Monday, March 26, 2012

Ace of Aces (1980, Nova Game Designs)

Gather 'round, Gen-Yers, and I'll spin you a tale, of a time long ago when the personal computer was not the ubiquitous and indispensable tool found in every home, office and school across America.

(Puffs pipe, leans back in chair)
They called it "1980", dontcha know. I was in grade school in those ancient times, and my school owned exactly one personal computer. It was kept in a special room as if it were some rare piece of science equipment borrowed from NASA. To get access to it, you had to be enrolled in an advanced placement class, and even then, your actual hands-on time with the precious device was carefully metered.

Here's a picture of the old girl... TWO disc drives. Whew! There goes the school's budget!

Of course that little joystick to the right is for display purposes only. You won't be playing any games in The Computer Room, as this is a serious education tool, not a video arcade.

BUT... you were allowed to type BASIC code into the computer to make games, transcribing them from books like this one...

...or this one, "Basic Computer Games", featuring page after page of code, just waiting for you to key in a line at a time. Yes, I actually used to sit down for hours at a time to do this. Can you smell the fun?

Here's just a sample page of code, one of many required to create a text-based "Star Trek" inspired statistics game. Better hope you don't make a typo!

This particular book is interesting because it contains a wide range of gaming experiences, including this one that would surely be considered inappropriate (if not outright criminal) on a grade-school campus today: a "Russian Roulette" simulation!

Russian Roulette is the "game" where you take turns firing a revolver, loaded with only one bullet, to your head. The loser is the one unlucky enough to pull the trigger on the chamber with the bullet in it. Of course, being 1980, this electronic adaptation is all text-based and, well, rather dull. But what a devious concept! Sample gameplay text below.

Here's the actual program code (and looking it over, it appears this version of the game has you spinning the chamber before every trigger pull, instead of just working your way sequentially through the chambers, so this game could drag on for hours. Boo!)

What is the point of this autobiographical detour? Just setting the stage. You see, a lot of the casual entertainment afforded by today's powerful, networked PCs just wasn't available back in those early days of computing.

Of course the type-your-own games from the Basic primers were hardly representative of the state of the art. But even professionally produced software sold in stores was severely limited compared to today's fully rendered, three-dimensional virtual worlds just waiting to be explored and conquered at the nearest computer monitor, smart phone or I-pod. Back in 1980, computers just didn't have the horsepower to deliver those kinds of experiences. Games were crude, simple, and flat.

There were a few attempts at "first-person" type immersive graphics. But the limited computing power of the day meant you were reduced to exploring almost abstract grids and monochrome shapes.

From 1980, Akalabeth: World of Doom (home computer) and Battlezone (arcade):

So gamers who wanted a deeper, more immersive experience, still had to rely on their imagination, and innovative, genre-pushing games from the non-electronic realm... role-playing games, statistic-based wargaming simulations, Choose Your Own Adventure type interactive fiction, and ...Ace of Aces.

Ace of Aces, published by Nova Game Designs originally in 1980 (with a few later editions) is a one-on-one World War I bi-plane dogfighting game that did something videogames of the day couldn't yet achieve--provided a first-person perspective for each player.

The game is packed with two thick books, one for the German player, the other for his opponent.

Each book is filled with illustrations depicting a first-person point of view from your plane (the German's perspective from within a Fokker Dr I, the Allied seated in a Sopwith Camel). A virtual control panel of possible maneuvers to select from appears at the bottom of each page, as well as the page number for the other pilot to turn to in order to update their view.

Each player announces their desired maneuvers (and its corresponding page number) to the other, pages are flipped to orient the other player's plane correctly to yours, then flipped once again to complete your maneuvers and end the turn. The end result is a person-to-person dog fight game that kind of plays out like a series of decompression chart calculations.

But you can actually see your enemy's plane in the correct scale and perspective, and it changes realistically as you both maneuvers in and out of each other's airspace, something no personal computer of the day could yet accomplish.

The basic game assumes both planes stay at the same approximate altitude, but you can still lose sight of one another, which lands you on dreaded page 223, the "lost" page:

You have the option to either disengage and end the round, or pursue your opponent and battle on. Optional "advanced" rules force you to monitor altitude, speed, ammunition usage and plane damage. I was getting a headache just browsing this section.

Nova promised several expansion packs for Ace of Aces, as well as games in other genres using a similar play mechanic (how about a wild west shoot out?), but many of these went unrealised.

However, in 1989, in the middle of that Star Wars fandom desert between the opening of Star Tours in Disneyland and the relaunching of the canon with the Timothy Zahn novels, fans were thrown a bone... the Starfighter Battle Book (West End Games), an Ace of Aces style game pitting an X-Wing fighter against an Imperial TIE-Interceptor.

Official Ace of Aces website found here.

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