Format: Amiga Genre: Flight Simulator Released: 1991 Developer: MicroProse
I was playing a demo of Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. the other day. The graphics were superb – the representation of Rio de Janeiro was almost photo-realistic – but the game itself was deathly dull. Like pretty much all modern flight sims, it basically amounts to lining up your sights over some plane or tank that’s so far away you can’t actually see it, waiting for a lock on, then pressing the fire button. *Yawn*
Unfortunately, it seems that as real-life planes rely more and more on flight computers to navigate and select targets, the computer games based on them become less and less enjoyable. Perhaps by the time we reach Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 10 you won’t even need to do anything – you could just step outside for a cigarette and let the game play itself.
Thank heavens then for Knights of the Sky, a blesséd antidote to all this modern fly-by-wire, fire-and-forget, head-up-display, ensure-contents-are-piping-hot nonsense. Here’s a simulation where top speeds rarely climb into triple figures, where fire and forget equates to lobbing a hand grenade out of the cockpit and hoping for the best, and where your head-up display mostly consists of a petrol gauge and a compass. Welcome to World War 1.
The great thing about Knights of the Sky was that you felt completely vulnerable throughout every mission – even just a few direct hits with a machine gun could send you spiralling to a fiery death, which led to some tense dogfights. Pretty much every mission I attempted would end with me coaxing a critically damaged plane back to my home base after a few too many close encounters with the enemy. The wings would be practically falling off, the petrol gauge would be virtually on empty, and I’d be wrestling with the joystick to just keep the plane going in a straight line… Most of the time I didn’t make it, but on the rare occasions where I somehow managed to land my charred mass of wood and canvas back on friendly soil, I’d be practically dancing round the room in excitement. And, to my knowledge, there are very few flight sims that can inspire dancing.
By far the best aspect of this game was the two player mode. There were surprisingly few Amiga games that you could play over a link cable, but these games were among my favourites, and most of them are (or will be) on this list (I’ve already covered one of them – Stunt Car Racer).
Knights of the Sky just came alive in two player mode. As much fun as it was having my plane shot to pieces by nameless Germans, it couldn’t even come close to the sheer thrill of having my plane shot to pieces by my Amiga-500-owning mate who lived round the corner. As I said earlier, dogfights were tense in Knights of the Sky, but they were a good deal tenser when playing against a friend, especially if he unplugged your joystick in the middle of a loop-the-loop (thankfully, the computerised Germans never learned that little trick).
Actually shooting down your opponent’s plane was surprisingly hard – the view from your cockpit was incredibly restrictive (most of your view was taken up by instruments and a bloody great big wing in front), so it was really difficult to keep the other plane within your sights. Also, because the planes were so slow, actually turning round to try and get on the tail of your opponent was a constant struggle. And any slightly more advanced manoeuvres were a risky business – the planes could only fly at low altitude, so if you went into a steep dive there was a good chance you’d end up ploughing into the deck, and climbing steeply would generally cause your plane to stall. In fact, participating in a dogfight was kind of like watching two valium-addled geriatrics wrestling each other for the last Werther’s Original. In slow motion.
However, the very fact that the planes were so completely rubbish was what made Knights of the Sky so exciting. Because it was so much of a struggle to fly your plane – and even to find, let alone shoot at, your opponent – winning a dogfight created a palpable sense of achievement. Especially if you could do it without unplugging your opponent’s joystick.
Of course, the game is not without its faults. The graphics, for example, could be politely described as ‘uninspiring’, and they look positively Stone Age by today’s standards. Also, the single player campaign could become a little dull after a while, and there wasn’t really enough variety to hold your interest for extended periods of time.
But for the two player mode alone, Knights of the Sky more than deserves to be on this list, if only because it proves that flights sims can be exciting after all.
(Skip to about the six minute mark to see some dogfighting action.)
P.S. While researching this post, I came across a game called Rise of Flight. Could this be a spiritual successor to Knights of the Sky?
(Screenshots from www.lemonamiga.com)