Throughout the first decade of the 2000's, thanks to abandonware, eBay, and spotty backwards compatibility in Windows 98/XP, I had come to regard MicroProse as a titan of DOS era gaming. Landmark titles like Civilization, Master of Orion, X-COM, and Pirates! Gold had passed by me in their time, and yet consumed countless of my spare hours even in obsolescence and without the benefit of nostalgia. Their Ports of Entry list is one of the biggest I've made yet, jammed full of classics, some of them now familiar to me, many of them not.
For this early MicroProse retrospective, it made the most sense to focus on the evolution of these flight sims, despite being uncharacteristic of the games I'd come to think of them for, and my dislike of them besides. These are the seeds that Pirates! and Civilization grew from. I'm skipping arcade-style games from these early years like Chopper Rescue and Floyd of the Jungle, as they don't seem as relevant to the company's history, and I'm putting off NATO Commander, their first wargame, to be reviewed as an antecedent to their successful Command series.
I have also picked two ancestors that precede MicroProse itself; Atari's Red Baron, a flight combat arcade game said to have inspired their initial flight sim lineup, and Formula 1, the first commercial and earliest extant Sid Meier game.
Game 328: Formula 1
|Penultimate Monaco circuit. The framerate really is this bad.|
I couldn't help but wince the moment I realized Formula 1 is BASIC. F1 is fast. BASIC is slow. Who thought this would be a good idea?
Clearly inspired by Atari's Sprint series, Formula 1 aims for more realism, offers larger courses inspired by real-world ones, and expects players to brake and downshift before entering turns and follow a smooth and consistent line. Its five courses include the classic four-cornered Indianapolis, the windier Monza Grand Prix, the even windier Watkins Glen, the narrow and sharp Monaco circuit, and the fictitious "Killer," a maze of sharp turns, constricting narrows, and deadly hazards. This is all and well, but has two areas of trouble - the atrocious ~4.5fps performance, and the controls on Atari's one-button joystick, which handles steering, braking, and throttle when the trigger is up, and gear shifting when pressed down.
I sort of got used to the low framerate and dragging lack of speed (even the stopwatch runs slowly!), but these controls lag. Push the joystick laterally and the car will begin turning sometime later, nevermind how long precisely, and when it does, turns in 30 degree increments rather than smooth curves. Pulling off a good turn is, no doubt owing to the difficulty, pretty satisfying, especially if you pass an AI opponent while doing so, but you're just as likely to steer right into the curb or miss the turn entirely.
Gear shifting is even more of an unresponsive nightmare, and makes driving in top gear pointless even in the longest straightaways before the widest turns. From fifth gear, which tops at 200mph, you have to slow down to 120mph before you can downshift, and then after that, there's no telling how long the it will take, so you've got to either start your downshift quite early or risk missing the turn because it happened too late. You might as well just drive at 160mph in fourth gear the entire time, which can handle most turns with a bit of braking. I got consistently better times this way on the forgiving Indy circuit.
GAB rating: Bad. Many famous developers' earliest works are humble, but Sid Meier's Formula 1 is borderline unplayable. The lack of polish can work in your favor in one case, though - it's actually possible to register a complete lap by driving right back across the start line and re-crossing it! That's how I did three Monaco laps in under 20 seconds, no doubt demolishing the world record.
Game 329: Red Baron
As the story goes, the idea to found MicroProse was planted in the summer of 1982 when Meier consistently outscored Stealey at Atari's Red Baron at a bar in Las Vegas, and boasted he could make a superior computer game.
Red Baron doesn't much resemble a flight simulator of any degree of realism. If anything, it feels more like a precursor to Star Fox, perhaps more so than Atari's Star Wars does. Running on an expanded version of Battlezone's vector hardware, Red Baron eschews free movement and instead puts you in a fighter flying on a preset path over a battlefield dotted with guns, blimps, pillboxes, and enemy squadrons. An analog stick lets you climb, dive, and roll to avoid gunfire, but not deviate from the endless flight path.
