Friday, February 09, 2007

FRIDAY AFTERNOON GAME CLUB: Bombing Iran, popular entertainment in 1992

Today's newspaper started off with a story on virtual reality games made for and by the military. It's an evergreen story and always features the same characters. In this case, once again the reporter shleps to San Diego to play a video game designed to help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

USC's Institute for Creative Technologies is also given the puff treatment, a place that's always received a free ride. The journalists covering it can't resist the joy of being treated like kings for a day while getting to play with the latest toy. The toys, in ICT's case, have always been advertised as miraculous amalgams of Hollywood's most creative and the cutting edge of the military, the coming together of which fashions little more than immersive console games on combat roleplay action suitable for BestBuy stores.

The boffins involved have ready slogans. In today's case: "From training to toy to treatment," says one. It's enough to make one gag. The reader is asked to swallow some horseshit about how the video game will treat Alzheimer's patients.

Since DD's mother suffers from severe senile dementia, I can assure you this is nothing more than the emptiest of brags.

If curing Alzheimer's as well as post-traumatic stress through video gaming isn't enough for you, ". . . ride atop a Hummvee," entices the newspaper. Do it here.

What is somewhat surprising is that the characters in these newspaper pieces never get the swift kick in the pants they deserve. They cry out for someone to rap them smartly in the teeth with the print version of a baseball bat.

In Ed Halter's From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games, published last year, the ICT videogame makers were given ample space. Halter's book, a very good one, points out not everyone was impressed by the US Army's bankrolling of a USC institute to produce games which just aren't that useful, for sale at your favorite consumer electronics big box store.

The Institute produced Full Spectrum Warrior, allegedly a training tool which also found its way to game stores. In it, one is in Zekistan to fight an insurgency. [It's OK to laugh superciliously now.] It can be assumed at this juncture that everyone at the table must realize, no matter how numbingly besotted with game technology, that Iraq/Zekistan is way beyond what a game might help with.

Halter writes a taxpaper group called ICT's product "full spectrum welfare" -- "a subpar training aid" that had "become a hit video game."

"Maybe [the taxpayer group] isn't looking at this the right way. ICT stands in a long tradition of defense-funded think tanks and now that the subsidized sector is the entertainment industry, one might consider it a new form of massive funding for the arts," writes Halter, a little puckishly, I ... think. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

In any case, it's impossible to read anything about ICT without getting the usual brags and puffery about incredibly brainy people and "Rad experiment in progress."

And all of this is just a DD way to ease into a slightly different discussion on antique PC wargames.

Looking into closets earlier in the week, your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow was surprised to find how many titles involved bombing Iran -- back in the early Nineties.


While all the companies are now out of business, there were two popular titles from Microprose -- F-117A Stealth Fighter and F-15 Strike Eagle II. Three-Sixty Pacific, a small company devoted to wargaming as entertainment, published Megafortress, a game which put you inside techno-thriller author Dale Brown's "Old Dog" -- a souped up B-52. Unsurprisingly, it visited every one of the nations that would vie to become part of the famous Axis of Evil. Megafortress, riding on the fanbase of Dale Brown, one that overlapped male PC hobbyists to a certain extent, spawned two add ons, Operation Sledgehammer -- aimed at Iran and Libya and pictured above, and Operation Skymaster.

And these were only a slice of the full spectrum of combat flight simulators -- DD using the term 'simulator' loosely.

Today, they certainly look like antiques. If you squint at the Megafortress box, above, you can see you could supposedly run it under DOS 2.1. The original game was squeezed onto one 3.5 inch diskette.

DD was a beta tester for Sledgehammer, ergo the 'not for sale' banner on the box.

Megafortress was ambitious in that it made a game out of a not particularly exciting arc of job skills: Sitting in a strategic bomber, flying slowly to and from the target, and commencing to bomb, usually in such a way as to make it impossible to see what is going on.

As such, it's an exercise in the learning of the game's flight procedures, which buttons to push and knobs to twirl. (In the above pic from the manual, all the knobs and switches do actually work, even a windshield wiper in the upper lefthand corner. Since there was almost no view, the player had to be able to do something!)

One must manage the electrical system of the B-52, among others, a task that becomes somewhat challenging in an annoying way once a couple of the engines catch fire from enemies shooting at you.

All missions take place at night. The lighting is very dim as the player switches from the cockpit, to the navigator's console, or to the radar and bombing shacks. If you want to go sight-seeing, forget it. Get back to your fuel and engine panel.

Megafortress was prescient in its assumption that the B-52 would remain in front line operation. However, its designers missed the coming of the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM. There are a wide variety of "smart bombs" -- but no JDAM. The crown jewels in Megafortress were televion camera-guided heavy bombs.

Surprisingly, DD could still get Megafortress to run on a modern machine. The sound routines no longer work but this actually adds to the flying coffin-like claustrophobia of it. And for some reason, the game makes the clock go crazy on an XP box, necessitating resetting it when you return to the Desktop from DOS.

The art on these games was old ANSI digital paintings, the moving images rendered in vibrating polygons. I thought it was pretty special in 1992, even lugging it and a computer to a vacation in the Outer Banks for play on rainy days. What did I know, though?

Megafortress fit a peculiar taste, one that no longer seems to exist anywhere in virtual world gaming.

By today's standards, it can't be made into a movie like a console game. And it doesn't require much of the fast and coordinated muscle twitch.

One has to love buttons and procedures or opening the flight manual on your knees to see what to do as things begin to break down. Patience is a virtue. The missions are long and very boring until they suddenly become frustrating with lit warning lights, the player hitting the Escape key so as not to be killed and frozen out in the game's active roster.

DD liked Megafortress and, surprsingly, still does. Enough apparently did to keep it in stores for awhile in the early Nineties. However, along with many other similar wargames, the genre became moribund and company went under in 1994.


In days to come, DD will get to other games designed for the military. Some don't get much publicity, like this one, probably because the average young patron of consumer electronic stores considers them no fun at all.

An essay on recent current events at Dale Brown's personal website, Megafortress.com.

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