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F29 Retaliator

Feature: "Scratch one lizard"

Ten years before flying jets into skyscrapers became politically incorrect, two young boys from Stoke were doing exactly that in what I think is the best flight sim ever made: F29 Retaliator.

It was a strange, limited game by today's standards: the flight model simply asked you to point your crosshair over a target, and pull a trigger. The graphics, though 3D, weren't particularly impressive: hospitals, train stations, suburbs were all represented by big cubes, with red crosses painted on their roofs.

The weapons: mostly suppositions and sci-fi dreams, including a rear-firing Sidewinder (the BACKWINDER!) missile, and a cluster bomb shaped like a space-shuttle. The F29 itself doesn't and never did fly for the military, although an X29 prototype shows up at airshows now and again.

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What F29 did have was freedom, and a learning curve gentle enough for a ten-year-old to climb.

My best friend Ian and I would take turns. When one of us died, or crashed, or ejected, or damaged the plane, the other would take the controls. For the first day, all we did was damage the plane as we tried to work out how to take off. It took us hours to realise that you needed to disengage the brake before applying power to the engines - longer still to understand that if you leave your landing gear down while flying at Mach 3, it'll be torn off.

We were taking flight into a very weird world, different indeed from what the rest of our friends were playing. F29 was released in 1990, around the same time as Super Mario World, and the first Sonic the Hedgehog games. As our classmates Tippexed that plumber's fat face onto their pencil cases, I was doodling Immelman turns. They pored over Super Play and the first issues of GamesMaster. I was hunched over a ring-bound manual, memorising weapon stats and landing procedures.

Once airborne, F29 turned into a proto-Grand Theft Auto. The briefings, if you could call them that, just listed a sector of a 64km2 map in which you could find the target. How you got there, what you did on your way, and when you came home to land was entirely down to you. The four landscapes: an Arizona test range, a Pacific archipelago, the rolling fields of Europe, and a Middle Eastern Conflict between Egypta and Syrieuse. Nice try hiding the politics.

We proto-terrorists never bothered with landing. That's because we couldn't fathom it - repeatedly overshooting the runway, falling short, stalling, or just plunging our nose-section into the concrete. I only landed my fighter once, and I don't think I ever let Ian forget it.

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Instead of landing, we developed our own game modes: how much destruction can you inflict on the landscape, from the lowest altitude possible? How long can you survive a dogfight with unlimited ammunition?

Firing a cruise missile at a skyscraper isn't hard. Firing it from beneath a bridge at Mach 2, upside down, with your eyes closed was another thing entirely.

Going back to F29, using DOSBox, I was surprised just how clever it was. I'm slightly disappointed that I didn't enjoy it the way the designers meant me to. It was much more than a deskbound Afterburner. Firstly, if you ever do land the plane, you can carry scores over from one mission to the next - how many missions can you fly without dying?

Secondly, the missions themselves are smart examples of lo-fi scripting: in the Middle East scenario, you can see platoons of tanks fighting. To take them out, you can hurtle up and down the sandy strip of no man's land between the two powers, weaving between surface-to-air missile positions, making cannon runs across their tracks.

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