Ultimate Air Combat
by Ed

The Combat Flight Simulator (especially the ones with modern day aircraft) has fallen by the wayside in recent years...probably because nobody has a clue how to make one anymore, or the ones that people do make are as hard as a diamond. HAWX really doesn't count since it doesn't have a steep learning curve. In any event, back in the day game developers would experiment with making flight sims on home consoles such as the NES. Many deverlopers would use its primitive technology used to try and create 3D environments and however close you could get to immersion in the early days of video gaming. Most failed or resulted in the difficulty level that gives Nintendo Hard its name, as is the case of Stealth ATF. I mean just look at the gauges they expect you to use when trying to land (by the way, no tutorial is given on landing).

One game however, got it right.

The game was created in 1991 by Activision, just as the NES was slowly dying at the hands of its son the SNES, and it was called, "Ultimate Air Combat". Now you think a game with that title is automatically doomed. Not this one. This is a surprisingly good flight sim for it's time, and it even stands up well today...if you ignore the graphics. Not that they're bad or anything, just some people are too focused on that sort of thing.

The plot is as follows. Somewhere in the Caribbean, or maybe the Mediterranean, General Don Gwano (whose name means General Mafia Don Honorofic Batshit) has, via a military coup, taken over his country, wherever the hell that is, the Batcave Sea, perhaps? Anyway, he now proposes to go invade other countries near him, cause it's cool and he's evil and that's what evil people do. So anyway, a United States Naval Officer, Admiral Cliff Stormdrane (what a name), calls an emergency meeting about this with the President (let's assume it's George H.W. Bush like it would be at the time) Never mind the fact that the White House seems to have the Washington Monument sticking out of it...there's war to be waged!

So anyway, Strormdrane explains that General Batshit has used his oil money to attack his neighbors. That would make you think Batshit looks like Hussien, but instead he looks more like either Mao Tse Tung after 10 rounds with Josef Stalin in a cage match or possibly Hugo Chavez. In fact if it is Hugo Chavez this would be a somewhat hilarious case of precognition about what a dick that guy is.

So, we've got to stop Batshit from attacking, but we can't wage full war. (apparently that's bad for business.). So instead we'll use our newest planes and our best pilot (the player, natch) to launch a series of lightning strikes (31 to be exact), in order to remove the global danger posed by Batshit (insert the Team America monologue about Pussies, Dicks, and Assholes here).

Admiral Stormdrane turns it over Professor Newron (the cheaper, improved, more efficient neuron for the new millenium) to explain the top-of-the-line weaponry that will be at the player's disposal.

Apparently the player will have access to the three greatest planes of the time.

From left to right, the F/A-18C Hornet, the AV-8B Harrier II, and the F-14B Tomcat. Granted in-game they just use the basic designations without variant letters attached but I'm a nerd like that.

These planes aparently all have the benefit of recieving the same molecular-bonded armor as KITT, which means that they can take at least 3 missile hits and shrug it off while still being able to fight a plane. Alternatively, they're A-10 Warthogs in disguise. Unfortunately, Newron spent too much time dicking around at Black Mesa in order to install the new weapons to the planes.

So for now you're stuck with the boring old Sidewinders and Sparrows and Phoenix missiles for AA, and the Rockeye bombs, Harpoon Missiles, some sort of Exocet knockoff called the "SE", AX bombs, and Maverick Missiles for the bombing runs.

So George Sr. goes and tells the Admiral to have fun sending you to blow up shit, and the game begins.

So at the start of each sub-mission (4 sub-missions per operation) you are given a ground target, and a set number of increasingly harder opponents to dogfight as you fly to it. Before you can do that however, you must choose which fighter to fly. Usually you can go with the one that's automatically highlighted, but sometimes variety has its benefits (for example the F-18 and Harrier are better geared towards bombing runs, with the Harrier having a definite edge on naval operations).

Then you are presented with a loadout screen, where you must assign weapons and feul tanks to hardpoints. Or you can just hit "Auto Arm", which works just fine. Then you take off from the carrier (which is CVN-71, the USS Theodore Roosevelt), and you're off to the dogfight.

In the dogfight segments you view the action from inside the cockpit of your chosen plane. Each cockpit is laid out like it's real-world counterpart. Of course, the real world cockpits don't have a wireframe damage indicator in one of the windows, but oh well, maybe they should.

As you begin, a digitized voice sample (which works here since you're recieving things by radio anyway) says "Bogey!", sure enough, a blip appears on your radar. Eventually the plane comes into view, and it's a MiG 29 Fulcrum! How about that? Batshit's country has a good airforce! Well, time for it to die. You can either blow away the plane by using your guns with A, or you can lock on with a missile (which I'll admit is easy in this game...at first.) and fire away with B. Missile flies up tailpipe and boom, no more MiG. Of course, in the first level two more of his friends will show up, but they fall fast too. Following that little diversion, and assuming you didn't burn out all your fuel, the plane autopilots you to the target (which is shown in one of the screens).

You are then presented with a third-person Isometric view simliar in theory to the later "*Location* Strike" series of games. From this view you control your plane, RC Pro-Am style, find the target buildings, bomb them, and go home. No tricky landing shit like in Stealth ATF, that is all done by the computer, although apparently your plane has to be in a landing pattern in order to report your score and level password.

After 3 more escapades (featuring a variety of other bombing targets like navy vessels and the like), you win Mission One, and Newron gets off his butt in order to give you some upgrades. You get an anti-air laser for the F-18

A laser so nice it gets mounted twice

The backfire gun for the F-14

More useless than the Nerf Secret Shot

and more hardpoints for the Harrier, allowing you to carry more bombs, and you didn't even have to pay and old man some rupees for it. Eventually each plane will periodically get hardpoint upgrades as you'll be fighting more and more enemies as you progress. The weapon upgrades get better and weirder though, like the Thunderball AA superweapon

Tom Jones and Sean Connery not included

and the Air-To-Ground Laser.

Actually, this is a shot from Command & Conquer, but the real AGL probably would look something like this

Of course, the game gets harder, and soon you are barrel rolling and firing chaff to avoid missiles as you desperately try to lock onto a maneuvering enemy and toast him, in the hopes that he drops a powerup to repair your damaged radar or engines or whatever that missile hit. Thank god for the molecular-bonded Knight Rider armor, otherwise you'd be cremated when you took that missile to the cockpit. You still have to deal with the effects of damage, though, which are presented in varied way and add to the challenge. The game shines here as each enemy plane in dogfight mode has every viewable angle possible, so that you still feel like your there, if "there" is The Persian Gulf rendered in 48 colors. Perhaps you are really Captain N, only without a narcisstic Simon Belmont as your pilot. Bombing gets harder as you try to match the reticle to your target while evading flak fire and more AA missiles, as well as enemy planes.

But of course you will eventually previal, so to make a long story short, Batshit's military is scrapped, his castle explodes, and you go home a hero. Fun game, really challenging, and a good sign of excellent game design even in the waning days of the NES. Overall I'd say it's pretty much better than any other "flight sim" for the NES, with no real comporable challenger.

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