Gaming Made Me: Crimson Skies

By Brendan Caldwell on April 9th, 2011 at 10:07 am.

hello, sweetheart

In this week’s Gaming Made Me, Brendan Caldwell revisits a time when flight sims could have had it all – and a time when zeppelins still ruled the Earth. This is Zipper Interactive’s 2000 alterna-history aerial shooter Crimson Skies, and this is why it matters.

There are clouds above Hawaii. And there are monuments above the clouds. Who could have foreseen either of these things? In the hot wind of a Pacific sky a colossal white Zeppelin lumbers toward the site of a shipwreck, seeking the treasure once held by Sir Francis Drake. They call her the Pandora. Nestled in her belly is a squadron of fighter pilots. These are her citizens. Someone has painted four tarot cards across her sides. Justice. Wealth. Lovers. Death. This is her code.

Crimson Skies was all about that code. You played as Nathan Zachary, Captain of the Fortune Hunters. You were a pirate, which gave you a certain amount of respect for Sir Drake and the reassurance that, were he still around, he’d understand the raid you were about to pull on his ship.

But you aren’t going to board it via the ocean. The high seas aren’t high enough for Nathan Zachary. In an alternate world where The United States is no longer United and flight has become the main mode of transportation, no altitude is high enough for a notorious smuggler.

It did so much right, did Crimson Skies. From leisurely dropping out of the Pandora’s belly, to coasting around and pulling off aerial tricks with ease. And when those pesky British fighters started chipping away at your bi-plane’s paintjob, even the panic came easy.

Panic is the oil of an action game. If your mechanics are not well oiled with panic, they’ll seize up and become grind. Panic works well because it is among the most primal forms of motivation, alongside sex, food and fear of Messhof’s imagination. So keep your action well-lubricated. Too much panic though, and the mechanics drown.

At the risk of taking this metaphor to stupid heights, think of it this way. You want your player’s hands to be covered in a thin layer of this Panic-grease. You don’t want it to be so that they think the controls are ‘slippery’ but you want them to feel like at any moment of conflict their control might slop away from them, like the finest bar of Imperial Leather. You want them to feel like they are panicking at the controls of a difficult machine that will crash and burn and make them feel silly, when in reality they always seem to come out of it alive.

This is what Crimson Skies and other arcade dogfighters of the same era realised. In Flight Simulator you would climb too hastily and stall. You would panic and crazily hit keys all round you, like Jack Nicholson bullying a typewriter. Then you would crash.

In Crimson Skies you would get cut to pieces by .50 calibre bullets and dive under your Zeppelin for cover. You would panic here too. Yet, with just a few keys, you would roll out from within 10 metres of certain death, loop-the-loop, blast that British Ace out of the sky and speed through his remnant cloud of smoke feeling like fucking Maverick.

For the patient, crashing in Flight Simulator is a learning process and is an essential part of simulation. For the impatient, like me, it is a break in the action. Hear ye, hear ye! We, the impatient, do not want to be any mere pilot. We want to be a privateer of the airways. We want to be Nathan Zachary, charming all-American hero and the embodiment of daring-do. Give us trouble and then trick us into thinking we’ve navigated our way out of it with all the skill of a seasoned sky dog, when in fact all we’ve done is kick the throttle up to nine and pulled off a barrel roll using the left arrow key.

I don’t think I’m the only one who likes it like this. Give Flight Simulator to any child. Then step back. Don’t sit next to them and try to explain that this is a game about measurements and fine control. The first thing they will do is fly the plane into the ground, just to see it crash. Never mind that. That’s just kids being naturally morbid. They love that stuff. The second thing they’ll do (this is the important one) is pick a flight path near some skyscrapers and try to fly between them as if they’re in an action movie. Okay, now you may step in and explain to them that that was a STUPID THING TO DO YOU IRRESPONSIBLE WHELP. Tell them about the passengers’ lives they’ve just endangered (or ended).

Or! Just smile and hand them a copy of Crimson Skies. In time they’ll get to the level set in the Nation of California in which they can tumble through the second O in the Hollywood sign. It’s still hard and they’re going to crash a bit. The O will often be engulfed in orange flames like a giant, hellish spaghetti hoop. But daring flight is encouraged here. When they finally succeed a snapshot of the moment will be saved to Nathan’s scrapbook to view any time.

