Thursday, August 17, 2023

F-15 Strike Eagle (1984, PC-98)

Name:F-15 Strike Eagle (PC-98)
Genre:Flight Sim
Time:5 hours
Won:No (73W/62L)

This has been an interesting road back to this game. At first I wasn't so sure I was going to play this again after all, but then I got around to playing some of the different versions. I found myself playing the C64, Atari 800, PC-88 and Atari ST versions before deciding on this one. Despite technically coming out four years later, this is close enough to the original experience that there's no much point in considering it a different game. It's just enough that it feels like cheating, yet close enough that there's not much point it not playing it over the DOS or Atari ST version. I know enough of the others to bring up any comparisons.

The F-15 was the aircraft. It can do anything you can imagine, and it can do it pretty well. When it was introduced, it was basically unstoppable in air-to-air combat, as the only time it was ever shot down by another plane was...another F-15. It's not even some cool thing, one Japanese F-15 pilot accidentally shot a Sidewinder at another F-15 pilot. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when that happened.

And further, judging by that link, outside of maybe three shot down by AA fire, F-15 losses have been mostly crashes in exercises and mechanical faults. As some dumbass LARPing as a pilot in video games, it makes me feel less dumb to know that a lot of people in real planes crashed into each other. That said, considering the port I'm playing, it's mildly amusing bit of dark comedy to consider the possibility that the only person to ever shoot down a F-15 played this version of this game.

With a nice fancy title and a tune that brings to mind the vastness, the game starts up. There are seven loactions, Libya, Egypt, Haiphong, Syria, Hanoi, Iraq and Persian Gulf. This is similar in practice to the Ace games that Microprose previously made in which you had a bunch of missions and playing through them all counted as a campaign. Unlike in those this is actually a rough implementation of that as opposed to, you're in the sky over somewhere, it doesn't matter where, shoot down 1 plane.

Now you can fight multiple planes and now there's a whole game world to it. That actually kind of exists. There are mountains in the distance, below you is shifting ground and sea, and by following your little map, you can see various targets, SAM sites and landing strips. It's like you're really there!

Okay, technically that's just the PC-98 and PC-88 versions, most versions are just an endless wireframe landscape. You can make this version that too. It's honestly amazing to me how much this small change improves the game, because without it this gameworld is very easy to get lost in. Your map doesn't show what direction you're flying in and the heading is in rotational degrees, for some reason that I don't understand. (in every version it's rotational degrees) I understand it in context of 3d design and creating 3d game worlds, but when it comes to actually playing a game, call me old-fashioned , but I like compass directions.

Controls are very nice. The numpad moves you around, while pressing a direction + shift changes your view. This was what had me most concerned about this version, because it's very similar to the Dynamix games in execution, very smooth and the problems are more with the plane than the controls. Well, kind of. It's just good enough to be workable, yet that makes the flaws all the more apparent.

While I'm sure some of this is down to the plane, it feels like the plane stalls out a lot. Even in places I wouldn't otherwise expect. I'm assuming high up the problem is too little air resistance, but down below it if I take a turn too hard suddenly beeping starts and I start falling. Joy. It also feels too imprecise, which wasn't a problem originally, because you didn't have to do too much, but...well, I'll get to why that's a problem.

Originally, the game was less smooth, though still far better than any other game I've played chronologically, with only a back view. In that case you wouldn't even know you had a back view unless you checked the manual.

 You get quite the decent selection of weapons. Space shoots, while G selects the gun, M & S select short and medium range missiles, while B selects the bomb. Pay attention to the target indicator on the front, missiles only track targets while in that circle. You do not want to miss with a missile. Because you don't want to have to shoot an enemy. Having to shoot another plane is practically impossible.

Bombing a target is similarly precise, but at least the target isn't moving. Though bombing has it's own problem in that if you have multiple targets within your viewfinder and the autotargeting system picks the wrong one, you aren't hitting it, ever.

Sound is pretty good, far better than a game from the '80s has a right to be. The engine is a gimme, but missile firing and hitting sounds are just so satisfactory. Even if you miss it feels pretty good. A lot of beeping though, which is good/bad, since that's just like a real plane. It does work to heighten the tension, perhaps too much.

There's still a lingering feeling that I have no idea what half the equipment on my plane does. Missile heading my way? Just toss out chaff and a flare, one will fix the issue. What's a flip? It wasn't in the western releases and I'm not sure what it does.
I like the GUI here. You know, except that little rotational degrees thing. All the bits of information you need, right in front of you. Height, speed, and anything else. 

Map on the left, ammo on the right, and the rest in the middle. I do wish there was some way to have the radar activate all around you rather than just in front, because it's just not fun trying to find an enemy plane by sight alone.

Your objective in all missions is to bomb a target labeled primary objective, a box on the map. Other targets are SAM sites, which look like little mountains and airbase, which look like crosses. Your friendly landing site is a filled in box.

The modern problem of air warfare basically taking place so far apart that the two planes are just specks in each other's eyes is irrelevant in 1984, because we can't actually depict anything else anyway. It doesn't really matter if you see a wireframe plane, because you should have shot him down already. I know I should have, yet somehow I end up in long drawn out fights against enemy planes. Despite the general difficulty of the game, I rarely feel like I'm in danger from dogfighting, at least as long as I still have missiles and defensive measures.

Difficulty only plays a role in how much is thrown at you, on practice, you're safe, this replaces western releases arcade mode. On rookie, enemy planes start appearing, but nothing that should cause you any problems. On pilot SAMs start shooting at you and there are a lot of planes. A lot. Ace turns the game into a rousing session of "get shot down and die". I played for a while on rookie, but decided pilot would be the fairest rating of the game.

