These sims will make your speakers go BBRRRRTT
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
For almost as long as combat flight simulators have existed, the A-10 Warthog has been there. The low-flying beast is America’s main dedicated ground-attack jet — heavily armored and packing an arsenal of missiles, bombs and a 30-millimeter rotary cannon that spews exploding shells.
The A-10 works for games because it’s simple, and has one mission that the aircraft does better than any other: attack tanks and troops on the ground. From an engineering standpoint, it’s smart. Designs that know what they are — and what they’re trying to accomplish — make for successful designs.
It’s true for software … and close air support aircraft.
No wonder there’s a history of Warthogs in computer and video games. That’s not to say all of the A-10 games out there are good. But some are downright classics. Here is a non-exhaustive account with some of the best, and some not-so-good ones added for balance.
A-10 Tank Killer
As far as I’m able to tell, A-10 Tank Killer was the first dedicated computer game about the Warthog, perhaps the first one to even feature it, and it’s the only A-10 game to come out during the Cold War. As a result, this low-tech sim puts the player commanding the aircraft in its intended role — destroying Soviet tanks in Central Europe.
Developed by flight sim pioneer Dynamix (which was also responsible for the classic Red Baron) and released in 1989 for DOS and Amiga, A-10 Tank Killer is technically simple. It mostly relies on 3D polygons for its low-res graphics, which were typical for flight sims of the era. Aimed more for the casual gamer, flight sim geeks will likely see it as a novelty due to its simple mechanics.
A-10 Tank Killer received expansions for the Europe setting and later for the Persian Gulf War, which took place in 1991 and is perhaps the A-10’s most famous real-life role. It’s worth playing as a retro look back at early combat flight sims, and your best chance is finding a semi-legal copy on an abandonware site.
Macs have long lacked for games, and 1995 was a dark time for Apple fans generally. Steve Jobs had been away from the company for a decade. Apple was struggling and Microsoft was nearing its release of Windows 95.
Fortunately, there was the Mac-exclusive A-10 Attack! by Parsoft Interactive.
In terms of realism and complexity, few flight sims of the day could beat Parsoft’s entry in the genre, which also takes place during a European war with the Soviet Union. More to the point, Parsoft stood athwart some of the gaming trends at the time, and produced an excellent sim because of it.
Here’s why. Until the mid-1990s, most flight simulators used low-resolution polygons for graphics, which freed up processing power for their engines. But as improvements in technology accelerated, including computer-melting 3D accelerated graphics, developers faced a dilemma. More processing power for better graphics meant gameplay sometimes suffered.
Thankfully, Parsoft kept the low-res polygons and gave us an amazingly ahead-of-its-time physics engine and enemy A.I. The result is a flight sim legend with realistic flight dynamics that retains its retro cool. To get a sense of what all this looks like on the screen, see this overview (embedded above) from the YouTube channel SiliconClassics.
And if you have a Mac, there is still a small community that has kept A-10 Attack! alive — though I can’t give you any tips on how to run it on a modern machine.
Luckily, for those of us with PCs, there was a sequel.
So A-10 Cuba! is basically A-10 Attack! except for Mac and Windows, plus improved graphics and with its setting in Cuba instead of Europe. The downside is that there are fewer missions and poor documentation — which for 1990s flight sims is almost unforgivable.
Personally, thick paper manuals are part of the era’s charm … and a necessity given the lack of detailed embedded tutorials.
But, then, we can’t be too choosy. If you’re on a PC and want to experience Parsoft’s physics while blowing up polygon tanks, then this game is for you. Tracking down a copy of A-10 Cuba! can be tricky, however. Your best bet is second-hand sellers on eBay and Amazon.
Caution: You may encounter compatibility issues.
Silent Thunder: A-10 Tank Killer II
There is a divide among wargamers, with one faction veering toward realism and the other favoring a more “arcadey” style. It’s an open question as to which side history has favored more. But Silent Hunter: A-10 Tank Killer II falls squarely on the latter side.
