Flight Simulator II - In-depth Amiga Written Review With Pics

Flight Simulator II
Amiga, 1986 (Original Apple II 1983)

*Alphabetical list of writings
*Check out the Kilr Gamer
*Game shown on its designed NTSC hardware, pics of 4:3 CRT screen

In an office in the city of Santa Clara California, 1984, a team of designers worked feverishly on a custom chipped computer built around the Motorola 68000 processor. Many may know the story of how Jay Miner, Dave Needle, R.J. Mical, Dave Morse, and perhaps even Mitchy the Dog came together to create one of the most legendary single computer models of all time, the Amiga. Often neglected in this story telling is another legendary designer, Bruce Artwick. According to Computer Gaming World, Artwick had been plucked away from SubLogic's Illinois offices and was working just as frantically on the Amiga as any other on that team, though with a slightly different goal in mind.

Entering into a contract with Amiga Corporation, he was to produce 3D drivers for the then grey boxed Amiga, as well as port his already mythical game Flight Simulator to it. Originally created for the Apple II in 1979, the first incarnation of the venerable program certainly shows its age today, featuring mostly wire framed graphics, very little color, and gauges perhaps not yet worthy of the title of simulation (though it was looked at as quite impressive at the time). When Microsoft approached Artwick to do a straight translation of Flight Simulator to the IBM PC, he was instead so excited about the new 16-bit technology he decided to make a whole new program to benefit from the new platform. "Microsoft Flight Simulator" would end up being ported back to the Apple II as Flight Simulator II in 1983. A version 2.0 published by Microsoft would come out in 1984 for the PC, as well as versions for the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bits through SubLogic. As excited by the new Amiga as he was for the IBM, Artwick worked on making it the third generation of Flight Simulator, then Commodore came to the door...

^Starting at Meigs in Chicago, taking off, crashing

It appears that while Commodore wanted the Amiga and its team to come over to them, buying the company and paying off debts to Atari, the arrangement did not include the work Artwick had done to that point on Flight Simulator II. Another mind boggling questionable decision by Commodore, who also once decided not to give the producers of Star Trek IV an Amiga when they asked for one, telling them to buy one instead. The Amiga's part in that movie would famously go to the Macintosh. Wouldn't surprise me if Commodore felt Sublogic should simply have wanted to make their game for a computer that wasn't even out yet, with no guarantee of making a profit.

In another exciting "what if?" game highlighting the Amiga, what if Commodore had actually released this game at the Amiga's launch in 1985? The Amiga launched with a buggy paint program available, a not yet ready for prime time word processor, and no worthwhile games which had been catered lovingly to the system. It really wouldn't be until late 1986 when some companies finally got around to their first steps in taking advantage of the system. We'll never know, and perhaps FSII wouldn't have been as impressive at it turned out to be given the delays to launching it as a full SubLogic title. With no monetary aid from Commodore, the Amiga version was shelved while Artwick went to the Mac, releasing that version in early 1986. Finishing up the Amiga version at that point, while porting it straight to the Atari ST as well, those versions would come out in late 1986. Better late than never!
^Exploring Downtown Chicago, landing

It can't be understated just how impressive this program already was prior to the Amiga's release. If your clone PC wanted to be called an "IBM Compatible" it had to run two programs; Lotus 1-2-3, and Flight Simulator II. In 1985 it was listed on the Billboard Software Charts as the second top selling entertainment program, and by late 1988, after its Amiga release, it had been on the U.S. sales charts for two hundred and fifty weeks. I saw references to it selling from hundreds of thousands of copies to surpassing the million sales mark (all versions combined). Most titles prior to this had either been arcade ports or games designed to emulate arcade experiences. No arcade was going to put you behind the flight stick for the then state of the art general aviation Cessna, and to have it actually press down upon you a feeling of the real thing.

