Ace Atari pilot John S Davison
AFC, KB, JSO* takes to the air in a variety of aircraft.
good enough to fly with the best?
*Armchair Flight Commander, Keyboard Broken,
Joystick Shot Off
A Spitfire simulator ought to be an irresistible
program for the flight simulation fan. Add a good game element and
the package should be a sure-fire winner with everyone. With
Spitfire 40 Mirrorsoft started out with this successful formula well
over a year ago, and the program was very popular on other home
micros. At last, they've released an 8-bit Atari version, so with
great expectation, I prepared to become one of 'The Few'.
The game scenario has you as a newly trained pilot in your first
Spitfire squadron. You must first learn to handle a Spitfire, and
then go on to combat duty. Once into real combat, your experience
and success in shooting down enemy aircraft and returning safely to
your home base wins you medals and promotions. Who knows you could
have what it takes to become a Group Captain with DSO, DFC and VC to
your name! Your progress is recorded in a log book which can be
saved to disk or cassette, so you can continue your career next time
All controls may be operated from the keyboard, with the option of
using a joystick for aileron/rudder and elevator control. Everything
is adequately explained in the 24 page instruction booklet, and
summarised on a separate quick-reference sheet.
SIMULATION OR GAME?
On boot up, a single sound channel plays what could have been a
stirring march with better treatment, presumably betraying the
program's Spectral ancestry. Didn't the programmer know the Atari
has FOUR sound channels?
Choice of 'simulator' or 'game' option at this point lets you either
fly a complete sortie, or pitches you straight into the dogfight
stage, saving you the trouble of the scramble and search for the
enemy. Next, you load in the pilot's log, showing name, rank
achieved, medals won, hours experience, victories scored, and other
details. Following this, you choose either practice or combat mode
which, predictably, lets you learn how to handle the Spitfire
without worrying about the enemy or puts you in combat status
awaiting action. A combat sortie starts with the order to
'scramble', giving height, bearing, distance and number of enemy
aircraft. It's up to you
to find them and see them off.
The next screen shows the runway through the framework of the
cockpit canopy. The runway graphics are somewhat rudimentary, just a
few straight lines against a green background. Inside the canopy, a
rear-view mirror enables you to see when enemy aircraft get on your
tail. The other prominent feature is the reflector gunsight, the
grandaddy of the sophisticated 'head-up' displays found in modern
Surprisingly, there's no instrument panel displayed at this point.
To see it involves switching to a different screen, thus losing your
view through the canopy. The panel graphics are probably the best
feature of the program, showing the basic instruments you'd find in
a real Spitfire. The instructions say you should be able to see the
Spitfire's control column, which moves as you operate the controls,
but there's no sign of it on the Atari version.
Scramble!!! Quick, start the engine!! This produces a noise very
much like my next door neighbour's ancient motor mower instead of
the unforgettable sound of the mighty Rolls Royce Merlin engine. OK,
OK, I know it can't be reproduced exactly, but surely a competent
programmer can do better than this?.
Right, release the brakes and accelerate at full throttle down the
runway. At 90 knots, switching to runway view provides another
disappointment. The crude runway outline is continually redrawn on
the screen in an attempt to create the illusion of movement. The
result is a jerky, flickering mess, quite unworthy of the Atari's
After take-off, it's a case of climbing like crazy to intercept the
enemy, using the map/radar to help you find him. Once again, the
graphics are fairly minimal and chunky, showing your position
relative to the enemy hordes. A map zoom feature gives several
levels of detail, allowing you to see your position relative to the
(very sparse) geographic features of the landscape below.
Going into map mode pauses the game, so you can't see the effect of
any corrective manoeuvres without switching back to the canopy view and then back into map mode.
Changing course by a specific amount involves a further switch to
the instrument panel so you can see the compass. I found it
necessary to continually switch from screen to screen to locate the
enemy, which became very tedious after a while.
