Friday, April 17, 2020

Game 174: Flight Simulator

Boy, am I the wrong one to review this game, if you can even call it one.

The only “serious” flight simulator I’ve ever played before in my life was on some demo diskette for the black & white Macintosh, and I couldn’t even figure out how to take off from the runway. I don’t know my rudders from my ailerons, I have no idea what a tachometer is, and I’m not even completely sure what I’m supposed to do with my own car’s RPM indicator. And the manual seems to suggest that this game was designed by pilots, for pilots, and recommends reading a real-life flight manual before playing.

So, yeah, completely out of my comfort zone here.

Read a more in-depth history of Flight Simulator here:

The full title is “A2-FS1 Flight Simulator with British Ace 3D – Aerial Battle,” and was released by subLOGIC in January 1980. Like most Apple II games of the time, it was distributed on cassette tape and only used 16KB of RAM. Unlike most Apple II games of the time, it used assembly language, rather than the more commonly used BASIC. A later, 32KB revision on floppy disk implemented additional features, and was simply called “Flight Simulator.”

This game is not directly related to the Microsoft Flight Simulator series. The first game in that long running series is based on subLOGIC's later Flight Simulator II, rather than either version of this first title.

For this entry, I am playing the original cassette game. For those of you who want to do the same, and are using the tape image from BrutalDeluxe in MAME, I’d tell you to read the manual for tape loading instructions, but anyone trying to play this without the manual is going to be hopelessly lost anyway. But there is one critical thing not mentioned in the manual – make sure you allow the tape to play for at least 15 seconds before entering the load command. Type it out, start playing the cassette, wait 15 seconds (but no more than 23), and then press enter.

This kept happening until I figured the timing out

This is normal

Simception! A flight simulator within an Apple II simulator.

The 37-page manual begins with an introduction to the concept of a flight simulator. The term and concept were nothing new even in 1980, but those available to civilians lacked graphics and weren’t terribly exciting or useful for training pilots. Military grade flight simulators were the best and most complete, but ran on custom-built computers and cost millions of dollars.

SubLOGIC’s Flight Simulator may be the first of its kind; a fully graphical flight sim that ran on a mainstream consumer-grade microcomputer. Mobygames has no earlier examples that are quite comparable. Among its features, most of them standard in the genre, include:
  • Realtime 3D graphics (at a 3.5fps average, which even the manual admits is inadequate for convincing flight simulation)
  • A complex physics model, which simulates 23 different aircraft characteristics
  • Extensive flight controls
  • 18 VFR instruments
  • Radar
  • A combat simulator mode

The introduction also notes that even though FS1 is best-in-class, microcomputer flight simulators have a long ways to go, and (correctly) predicts “astounding” improvements over the next few years. FS1 simulates only one aircraft; the Sopwith Camel, famously used in WWI, for the relative ease in modelling an early and somewhat primitive mass-produced vehicle, and for its physical similarity to then-modern civilian light aircraft.

The 37-page manual summarized the controls, and interestingly, recommended keyboard controls despite offering joystick and paddle support (and noted that the superiority of keyboard controls ran contrary to their own expectations that joysticks and paddles would be an improvement). The most crucial keys are TFGHVB. FGH are used to control plane roll with a linked rudder and ailerons, and TVB are used to control pitch by activating elevators. Arrow keys – which on the Apple II keyboard only come in left and right – are used to adjust throttle.

There were a lot of notes aimed at non-pilots, such as pointing out that banked airplanes do not stop turning when the controls are centered as with automobiles, and must roll in the opposite direction to negate a turn. Or that down on the keyboard means up and up on the keyboard means down. But it still seemed to leave out a lot of basic flight instruction. For instance, it showed me how to read the oil pressure and temperature – it’s 40 PSI and 132F in the above screenshot, but is that good? And what do I do with a tachometer readout?

The manual also details the game world, a 36 square mile field, without very much in it.

Throughout the manual, there’s also quite a bit of unnecessary detail about the software and its design. There are a lot of frank, almost apologetic notes on the engine limitations (my favorite – landing gear does nothing at all to the plane, but will toggle on/off detailed ground imagery for better framerate), and a completely unnecessary program flow diagram.

You’re welcome.

