Gaming

Old school flying with Flight Simulator II on the Atari 8bit

If there was one game on the Atari 8bit series that I knew of when I was young that seemed too intimidating to even try, it was subLOGIC’s 1984 title Flight Simulator II (FSII). At the time I was still trying get my head around less confronting flight sims such as Solo Flight and even Star Raiders so seeing something that looked like it pushed the envelope towards realism was a lot to take in.

There were a lot of fans at my local computer club though and books such as 40 Great Flight Simulator Adventures were in popular rotation amongst members. Despite that I was still not sure if I’d get into a game like that and it wasn’t until the Atari ST arrived that I really began to spend a good amount of time playing games of the genre. Though I think military sims are a different beast too… games still needed to have goals for me at that time so the total freedom of FSII didn’t strike me as all that interesting.

Flight-Simulator-II-130XE

The Flight Simulator II cartridge hooked up to my Atari 130XE. Why they moved the port from top of the system to the rear is beyond me.

Now that I am back retro gaming on my Atari machines it seemed like a good enough opportunity to go back and see just what I had missed out on back then. Thankfully there isn’t a shortage of copies of the game – with the release of the XE Game System, Atari produced cartridge versions of Flight Simulator II which were also pack-ins for the machine. I suppose if they thought it was worth bundling with the system (that also had Missile Command built in) then it must be a pretty decent game, right?

You might not remember subLOGIC or their first two flight simulator titles appearing on the 8bit machines of the era but you’re likely to know of the legacy they left behind. The company would license the game out to Microsoft who would then go on to spend the next twenty years making subsequent titles a staple for their platforms. I think that is a good sign of what is in store for me.

flight-simulator-ii-doco4992556021701093739.jpeg

There’s some epic documentation here for the game… More than enough for serious pilots.

There’s no chance of me being able to just pick this up and run with it minus the manual so finding a good electronic copy was a much needed addition and thankfully there are plenty of sites dedicated to preserving this content. Publishers weren’t afraid to include a lot of documentation with their games and this is no exception – getting all that was available added up to around two hundred pages of material and half of that is devoted to flight physics alone. With most console games now not even including a leaflet in their cases it’s nice to go back and have a hefty manual to go through and learn some things in the process.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what classic flight simulator hijinks I can get up to with this. The more time I spend around it the more I develop an appreciation for the impressive achivement a game like this truly is and I enjoy the prospect of being able to look at it now without the feelings of intimidation I had when I was much younger.

Flight-Simulator-II-System

My 130XE running the Flight Simulator II demo.

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12 replies »

  1. The SubLogic Flight Simulator was one of my first genuine gaming obsessions. I played it on a Commodore 64, with a truly lousy frame rate, but I couldn’t pull myself away from it. I became a pretty good instrument pilot. (Yes, that required reading quite a lot of the manual.) I spent an entire afternoon trying to get a good look at the Statue of Liberty’s face. I can’t imagine it holds up very well today, though.

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    • You’re probably right that the game won’t hold up so well with technology advancing as much as it has but I’m hoping that I can at least make enough sense of it to make a couple of successful short flights and say I finally overcome the challenge I set myself. šŸ™‚

      Did playing Flight Simulator influence the games you enjoyed after that? Any other flight sims become your future obsessions? Sounds like the time you spent on this game paid off!

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      • Probably its greatest influence was that I went on, in the 90s, to write a book called Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press) about programming flight simulators. It was the first book ever published on serious PC game programming and paid my bills for a couple of years. Oddly, though, flight simulators were never my favorite game genre. I loved FS2 because it was the first genuine open-world game, one that let you explore a world for the sake of pure exploration. RPGs scratch that open-world itch a lot more effectively but didn’t truly start opening up until Bethesda published The Elder Scrolls: Arena in 1994.

        The only other flight sims I remember playing seriously were Sid Meier’s 1988 F-117A Stealth Fighter (which had a beautifully implemented heads-up display projected on the viewport and a nice set of missions) and Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon 3.0, probably the most ambitious flight sim anybody had written as of 1991. (Both are on GOG.) Then flight simulators slowly faded away as a viable game genre. Falcon 4.0 died a quiet death.

        I recently pulled out the Steam edition of Flight Simulator and tried looking at the Statue of Liberty’s face again, but it wasn’t as much fun. Modern graphics technology makes it look almost too easy. What was astonishing about FS2 on an Atari 800 or C64 was that it did so much with so little. That game must have been optimized within an inch of its life. I was, and still am, in awe at its programming.

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        • At the time of their release I had to choose between Falcon or F117 and it was the latter I went for and loved it. It’s a shame that despite the gaming audience growing larger that there still isn’t room for simulations at this level. Hopefully with sites like GOG keeping them alive it might turn around in the future.

          I’ve got to say that it is REALLY cool that you wrote a book on the subject!!! I couldn’t help myself and had to take a look online. šŸ™‚ I had a bit of trouble generating 3D lines in my CompSci classes in the 90s and wish now that I’d found this book because I think I would have done better if it was more oriented to game programming! šŸ™‚

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          • Thanks. For reasons I won’t go into, writing the book wasn’t entirely a pleasant experience, but I was very proud of the results and the feedback I got from programmers on Compuserve (which is where I hung out online before the Web was available). I find it hard to believe now that I had the guts to take on the project, but once I had a contract in hand and a partial advance in my bank account, it pretty much forced me to learn as much as I could about 3D graphics. I think I devoted an entire chapter just to drawing lines. Hidden surface removal was the hardest thing to learn because all of the materials available on it then were written at the college level and assumed an advanced mathematics background, which I didn’t have. But once I’d hammered all of those concepts into my own head it was relatively easy to explain them to readers.

            The hottest flight sim on Steam right now appears to be something called X-Plane, which I may try when my game-buying budget recovers from the holidays. At least it shows that the flight simulator market is still active, but it’s become much more of a niche genre than it was in the 80s and early 90s. Sid Meier alone must have written more than half a dozen flight simulators for Microprose in the 80s, which is more than you’ll find in the entire new games marketplace today, not counting IOS apps.

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  2. I played Flight Simulator II on my XT PC. I was completely addicted and loved every minute of it. It was sad when Microsoft closed down their flight sim studio. We haven’t had a Flight Sim game since FSX in 2006 and unfortunately I’m not sure we will again.

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  3. The Steam Edition is maintained by Dovetail Games, with contributions from other companies. The release date on it is 2006, but it’s being updated pretty continuously, with the last texture update, for HD vegetation, coming out a week ago and a night-flying update a couple of days before that. It’s as good a modern edition of the SubLogic game as we’re likely to get. I don’t have the patience (or the time) any longer to learn everything about how it works, but I remember enough about flying the SubLogic edition that I occasionally check out the airplanes and scenery areas, which look pretty good. You can still take off from Meigs Field in Chicago, which no longer exists in the real world but was the traditional starting point in the original game.

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  4. By the way, these updates cost extra. Out of curiosity I just added all the Flight Simulator DLC to my Steam cart and it came to more than $2,600. I took it all back out.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, and that was at holiday sale prices of 50-60 percent off. Normally the complete DLC would cost you well over $5,000, making Flight Simulator possibly the most expensive game on Steam. There must be a small but passionate community of users for this one game that buys enough DLC to make it worthwhile for small companies to devote their time to designing texture maps, scenery, planes and missions that they can sell for $8 to $30 apiece (with holiday discount). Fortunately, unless there’s some scenery area you’re particularly interested in, you really only need to add the major texture updates to keep the game looking more or less modern. I have four pieces of DLC for it. (I just picked up that night-flying update.) That’s enough to keep me happy.

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