We all love a list, so every Tuesday we’re posting one, on a variety of retro-themed topics! Feel free to share your own favourites down below — and let us know what other lists you’d like to see on future Tuesdays!
Combat flight sims were absolutely everywhere for a good few years — starting in the 8-bit microcomputer era and proceeding well into the age of 3D-accelerated MS-DOS and Windows PCs. But in more recent years, they’ve dried up somewhat — there are still a few out there to be found, but for the most part, if you want some satisfying military jet fighter action, your best option is to go retro.
Thankfully, there are a variety of great choices out there, catering to everyone from the greenest of rookies right up to those who pour jet fuel on their Corn Flakes at breakfast. So let’s take a look at 10 of the best retro combat flight simulators from over the years!
F-15 Strike Eagle
An early game from Sid “Civilization” Meier, 1984’s F-15 Strike Eagle was many people’s first contact with a military flight simulator that provided something vaguely approaching realism. At the same time, it also offered arcade-style immediacy and a variety of difficulty levels to play at, meaning you could enjoy some bombing runs and dogfighting regardless of your previous experience with flight sims and knowledge of flight dynamics.
Graphically and structurally, F-15 Strike Eagle may look rather primitive today — but it still plays well, is available on a wide variety of both computer and console platforms (specifically, Atari 8-bit, Apple II, Commodore C64, IBM PC, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Spectrum, Thomson, PC-88, PC-98, NES, Game Boy and Game Gear), and is worth exploring from a historical perspective if nothing else. This is where the gaming medium really discovered combat flight sims!
For a long time, 1987’s Falcon from Sphere and Spectrum Holobyte was the military flight sim to beat. Offering a detailed simulation of the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, Falcon aimed to provide an immersive and complex yet accessible simulation of life as a military pilot.
Offering 12 different missions to fly, a dynamic battlefield, two mission disks and some incredible digitised sound — even on platforms that weren’t especially known for it, like the Atari ST — Falcon kicked off a series whose later installments are still popular with military flight sim enthusiasts to this day.
Falcon came out for a variety of platforms — it even enjoyed an ill-advised and vastly simplified conversion to Turbografx-16 — but for the best experience, seek out the Atari ST or Amiga versions, which are the most feature-rich and enjoyable.
F-19 Stealth Fighter
1990’s F-19 Stealth Fighter was another high point for flight sim fans, because despite having a completely fictional aircraft in the headline spot, later releases of the game also featured the very much real F-117A Stealth Fighter, as well as a whole bunch of different ways to play, ranging from the restricted activities of fighting during a cold war to full-on international conflict.
F-19 was noteworthy for placing a strong emphasis on simulating how different actions would affect the player’s radar signature, and as such the game had a very distinct feel as you attempted to live up to the “stealth fighter” moniker.
It was also a great example of developer-publisher MicroProse’s “golden age”, featuring lavish packaging that included fold-out maps and reference cards, as well as a substantial glossy manual featuring not just game instructions, but a variety of interesting information about the featured aircraft, theatres of war and history of aerial combat. If you can find yourself a complete-in-box copy of the Atari ST or Amiga versions of this, you’ll have yourself a lovely little thing to enjoy even when you’re not playing the game itself.
1991’s Warbirds from Atari is a little different from the other games on this list in a variety of ways. Firstly, instead of simulating jet fighters, it simulates the primitive air combat of World War I biplanes. Secondly, it offers an exclusive focus on close-up dogfighting rather than more complex missions, making it a great game for when you fancy a quick flight. And thirdly, it was an Atari Lynx exclusive.
Yes, indeed; and one of the Atari Lynx’s best games, at that, acting as a great showcase of the system’s hardware scaling capabilities. Warbirds offered a surprisingly convincing simulation of piloting a rickety old Sopwith Camel around the skies — you could even deliberately turn your engine off in mid-air to manipulate your speed — as well as some genuinely thrilling dogfights.
Given that a bunch of the Atari Lynx’s best games have already come to the Evercade, here’s hoping that someday we get a Lynx Collection 3 cartridge for the platform that includes, among other things, this little gem. Plus Turbo Sub ifyoupleasethankyoumuch.
1991 was a good year for combat flight sims, as we were also treated to Core Design’s Thunderhawk, a helicopter simulation that placed a focus on arcadey accessibility rather than excessive realism. The result was a thrilling game that was a lot of fun to play — and it was also one of the most smoothly animating polygonal 3D games on 16-bit home computers of the time, too.
