Monday 28 June 2021

Stealth Fighter

The idea of a "stealth fighter" surely captured the popular imagination in late 1980s. Tom Clancy described it in the novel Red Storm Rising, a low-flying solo pilot in clandestine operation amidst an escalating battlefield. Clancy's books provided synopses for half a dozen Microprose games (including RSR), so no wonder the stealth fighter scenario was made into a game.

As is pointed out in the manual, the stealth mission is a situation where the lone-pilot approach makes some real world sense and this could be translated into a satisfying game. Nobody knew exactly what the Stealth Fighter would be like, but Microprose made some educated guesses and I believe a simulator of a yet-to-be-public plane was a world first.

The game must have been popular, as Microprose kept remaking it a number of times. It began life as Project: Stealth Fighter on the Commodore 64, and the greatly expanded PC/Amiga/ST versions were renamed as F-19 Stealth Fighter.

It's worth noting the Amiga/ST versions are only slightly different from the PC one, with a different palette and dashboard graphics. The simulation was once more revised into F117A Nighthawk, after the real stealth fighter became public. I only have the Project:Stealth Fighter and the F-19 Stealth Fighter at hand.

Project: Stealth Fighter

Back in the day, I bought this game on C64 cassette even if I knew it would not work very well. I recall it was disturbing to lose your craft early on and then having to load everything again from tape.

Later, I used an Action Replay cart to store a mission starting point so I could at least practice more.

Those Paul Klee rejects are the USS America and the supporting fleet

A ZX Spectrum version existed, something which I had forgotten. Glancing at it, it's a bare-bones version of the game, all the C64 features are probably there but with less graphics and presentation. It's not perceivably faster and I have to confess the Spectrum's colour scheme does not lend itself to the tech-thriller stealth atmosphere so well.

F-19 Stealth Fighter

The DOS version of Stealth Fighter is an older generation PC game. My version came in 5'25" floppies and should work on a 8088/CGA PC. The roughly 320 x 100 pixel area reserved for the main view is surprisingly crude, and although there's a world of detail compared to the C64 game, the visuals are not that far from each other from today's perspective.

Some instruments are strangely lacking, there's no accurate numeric readout for your current bearing, for instance. You have to rely on the visual indicator at top.

That's not where the Souda Bay is?

There's a bunch of functions that can be assigned to the two dashboard monitors. Using the camera becomes quite important when landing, because the ILS is not that good for seeing the precise alignment of your plane in relation to the strip. The Reverse Tactical View can also help getting it right.

For this reason I've felt it better to approach the airfield from about 2000-3000' as you can get a more angled camera view from up there.

The stealth model

The most interesting feature in the game is the radar threat indicator which displays enemy radar signal strength against your craft "stealth" profile. Higher altitude generally means more visibility, and rolling the craft also increases your profile.

If the radar blip bars overlap with your stealth bar, it means they've caught a glimpse of you. One such error is usually not significant, but repeated scans will have the MiGs and SAMs firing missiles at you in no time.

Below the TRAK at centre, the radar signal and your stealth level

In the geographic map all the radar signals are visualized as expanding circles, and you can navigate your way in or around the sites. Pulse radars can be approached head-on, whereas doppler radars are better dealt tangentially to the signal.

This straightforward logic gives a slightly puzzle-ish feeling to the missions.

The 8-bit Project: Stealth Fighter only had a simple meter to gauge your stealth level, but little to no information about the radars and their impact on the meter.

Although the 16-bit game might provide unrealistic amount of data to the player, I believe this is for the benefit of the game and the simulation. Microprose did wisely to make more of the battlefield visible instead of limiting the scope strictly to the pilot's seat. You get a sort of sectional view of warfare, which is certainly very instructive and makes for a more interesting game.

In theory, the "signal map" needs to be negotiated just as the physical space, but at least on lower difficulty levels you can get away by simply flying low and taking note of the more active radar sources.

Flying low you also get to see the landscape and occasionally need to navigate around hills and mountains, something that's usually only seen in helicopter simulators. It seems the mountains do not block the radar waves, which is a pity.


Microprose games from earlier era always had very lavish manuals, maps and keyboard overlays replete with technical, procedural and even political information. 

