While on a business trip to California around 1986 I
discovered a piece of software for my Atari 400 that really blew my
mind. This was Sublogic's Flight Simulator 2. I've been fascinated by
aviation from a very early age and to suddenly find that I could run a
serious simulation (rather than a "flying game") of a light
aircraft on a "home computer" was a revelation. I was so taken
with this program I felt I had to tell everyone about it, and the result
was I submitted my first ever article to Les at Page 6. I could hardly
believe my eyes when "Just
Like The Real Thing" appeared in print in Issue 21. This gave
me the writing bug, and I continued writing for Page 6 and subsequently
New Atari User until publication ceased many years later, having
produced over 200 articles in that time. I did some technical writing
for the computer industry after that, but this wasn't nearly so much fun
(although it paid much better!) and eventually I stopped doing it to
concentrate on other activities.
Both of my sons, Pete and John jnr., were, and still
are, crazy about computer games and both wrote for Page 6 too. In John
jnr's case it marked the start of a highly successful career in games
magazine publishing. He's now Editorial Director with Ziff-Davis
publications in San Francisco, responsible for a whole clutch of video
gaming magazines and websites. Despite operating at a rarefied level of
management he still writes pieces for his magazines on a regular basis.
Pete is now a teacher and has a talent for writing hilarious accounts of
his experiences, which he e-mails out to friends and family. I won't go
into more details, as Paul Rixon is trying to get them both to write
their own pieces for publication here.
Along with aviation my other lifelong passion is
music, and the Atari computers were good at this too, particularly the
ST series of machines which included MIDI ports in their specification.
This gave a giant kick-start to the use of computers in music making,
and it wasn't long before "professional" music software was
developed, and STs running sequencing and score editing applications
like C-Lab's Creator and Notator could be found in recording studios the
world over. Unbelievably, some of them are still in regular use today.
There were also "sampling" cartridges developed for the Atari
machines, the most well known of which were probably Microdeal's
"Replay" series for the ST, which allowed digital sound
recordings to be made and played back using that "home
computer". Little did we know that in the years to come the idea of
digital recording via a computer would revolutionise the music business.
Let's now fast-forward to today. I'm now retired,
having opted out of the computer industry rat-race about 18 months ago.
I still have our collection of Atari computers: the original 400; an
800XL; a 130XE; and a 1040STE; as well as all the software we collected
for them all those years ago. However, they rarely ever come out these
days as, like most people, I now use a PC for all my computing needs.
But guess what? The PC spends much of its time running Flight Simulator
(now in its ninth incarnation, and now produced by Microsoft who bought
out Sublogic some years ago) and Emagic's Logic Platinum 5, which is a
direct descendant of the old C-Lab Notator package I used on the ST.
It's amazing what the latest versions of this software
can do when compared to the Atari originals, and even more astounding
are the resources now needed to run it. The Atari 400 needed 48KB of RAM
to run FS2. My PC has 512MB plus 64MB on its graphics card - and could
really do with more. The Atari's 6502 processor ran at 1.79 MHz (if I
remember correctly). My PC's Pentium 4 processor runs at 1.7GHz (a
thousand times faster) - yet still struggles to maintain a reasonable
frame rate with FS9. The Atari's 810 disk drive capacity was about 90KB
of data. My PC has 70GB of hard drive space, but my Flight Simulator
software alone (including all the add-ons) takes up some 24GB of it.
That's the equivalent about 275,000 of those old 810 diskettes!
I don't want this to turn into a review of FS9
(although old habits die hard!), but it's interesting to see how far
it's been developed compared to the old Atari 400 version - especially
as Flight Simulator is one of the few pieces of software available on
the Atari 400 that's still around on the PC today. FS2 simulated just
one light aircraft - a Piper Archer. FS9 has about two dozen different
aircraft included, spanning the last 100 years of flight, from the
Wright Brothers' Flyer to the latest Boeing airliners. And there are
literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of add-on aircraft available for
download via the Internet, many of them for free. Some of these are real
masterpieces, both visually and technically, and simulate their subject
to an incredible degree of accuracy.
The simulated world of the Atari version was confined
to four relatively small areas of the USA, and ground detail was very
limited with airports being the main items of interest. The FS2 world
was also a very flat place with hardly any true three-dimensional
terrain features. In contrast, FS9 covers the whole world, with a total
of over 23,000 airports available. The world is no longer flat either,
as a terrain mesh system derived from satellite mapping data has been
used to provide ground elevation details, so mountainous terrain now
appears as such. Onto this the program overlays further ground texture
detail, such as towns and villages, roads, rivers, lakes, fields, etc.
and the scenery "Autogen" feature peppers these areas with 3D
buildings and trees. Fly over a coastline and you'll even see animated
waves breaking on the beach. Add-on scenery is also available to improve
the detail and accuracy even further. For instance on my system I have a
set of UK scenery textures based on actual aerial photographs covering
the whole of England. You can now actually find and fly over your own
house. To supplement this further you can add finely detailed 3D models
of airports and other scenery, some of which, like the aircraft models,
have a beauty all of their own.
In FS2 you were alone in your simulated world, but in
FS9 other aircraft fly into and out of the airfields. You now hear Air
Traffic Controllers give spoken instructions to you and to these other
aircraft, and you hear their replies. "Artificial
Intelligence" features make ATC aware of these aircraft, and also
make the aircraft aware of each other - and of you - and they react
accordingly. If weather conditions deteriorate, ATC will not grant
clearance for a flight unless you file and use an Instrument Flight
Rules flight plan - under their control, of course. In fact, the weather
system in FS9 is now a very complex simulator in its own right. It can
reproduce just about any meteorological condition you might care to
name, including rain, snow, fog, thunder, lightning, winds, turbulence,
haze, frontal systems, and a fantastic range of clouds which form, drift
with the wind, and dissipate over time. Via the Internet it can collect
real life weather reports from weather stations closest to where you're
flying and reproduce the current real world weather for your simulated
flight. What's more, it can repeat the process every 15 minutes, so if
you fly into changing weather this is reflected in your simulated world.
And many of the aircraft now even feature Global Positioning System
instrumentation to help you navigate through poor weather.
Flight Simulator has come a very long way since those
early Atari days. Even so, I don't think any subsequent version has
given me the same initial thrill as that Atari 400 version did. The ST
version came close, and even though later PC versions cranked up the
feature count enormously, it's still that original Atari 400 version
that made the biggest impression on me. In fact, saying that has made me
feel guilty at neglecting the 400 for so long, so I'll go and dig it out
forthwith and redo some of the FS2 flights to see if they're still
"Just Like The Real Thing".
John Davison, October 2003