The 1984 DOS game Flightmare is a unique blend of strategy and action set in a futuristic wasteland. The player pilots fighter planes to protect Omegan factories from desert vandals in a post-apocalyptic conflict. Gameplay consists of two modes: the map phase and the combat phase. The the map phase shows troop and factory positions while fierce dogfights erupt during combat sequences. Some aspects of gameplay were very experimental for the time, and come across today as silly and unintuitive, but there is a rewarding and entertaining experience underneath the dust.
When the game starts the player is greeted by a series of screens explaining the conflict and briefly describing gameplay. The year is 2345 and the human race has been mostly wiped out by some unmentioned disaster. The only people left are the Omegans, “the last group of civilized people,” and the vandals, a band of desert warriors that entertain themselves by attacking Omegan factories. The Omegans fight in the air, and their fighters must be piloted to victory against vandal aggression.
The vandals attack in waves, and each wave contains a mix of three vehicle types. They have motorcycle squads that roam the desert, driven by “marauding beatnicks who revel in the destruction of Omegan factories.” Tougher than motorcycles, trucks can only be brought down by a shot to the tires. In the air, the vandals defend the ground vehicles with planes, either by escorting them or attacking Omegan planes. Sometimes, they’ll even launch an ambush from behind a supply blimp. As a last line of defense, the vandals may fire a heat seeking rocket when the player destroys all ground vehicles from a wave.
The Omegans presence in the desert consists of a force of planes, factories, a supply blimp, and an airfield. The player takes off from the airfield in the map phase. At the end of every wave, each standing factory sends a new plane to the airfield. Planes are lost when they crash or are shot down in battle; when all the planes are gone the game is over.
Gameplay starts by showing a bird’s eye view of the desert in a map phase. The airfield on the right contains a cluster of planes, with one flashing. The flash indicates the plane is under control of the player. Factories that need to be protected are littered throughout the landscape and a supply blimp floats above the desert, moving around over the course of the game. Enemy squads from the left can be seen rushing towards the factories. The player may move his plane to these roaming groups of rabblerousers, and when they collide combat begins (initiating a resupply with the blimp works in the same way).
The map phase is a major point of innovation in Flightmare, sharing qualities with a then emerging genre we now call real time strategy. Each side has an army, and the player has some buildings to protect. In this case, the player can only control one unit at a time, but troops must be positioned in real time to protect assets. The decisions made in the overhead view are important, even though the majority of gameplay happens in combat. Reacting slowly or choosing to intercept the wrong gang of leather clad troublemakers can lead to the destruction of a factory, ultimately depriving planes from future battles. Factories are, in a sense, a resource that allow creation of new troops. Protecting factories leads to a larger air force, and having a lot of lives can make combat less stressful.
The player controls an armed plane during the combat phase. Motorcycles controlled by the computer, that don’t fire back, must be eliminated. In later levels, squadrons of planes and trucks are added. The planes shoot back and the trucks have smaller targets of vulnerability. Once the motorcycles and trucks have been killed off, a heat seeking missile gets fired in the overhead view. This missile chases the player and must be intercepted in the map phase, and then evaded in combat until it explodes. When this missile has been fired and evaded, the next wave begins.
During combat the screen is split into two sections: the side view and the overhead view. Using both of these views, the player must control the plane in three dimensions using the keyboard. The left hand controls the bottom using a subset of the alphabet keys while the right hand controls the top using the number pad. Gaining enough altitude to leave the screen or killing all the enemies will return the player to the the map phase.
This was an interesting concept at the time of development, but unfortunately it has not aged well. Controlling the plane requires swapping focus between the views, disrupting the flow of the action. For motorcycles this is fine, the player can line up with them on the bottom screen and then direct attention to the top screen to make the kill. Once trucks are introduced the same concept applies, but control must be precise. Trucks can only be killed by shooting at their tires, all while the terrain is quickly shifting up and down. If altitude isn’t gained quickly enough after a round of shots is fired, the plane will likely explode when it hits the side of a hill.
To kill enemy planes, the process is trickier. They fly in a straight line through the middle of the bottom view. Avoiding enemy shots is a matter of flying to the side, instead of directly in front or behind. During this time, the top view can be used to match an enemy’s altitude. A pass through the middle on the bottom view coupled with a burst of fire will award a kill. This works, but is sometimes difficult because the planes change altitude as the action unfolds. This requires that attention move between views, and where the limitations of the design become most apparent. The controls can be frustrating while trying to pull this off; in the heat of battle it can be difficult to keep track of which keys move what directions. This leaves the player feeling like they are fighting with the controls, instead of enemy vehicles.
The difficulty is not generated by the control scheme alone, however. There are 24 levels, each named for a letter of the Greek alphabet. In Alpha wave, you must deal with two squads of motorcycles as an introduction. Beta wave ramps things up considerably, as they add four fast moving planes to the mix. Factories will be lost if decisions aren’t made quickly right from the start. Troop positioning in the map phase can be a pain point if you don’t know exactly where to go, and enemy forces continue to grow dramatically with each wave.
I played this game obsessively as a child without a Nintendo, but compared to modern games, the learning curve feels a bit too steep and the game comes across as a novelty from an ancient age. In a couple hours of playing for the purposes of this review, I was unable to even finish the second attack wave. Difficulty is not necessarily a bad thing however. Due to the difficulty, success in Flightmare is extremely satisfying. In Flightmare’s defense, games were much harder in the early 80’s when developers were trying to extract quarters from teenagers, as opposed to the recent trend of making people feel warm and fuzzy about their recent $60 purchase. Flightmare is freeware however, and was probably simply designed with the difficulty of the era in mind.
The graphics, too, are typical of the time. Like many PC games of the time, one of the CGA four color palettes was used. Everything in the game is cyan, magenta, white, or black. I think using the red/green/brown CGA palette could have made a better looking game. A composite RGB mode is available, but does not alter the graphics significantly. Everything looks like it should, planes, motorcycles, trucks, factories, and blimps all look like they are supposed to. The lack of flashy graphics leaves a crystal clear focus on gameplay, but the opportunity is not wasted to augment the graphics with a story that helps crate an image in your mind.
An advantage to the sparse graphics of the time is that we are given free reign to see the world any way we choose. Our imaginations can fill in the gaps. This process mimics the way we imagine a book more than it does a modern video game. The player can imagine an entire world on top of the simple story and images, this isn’t as true with modern graphics. One might even argue there are no graphics better than what the imagination can see!
One of the successes of Flightmare was the personality injected into the presentation. The story conjures images of a Mad Max world where an epic battle is played out between the “civilized” and the “beatniks.” During the action sequences, there is a marquee that announces the battle to the player. It broadcasts when the player is lined up with motorcycles and truck tires, and sometimes directs the player to action (like suggesting the player dock with the blimp). When there isn’t anything meaningful to communicate, the off-topic marquee quotes are a sometimes humorous touch. “Win one for the Gipper” and “Vote for Reagan in ‘84” are a couple of my favorites. Most games sharing the disk with Flightmare did not have this much personality injected into them, or any motivation at all beyond reaching for a high score.
In the end, Flightmare winds up being a solid shot at creating something new: an early attempt at 3D gameplay before widespread 3D graphics and an early attempt at real time strategy before widespread RTS success. The easily dissuaded will feel daunted by Flightmare’s difficulty, but those who can handle the learning curve will spend many exciting evenings quelling the vandal threat.