While other versions of Flight Simulator II had already been declared as revolutionary, this Amiga version put them all to shame! What few buildings dotted the landscape in previous releases were often see-through wire frames, the lines of area roadways hard to distinguish from the lines of airports. On the Amiga there was finally a good use of color filling in the lands with solid greens, rivers of dark blue, skys of light, grey concrete runways. While buildings were still on the rarer side of scenery, they were much more detailed here. If you want to know just how third generation the Amiga version of Flight Simulator II actually was, you need look no further than Microsoft's version 3.0, which was a direct port of the Amiga version combined with the scenery disks. 4.0, released not that long after 3.0, was also built upon the Amiga release of II.
^Amiga default scenery compared with IBM versions 2.0 and 3.0, the Learjet and WW1 Ace Mode

The Gates Learjet 25g was added to this Amiga version, a five hundred mile per hour multi jet propulsion plane. This is really the games built in "fun", or non serious mode. The actual panel of the aircraft does not change at all, though you can use aerial spot plane views to get a nice look at this model craft. The various camera angles outside of the cockpit were also first added here, featuring quite impressive 3D models for 1986. While it is fun heading from Detroit to Chicago in thirty minutes like a real passenger jet would offer you, I'd claim the real fun lies in the slower but more realistic Cessna.

Also featured, as in previous releases, was a special World War 1 mode. The Cessna, which the main game models, while a state of the art consumer plane of the early 80's, is quite similar to the top of the line military craft in the first World War. So in terms of the actual flying of a WW1 craft, Flight Simulator II does it rather well, minus the added retractable landing gear in this case. Several magazines of the time period had a lot of good things to say about this mode, again another "fun" mode added on to hopefully get the attention of non serious players. Still, the actual combat featured in the WW1 Ace mode leaves quite a bit to be desired. The flying of the plane might be a simulation, but the bullets spitting forth from your plane, with no sound, and the enemy instantly bursting into a cloud of dust is quite arcade in nature. I feel that compared with games that came after, this mode will satisfy neither arcade gamers or those into simulations, though it is noteworthy in its earliness to that genera.
^From Meigs to Chicago O'Hare at night, taxiways at the airport

The Cessna Turbo Skylane RGII is the main focus of the simulator. The cockpit panels are a mostly accurate depiction of the aircraft, with some liberties taken for screen space considerations. Certain levels of realism can be toggled on or off. Crashes, fuel, and even randomized panel or engine failures can be lived with and overcome, or completely forgotten about. In my tour I wanted everything to be as realistic as possible, minus the percentage based instrument failures, as I viewed them as insanely unrealistic. Instrument panel lights, for example, would more than likely last over twenty years, they wouldn't be burning out every ten minutes as can happen here.

I controlled my engines, starting them up and shutting them down. The game even caused me to become curious about the effects of certain options in the game. Why can I turn on just one or another magneto? What even is a magneto? I first experimented with using just one mag to see if it helped my fuel economy on longer trips. My determination was that it certainly didn't help, and may have hurt fuel consumption, so I kept to using them both. And while the manual, approaching two hundred pages with quite a bit of detail on how to work your aircraft, I found to be quite poor at explaining that particular function. So the game caused me to actually look this stuff up in real life, to find out that mags are a substitute for a generator, working more reliably. Each set controls different spark plugs. The reason for including them in the game is so you can first start and listen to one of them, switch to the other, and should you find one sounds different you can then lean out or richen the fuel mixture, so that they'll both run and sound the same.
^Airports at night, using the NAV and ADF radios

I found working with the instrument gauges, in combination with the close to three hundred pages worth of maps (that's in addition to the two hundred page manual) to be the most enjoyable feature of the game. There's nothing quite like studying your maps, setting up your NAV radios, and knowing that even in the dead of night with few visual clues to help guide the way, you're still going to find your destination. Newer simulators, incorporating GPS systems, become a matter of selecting your destination, a flight plan is created for you, and you can autopilot your way there. By contrast here you'll have to study a bit ahead of time. There's plenty of time to make adjustments in the air, but these incredible navigational "feelie" maps which came with this game will require your use, and perhaps it gives this old title something worthwhile that is hard to recapture in newer versions.

