s. (I was originally tempted to simply call it the best sim of that era, but I really think that Fleet Defender is more deserving of that title.) Since Tornado can be a tough game to figure out, I've put up the README file from the demo, as well as some kind of conceptual layout for the game which describes some of it concepts.
There are combat flight sims, which constitute the majority of flight simulations, and there are everyday civilian flight sims, which occupy a comparatively small but significant portion of the market, and then there's Xtreme Air Racing (XAR), which simulates air racing, an aspect of flight I've seen taken on by no other game. This alone would make this game notable, but the fact that the flight model of XAR is among the most detailed I've seen in any civilian sim makes this a seriously underrated game that disappeared amazingly efficiently, almost as if it had never existed. I was so baffled and dismayed by the extinction of this game that I felt compelled to make my own section for it.
Click here for my Xtreme Air Racing section
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