In many ways, Thunderhawk’s exaggerated nature can be looked upon as something of a spiritual precursor to Namco’s Ace Combat series; the fictional AH-73M attack helicopter you pilot in the game is capable of carrying up to 16 missiles, 76 rockets and a machine gun with unlimited ammunition, allowing for plenty of widespread destruction as you work your way through the game’s missions.
The game was originally released for Atari ST, Amiga and MS-DOS PCs, but also saw a Sega CD version in 1993 and an MS-DOS remake in 1996. For my money, the original version is the best.
Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat
Another 1991 release, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat is widely beloved by combat flight sim fans for its ability to pit a wide variety of different aircraft from radically different eras against one another, just to see what might happen. That and its realistic handling, huge variety of missions, helpful documentation and in-game advice from Mr Yeager himself, and generally solid gameplay.
While lacking a conventional “campaign” to enjoy over the long term, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat is best thought of as a series of training scenarios that will help you improve your general air combat game in a variety of different craft. It might not look all that pretty by today’s standards — but it still flies very well indeed.
And one last one from 1991. ProFlight is, as the name suggests, only for the pros. Developed by HiSoft, a company better known for productivity software and programming languages, ProFlight comes in an enormous box and has a manual so substantial it’s provided in its own ring binder.
ProFlight is an incredibly accurate simulation of the Panavia Tornado aircraft, and unlike many flight sims which have a somewhat forgiving, arcadey handling model in the name of accessibility — and actually being playable with the digital joysticks of the day — ProFlight is an absolute bitch to even get up in the air.
The feeling of satisfaction when you do manage to lift off successfully and keep that Tornado airborne — let alone when you manage to complete a mission objective — is like nothing else, however. If simplistic sims bore you and you really want to challenge yourself, seek out ProFlight for Atari ST and Amiga and prove you’ve really got what it takes to handle yourself in the sky!
At the other end of the spectrum, if you want a flight sim that is all about cinematic thrills and spills, you really can’t go wrong with Digital Image Design’s TFX from 1993. This is a spectacularly enjoyable flight sim that delivers arcadey-style thrills, but which also features the ability to create custom missions and play a campaign mode, providing potentially limitless replayability. It also has immensely satisfying dynamic transitions between viewpoints, one of the earliest polygonal “virtual cockpits” and an awesome soundtrack in its CD-ROM version.
TFX is probably not the place to go if you want realism — it “simulates” the Eurofighter Typhoon long before that aircraft ever went into full production — but if you’ve been harbouring Top Gun fantasies for years, this is a great way to realise them — it’s just a crying shame we haven’t seen this one get a rerelease on GOG or Steam as yet.
Origin’s MS-DOS PC flight sim from the same year as TFX bumps up the cinematic angle even further, with Wing Commander-style dialogue sequences between missions, and an ongoing story as you progress through the game. Given the game’s designs on being an “interactive movie” of sorts, the simulation elements have been simplified somewhat — but it still provides an enjoyable virtual F-16 to fly around.
Strike Commander was noteworthy for having graphics so detailed that it brought all but the most powerful 486 and Pentium machines to their knees back in the day. It might look laughable now, but back in 1993 having a machine that could run Strike Commander on full detail at an acceptable frame rate was very much a status symbol!
Try and grab a complete-in-box copy if you can — Origin were real good at throwing in cool extras with their games around this time in history. Alternatively, if you’re a digital-only type, this is one of the few games on this list you can still grab today thanks to GOG.com.
DID’s 1995 follow-up to TFX was another notorious processor-hog back in the day, with it being an absolute bugger to get running at more than about 10 frames per second on even fairly beefy machines. That said, if you could get it running — somewhat easier with later releases that supported 3D accelerator cards — you got to enjoy one of the most visually impressive flight sims of the day — and one with some absolutely exquisite sound design, featuring even little details such as the rumble of your aircraft’s wheels on the runway alongside the hum of the engine.
The game is a complex, detailed simulation that features quick combat, free flight, training, multiplayer and dynamic campaign modes, with a northern Europe setting. It was one of several games from the period to popularise the use of a “padlock” view, where the player’s viewpoint would follow the selected target, simulating the movement of the pilot’s head. It also supported early attempts at virtual reality goggles.
For a long time, PC magazines positioned EF2000 as the very best of the best that flight sims had to offer — it’s just a shame that very few people at the time of its original release had the hardware to get it running well! This is one that’s long overdue a rerelease.
So those are our picks! As always, our list is by no means exhaustive and we’d love to hear your thoughts, too. What are some of your favourite combat flight sims from over the years? First person to say something beginning with “Ace Combat” gets a hearty thumbs-up from the Retrounite team.