I'll mention some individual gauges and how best to use them, though it is never my goal to teach others how to play a game. I am a lover of games exploring my thoughts and detailing my experiences, the worst crime I can think of in a review for a classic is to insult the intelligence of those who already know the game. For those who have never played, it is my sincere goal to write in a way that will make them want to experience it themselves. If the idea of learning all these gauges seems like a daunting task, don't worry, you're in good company, for it was no different for me. I was inspired to dive into Flight Simulator II through witnessing The Kilr Gamer's love for it. I found myself watching him, reading the manual, going back to see how he was using things, experimenting myself, and eventually figuring it all out. Mastering this virtual plane ended up feeling like a genuine gaming accomplishment.
^From the Grand River on scenery disk 9, to fog and the Mackinac Bridge, scenery disk 11 map, zooming in

One navigational aid is the Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), tuning your ADF to a non directional beacon provides what I believe to be the simplest form of getting yourself around in the game. Simply tune in the station and turn until the needle on that gauge points to "0", you'll be heading straight for it. While this was once the primary aid for flying, even by the early 1980's it was falling out of use. While they are scattered about in FSII (mostly in default scenery areas), using them will be a rare occurrence in this game and will be done mostly for a change of pace. Primarily you'll be using your two NAV radios to get yourself around.

You can use your NAV radios in several ways, primarily I used them for pointing me directly to a VOR station, keeping in line with a station behind me while waiting for another to pick up, or through entering a desired heading in the omni-bearing indicator and waiting for the needle on that gauge to center itself. If you want to go directly to a station, click and hold the down arrow to the bottom left of an OBI gauge until the needle centers itself and reads "to" rather than "from". The top of that gauge will show a heading on it, turn until your compass is on that heading. You can keep in line with a station your going away from by doing that same procedure except making sure the gauge reads "from". By plotting your course ahead of time via your maps, you may desire a specific heading to be taken at a later point in the flight. Consult your maps, tune in the OBI to your decided heading, and wait until the needle on the gauge centers itself, where you'll then turn to your inputted heading. Again, you'll likely need to read the manual,  watch how it's done, and experiment with it yourself before you truly grasp this aspect of the NAV radios.
^Using the ADF and NAV 1 to head to a destination, wind, a steep but smooth landing

Flying with Visual Flight Rules is certainly possible, but you'll likely have to be familiar with a given area to succeed here. Roads are surprisingly plentiful, showing up with more visibility here in 1986 than they did in much later simulators. I was especially impressed with the roads in Detroit on scenery disk 11; Interstates, U.S. highways, state highways, and even local roads were showing up. But even in default scenery areas you will be seeing at the very least interstates, and they'll often lead you toward a visible airport. Many rivers or lakes show up as well, all accurately represented. The included maps are mostly for radio navigation, but some areas may show more geographical features. The areas of Lake Huron toward Michigan's upper peninsula and into Canada have few radio vors, necessitating VFR flying of the surrounding islands or careful planning via the few radio aids available.

Speaking of scenery; The default program features the areas of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Seattle. The 68000 versions start off near San Francisco, while other versions not only don't start off there, but don't have it available to them period. I believe there's a possibility that the history of this version being worked on at Amiga's offices had a lot to do with this area being included and defaulted to. There were a further seven scenery disks available for separate purchase for the Amiga. Thirteen had been created in total, though the Amiga would not receive any of the disks which came out prior to the Amiga's release, and older versions such as the Commodore 64 didn't get the final disks. Two disks were also advertised but never released for any systems. If you're going to dive into this one I strongly recommend getting hold of as many scenery disks as you can. From major cities' multiple runway airports to the smallest of rural landing strips, these disks expand the program exponentially.
^Exploring a bit of Canada, back via Niagara Falls

For me the fun was in knowing I had such a wealth of places in which to visit, in which to compare the 16-bit nature of the machine to my real world knowledge. I wasn't looking to get into all the things the title got wrong, for even new versions of these programs often get certain details surprisingly off, but just how much did they get right? Starting off on scenery disk 9 in Chicago, going north to Wisconsin and crossing every single Great Lake on our scenic route to Detroit, I was immensely impressed with just how much was done right. It was in knowing that all these areas were available which peeked my initial excitement. What can I experience that can compare with what I already know? What else might be along these routes which I've never seen before? From my takeoff in the Windy City to my final stop in Motown, everything that came in-between had been reached in real time.