This is arcade flying. Just as complication is an essential part of the charm for simulators, flying like an ace and being King Cock of the Big Blue Void was part of the charm of Crimson Skies. And there’s no way that could co-exist peaceably with complex controls. So, there’s the O, kid. No preparation. No complications. Lights, camera, action.

It wasn’t simply the feeling of arcade ease that made the game soar. The alternate history of Crimson Skies – in which the Disunited States all vie for economic power – was like the Zeppelin it so proudly reinstated. It was outrageous, unfeasible and grand in scale. Yet there it was.

Now. It’s 2011. Look out there. Look up. What do you see? Empty sky. Birds. A speck of Boeing 747, if you’re lucky. I’ll tell you what you don’t see. You don’t see any Zeppelins up there. This is, without hyperbole, the greatest tragedy ever to befall every man, woman and non-human animal in the universe.

Jordan Weisman and Dave McCoy, the creators, took a piece of technology which to us seems dangerous and obsolete and then asked, “What would America do? If all the energy that went into building the railroads was interrupted and went somewhere else?” The answer of course is, “America is crazy. Sky pirates, please.”

If the alternate timeline wasn’t eccentric enough for you, the characters sure as heck were. Nathan Zachary himself was such an accurate pastiche of the charismatic radio drama hero, it was impossible not to like him just for being so predictably over the top. His plucky gang of Fortune Hunters were like the pirates you and your friends pretended to be when you were kids. Cheeky, cheesy, dangerous. Not to mention completely morally unimpeachable. You could do no wrong. You were a band of heroes. The only villains here were the people on the outside.

It was everything the United States professed to be in the early twentieth century, exaggerated almost to the point of parody. Competition and opportunity. Fierce conflict and unbelievable reward.

I first played Crimson Skies while on holiday in New York with my family. During the day we walked on the deck of the USS Intrepid, moored in the Hudson, or along the streets at the foot of monstrous skyscrapers. These are the things humans are capable of. The greatness of a nation galvanised to action.

Then we found out hundreds of men died to build those monuments above the clouds.

The achievements of those early industrialists can’t be denied. The skyline of New York City is an awe-inspiring sight. But in creating something glorious, death was inevitable. That’s Crimson Skies. Reflective of the entire arcade dog-fighter genre, which has sadly failed to transcend the stratosphere – and has stalled. That’s Crimson Skies. The bombastic American Dream. Preposterous, amazing, adventurous. Untenable.

The question that has plagued men and women throughout the ages didn’t come to me then. But it comes to me now, so I suppose I had better ask it.

Is glory – no matter how brief – worth dying for?

It is a question that Nathan Zachary answered years ago. He painted it in tarot cards across the only girl he ever really loved.

Justice. Wealth. Lovers. Death.

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65 Comments »

  1. Aemony says:

    Ahh, Crimson Skies… Good memories, good memories…

    How come the age of similar flight games died out? :(

    • SpinalJack says:

      people stopped buying joysticks

    • mbp says:

      @SpinalJack. I think there is something in the joystick argument. Flight sim designers really didn’t put any effort into making their games accessible to alternative controllers. I remember struggling to play Crimson Skies on a thrustmaster game pad because I didn’t have a proper joystick. Yet more recently I have been having a blast in Dogfighter using mouse and keyboard control only.

    • The Tupper says:

      I realise this is heresy, but (despite having a CH Yoke and rudder pedals) I’ve recently discovered how nice it is to fly Flight Simulator X with an XBox 360 controller.
      The yoke is nice and all, but is a pain in the bum to attach and remove any time I want a quick spin through the clouds. The XBox pad reminds me slightly of my early sim days on the Amiga with a digital joystick.

    • Orvidos says:

      @BMP

      As in, Airfix, Dogfighter? Or that shitty thing that came out on Steam a few months back?

    • mbp says:

      Um @Orvidos not sure if you are just trolling but I do mean Darkwater studio’s brilliant little fly em up “Dogfighter”. Hard to know what you found objectionable about it, the game is great fun. I mentioned it because the ambience reminded me very much of Crimson skies even though the game is very different.