Suddenly, an aircraft appears in your rear view mirror. Throwing the
Spitfire into a screaming turn, you manage to shake him off your
tail. Then he's in front of you, running for his life, and jinking
about to avoid being hit. Tally Ho!! Open the throttle and chase
him. The motor mower chugs louder and you get closer, centre him in
your gunsight, and fire. You see a stream of bullets converge
jerkily on him. He disintegrates and disappears, to be immediately
replaced on a different part of the screen by one of his mates.
The Spitfire responds well to the controls, and I was pleased to see
the horizon tilt smoothly as the aircraft is banked (unlike some
so-called flight simulators). As expected, the artificial horizon on
the instrument panel follows suit, but very jerkily and with joke
standard blockiness. Other instruments seem to behave fairly
After dispatching the last enemy plane you have to
find your way home, going through the annoying business of screen
switching again to locate your home airfield. I found getting back
to the airfield extremely difficult, as you can't see it unless
you're below 3,000 feet (because of haze, the instructions say), and
even then, it doesn't come into view until you're almost on top of
it. In many hours of play I managed to land successfully only once.
As you can't progress through the game without successful landings,
the whole thing could, and did, rapidly lose its attraction.
GOOD IDEA, POOR IMPLEMENTATION
Full marks, Mirrorsoft, for supporting the 8-bit
Atari. But please, next time, how about ensuring your programmers
take advantage of the Atari's sound and graphics capabilities,
instead of copying features from lesser machines.
I liked the idea behind Spitfire 40, but sadly, it's
a classic case of a great idea spoiled by poor implementation. With
more care it could have been a great simulator instead of a mediocre
game. I hope the upcoming ST version remedies this.
Strike Force Harrier is another of those programs which aren't what
they seem at first sight. Like many so-called flight simulators,
it's more of a combat simulator than an accurate simulation of jet
fighter flight. I can say this for several reasons: firstly it has a
high find/shoot/bomb/avoid the enemy content, secondly the
instrumentation in the aircraft is futuristic rather than realistic
and, finally, the aircraft's flight behaviour doesn't look or feel
quite right. Apart from this, though, it's a pretty good program!
The package contains two disks; a summary sheet showing all
keyboard, mouse and joystick controls plus an overview of the
instruments and data displays; and a map grid showing your starting
point and the position of your eventual objective. The package is
completed by a small instruction booklet containing hints and tips
on flying the Harrier as well as the usual program details.
FIRST, LEARN TO FLY
After boot-up you choose the mission type from Demo, Practice,
Combat, or Combat Practice, and the difficulty level from Pilot,
Commander or Ace. The two higher levels introduce features such as
black-out and red-out of the pilot's vision during high-G
The Practice option gives you the chance to learn to fly the Harrier
without getting shot at by the enemy. Helpful hints on how to take
off vertically, make the transition to horizontal flight, back to
the hover, and finally to land vertically again are given in the
instruction booklet. It's
difficult at first, but like most things becomes easier with
The screen layout is pretty standard for programs of this type, with
the lower part displaying the cockpit instrumentation and the upper
part showing a through the windscreen view with the obligatory HUD
(Head Up Display) superimposed on it. Cockpit instruments are
dominated by FOFTRAC (Friend Or Foe Tracking Radar), AAR (Air Attack
Radar), Multifunction Display (showing fuel remaining, throttle
setting, and positions of flaps, undercarriage, weapon inventory,
etc), plus various warning and damage status indicators. The HUD
shows essential flight information such as height, airspeed,
vertical speed, pitch, and direction. It also acts as a
gun/missile/bomb sight and special homing indicator to help you get
back to base.
In fact, getting back to one of the four prepared landing sites is
something you must learn fairly quickly, as you can't refuel or
rearm anywhere else. Your instruments can guide you to the correct
locality, but final identification has to be done visually. Landing
areas are marked by flashing beacons, which can only be seen from
fairly close range.
