Strolling around the halls of Rezzed last weekend, my wife and I paused for a while to watch ‘Bus Simulator’; it’s a game where you drive a bus… around a route… and stop to pick up passengers. Aside from the odd curb clipping incident and missing a stop by a few feet (shocking!) very little happened for the few minutes that we stood and watched four different people have a go. I wandered away from the stand with two distinct thoughts: firstly, despite being touted as something super realistic, it’s clearly not because who drives a bus from a third person perspective? and secondly that this is a game I don’t understand.
… and if this is your thing then drive-on good person, drive-on! I’m not judging. I’ve played plenty of games that felt somewhere close to ‘a job’ in the past including ‘Viscera Cleanup Detail’ and ‘SpaceChem’ so I can understand that there is appeal in performing virtual-mundane tasks.
Almost immediately after having this thought however I suddenly remembered something: Microsoft Flight Simulator ’95. Oh, how I wanted Microsoft Flight Simulator ’95.
I guess it must’ve been 1995… or 1996… around then anyway… when I first saw the big box version of MSFS95. Oh yes, this was the time of big box versions. In the 90’s console games had neat plastic cases that stacked nicely, the newly launched PS1 has sleek jewel cases for its games, and even the Sega Saturn had its own unique aspect ratio version along the same theme. PC games were different however, they came in novelty oversized cardboard boxes, a fitting reminder of the PC master race’s superiority perhaps… or maybe it was just to take up more of a shop display because there weren’t as many of them. Either way, looking back, it was kind of dumb. Especially as there was often a smaller box inside and who had the shelf space at home to store these things? I don’t think that I managed to retain a single big box from my childhood.
… getting back to MSFS95…
It was in Staples; that giant of office supplies that ruled the world as a kind of evil empire at a time when Rolodex and Filofax were status symbols. It also wasn’t at all the place that you should be buying ‘games’. In truth an older slightly savvier version of me might have realised that the very fact that it was in Staples should’ve been my first warning sign, but that 10-ish year old version of me was transfixed by this box. The screenshots on the back looked phenomenal; the nearest thing to photo realistic gaming I’d ever seen, the ability to fly anywhere in the world! I wanted to own Microsoft Flight Simulator ’95, possibly more than I’d ever wanted to own another game, but it was expensive – I can’t really remember how expensive, but way more than ‘special treat’ expensive and way more than a ‘Mega Drive Game’ expensive.
So my parents told me that if I wanted it, I would have to save up my pocket money for it. This may have been the single greatest piece of financial education I received because even now I tend to imagine my savings account as that jam jar with a slot cut in the lid (Thanks Dad) that was sealed shut with sticky tape; a small notebook beside so that I could keep track of how much I put in there. Keep in mind I was only 10-ish and not exactly pulling in the big bucks; I received £1.50 a week (£2.86 in today’s money) and that would have to cover a comic and possibly some sweets, but I did mange to start putting some money away and gradually the jam jar funds began to grow. All the while, every time we went back to Staples, I’d stare longingly at that box.
… I don’t know why we ended up in Staples so often… neither of my parents had their own business or worked from home… what were we doing with all these office supplies?
If memory serves I made it to at least £18 which was waaaay short of the target, but I think by this point my parents had grown weary of me picking up every 1p coin from the street and presumably hassling every family member who visited for loose change so they finally agreed to make up the rest as I’d clearly displayed enough desire for what I’m guessing they initially assumed was a passing want.
I remember the car journey home and marvelling at how thick the manual was, and that it opened with a section on basic aviation concepts. It was jammed full of cockpit diagrams, keyboard shortcuts, and navigation maps for my future voyages around the world. It came on four floppy disks and used 50 Mb of hard disk space (quite the compression ratio) which I had to ask for special permission to use because I knew that it was a sizeable chunk of the 512Mb we had available on out 486 PC.
I got home and installed it straight away to find myself sitting in a single engine Cessna looking down the runway at Meigs Airfield, the Chicago skyline in the background. This was it, this was what I’d been waiting for. I pulled back on the throttle and the plane’s engine buzzed in to life and I began to pick up speed, faster, faster, the runway zipping past and the blue of lake Michigan rapidly approaching I pulled-up …
… stalled, and crashed in to the lake.
… and basically kept doing just that for some time until I finally realised that this was a simulation and light aircraft couldn’t go upward vertically. Eventually I got the hang of that takeoff and began circling the Chicago skyline marvelling at the buildings, but I wanted more so I loaded a different airport and… well… did the same, only there wasn’t any city in sight at this airport so everything was just flat. Slowly and surely the penny began to drop and I realised why Chicago had featured so prominently on the box art and why it was the default starting location. Whilst there were some other cities that had rough building models and crude low-poly recreations of landmarks, mostly this game was flat: the land was a perfectly level plane (no pun intended) blue for water, green for grass, grey for urban, and brown for farmland. The clouds too, far from those fluffy dynamic balls of cotton that I longed to explore, were un-remarkably flat.
At least I could experience the other planes, right?… the three other planes… the most exciting of which was the small business Lear Jet followed by the aforementioned Cessna, a non-powered glider, and Sopwith Camel (which was almost impossible to land). MSFS95 featured a grand total of four planes … and weird planes at that.
Unwilling to admit defeat I spent much of my time searching that empty world looking for something of interest. I’d enter co-ordinates of big cities to see if there were any hints of famous landmarks, which occasionally there were. I played the handful of scenarios that were bundled; the most memorable of which was trying to land on the Nimitz aircraft carrier which must’ve been made up of at least 10 polygons. The longest successful flight I ever made was a hop from Meigs airfield to Chicago International, and even then I only really managed it because I knew roughly what direction to head; those navigation charts, markers, and beacons remained a mystery.
Ultimately I quietly stopped playing my treasured MSFS95 in favour of games with some element of ‘game’ in them, but I will always have the valuable lesson that it taught me; don’t buy games from Staples.