    • vodka and cookies says:

      Flight combat games are still popular enough on game consoles thanks to analogue sticks on gamepads, Ubisoft has put several games out over the last few years, Hawx being the most recent franchise and Ace Combat series is still going.

      But yes death of joystick killed PC sales not only games like Crimson Skies but the space combat genre (Freespace/X-wing) too.

      With the exception of Ubisoft though there’s a general of disinterest from most publishers towards this genre in fact Microsoft cancelled any further Crimon Skies games and Freelancer 2 was being developed for the Xbox 360 but they canned it too.

    • UK_John says:

      Because gamer IQ’s have been dropping by 5 points a year since the advent of the “multiformat market” around 2004, where every game started to be dumbed down – sorry “streamlined” for spotty 13 year old ADD affected adolescents!

    • NathanZachary says:

      All pilots man your planes this is not a drill the HMS Burlington is under attack Crimson skies is alive and well. come to http://www.digitalbloodsports.com and join us for the Friday night fights. if you need any help getting Crimson skies installed and running on your computer you can always stop in and ask the guys on our free teamspeak3 server for help.
      By the way if you’re a fan of any of the other old CD-ROM games like Mech warrior, combat flight simulator, Midtown madness two, There lobbies running for those games. Any of the others you want just ask and they’ll be running for you come join us on digital blood sports.com

  2. Orvidos says:

    No. . .damnit, the disk is right here, you basta-. . .

    I’ll be back in 9 hours.

  3. nameroc says:

    So many fond memories! I still have the disk somewhere! I wish they made more games like this, in space or air or otherwise…
    I also vaguely remember a game called Yager, but I don’t remember it enough to compare it to Crimson Skies. I think they were kind of similar, though.

    • Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

      That would be Chuck Yagers air combat. From what I remember (I was much younger when I played Yager) they arent the same.

    • j6m says:

      You mean this?

  4. crazydane says:

    Sadly I only played this on my now broken Xbox. I wish I had the PC version but at the time I was young and foolish! The Xbox version was fun, I have memories of many a happy hour spent charging around the spacious maps. I am now tempted to voyage into the Crimson skies world of PC as I see it is a mere £2.49 on Amazon.

  5. Premium User Badge

    WeeMadAndo says:

    I love this game.
    I love the setting.
    I love the story.
    I love the characters.
    I love the designs.
    I love the way it plays.

    I even bought a force feedback stick just for this game.

  6. Icarus says:

    Ahh, Crimson Skies. This and FreeSpace 2 ruined a joystick way back in the day.

  7. Andrew Dunn says:

    You confused hack, Brendan Caldwell.

  8. Kreidos says:

    Yup, still got my original disc for the PC right here.

    This game really needs to come to GOG.com for those of us who aren’t quite so nerdy as me, and don’t have a purpose-built windows 98 box for these classic titles.

    • Icarus says:

      A thousand times this, yes. This and MechWarrior 3.

    • westyfield says:

      Ugh, there I was about to head over to GOG to see if Crimson Skies was there. Is there a system on GOG (never used it before) to request games to be added to the collection?

    • Droniac says:

      There used to be such a system but they removed it. Now you can post on the GOG forums and they’ll probably notice it.

      I doubt GOG will manage to secure the rights to Crimson Skies (or MechWarrior) because as far as I know those are still Microsoft IPs. And Microsoft doesn’t do digital distribution. Maybe if they decide to half-heartedly support PC gaming again you might see it on their horribly broken Games for Windows Live Marketplace, but I wouldn’t expect anything more than that.

    • Premium User Badge

      Gabbo says:

      Tinker and Smith did license Crimson Skies rights from Microsoft along with other FASA works, so maybe we’ll see it again one day.

    • Waltorious says:

      Technically, the GOG wishlist for requesting games is still there, but there’s no longer a direct link to it anywhere on the site (except for some forum posts where people were asking where it went) because it’s a bit of a mess, and the GOG people want ti fix it up first. This is supposedly one of the big things on their list of things to do, but it seems it’s not ready yet.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lars Westergren says:

      Maybe they want to fix it up, but in the meantime, search for “crimson” and click vote.
      http://www.gog.com/en/wanted/

  9. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    So many fond memories. Was really looking forward to the sequel.