THEN, LEARN HOW TO FIGHT
Once you've got the hang of flying the beast, the next stage is to
learn how to fight with it. The Harrier's offensive armament
consists of three 1000lb bombs, two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles,
and 250 rounds of cannon shells.
Weapon delivery is aided by several clever electronics systems.
FOFTRAC is a combined map and radar display covering an area of one
rectangle on the map grid supplied in the package. Map details shown
include mountains and your landing sites. It also shows enemy SAM
(surface to air missile) installations, and is continuously updated
to show the current positions of active enemy tank formations,
aircraft and missiles, plus your own flight track.
An annoying feature of FOFTRAC is that it loses the map display
detail if you fly across the boundary from one grid rectangle into
another. To get it back you have to fly across the centre of the
rectangle at 16000 feet, as FOFTRAC has to photograph the area
before it can be displayed. This is reasonable if you enter a
rectangle for the first time, but surely not EVERY time? If you
accidentally clip the edge of the rectangle, you find, on
re-entering the original area a few seconds later, that the detail
has been lost and FOFTRAC no longer displays the position of the
tanks. It's very hard to find them without FOFTRAC, so it's back to
16000 feet over the centre of the area again to regenerate the
display. At that altitude you can guarantee you'll get a severe
mauling by the enemy fighters. I repeatedly found myself in just
this situation, and it quickly became a major source of irritation.
The Air Attack Radar helps you pinpoint enemy
aircraft and avoid his missiles. It shows aircraft and missile
positions within a 5 mile radius and height band of plus/minus 5000
feet of your current position.
NOW - DO IT FOR REAL!
When you think you can cope try flying a real mission. The objective
is to fly to the enemy headquarters situated some 30 grid rectangles
away from your initial base, and destroy it. You don't have enough
fuel to get there and back, so you have to move your bases forward
from their initial positions so they can support you. Unfortunately,
the enemy is attacking your bases with tanks, so you have to destroy
the tanks with bombs or cannon before a base can be moved. Once a
base has been moved the enemy sends in a fresh tank squadron and the
process begins over again.
While taking out the tanks you're likely to come under attack from
small arms fire, anti-aircraft flak, and above 2000 feet, surface to
air missiles. Small arms fire is generally harmless, flak can damage
your health, and a missile hit is usually pretty terminal! The
graphic effects of flak bursting around you are really rather good.
And unique too I've not seen this effect before in aerial combat
To find the tanks you have to get to 16000 feet so
FOFTRAC can generate its display. This is where your dogfighting
abilities are needed, as you're sure to get bounced by enemy MIG26
(no kidding!) jet fighters. These occasionally come screaming in at
you for a head-on attack and the graphics for this are superb. No
crude wire frame graphics here you get the real McCoy! The MIGs
fly VERY close to you at incredible speed you get a big, detailed
view of the aircraft for a split second as it flashes by. The effect
is quite startling, and guaranteed to get the adrenalin pumping.
For much of the time, though, the MIGs are behind you
trying to pick you off. Your job is to defend yourself using chaff,
flares, and good old dogfighting skills, then to get behind them and
stuff a few cannon shells or the odd missile up their rear orifices.
All other views you get of the MIGs seem to be from behind, as they
jink around trying to shake you off.
Once FOFTRAC has done its stuff, you can leave the
MIGs to play with themselves and get back down to low level tank
bashing again. Incidentally, you get points for clobbering tanks,
SAM sites, and MIGs, giving you an incentive to try that bit harder
with each successive go, even if you don't make it to the enemy
As a flight simulator I found Strike Force Harrier
disappointing, but as an air combat game it's one of the best
around. Its mix of action and strategy should please the game
players, while its complexity should keep the simulator techies
interested too. Some of its graphical effects are startlingly good,
but in the sound department it can only be described as adequate.
