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.
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|
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?|
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|
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.
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.
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|