But mostly enemies themselves stay the same, it's just volume that changes. Even in the first mission, enemies are weaselly and do not want to get shot down. Each time you start there's already an enemy on you, and you have to shoot these guys down fast or risk ending up with three on your tail. You can run away to your objectives, but taking out airfields doesn't stop the onslaught and SAMs only buy you safer airspace. So, rush the objective, then rush home. Fight enemy planes as little as necessary. Unfortunately, that's difficult.

Libya, the second mission, isn't too bad on rookie. On pilot? Well, I saw two enemy planes straight out of the gate and the west is just swimming in SAM sites. This is what happens every single time you start this mission. There is no change, ever. You better be the air superiority fighter alone, because you are going to get hit by an unrelenting barrage of enemies while trying to take out something so you have a chance of actually taking out the primary objective sometime this century. It feels almost impossible to do this in the sheer amount of crap the game throws at you. I can land to resupply, but...

So in most regular versions you land the plane by just flying low and slow enough over a certain area and you get repaired and resupplied. Flying low is true here. Thanks to the increased fidelity of the game, you kind of have to land the plane. Kind of, because it is and isn't landing. You approach the landing strip/air carrier, you decrease your speed, and you lower your altitude until you're under 500, but not likely to crash. As you get closer, you decrease your speed and you hit the ground the strip is on at a slight angle. It's landing in the technical sense, but actually doing it is bizarre, it's more like crashing.

If this is too hard for you, you can always just ditch the plane near the carrier and get the chance to do it all again. Screw the American taxpayers! Considering how dangerous it is to land the plane, worse if you got hit, this is probably what you're going to be doing unless you're a crazy person trying to do all 7 missions in one run. At least I assume you can't just ditch a plane and continue when you're playing all 7 missions.

This weird landing thing doesn't really work. Yes, we have enough fidelity to depict this thing, but we don't have enough to depict the kind of landstrip that feels like you could land on. This bears out with how landing actually works, you can land just as safely from the side as from the front of the landing strip. You know, assuming the place you end up bailing out from doesn't cause you to get captured. There's a lot of time wasted in this game.

What I've been doing is the A-10 kind of thing, hug the ground as much as possible in the hopes that your enemy can't shoot low enough. That doesn't work here, because on pilot and higher, there's turbluence there, meaning you aren't steady. Thus it's difficult to keep your plane out of the ground, let alone bomb something. So I try the other way, going from 36k feet down. The first time I do this the game kills me just as I bomb the target, VMax. Which is apparently something to do with my arteries, in short, I probably exploded from the inside out or something. Or a super heart attack. I'm not looking that one up too closely.

It doesn't help, because turning at this height is impossible for me, yet my enemies are zipping around like it's nothing. I am literally worse off up here than near the ground. Sure, the SAMs can't hit me, but it doesn't matter if I get shot down by an enemy fighter for once and I lose anyway if I try to bomb the target. This bodes extremely poorly for later missions. I suppose I could knock the difficulty back, but without SAMs every mission is a cakewalk once you have the controls down. It would be really nice if one of these difficulties struck a balance between "the computer is going easy on you" and "NATO has been nuked so hard there are holes where the countries used to be, the entire might of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact is coming after you, you will die".

Which begs the question, how difficult is ace difficulty? No more difficult than pilot, well, except you don't seem to be able to ditch. At all. Clearly, someone somewhere along the line screwed up a line of code describing how insane the game gets, and somewhere along the line everything from ace except the score got copied over to pilot. Right, well, it looks like I can't really finish this version. Yeah, I can play on rookie, but there the only problem is that is boring, fighting off the occasional plane. But I would have to, otherwise the second I get near a target my radar is going to light up like a Christmas tree and I'll get hit by so many rockets that only ash will remain.

I think that's a shame, but what can you do? Later missions up the stakes, increasing the number of SAMs and primary targets, until the final one in which three primary targets are just surrounded by SAMs.

There are four weapons, which can be divided into one ground and three air targeting weapons. One of the air targeting weapons is useless while the other two are range dependant. They're mostly satisfying to use, though difficult to aim. 3/10

Enemy planes do not play by the same rules that the player does. Which would be fine, if they weren't really competent. I can only thank my continued survival to the F-15's superior capabilities rather than my own skill. Ground targets are varied, but only one fights back. 4/10


The game doesn't really have a lot to successfully balance, and it shows, considering that the game's only method of increasing the difficulty is to just spam more SAM sites. 1/10

Player Agency:
Controls beautifully at first, until the cracks begin to show and you wonder why someone thought this would be a great game to have something resembling a landing in. 5/10

Technically none.

Despite the broken nature, it did a good job of emulating a jet fighter environment. You can feel like you're there, for a moment, until you have to bomb another wireframe building. 3/10

This feels like the bare minimum of what you can get away with that technically depicts a world. It's not very appealing, but you can find your way around once you get used to it. Sprites are nice, but I'm not looking at any of those outside of the GUI for any length of time. 1/10


It's just 8-bit stuff, but somehow the roar of a missile or the pounding of a successful hit just feels great. 3/10

That's 20, which is actually twice what it was before. I actually gave both the same amount of agency. Fancy that. It also puts it as the current best game of 1984, though I hope that changes.

I'm not sure I recommend F-15 Strike Eagle. It blows previous flight sims out of the sky like you blow MiGs out of the sky, but each version has it's own unique problems which make it hard to play. Western releases have awful framerates, this release has no medium mode, and the PC-88 version has broken controls. Nobody wins. Of course, as a game of historical relevance, it's very important.

Next up, we're finally going to put an end to 1991 with Armored Trooper Votoms: Dead Ash. It's gonna be weird.

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