The vector hardware powering this game must have been expensive to operate - or perhaps Atari felt the immersive 3D visuals would sell themselves by the minute - because like Battlezone, Red Baron is capriciously difficult. You have a grace period of play where enemies don't shoot back, but once they start, it can feel pretty random whether their bullets hit home or not. Sometimes they just come flying out of nowhere faster than you can react. You can decrease your odds of getting hit by wildly spinning and weaving like a drunk missile, but you've got to hold steady to have a chance of hitting your targets with your bullets, which is made all the more difficult by Red Baron's poor framerate (I estimate Battlezone runs at 15fps and Red Baron about half of that), and jittery controls (this may be an emulation issue, but I found violently twirling the joystick at the game start helps calibrate it). The longer you hold steady trying to draw a bead on a target, the more likely it or something else snipes you.
GAB rating: Average. Red Baron offers a convincing sensation of flight, but its simplistic gameplay doesn't compel me to come back and attain proficiency the way Battlezone did.
Game 330: Hellcat Ace
If you're going to play Hellcat Ace, make sure that once you've figured out the controls, you crank up the difficulty. Otherwise you'll get the wrong impression, as I initially did, that each of its 14 scenarios amount to nothing more than a turkey shoot against one (or two, if you prefer) nearly defenseless opponent(s) with no practical difference between them.
Hellcat Ace is a pretty barebones and simplistic sim, with a flight model that makes Elite look sophisticated, and an oddly structured campaign mode that consists of 14 one-on-one dogfights where it is virtually impossible to see them all in one setting because the game ends after five victories, and failure usually means death, capture, or the loss of your carrier. You can, at least, begin its campaign as late as mission 10.
Maximum difficulty provided a good challenge, and in the above video, I play through a tour of six missions from August 1940 (Flying Tiger) to September 1942 (Guadalcanal) and achieve a rank of "W.G.F.P." I never felt like the world's greatest fighter pilot - I think I survived about half of my missions and it took me quite a few tries to fly a successful tour at this difficulty, but if we take this as a game meant to challenge you, as opposed to a game meant to be beaten, I think this is about the right balance.
Each scenario defines a few combat parameters - the type of plane you and your opponent fly, your starting altitudes, the time of day, and whether or not failure means losing your carrier (and therefore an automatic game over). Every scenario can optionally be flown against two planes, awarding two victory patches instead of one on a successful completion, but the game feels balanced around the one-on-one format. A select few missions can also be won by evading your opponent for some time, though most require you to shoot them down. It's odd to see famous pacific battles like Pearl Harbor and Midway reduced to solo duels, but they do play somewhat differently from each other as long as the difficulty is set above the default.
The six missions flown were:
- Flying Tiger, August 13, 1940. Pursue a medium bomber and shoot it down. An easy kill even at maximum difficulty.
- Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Pursue and destroy a floatplane spotted at high altitude. More challenging, but not unreasonably so.
- Wake Island, December 11, 1941. One of the most challenging missions in the game, pitting an F4F WildCat against a formidably nimble and durable Zero. You begin with an altitude advantage, but it doesn't last. I bailed after taking terminal damage, forfeiting a victory patch, but I lived.
- Coral Sea, May 8, 1942. Intercept a low-altitude bomber en route to the Yorktown. Staying on the bomber's tail long enough to hit it is difficult as it is, but you also have to keep a careful eye on your altimeter and be sure you don't crash into the sea. Failure means the loss of the Yorktown and the end of your tour.
- Midway, June 4, 1942. Survival is your goal, and all you have to do to win is endure the initial burst of gunfire and then keep flying away from your hunter at maximum throttle.
- Guadalcanal, September 3 1942. A nighttime dogfight against a Japanese army fighter. Easier than the dogfight against the Zero; I earned my fifth and final victory patch here.
GAB rating: Below average. Hellcat Ace certainly meets the low bar of being playable, and I don't mind its relaxed flight model, but it leaves me wishing for more substance and historical verisimilitude.