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Retrospective: Flight Simulator 98

Doesn't time fly.

None of the FS98 reviews I can find on the Web, mention The Pixie. He was about so high, wore a beautifully tailored flight suit, and sat atop your monitor or desk while you flew. Every so often he'd hold up a little sign emblazoned with the words 'Fancy a forage?' The first couple of times you might manage to ignore him, but at least once an evening you'd usually find yourself nodding in affirmation. You did indeed fancy a forage.

Avsim.com and Flightsim.com were my foraging grounds of choice. Within seconds of quitting the cockpit, I'd be pacing their Arrivals halls, eyes peeled for fresh community-crafted rides, scenery, and missions. It was rare I left empty-handed. The FS98 I finally retired in 2001 bore little resemblance to the FS98 I'd eagerly installed several years earlier, and it's a cause of deep regret to me that careless Spring-cleaning at some point during the last decade means I must base this retrospective on the official MS version, rather than my own infinitely richer customised one.

Not that an unaugmented install isn't still a wonderful thing. Revisiting the sim today, I'm struck by just how much the team from Redmond managed to pack into that dainty 300Mb footprint. For starters there's the little matter of a seamless level it would take 10 days of solid stick-time to circumnavigate in the sim's Sopwith Camel. 129 countries, 3000+ airfields, millions of miles of crinkly coastline and wiggly road. Here was a game built around a space even the most avid aviator might only ever see a thousandth of in a lifetime of flying.

Landing at Kai Tak put hairs on your chest.

The mind-boggling scope was an invitation to explore. 'Flip open an atlas' the Create A Flight menu seemed to implore, 'Choose a start point and, if you like, a destination, and be on your way'. For no logical reason you'd find yourself following the Nile or the Amazon one night, crossing the Caspian Sea or the Bay of Bengal the next. This was Flight Simulator in the days before the series started dispensing patronising gongs. An achievement was finding the airstrip you sought before your tank ran dry, or putting your plane down in one piece despite fierce crosswinds and failing light. Satisfaction was a completely natural by-product of improving airmanship and burgeoning knowledge of a relatively complicated machine.

In these days of Minecraft and Garry's Mod, it's easy to forget just how unusual FS98 and its predecessors were. To stumble on a game that was impossible to 'win', complete, or - for most of us - truly master, was uncommonly refreshing. To go a day without extinguishing a virtual life was pretty novel too.

The closest the 8th instalment of FS came to ludological conventionality was its 20 'Adventure' missions. Most of these weren't anywhere near as rip-roaring as the name implied. Instead of delivering Kalashnikovs to jungle airstrips, and scouring coastlines for man-eating Great Whites, you were usually tasked with chauffeuring some nob to his weekend retreat or favourite ski resort. The excellent custom audio and the presence of an invisible but efficient co-pilot who dealt with navigation and ATC communication meant the outings were both instructional and atmospheric, but on reflection they were a missed opportunity - a squandered chance to challenge an already infamous reputation for staidness.

In 1968 a hotheaded RAF fighter pilot did this for real.

In the popular imagination MSFS was, and perhaps still is, a franchise for aspiring airline pilots and seminal Cessna owners. What I seldom read in the mainstream games press back then were the testimonies of the thousands that, like me, used the sim primarily to ramble, arse about, experiment, fly exotica, recreate history and test personal endurance limits.

The reviews described a game that let you fly 8 different kinds of accurately modelled aircraft including a 737, a Learjet, and a Bell JetRanger and navigate utilizing hundreds of painstakingly placed and frequenced VOR beacons. What was rarely mentioned was that it was also a game that allowed you to recreate the lion's share of the Dambusters and Operation Jericho sorties, be Amy Johnson or Stringfellow Hawke for an evening, and sweat pints slaloming through skyscrapers and bridges.

My happiest FS98 moments were probably those I spent above a self-made island whose name is now as irretrievably lost as its .bgl file. Around half a year into my FS98 honeymoon I discovered how easy it was to add scenery to the sim's vast but barren globe. Rather than doing as many other good Samaritans were doing at the time - use this knowledge to fabricate then distribute an enhanced version of my own local airstrip - I chose to add a tiny island to one of my favourite flying venues - the Netherlands Antilles.

Like its namesake, this plane has a thick muscular tail and a taste for shellfish.

Upon this imaginary isle I plonked a customised aerodrome complete with ramshackle hangar and rusting aero hulks. I added beaches, roads, and - my masterstroke - large irregular textured blocks to represent the tracts of impenetrable vegetation that grew between the various unmetalled tracks. With these hunks of jungle in place, the island was transformed into a glorious aerobatic playground. I'd scramble into an Extra 300S stunt plane, then spend hours whistling down the leafy trenches at absurd speeds and ant-agitating altitudes.

It was absurdly exhilarating... bliss for a week or two. When the novelty eventually wore off I simply wandered off to explore more of FS98's countless play possibilities. Perhaps I decided to go improve my helo skills with the aid of a community-made chopper assault course. Maybe I attempted to recreate a holiday flight I'd recently experienced as a passenger (once you've sampled Flight Simulator it's impossible to take a real flight without mentally logging every bank angle, throttle change and flap deployment). Or perhaps I entered a Serious Phase and decided to finish that portion of the 24 flight lessons I still hadn't completed.

Later incarnations of FS turned over tutorials to the utterly marvellous John and Martha King. In FS98 the instructors were a pair of disembodied voices whose favourite utterances seemed to be 'Watch your airspeed!', 'You're drifting off-course!' and, if you were very lucky, 'Nice bank!'. I'm still unsure whether their standard parting comment - 'Be careful on your drive home from the airport!' - was politeness or a sly dig at dubious aeronautical prowess. What the instructors lacked in warmth they more than made up for in efficiency. It was FS98 that taught me to how to fly a traffic pattern and an ILS approach, and did it all without the aid of a single sky hoop or gold medal.

Few aircraft types escaped the attention of the FS98 modders.

If I was told today I must swap FSX for FS98 Id be miffed but far from inconsolable. While I'd certainly miss things like interactive ATC, Real Weather, and decent virtual cockpits (the cockpits in FS98 have all the detail and charm of shoebox interiors) I think I'd quickly adapt to the simple scenery and crude aircraft exteriors. The simmer of 1997 could look at an olive green polygon and see a forest, a flat expanse of city texture and see a bustling burg. We've had that talent drummed out of us, and a small luddite part of me regrets that.

I suspect the hardest thing about returning to FS98 in this day and age would be seeing the Pixie's little placard waving in your peripheral vision. Though, incredibly, there are still dogged nostalgics releasing new steeds for this 15-year-old sim, the golden era when you'd drop by Avsim or Flightsim.com and return with armfuls of obscure inter-war-biplanes, barely dry airbus repaints, and beautifully modelled regional aerodromes, is long gone. One of gaming's most industrious, talented and longest established mod communities has moved on, and in a sim as mod-reliant as Flight Simulator, that's a pretty good reason to move on too.