A classic in every sense of the word.
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat managed to squeeze an awful lot onto a few 5 1/4" floppy disks. It offered six flyable fighter planes, one from each side of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. It made excellent use of a 256 color palette, with beautifully drawn cockpits and menus. It also made good use of audio, offering MIDI music and digitized sound through the relatively new 8-bit sound boards of the day. As the main menu loaded, Chuck Yeager's voice would greet you, and he provided pithy commentary at the close of each mission. For those who remember PC gaming back in 1991, this was all quite impressive.
The 52 prepackaged missions, which are based on actual historical engagements, are plentiful and varied. Though there is no real campaign mode, each war offers over a dozen discrete missions with diverse objectives: escorting friendlies, intercepting bombers, attacking airbases, combat air patrol, and so on. The player can also design his own rudimentary engagements, pitting any flyable plane against up to five of any other. Trying to take down a few F-4 Phantoms in an FW-190 is more than challenging!
In the air, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat offered a believable and nuanced flying experience. Planes climbed and turned at a realistic rate, speed and altitude significantly affected maneuverability, and combat damage was nicely implemented. Flying too fast could destroy your plane, while flying too slow would cause a stall (accompanied by a remarkably flatulent sound effect). Excessive G-forces caused blackouts and redouts. Pop-up windows offered useful information, like a graphical view of the flight envelope and helpful hints by Chuck Yeager. And enemy A.I. was competent, offering a challenge regardless of any performance advantages of your fighter.
Graphically, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat was by no means innovative, but it was reasonably attractive. Both the 2D menu illustrations and 3D game environments were colorful and nicely detailed. Gameplay graphics, though composed almost entirely of boxy flat-shaded polygons, offered nice touches like semi-transparent clouds and smoke, bitmapped explosions, and a wide variety of camera angles. Terrain was punctuated with hills, fields, buildings, and rivers. Missions could be recorded and saved for playback on a VCR-style replay system. And everything was coded efficiently enough to be playable on a modest 286 with 640KB of memory.
The game box contained a very nice spiral-bound manual that provided step-by-step introduction on the principles of flight, some historical background for the various conflicts and theatres, and full-color schematic illustrations of the flyable airplanes. As a bonus, the box also included a companion VHS tape called “Air Combat” which featured Chuck Yeager relating his experiences as a fighter pilot. The game's informational content alone justified its price tag.
But perhaps the best thing about Chuck Yeager's Air Combat is that in 2009, nearly twenty years after its release, it is still heaps of fun to play. In an era of high-resolution textured graphics and ultra-realistic flight models, its diagrammatic simplicity, cheeky presentation, and engaging gameplay offer a unique and memorable experience that will probably never be duplicated.
A common grievance leveled against the PC version of Chuck Yeager's Air Combat is the omission of multiplayer capability, which for some reason was only offered in the Macintosh version. With such engaging gameplay, it's a shame the sim didn't give friends a chance to blow each other out of the sky, though in its defense, networking was hardly a standard feature on personal computers in the early 1990’s. The game also lacks a mission builder, limiting its replayability since a devoted player could probably master all of the pre-packaged missions in just a few days.
Though air combat is set in three different geographical locations, no effort was made to graphically differentiate the game environments. Whether you're flying over Western Europe, Korea, or Vietnam, you're always staring at the same flat green landscape dotted with occasional hills and fields. There are no large bodies of water, the weather is always sunny, and the time of day never changes.
Realism fans might decry the generous quantities of cannon ammunition supplied with each plane, the lack of rudder controls, or the fact that planes seem to move in slow-motion (apparently because they were scaled-up by the game engine to increase visibility). There are also no enemy SAM or AAA sites to contend with - though they do appear on the ground, they are completely inactive. The cockpits, while attractive, don't provide very informative gauges, which are little more than black circles with red needles, thus forcing the player to resort to using an unrealistic full-screen HUD to see his actual airspeed and altitude.
The Bottom Line
As an air combat simulator, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat achieved a rare feat: it offered a compelling mix of realism, accessibility, and fun. For many proto-enthusiasts of the genre, myself included, it was a great introduction to what would become a lifelong hobby, and nearly twenty years after its introduction, it stands apart as one of the most memorable and enjoyable combat sims ever made.