A 1996 sequel to the original A-10 Tank Killer and developed by Dynamix, this game takes a stripped-down flight model for novice sim pilots and combines it with 3D accelerated graphics. Moving further away from the Cold War, Silent Thunder features a three-part campaign set in Colombia, the Persian Gulf and South Korea.
I wish I had more to say on this one. The flight model is … not good. And the graphics have aged poorly. While 3D acceleration looked new and delightful at the time, it doesn’t have the nostalgia factor of A-10 Attack! and its polygons, which also had far better gameplay.
A.S.P. Air Strike Patrol
Here’s a general rule for arcadey military games. If you’re not aiming for realism, don’t bother with trying to make it look realistic. You’re not fooling anyone. This 1994 title by Japanese developer Opus for the Super Nintendo knows exactly what it is — a game where the player zooms around in a tiny A-10 Warthog or F-15 Strike Eagle while blowing up as many baddies as possible.
Think of it like Electronic Arts’ Strike series, complete with a fictional not-Persian Gulf conflict between the nations of Zarak and Sweit.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat
There was a time when flight simulators were the best-selling PC games out there. But by the late 1990s, competition from innovative first-person shooters and strategy games — among others — collapsed the market.
By 2004, gamers could play Call of Duty or World of Warcraft instead of buying expensive peripherals for a sim that takes hours of studying to get off the ground. Flight sims never fully recovered.
Russian developer Eagle Dynamics’ 2003 game Lock On: Modern Air Combat (a.k.a. LOMAC) is an outlier — it was a full-bore attempt at a realistic dogfight sim with impressive 3D graphics and about a million different aspects of your (one of eight) aircraft to manage. It’s not a stretch to suggest that LOMAC helped save the genre for its dedicated, core fans.
To describe the game’s features would take a small book. Run out of fuel? You die. Don’t know the difference between pitch and yaw? Dead again. What do those blinking lights mean? Might be something bad. It could be a warning that an enemy MiG is about to shoot you down.
Your engines can catch on fire, which means you probably should’ve memorized that command for the built-in fire extinguisher. To stand any chance of using the A-10 effectively means mastering the AGM-65 air-to-surface missile’s multi-functional display.
LOMAC even foreshadowed the Russian invasion of Crimea more than a decade before it happened. Except the events depicted in the game’s single-player campaign are far more destructive — with Warthogs blasting away at Russian tank columns. Today, real-life A-10s fly over Eastern Europe as a show of force.
Digital Combat Simulator World
It’s all been leading up to this. Eagle Dynamics’ Digital Combat Simulator World, or DCS World, might not even be a game in the strictest sense of the term — more of a military training tool that models just about every button, switch and flight dynamic of nearly three-dozen military aircraft both modern and historic.
DCS is frankly hard to describe. Call it the ultimate aerial combat sim. The successor to Lock On, the learning curve is one of the steepest of any simulator … ever. Acquiring a basic understanding of most aircraft can take dozens of hours. Then you might not get shot down. But you probably will.
Your introduction to the A-10 Warthog is a photorealistic 3D cockpit with every button and screen configured for interaction. Not only is your navigation system modeled — complete with rotary switches and alphanumeric keypad — but so are its backups. That’s just the navigation system.
Here, for example, is your Digital Stores Management System, which handles the A-10’s weapon release profiles.
Thankfully, Eagle Dynamics has a slimmed-down “game” version that is less intimidating for the casual player. And it’s free to play, but the freebie only comes with an Su-25 attack plane and a TF-51D Mustang fighter.
Most of the content — including the A-10 — are sold in individual add-on packages that are equivalent in price to a full game you’d find on Steam. But the $40 A-10 package is well worth it considering the sheer amount of development work gone into every single aircraft.
What’s really great about DCS is that it should stay with us for another decade, and most likely longer than that, thanks to the modding community which Eagle Dynamics encourages. It’s unlikely flight sims will ever recapture their former ’90s glory, but they’ve survived with a niche audience of uber-fans.
And that’s a good thing. You could seriously learn to fly an actual Warthog with this. (G-forces not included.)