The manual describes techniques for liftoff, glides, turns, and landing, but none felt adequately explained. For instance, to glide, do we cut the throttle or not? It says that decreasing throttle will drop the nose too far, but does that mean you shouldn't decrease throttle, or does it mean you can, but have to raise the nose with the elevators to compensate? Amusingly, in one section it notes that the wings tend to break off if you exceed 150MPH, but will be repaired if you get the speed down to a reasonable level, or if you crash.

Flight Simulator also has a “British Ace” mode, which pits you against five German fighters of differing aircraft and pilot skill, with the goal of bombing the fuel depot, shooting down as many fighters as possible, and presumably returning home alive. The fighters appear as dots, though, regardless of range, and your guns aren’t aimed, but simply have a probabilistic chance of hitting, based on range and orientation, and the fire button must be rapidly tapped to fire multiple bullets. Radar will roughly indicate enemy positions, and has lights to indicate when you are being fired on and/or hit.

To become an “Ace,” you must score 20 points. You receive 1 point per fighter kill, and a maximum of three points for a successful bombing. Landing the aircraft at your base respawns the fighters and rearms your bomb, meaning you must perform at least three successful missions to become an ace.

With the manual reviewed, I reloaded the game and tried to see if I could log some flight hours.

Starting, off, that mess of lines is not a good sign. We’re in the hangar of an airbase, but you wouldn’t know it from these graphics, and I almost immediately veered off course having no clue where the runway was.

The manual shows the hangar layout:

We’re in the “storage” unit, facing west, parallel to the runway to the north.

You’re supposed to turn around, steer toward the taxiway, and then turn left onto the runway, but this is no picnic.

Turned around, but where the heck am I?

Starting to look like runway

Made it!

Lifting off at this point is pretty easy. Throttle up, and increase the elevator a notch or two once you hit top speed.

Then, raise the landing gear. This doesn’t actually change the plane’s aerodynamics, but it will change the scenery, losing the landing strip, and gaining some mountains.

From here, I had a lot of trouble divining just how to control the plane. It seemed to stay steady as long as I didn’t touch the throttle or elevators, and I could make some wide air turns, but my attempts to control the height and speed mostly failed. Re-reading the manual wasn’t a whole lot of help.

After takeoff with full throttle and a notch or two of up elevators, the plane should be in a steady climb. You can increase your rate of climb by increasing the throttle setting while holding a constant airspeed with the elevators.

No, I can’t increase my rate of climb by increasing the throttle setting, because it’s already at full throttle!

I could make turns without losing too much stability, but couldn’t make them accurately. To enter a turn, you must roll in the direction you wish to turn, and then stabilize your rudder once you begin turning. But to stop turning, you must roll in the opposite direction of your turn, wait until your trajectory straightens out, and then stabilize your rudder once again. With the limited 3D view and lack of any sort of terrain map, you just can’t get a good bearing or much sense of your surroundings. Instruments give you a precise read of your heading, and I didn’t find it too difficult to orient my plane in a particular compass direction, but aligning myself with the runway - an important thing for landing - proved nearly impossible.

Not exactly aligned with the runway

So to land, I’d have to frantically re-adjust in an S-curve pattern. Roll left until heading almost 45 degrees, then roll right to straighten, and center the rudder. Then after getting a bit closer, roll right until heading almost 90 degrees again, roll left to straighten, and pray that I'd come out of that turn aligned with the runway. If that even worked, I’d be that much closer the runway and totally unprepared to make a smooth descent and landing.

Not that I had any clue how to do that anyway. The manual describes the process, but not in nearly enough detail. For instance, it says to fly the plane a foot or two above the runway surface. The altimeter isn’t that precise, and I’ve never been able to keep the plane’s altitude so steady except when it’s already on the ground. Then it says to glide toward it steeply at 70mph. How? Pointing the nose down certainly steepens the angle of descent, but also tends to send the plane screaming toward the earth at over 100mph, even with the throttle completely cut.

In any event, FS1 doesn’t recognize crash landings. Fling the plane at the ground, and it will just come to an instant stop and immediately straighten itself. I managed to land the plane on the runway once, but I’m certain it was at an unsafe speed and angle. FS1 didn’t care, and my plane was perfectly functional once I centered the controls.

Here’s footage of such an attempt, from takeoff to landing. There's several minutes of not much happening, but landing procedure starts at 5:45, and final descent starts at 8:40.