Overall, then, a reasonable buy, but don't expect the ultimate
WELL HOW DO
THE YANKS DO
Microprose are renowned for their excellent simulation programs and
F-15 Strike Eagle is well up to their usual standard. The high
quality extends to the packaging and instructions too, as the
program comes in an attractive bookform pack complete with superbly
presented 'Flight Operations Manual'. This not only contains
operating instructions, but also a wealth of information about the
F15 and air combat techniques.
The program should really be classed as an air combat simulator
rather than a flight simulator as it's essentially all about modern
air warfare, using cannon and heatseeking and radar guided missiles,
missile attack avoidance using electronics countermeasures, decoy
flares and radar chaff and target bombing rather than the niceties
of flying an F15. For instance, you don't have to take off and land
the brute, as each mission starts and ends with you in the air.
Seven mission scenarios (of increasing difficulty) are provided,
covering Europe, the Middle East, and South East Asia. Basically,
you have to locate and bomb specified targets and return safely to
base. Unfortunately, the enemy has
aircraft with similar weapons to yours, plus SAMs (surface to air
missiles), and is quite keen on spoiling your little game!
You can identify and fight off these threats by using the F15's
advanced avionics and weapon systems, plus, of course, the superb
performance of the aircraft. Get it wrong and you could end up with
an AA-8 Aphid heatseeking missile up your tailpipe! At best, you'll
end up nursing a crippled, highly unstable aircraft back to friendly
territory. As a last resort you can even bale out, with a 50/50
chance of escape.
For each mission scenario the manual explains the flight plan,
likely threats, and the opening situation. It also has a map of the
area in which you're operating, showing positions of primary
targets, enemy airfields, known SAM sites, and any friendly bases
where you can put down for refuelling or repairs. These maps have
also been fed into the F15's navigation computers, and are displayed
Control is via keyboard and one or two joysticks. As usual, joystick
1 handles the primary flight controls plus weapons firing, while
joystick 2 can take over some of the keyboard functions. I found the
roll control rather too
sensitive, but otherwise everything worked OK.
On booting, you choose a skill level ranging from 'arcade'. to
'ace'. Arcade is really an easy introductory level, but the other
three levels are full simulations of progressively greater
difficulty, with more numerous and cunning enemy aircraft and SAMs. You can have up to 4 people in your
squadron, each taking a turn to fly the missions. Points are awarded
for hitting primary and other optional targets, and for enemy
aircraft destroyed, giving the simulation a nice competitive
element. It's also possible (and easier!) to have two player
co-operative missions, where one person acts as the pilot dealing
purely with the flight problems. The other acts as the weapons
officer, responsible for selecting the right weapons at the right
time, which isn't as easy as it sounds.
When a mission starts you're presented with the main screen of the
simulation, showing the view from the F15 pilot's seat. The top half
of the screen is the view through the windscreen, with the horizon
cutting across the middle. As you'd expect, the horizon rises, falls
and tilts convincingly to any angle, in response to the F15's
controls. The ground (land or sea) is overlaid with a perspective
grid pattern, which scrolls down to give the impression of movement
it's not realistic, but infinitely better than nothing at all. The
only other ground features take the form of blue triangles
representing primary and optional targets.
The F15 is fitted with a 'Head Up Display' (HUD), which projects
important flight information such as airspeed, altitude, and
navigation cues onto the windscreen. It also shows the gun, missile
and bomb aiming sights, and enemy aircraft and missile tracking
boxes. These boxes move across the windscreen, showing you where to
look to visually locate incoming threats.
The bottom half of the screen contains several major systems. The
map display shows the mission map mentioned earlier. You can set a
cursor at any position on this, and the F15's navigation system will
project course cues onto the HUD so you can fly directly to the
The radar screen can be set at three ranges, and displays all
targets (and missiles) in the air and on the ground. Above it,
warning indicators give you early warning of incoming threats.
Finally, the weapons status display shows you at a glance
how many bombs, short and medium range missiles, and decoy flares
you've got left, and status of fuel drop tanks. There's a lot more
on the screen too, but none of it includes 'conventional' aircraft
instrumentation, which may upset some purists.