Perhaps somehow the actions around these paper materials, floppy discs that had to mechanically inserted into the drive, etc. added to the atmosphere. Not only you were a stealth fighter pilot, you were the military planner, the spy, the researcher, a hacker or whatever.

I have lost my 8-bit stealth fighter maps, which is sad, as the black/white maps were more atmospheric. But as there was more detail in the F-19 game, different maps were needed.

You would almost never really ever see the enemy fighters close-up, so their presence was added by having the pictures and data in the manual. 

These were also needed for the copy protection.


In Microprose-style, the missions are generated instead of "canned" storylines. Therefore they are repetitive with some variety in them.

As the navigation points are inserted to your on-board computer, there isn't that much to do in a mission except follow the navpoints and deal damage. Many choices are still left to you, as the flight path may need adjusting because of mountains, radar sites. It may sometimes make more sense to pick the secondary target first, and so on.

The basic narrative dynamic is created from having a primary and a secondary target. As you destroy the first, the enemy is usually on high alert. Then you have to decide if the secondary target can be achieved.

The spice of the game is often in the situations when something goes wrong. If you miss the target, are the conditions favorable to try again? Running out of fuel you'll be desperate for any friendly airfield other than the designated one. There's a plethora of weapon systems each of which are launched in different ways and suitable for different targets, and just possibly you'd prefer to use something easier than the one suggested.

I always loved how Microprose inserted those amusing images after completing a mission. It seems that to your friends you are only as good as your last mission:

Those days, you didn't have the Urban Dictionary at hand

Saturday 5 June 2021

Blog 10th Anniversary

Hooray, the blog is ten years old!

How to celebrate? Retrospection, of course.


In 2011 I only made two blog posts, overviews on Laser 200 and Panasonic JR200 computers. My original idea was to present explorations on home computer hardware, more obscure the better.

It's possible I first got interested in having and using old computers and the idea of the blog simply grew out of that. 8-bit computers were still quite cheap at that time and I had made a few extremely cheap "lot" purchases that would seem impossible now.

Another explanation is that I had been looking to found a blog, but I wanted to avoid direct job-related postings or a diary. I also felt I would be a crap commentator of any topical or current themes, which may or may not have been true. Additionally I thought the theme shouldn't be anything as general as "drawing", "films" or "music" even if like all these things.

After writing some posts, I realized these were really notes that I could later use myself. This approach may have rescued the blog for me, as I didn't have to care so much whether anyone read it or not.


For a while I did continue on the hardware side of things, exploring the JR200 tape format. Some of these posts are extremely thorough, and although I never quite learned to do simple and short blog posts, I've relaxed somewhat over the years.

I continued to explore JR200 with Marq, the other active Panasonic user in Finland (or in the world for that matter). 

After the JR200 theme ran dry there was a long pause in blog posting. I continued in autumn with modding a ZX Spectrum +2 case, gaining some minor infamy with this sawed-off mod.

Even if Panasonic JR-200 was a good start for the theme, there aren't that many un-explored computers out there. I bought ZX Evolution and this generated a lot of posts for the following year.


This was the first really active year, as I managed to do 20 posts. Various ZX Evolution-related keyboard and casemod projects kept me engaged. 

I was able to keep the computer overviews going with Sinclair QL, Schneider EuroPC, Canon X-07, Panasonic MSX and Orel BK-08. However, I also exhausted this angle here and in many cases I didn't have that much new to say. I also learned it was perhaps too much to try to go into each platform as deeply I had gone with that JR200 tape format. 

I also often later found some of my statements were inaccurate and I begun to steer away from this type of posting. I relaxed the blog theme a little and provided game overviews, and other "hardware" such as typewriters, fleamarket findings and a clone of Sinclair A-bike.

Significantly, PETSCII was first discussed. As Marq made his PETSCII editor for Zoo 2013, I made my first "official" scene C64 releases under the handle Dr. TerrorZ and was involved in the First Ball PETSCII demo. The base was built for later developments such as Commodore 64 code and Multipaint software.


I took a lot of interest into Sinclair QL and peripherals, writing a blog post with QL and so on. There are also ZX Spectrum/C64 hardware projects and still more ZX Evolution posts.