The other part of the game is dogfighting, and here things get so much worse. At any time, you can press ‘W’ to declare war, and then five German planes will scramble from the enemy airbase.

Those dots near the X are planes. The dot on the right is a fuel depot.

The manual says you fire your machine gun by rapidly tapping space, but I never got any kind of feedback from the game to indicate I was firing anything, let alone hitting anything. I also could never figure out how to keep targets in my sights. For one, I had had little idea what direction the little dots were facing. If they weren’t moving laterally, then I had no idea if I was on their tail, or if they were coming at me head-on. And if they were moving laterally, then I had really no chance of keeping them onscreen. Once a fighter shook me, they’d often be on my tail, and have little trouble staying on it.

The radar does, at least, tell you when you’re being shot at, and the manual says to take evasive action when this happens, but this did me no good. It said, for example, to use a power dive to evade an Albatross, and a quick turn to evade a Hansa-Brandenburg. And just how, exactly, am I supposed to tell what types of planes these grey pixels represent? Then there’s the Fokker D VII, described only as a “super fighter,” with no further details or suggestions on how to engage.

Getting shot down won’t kill you, but will ground your plane, as your throttle won’t work, and all you can do is rotate in place. There’s no way to quickly reset the game either; you’ve got to restart the computer and reload FS1 from the tape. I pity the players who had to deal with real hardware back in 1980, who not only had to do all that, but had to rewind the tape too.

Here's footage of a very failed combat attempt, beginning right at the moment where I declare war, and ending on the ground behind enemy lines.

I really want to rate this game Bad. There are just so many limitations; the graphics are so poor that you often have no idea what you are looking at, there are no good navigation tools, the low resolution flight panel altimeter and speedometer are imprecise and would have been more useful if they were simple text readouts, the vertical velocity readout caps at -999 feet/min even though it's easy to descend much faster than that, there’s no obvious distinction between a normal landing and a crash landing, and the manual just doesn’t do an adequate job of showing how to control the plane, or of explaining why it behaves in certain ways.

But I never really figured out how to control the plane, and isn’t control among the most fundamental aspects of appreciating a game? Perhaps the intended audience, who had a stronger interest in aviation, would have come to grips with the controls more easily than I did, and perhaps they would have gotten enjoyment in spite of all the limitations. Or maybe they would have found it bad anyway.

GAB rating: N/A. As I’m not part of the intended audience, and I never really grasped FS1, I think I must decline to rate it.

There were later revisions which added some much-needed features, such as disk-loading, an overhead view for improved navigation, a comic strip-style CRASH balloon to indicate when your plane has crashed, a precise low-altitude altimeter, and a soft reset button. As I tend to favor original versions when possible, I haven’t played any of these revisions, but it’s worth noting that they exist.


  1. Ah yes, the Sopwith Camel, noted easy plane to fly.

    It was very difficult for rookie pilots to fly the thing, though experienced aviators racked up more kills with the Camel than any other World War I aircraft.

    The inclusion of radar is not quite correct either, but I can't fault SubLogic's attempt here. It looks like they tried to fit a bit too much into the software (did we need the combat sim?) but this looks competent at a technical level, if a bit optimistic.

  2. We used to play Fight Simulator just to crash as spectacularly as possible.

    Guess we had a low threshold for entertainment, because we also spent hours seeing how far we could dive in Spectrum Holobyte's Gato Sub Simulator before we imploded...

  3. As someone who does do serious flight simming as hobby (I can start up a fully systems simulated 737 from cold, do a flight plan and fly it all the way to the final destination gate using proper by-the-book procedures), I can say that you don't have to feel bad about your conclusions about this game/simulator. It's extremely notable for being a first, but sometimes being a first isn't a good thing. The hardware just wasn't really there yet.

    It's an impressive technical achievement, but not a good or satisfying simulation.

    There are brave attempts, but it won't be until the 16 bit era that we get satisfactory non-arcade flight simulators on home hardware.

    1. I'd be very interested in reading an in-depth analysis of this game from someone that actually understands airplanes. There's not a lot out there about it.

