So this week a game that I frequently enjoy playing is about to intersect with a game that I haven’t played in decades, but get very nostalgic for. Let’s reach deep down in the Kave and take it out again.
It was the year Probably 1987 AD, when I was just a wee sprat, and my father brought home a copy of the WWII combat flight sim Ace of Aces. On the cover was a top-down illustration of the relatively unassuming warplane featured in the game.
Being just a wee sprat at the time, my knowledge of warplanes was quite limited—I think there were some whispers of an invisible bomber under development. When it came to WWII, I maybe could recognize the curvaceous Spitfire, the angular BF-109 and of course the “Cadillac of the Skies” P-51 Mustang.
Mostly, though, when it came to video games I thought of the quirky P-38 Lightning. The P-38’s twin-tailed design is so distinct that I immediately recognized the restored “Glacier Girl” in flight, retracing her fateful maiden trip from America to England, when I happened to glance out a train window one afternoon at just the right moment.
The Lightning was brought to life for me by the hands-down best flight sim of the arcade era: Capcom’s 1941: Counter Attack. I don’t think I ever made it past the second Japanese carrier, but I’d happily blow a day’s worth of bottle-return quarters in one hour trying. Because of this game my generation collectively pointed at the screen in recognition when the P-38 appeared in the Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator”.
But none of us ever gave much thought to 1941’s “Player 2” option: a martini glass-shaped, twin-engined fighter that was matched to the P-38 in every way gameplay-wise, but completely forgettable for its single tail. How conventional!
So it is no wonder I felt the same ennui when I gazed upon the cover of Ace of Aces, for this was the same airplane that played second fiddle in 1941—The de Haviland DH.98 Mosquito. It became one of my earliest obsessions.
I was ecstatic to find a model for sale at the National Air & Space Museum gift shop, and when I discovered the Mosquito central to the plot of a Tintin comic. I poured over detailed images at the local library and learned all I could about this newly fascinating airplane.
Developed in 1940, the Mosquito was one of the few British warplanes conceived during the war that played an important part in its conclusion—6,710 were delivered before the surrender of Japan. One factor was the airplane’s molded plywood design, utilizing secretly-developed laminating and reinforcement techniques that could withstand high speeds and vibrations from the Mosquito’s massive Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. It could also be produced remarkably fast: the first flight took place just over 10 months after design work began.
Although it was originally specified as a light bomber, the Mosquito was quickly recognized for its application as a bomber hunter and night fighter. This resulted in its before-mentioned gun moustache composed of four .303 machine guns jutting out of the nose, taking the place of a canopy and bombsite that, when configured as a bomber, would be operated by the co-pilot. There was no bombardier, navigator or gunners—just two pilots.
But right beneath its nose lay the Mosquito fighter’s real sting– four 20mm cannons that could rend a steel airframe in a single pull of the trigger. From 1942 to the end of the war, Mosquito night fighters shot down approximately 600 planes over the British Isles.
Many of the Mosquitoes produced before and after the war were made in Canada, so it makes a bit of sense that Ottawa-based ARTECH Studios would choose it as Ace of Aces’ sole playable airplane. It was probably much more recognizable to Canadian players, though certainly far less than, say, a Spitfire or Mustang.
The key to the Mosquito’s success—both in war and war games–is its versatility. In Ace of Aces you are limited to four mission types according to target—bombers, trains, u-boats and the dreaded V-1 “Buzz Bomb”–but in reality there were no less than 27 different variants produced by de Haviland for just about any conceivable role in the RAF.
Mosquitoes flew sorties over land and sea, during the day and at night. They could carry a variety of ordinance and hold their own in a dogfight. They saw action in just about every theater of the war. although their all-wood fuselage made them prone to burning, they could outrun anything else in the sky until the Luftwaffe introduced the Me-262 and ushered in the Jet Age.
It was their speed that made Mosquitoes particularly good as pathfinders, flying ahead of the large bomber formations to drop phosphorus bombs marking the target site. (If you would like to read a really great novel about a WWII bombing raid, let me suggest “Bomber” by Len Deighton.)
But the Mosquito’s finest hour was spent over England, where they were about the only Allied plane that could catch up with and intercept the V-1 rockets unleashed by Hitler as a desperate terror campaign against the British populace. Mosquitoes shot down at least 600 of them in just a two-month period, saving countless civilian lives.
I thoroughly credit Ace of Aces for introducing me to the very worthy and cool de Haviland Mosquito, forever implanting it in my lexicon of historical knowledge. When I first downloaded Gaijin’s sprawling WWII (and then some) battle sim War Thunder, I skipped the tanks and went directly to the RAF research tree to find the Mosquito.