When I landed at an airport, I refueled (if available) and saved. I loaded up from that exact spot, and if my fuel reserves were low, I conserved it as best I could until I could make it to an airport with gas. If I crashed while attempting to land, which had happened mostly in the beginning of my journey, I'd try again from the starting airport, doing the whole flight over. I never inputted my coordinates (although you could) to start, the plane I lifted off with in the beginning of my journey was the exact one I touched down at the end with. I covered just two scenery disks in detail after playing for a couple months, and I didn't come close to exhausting those areas, and there's so much more in which to explore. Now I want to slowly have fun and cover it all, it'll be a year plus journey don't you ave any doubts about it, what bang for your buck back in 1986, wouldn't you say?
^Pittsburgh and Detroit, ILS landing approaches

A select number of the larger airports feature an Instrument Landing System frequency to tune your NAV radio to. In reality these larger airports would have multiple ILS frequencies for most of their runways, and even many smaller airports would have them, but here they are a rare but fun treat to behold. When tuning an ILS frequency into NAV1 you'll be presented with both a horizontal and vertical needle (tuning into NAV2 will leave out the horizontal needle), giving you a glide scope for your lancing approach. Using this system theoretically would allow you to land with no visibility, though in this game it's not implemented quite perfectly. Generally here the system will get you lined up with the runway and descending at an optimal and safe rate (eventually), though it often times goes off track here and there, meaning you'll probably have to brake from it when you think you're lined up correctly.

Originally when encountering these frequencies I kind of shrugged them off as an "easy" mode and preferred flying in manually. But with many aircraft systems, your mastering of the aids available will make things easier eventually, but learning how to actually use them correctly is rather difficult. If you're used to flying combat simulators this craft is not going to control the way you're expecting it. I felt landing on an aircraft carrier in FA/18 was a rather difficult task to accomplish, but landing this Cessna on a normal airfield I found to be much more difficult. Throttle, flaps, even your gear, these all had much more impact on the plane than your joystick position. If you were to "chase" the ILS scope by moving your joystick up or down, you won't be having a very fun time. It's the same thing if you're wanting to fly under the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, forget about the joystick and master your throttle and flaps. By using the ILS frequencies when they're available you'll end up getting a much better feel for the aircraft in all aspects of flying.
^Home sweet home, Detroit

The largest complaint I could file against Flight Simulator II involves the non centering nature of the games likely controls. I played it with my long used Wico Ergostick joystick, a micro-switched digital joystick which is heaven to play many games with on the Amiga. Not so for Flight Simulator II. Be you turning to the left or right, going up, or going down, you're sure to have several crashes using a digital joystick until you've figured out the best way to use it. Specifically, it's by shifting use away from it in combination with your keyboard. I can't tell you how many stalls I encountered due to the elevator going too high, or how many crashes were the result of turning out of control when I turned too far in one direction and tried to compensate in the other. This would not be an issue with an analog flight stick, as by simply letting go of it the joystick will center itself. Now, FSII on the Amiga is actually a rare Amiga game to support the use of analog joysticks, so you may want to look into one if you're wishing to dive in. Still, the most likely control schemes for this game will not allow for self centering.

A few magazines of the time praised the Amiga and ST version's added use of a mouse not just for dealing with cockpit gauges, but for actually flying the plane. By simply right clicking you're instantly taken to mouse yoke mode, controlling several flight functions through its use. This might be a blessing if you're using the mouse to fly, but if you're not you'll certainly throw a few curses at your mouses way when an unintended right click sends you out of control. The mouse is an analog device, but as far as I'm concerned you're far more likely to get into a crash using that thing, which also does not self center.