      Flight Simulator II runs on the Apple II+ (hardware-wise practically identical to the Apple II but with more RAM), and looks a million times better, but the frame rate is even worse! Don't know how it plays - this one isn't on the agenda - but Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0 is based on it, and has a pretty playable frame rate at least in DOSBox. No idea how fast it ran on 1982-era PC's.

    2. I'm not sure how much I have to add to this. I have tried this game before out of curiosity. The simulation is extremely basic, the flight model doesn't really have fidelity to simulate any particular aeroplane. It's the bare minimum idealized model of flight. And of course the low framerate doesn't help matters any.

      From the manual, statements like "If you can rationalize a tricycle-geared, good handling Sopwith Camel with a radar screen" are hilarious. Only reason to even mention the Camel is the war mode. Otherwise they could have just said it's a basic Cessna and it would have been just as (in)accurate without having to do logical contortions by describing it as a plane that is completely unlike the plane they describe it as. At least Cessnas actually do come with tricycle gears (unlike the Camel or Supercub) and benign flight handling (unlike the Camel). But as I said, the flight model doesn't really correspond to anything but the basic rudimentary ideal of a light general aviation plane.

      Overall there just isn't enough there to really even critique it. You can recognize it is 'flying' and not faux arcade facsimile but that's about it.

      The manual is more or less correct in all its descriptions of flight maneuvers, but not really written in a way to teach them. Basically, if you can understand the barebones way the principles are talked about in the manual, you don't need the manual. No other passage is truer that this near the end: "The descriptions given for how to fly the FS1 are by no means complete. A good student flight manual should be consulted for detailed instructions on flight techniques." So I am not at all surprised by your confusion expressed in the article.

      (For the record, to glide and descend controllably you do indeed reduce throttle which causes your nose to drop down and you compensate for that by pulling back on the stick. Ideally you keep your airspeed steady by varying the back pressure on the stick and use the throttle to control the rate of descent. This is very unintuitive because it seems backwards (altitude with throttle, speed with pitch) from how you should control these things, but it's the natural result of the interplay between thrust, your plane's attitude and the amount of lift it generates in that state.)

      As for IBM PCs, the only IBM PC in 1982 was the original IBM PC (released Aug 1981), so it ran on 4.77MHz 8088. Hobbled by an 8-bit data bus, it took two memory accesses per instruction and most data read/writes. Effectively, it wasn't really any faster than the 1 MHz 6802 in Apple II. Original IBM CGA was also extremely slow graphics card. I doubt that MSFS 1.0 ran much, if any, faster on 1982 hardware. Of course that did improve as time went by and faster IBMs and clones came to market.

      The flight model in MSFS 1.0 is still very simple, but definitely improved. The instrument panel is greatly improved. It now has the "full" set of instruments of decently advanced general aviation plane, including radio navigation and ILS landing aids for the field. This same instrument panel lived on through FS 5.0 with just graphical upgrades. And 1.0 of course finally had real world scenery set around Meigs Field, Chicago. (I was greatly saddened when Meigs Field was extremely controversially bulldozed in real life in 2003, even though I've only ever been there virtually.)

    3. Thanks for that! That was a really interesting read.

      When you played FS1, were you able to land the plane in a way that felt safe? I couldn't - first challenge was aligning myself with the runway in a manner that left me with enough distance to descend, which wasn't helped by the bad graphics, bad framerate, primitive instruments, and of course not really knowing proper technique. Second challenge was the actual descent and landing, in which I think the bad graphics weren't as much of a problem, but had even less of an idea on how to do it, and I found the manual really confusing. And did you try the dogfight mode?

    4. My recollection of the dogfight mode was that it's basically unplayable.

      I was able to land kinda ok-ish, but it definitely was not easy. You need to start aligning with the runway really far away because with the low framerate you can only adjust your "control stick" 3-5 times a second. So you have to do really slow adjustments to not overshoot. And of course the low resolution makes that extra challenging.

      When it comes to the final approach glideslope and flare, I found the flare to be almost impossible to judge, since you don't have enough graphics to tell how far above the ground you really are, and your altimeter only has 50 ft resolution, so that's useless as well. And again, the low framerate puts limits on how fast you can adjust your controls, since that's completely tied to the update rate. I believe I just gave up on flaring and just flew the glideslope all the way to the ground. So not really safe, but close enough.

      So apart from not knowing the techniques, which I do know, I pretty much had all the same challenges as you did.


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