There it was, just four planes standing in my way. Well, that and my particular brand of OCD requiring that I finish every mod of every plane before moving on to the next. Now, about three years to the day since I started playing, I am now on the brink of unlocking the first Mosquito in War Thunder. It’s a good time to revisit the original inspiration available at the Internet Archive.
The box that Ace of Aces comes in has several colorful in-game stills presented on the back, but my experience in MS-DOS was purely CGA—a garrish, alien landscape of magenta, cyan, and shades of gray. While this color scheme would be out of place on a WWII battlefield, it actually fit pretty well against the backdrop of my 1980s childhood.
Checking my original copy, I see now that I could have upgraded to a 3.5 inch EGA copy for free, although the ordering details that were included are lost to time. Also lost are any instructions, but it seems that aside from initially selecting a (J)oystick or (K)eyboard, all you will need are your number pad, directional keys, enter key and space bar.
Gameplay begins in the briefing room, where your portly CO walks you through the mission options and details on a blackboard. First you must decide if this will be a real mission, or a practice run where the enemies are a less aggressive. Then its time to choose one or more targets and the ammunition you will need to get the job done.
Bombing missions involve attacking a series of unrecognizable Ju-88s and their escort of equally-unlikely ME-109s. This is the easiest option because the bombers have no defensive guns, and drift across your view one at a time in three groups, each group followed by a fighter.
You can choose to bomb a train in Munich or U-boats in the North Sea, though I wasn’t able to make it work in my recent play-through. As I recall, bombing the train involves not only accuracy but also not bombing the cars that contain POWs. U-boats progressively dive as you try to bomb them, making speed of the essence. Each bomb site is protected by a single fighter.
My favorite mission option by far was always the V-1 rockets. They start out as a small disc bouncing around in the sky, and grow in definition and size as they get closer. Soon you can make out short fins and the rocket engine suspended over the deadly payload. If you get too close, you risk suffering damage when the bomb explodes.
While you have a bit of control over the ordinance you bring—bullets, bombs, rockets and extra fuel tanks—maxing out the bomb load does not appear to have any detrimental consequences, and you receive extra points for any unused ammo you return with.
But before you can take to the sky, Ace of Aces has a special treat for its MS-DOS audience: a vignette of low-res postcards, accompanied by an ear-bleeding siren sound hideously rendered through your PC’s internal speaker. You will get to hear this before Every. Single. Mission. You. Fly.
Each match begins with a dogfight over the English Channel, and the chance of encountering several storm clouds that move across the map. If you fly into one, the landscape of humpy clouds changes to flashing black and white, and lightning strikes threaten to damage your plane.
Damage can come in several forms. Your instruments can go haywire, or you can lose access to your navigation map, or your engines can catch on fire. The cynics among us can just crash into the ground. Getting shot down produces a grim line of bullet holes across your cockpit.
In terms of gameplay, you have six views to select from using the number keys—front, right wing, left wing, navigation map, bomb bay, and status screen displaying your current mission accomplishments.
Your front view is the business-end of the plane where you can fire your guns and/or rockets, with your basic instrumentation including altitude, attitude, speed, compass, radar, and enemy proximity indicator. Views of either wing include seemingly inconsequential controls for flaps, trim and landing gear, even though you never actually take off or land in game.
There are two controls here, though, that actually do have consequences. Your speed and “boost” controls are two sliders that don’t seem to have any effect on gameplay unless you push them both to the max. Soon wisps of smoke start streaming from the engine’s exhaust pipes, followed by licking flames. Pretty soon you learn the downside of an all-wood warplane. Fortunately, there’s a fire extinguisher button if you catch it in time.
Ace of Aces’ format is purely arcade—your only higher goal above flaming Nazis is getting to the top of the scoreboard. The end of each mission brings you back to the briefing room, where your CO awaits with your next assignment.
My Retro Reboot—which you can watch here—was surprising in that the game wasn’t as unplayable as I expected. I must have forgotten some critical element to the bombing missions, but the buzz bomb chase was as thrilling as I remembered it.
To be sure, the graphics were outdated even before it was released, gameplay is as limited and formulaic as the most basic video arcade title, and many functions seem to have no real application to the game. And the star of the show—that magnificent Mosquito—is conspicuously lost in the first person perspective.
But there is something satisfying about getting the timing just right and nailing a target, and receiving a “Congratulations on returning alive” after each successful sortie. While I never managed to complete a bombing mission, I can report that the time to target and back is much, MUCH shorter than in War Thunder.
For me, the greatest legacy of Ace of Aces is this beat-up cardboard box it came in, and the truly heroic story behind the unassuming airplane on its cover.