    And then those motherfuckers at MS made High Road to Revenge an XBox exclusive.

    >:(

  10. PureUncut says:

    Take a second to think about how brutally awesome a Crimson Skies MMO could be.

    You and your band of pirates flying around in your custom Zep raiding towns and salvaging ships only to be pounced on by another band of devilish rogues.

    Great article too, I don’t think Crimson Skies gets enough mention as it deserves.

  11. bill says:

    I should love this game. It’s everything I like.
    But for some reason I could never get into it. I love these kind of weird settings and alternate histories, I loved the period and the style, I like these kind of semi-sims.
    But this game just annoyed me… the controls never felt good, and insta-death was always too close. (yet i loved that in Tie-fighter. But tie fighter didn’t put lots of small holes for you to fly though).
    To this day I wonder if the game just didn’t like my joystick.

    I loved the space sims, and I REALLY loved Interstate 76 – which is probably the closest game to this in terms of style, setting and gameplay. Yet this one just never clicked. Still have the box somewhere.

    I wonder if it worked better on consoles…

    • Schmouddle says:

      Yeah, it went the same way here, mentally. Crimson Skies and Interstate76, The Goodness of Arcade. Amen.

  12. wedge98 says:

    Best SP Flying Game EVER!!!

    I fully enjoyed every part of this game and would love to see another.

  13. poop says:

    totally rad game but I still cant get past those fucking hollywood missions :(

  14. buzzmong says:

    This is in my top 10 of favourite games.

    It’s also got a fantastic control system, excellent arcade physics and by god, it gave me seperate control over pitch, yaw and roll.

    I could do proper corkscrew rolls!

    That’s a massive problem for me in current arcade flight games, I want roll to be left and right on my ‘stick and not be combined with yaw into some sort of single “left” or “right” motion.

    I’m not an idiot, I can handle 3 axis at at once. HAWX would have been much better if it had followed Crimson’s example as the freedom it offers in flying is brilliant.

    It was simply a joy to fly around the skies in this game, plus I’ve not yet encountered another game with such meaty weaponry. The .50, .60 and .70 cannons sounded exquisite with their deep bassy *chud chud chud*.

    For reference: The Xbox version of Crimson Skies isn’t a patch on the PC original, it’s a totally different game, both story and control wise, only a few planes like the iconic Devestator made it across as well. It’s still worth playing though as it retains some of the charm.

    • Brendy_C says:

      “The .50, .60 and .70 cannons sounded exquisite with their deep bassy *chud chud chud*.”

      And your plane shudders while firing! It’s like a rickety old airfix model supersized.

  15. Rii says:

    I got stuck on the Hollywood mission. =(

  16. necromental says:

    Sooo, the mmo,. our character starts out in a broken old biplane from the early world war 1 research and has to fly from fuel point to fuel point trading as you go. or you take to the skies, join up with comrades and bounty hunt pirates. or be pirates and prey on the fat and wealthy converted bombers. So basically it’s crimson skies crossed with b-17 flying fortress the mighty 8th, skyrates and a simplified eve. So who fancies making me this?

    • PureUncut says:

      A thousand times yes.

    • Davee says:

      This would be something I’d love to be part of making :)

    • danimalkingdom says:

      I’ve kinda been working on something like this. It’s very early stages though. Looking for a couple of people to make it with.

    • Schmouddle says:

      I can’t help you doing it, but I can help buying it. Worth 50 bucks? :o)

  17. neolith says:

    One of the best games ever. I got an MS FF joystick just for it.

  18. Vinraith says:

    I loved Crimson Skies, so when this computer game version came along I was thrilled. It was a bit more limited than I might have hoped (what I really wanted was a more direct adaptation of the board game, with full squadrons and whatnot) but it captured the flavor of the setting brilliantly and was a lot of fun on its own merits. I was irritated when the sequel ended up being Xbox-only, and even more irritated when I discovered I couldn’t run this one on XP.