The year saw the ZX Sprites post, which is one of the most viewed. It's still something of a mystery how many of the hits are genuine and how many are robots, but there's at least a clear difference between a post that's viewed by dozens and a post that is viewed by thousands, which is also reflected somewhat in the amount of comments received.

There were again less "computer overviews" in 2014, but I did discuss Sharp MZ-800.

I had a notion of moving towards building electronics and logic, but I had also to admit there were even more limitations to what I could do and what I could present as reliable information on this blog. I'm nowadays a bit wary to present anything electronics-related.

I also dared to present a top-list of what I considered all-time best games. This could be revisited at some point. (Where's Half-Life 2 and Blue Max? Why is Neuroshima Hex positioned so high?)


As I moved to Linux this also meant more Linux and "modern computer" blog posts, such as Raspberry and Arduino.

There was some rekindled interest towards ZX Spectrum, but it seems that old computer overviews are now largely gone. There's a nice post about ZX Spectrum isometric games.

This year saw one of the most viewed pages, Gimmick guns of the Spaghetti West. I still don't quite get how people find their way there.


I went more into Commodore 64 direction, building up the development environment, building up to the release of Fort Django, three years after(!) having worked on that PETSCII demo at zoo 2013. 

Multipaint was first made public, and that had been under development for 2-3 years too.

The only "system overview" was Commodore Plus/4.

Rest of the year seems to have been somewhat thin, continuing with some C64/6502 themes and commenting on a Jarre concert in Helsinki(!)

The five-year anniversary went without fanfare.


I started reflecting on my PETSCII and bitmap graphics as collected posts.

More retro game posts, such as Saboteur II and a post on icon driven games.

After a long time I bought an old computer, Basic 2000. I already think I made a note of having made a rare new acquisition. I also got Atari Portfolio, though, but was quite disappointed with it.

The decision of not being a collector had already been made earlier. I really wanted to use the platforms, and couldn't concentrate on too many. So I tended to go for the Big Three of C64, ZX Spectrum and MSX. Even then I'd mostly concentrate on C64.

Significantly, I made an Amiga post, but the time had not yet really come. A few hardware posts, a TAC-2 microswitch mod and building the Sinclair QL EPROM cartridge. At the end of the year, Sinclair QL momentum was building up as new hardware had appeared to the scene.


I continued with QL theme, but also Amiga. First chess posts are from here.

Here I had reached a kind of natural blog mixture that has not changed much after. I post about twice a month. As explorations computer systems are quite rare, the discussion is more about peripherals or simply whatever I have been working on. Then there are the occasional bitmap and PETSCII presentations, sci-fi literature and whatever casemod/building projects I could bother to do.

At the end of the year I released Digiloi for the C64.


A nice active year with QL, C64, Linux, PETSCII, some chess, Atari Falcon (a new system which generated a bunch of new posts).

I first posted about Linux Proton/Steam, a way to play non-native commercial games on Linux. Looking at these games has become an occasional feature.


Notably a pandemic year so I probably had some more time and motive to concentrate on blog writing, therefore there are more posts. Then again it appears I've done shorter blog posts.

Strangely, there are three book overviews, which were rare previously, but it didn't become a huge trend.

I had fun time exploring The64 Microcomputer and later, the BMC (Raspberry-emulated C64) environments.


And here we are. I'm going on with the same twice-a-month pseudo regularity, posting about whatever I happened to have time to do.

This year I've done more Amiga/Amibian posts. In recent years there has been perhaps a shift towards 16-bit computers and who knows it might continue.

More to follow

Has the world changed much in ten years? Computers that were 30 years old in 2011 are now pushing 40. I've become more aware that the equipment might just be rotting on the shelves and I should get rid of them if I'm not interested in servicing them.

Blogs were no longer especially fashionable in 2011, and this hasn't changed much. I don't myself regularly follow many blogs or even retro news. There is now more Facebook group activity than at 2011, and a lot of retro activism appears to have been concentrated into these groups.

There's no end in sight, but it's also clear the themes are shaped by available time and energy. The blog has transformed from the original 8-bit reporting to a more personal site on themes which may or may not relate to old computers at all.