HEAVY WORKLOAD FOR PILOT
Once a mission gets under way, you have a really
heavy workload, even with all the electronic systems to help you.
Your basic task sounds simple: find the target, bomb it, and get
home. Unfortunately, there are so many other things requiring your
attention that it's not that easy. The worst distraction comes in
the form of enemy aircraft. At the higher difficulty levels they can
give you a really hard time. You have to use your skill and the
F15's aerobatic ability to the full to outclass them, especially if
you want to clobber them the macho way using the F15's cannon! You
can easily burn up the whole mission's fuel trying to outfight one
clever adversary. In fact, missions tend to have nailbiting endings,
as you struggle to glide your damaged aircraft back to a friendly
base because you were overly optimistic about fuel usage.
The sound effects add enormously to the realism the
whine of the jet engines, the roar of the afterburners, the whoosh
of your missiles, the pinging of the warning systems. Yes, it's all
here. There's even a few bars of music thrown in at the end of a
mission to release the tension.
The only real criticism I have concerns the graphics
showing what's happening outside. The ground grid movement is rather
jerky, and horizon movement could be smoother. Also, the enemy
aircraft are very simple outlines and again move jerkily. Even so,
they seem to manoeuvre realistically. When hit by your missiles or
shells, the resultant explosion doesn't look very convincing either
just a few straight lines radiating from the impact point.
All this can be forgiven, though, because as a
simulation the program is totally absorbing, and as a game it's got
that magic quality which forces you to have 'just one more go'! If
you like simulations full of challenge, with large helpings of
tension and excitement, F15 Strike Eagle is the program for you.
At last. They're here. Sublogic's long awaited Flight Simulator II
Scenery Disks for the 8-bit machines, that is! So far, 7 of a
planned set of 12 covering the whole of the USA have been released,
with the remainder due out later this year. There are also a few
'specials' planned. Two of these are already out, covering the San
Francisco Bay area and, surprisingly, the Tokyo to Osaka area of
Japan. Cost? Around £20 each in the UK (Ouch! That's expensive!).
I'd almost given up hope of finding the disks in the UK until a call
to Strategic Plus Software, of Hampton, Middlesex, established that
the San Francisco disk had arrived, but then the bombshell struck!
They said they
couldn't honestly sell me one as none of their stock copies worked
properly. Instead, they kindly agreed to lend me one to try for
myself. They were dead right the main area on the disk (showing
San Francisco city and Golden Gate Bridge) just wouldn't load,
although the rest of the area was OK.
A letter to Sublogic in the USA produced almost instant action. They
phoned me at home expressing concern that there were faulty versions
of the disk around, as the problem was spotted and corrected in
September last year! Just a few days later I received TWO disks from
them by air freight, both of which are reviewed here.
Let's begin with the San Francisco area. Sublogic call this a 'STAR'
disk, meaning it covers a relatively small area, but with a higher
than usual level of detail. The package contains a single sided disk
in a plastic wallet, a map showing all airfields and radio
navigation aids in the area, a set of airfield plans showing
airfield layout and sundry other data, and finally the operating
instructions. Most of the paperwork consists of looseleaf pages and
these, together with the disk wallet, are all pre-punched to fit
into a smart ring binder available separately from Sublogic. Other disks in the series are similarly
presented, so you can store everything neatly together.
The area covered measures about 75 miles by 50 miles, from Scaggs
Island in the north to beyond San Jose in the south, taking in the
whole of the San Francisco Bay area. Eastern limit is at Tracy,
about 50 miles inland from the Californian coast. Within this area
there are 16 airfields, many interesting topographical features,
plus radio navigation aids to help you find your way about.