  19. Flameberge says:

    Crimson Skies is brilliant. I remember reading about in in PC Gamer back when I was a young’un and showing my Dad the coverage and then the review. He came home from work two days later and had picked it up. We both loved that game. Really wish there’d be a proper sequel to it. We can but dream.

  20. BobsLawnService says:

    Great game but it hates modern nVidia cards so if you want to play it on your new rig you’re stuffed – just ask me.

    • ZamFear says:

      @BobsLawnService:
      It hates modern ATI cards too :(
      It’s based off the Mechwarrior 3 engine, which has the same problem.

    • Lord Uber Dowzen says:

      Yeah, I encountered this error and wasn’t able to get the game working for years. A guy called Timeslip on the nVidia forums managed to make a fix though. Sadly his website and his account on the nVidia forums has disappeared. I’ve got the patch on my external HD but I managed to track it down for you guys:

      http://rapidshare.com/files/244045274/csfix2.7z

    • Premium User Badge

      FriendlyFire says:

      You, sir, win an Internet.
      I’ve made a mirror on my own site since I don’t want this thing to disappear in Rapidshare’s bowels. You can download the archive here:
      http://programexpert.net/CrimsonSkies_Fix.7z

  21. El Mariachi says:

    I’ll tell you what you don’t see. You don’t see any Zeppelins up there.

    Sure we do.

  22. Davee says:

    Nostalgia overload! Aiiiieee! One of my favourite games ever. Hope to see a proper sequel some time.

  23. OJ287 says:

    Pimp My Blimp: ‘The new vehicle set to revolutionise the skies’

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12110386

  24. DTKT says:

    Nathan Zachary=Malcolm Reynolds

    • Premium User Badge

      Hypocee says:

      It’s so sad that you just literally made me convulse. A Big Damn Crimson Skies Movie with Fillion in that bomber jacket?

      whyyyyyyyy…

      Well, at least it’ll never be Hollywoodised.

  25. Premium User Badge

    tikey says:

    I’ve always wanted to play this game again with a joystick (when it came out I played it with keyboard). But my crappy joy has the trigger as button number 12 and the game doesn’t let me map it, it doesn’t even let me change the axis the game uses. So I can’t use it.
    Anyone knows if there is a solution for this?

  26. Wizen says:

    Words cannot describe how fucking epic Xbox Live was back in the days when me and 3 friends would switch between Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, Rainbow Six 3 and Star Wars Battlefront. They all made the best out of multiplayer online for the Xbox.

    Crimson Skies is possibly the most underrated game i have ever owned. I would love a sequel. It had similar stylings to FireFly – which i also loved.

  27. Kayden says:

    I loved that game, use to play at lan parties all the time back in 2000 – 2003 mainly because ppl brought crappy laptops and it could do direct draw, but we still had fun! I miss good flight/space sims.

  28. Player1 says:

    I played the original to death and loved the Xbox version too, although i only played singleplayer and split screen multiplayer on it, but it was epic. I just reinstalled the pc version and it runs flawlessly on my old Win XP rig. Just how can i set a resolution higher than 1024×768?

  29. Serenegoose says:

    I played this game with a keyboard. Couldn’t get past the new york missions because of this. I have fond memories of it regardless because it was such a fantastic world to lose myself in for a few hours :)

  30. Moni says:

    I think it’s just the flight model and the missions made it a good game alone, the wonderful world is what’s made it stick in the mind for so many years.

    Definitely a universe worth revisiting.

  31. Comrade Communist says:

    One of my favorite games. Too bad, it doesn’t run properly on new videocards…

  32. Verb4tim says:

    Crimson Skies, Freespace 1&2, Starlancer, Freelancer, Mechwarrior god damn those were some awesome games.

  33. Duckmeister says:

    Between Crimson Skies, Freelancer, and Rainbow Six 3 Raven Shield, I don’t think I got any schoolwork done. At all.

  34. The_Great_Skratsby says:

    Loved the game to death as a kid as I do now. It’s a shame games vehicle or combat related just don’t have that charm or personality wrapped up in the execution. Crimson Skies, right there rubbing shoulders with Interstate 76′.

    Also, the ‘Air Action Weekly’ manual was tremendously good.

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