Later Flight Simulation games for the Amiga would program digital joystick controls with a self centering nature, and I certainly wish it had at least been an option here. I usually had my right hand at the ready near the "5" key on the number pad, which centers your rudder and aileron, though I still needed to keep an eye on my elevator to make sure I wasn't approaching the automatic stall near the top. If you get yourself into a stall and become frustrated with crashing, just remember you have to go down to go up. Bring your elevator down, increase your throttle, deal with your flaps, and that should hopefully get you out of most undesired stalls. You can also control the game completely through the keyboard, but I do find the mix of keyboard and joystick to be the easiest and the most fun.
^Under the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, over Belle Isle Park, flyby of GM World HQ (Owned by Ford in 1986 though)

While I'd say the most fun lies in exploring the wealth of scenery offered in the add-ons, there's quite a lot to keep you busy even on the original game disk. Flight Simulator II blew people's minds when it was originally released, and the Amiga version upped the stakes quite a bit, this version being the basses for the next two Microsoft versions on PC. Even in 2020 when I came to this 1986 title and noticed all of the taxi-ways showing up at Chicago O'Hare fireworks were shooting off in my head. Virtually all magazines of the era had nothing but the highest praise for this title. Five out of five stars, Info. Also from Info, fifth best simulation game of '89. Twenty-third best Amiga game of all time, Amiga World. Tops in Amiga entertainment '87, Ahoy. Best flight simulation software '89, Compute. Finalist best head to head game '88, Commodore Magazine. Essential Amiga entertainment, Amiga User. Amiga classic, Amiga-Plus. And the seventy-ninth best computer game of all time, Computer Gaming World.

Simulations don't often get the respect they deserve in the years that follow their initial release, as invariably it's felt that the next in the line betters it. I don't think it's as clear cut as all that, I've seen things taken away in an effort for more global coverage. The bit-mapped satellite images from late 90's and early 2000's sims I feel show their age far more than this title from 1986. Here the roads and rivers couldn't be more clearly defined, you'll have to look really close to see them in later versions. While it's hard to argue that eventually things would get far more realistic looking, there's always fun in going back where it all started. They wouldn't be making new versions of this game today if it hadn't been an incredible title years prior. Will it teach you how to fly a real plane? I certainly feel you would be better prepared for flight school if you've taken your steps with various flight simulators. Certain things are probably harder in real life, I wouldn't be surprised if some things were easier on the real thing than right here. You might even become more sensitive to certain things like stalling given how the controls work here, and perhaps you'd be less prone to them in real life. It's an incredibly realistic feeling classic title for a classic system, and while full simulators are certainly not for everyone, those who master this game will enjoy their time without a doubt.

I hope you'll check out my video review for Flight Simulator II, a load of extras were packed in to make it as entertaining as possible while filling it with as much knowledge as I was able. Any magazines referenced here will be cited there and read from. Comparisons with other versions will be shown side by side and you'll see the various instrumentation in action. A special acknowledgment to the Kilr Gamer, who's videos helped fill in the puzzle of this game when the manual wasn't quite cutting it. It's a historic title and I'm glad to have gotten a chance to cover it, and fascinated with the story on how this one was worked at the Amiga offices before Commodore had even bought the company. Always fun though pointless contemplating those what if's regarding the possibility of this becoming a launch title. Heck, given how SubLogic let Microsoft paint their name all over the games title, wouldn't it have been something to have had this called "Commodore's Flight Simulator" and have it standing tall above Microsoft's versions? Readers of this article may also enjoy my looks at F/A 18 Interceptor, World Circuit, or Wing Commander II.

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  1. I wrote the amiga version, - it was my first published game. Nice to see people remember. Ive occasionally run it in emulators for the memories :)


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