A few years ago I worked in the San Jose area for a while, so I know
the area covered by this disk quite well. Many of the features I
remember do actually appear here. The main attraction, of course, is
San Francisco itself. I was disappointed to see so few buildings
represented, but then 3D manipulation of a whole cityful of
buildings would probably require the power of an IBM 3090/600
mainframe! The spectacular Transamerica Pyramid is included, plus
about half a dozen lesser buildings. There's no detail shown of the
port area, but the island of Alcatraz is there, complete with its
infamous prison building.
The star of the disk (no pun intended) is undoubtedly the Golden
Gate Bridge, although I wish Sublogic could have painted it the
right colour! Both this and the nearby, 8 mile long, Bay Bridge are
in full 3D representation, so you can fly over, round, through, or
under them if you feel so inclined. In contrast, other bridges at
the southern end of the bay are little more than single lines
marking the bridge position.
Going further afield, there are other 3D features waiting to be
discovered like the three giant hangars at Moffet Field, a naval
air station near Palo Alto, and the control tower at Livermore
airfield, the first I've seen in this simulator. Many major roads
and mountains are present and can actually be identified by name if
you have a proper map of the area.
During my exploration I discovered an unexpected bonus. The area
actually covered is much, much bigger than Sublogic's map shows. In
fact, it includes the same area as that on the newly released ST
version of Flight Simulator II, covering about 250 miles north to
south by 200 miles east to west. All the airfields and radio aids
seem to be the same too that's a total of 47 airfields and
countless radio beacons! The instructions say the extra area is
included to give a smooth transition from this STAR disk into
adjacent areas on other scenery disks. Apparently, you're not
actually intended to use it!
JOURNEY THROUGH JAPAN
The Japan disk is packaged similarly to the other, but has one
fascinating extra. This is a sheet of 'approach plates'
showing the standard instrument approach procedures for seven of the
major airfields. For instrument flying freaks this is really
something! There are, however, no instructions on how to use these
complex charts, so if you don't understand them already, they're not
The disk covers a large area of some 350 miles by 210 miles of the
Tokyo/Nagoya/Osaka region, giving you scope for really long flights.
There are only 14 airfields here, but many of them have control
towers and refuelling facilities. The area's vast array of radio
beacons includes many NDB's for use with your aircraft's Automatic
Direction Finding equipment, plus VOR/DME facilities if you need
them. Also, eight of the major airport runways are equipped with
Instrument Landing System for poor weather landings.
The Tokyo area has several interesting features, including Tokyo
Tower, the palace grounds, canals, and the Shinkansen 'bullet train'
network. As expected, significant roads, mountains, lakes and other
waterways are included too, however detail at Osaka is limited to
one building the castle.
The snow capped Mt. Fuji is easily the most impressive feature on
this disk. It takes quite a while to fly to it, round it, and back
to Tokyo. Sublogic's simulation doesn't extend to the vicious air
turbulence said to surround the mountain, so you can approach it
without fear. If you like mountain flying there are plenty of others
to choose from, and all in a realistic 3D representation, too.
ARE THEY WORTH IT?
Overall, both disks gave me a lot of pleasure. Personally, I prefer
the San Francisco disk, as I know the area and enjoy 'revisiting' it
by air. The Japan disk I like for its radio aids and detailed
approach charts, which let you fly real live approach procedures. I
wish Sublogic provided these with other scenery areas.
Apart from the cost, I have only two real criticisms. The first
concerns the slow screen update with certain scenery, which makes
control of the aircraft more difficult than usual. The other relates
to a strange problem with mountains, where you can sometimes see
things 'through' them. These niggles aside, I think Sublogic should
be congratulated in releasing these disks. They're not cheap, but
considering the extra scope and enjoyment they add to Flight
Simulator II, I view them as a good buy and I look forward to
getting my hands on more of the series.
Finally, special thanks to Strategic Plus and to Sublogic
themselves for their help in producing this review. I get the
feeling they really CARE about their customers, as well as the
products they sell us.
F-15 Strike Eagle
Strike Force Harrier
Flight Simulator II Scenery
Disk only £19.95 each