Stunt Island & A Lament For Flight Sims’ Lost Levity

By Alec Meer on March 6th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

Once upon a time, flight simulators were the most tantalising, promise-filled facet of nascent PC gaming. First-person perspectives were the bleeding edge of software entertainment and, at that point, sticking a gun in that first person-perspective had yet to achieve the total dominance it has now. (A first-person perspective never was the only way to play a flight sim, of course, but at the time it seemed like the most thrilling one, as the skies and clouds hurtled across peripheral vision, the ground loomed and zoomed dangerously into sight and rival planes threatened to fly directly into our eyeballs.)

I thought, even post-Wolfenstein, that flying a pretend aeroplane was the single most exciting concept I’d ever heard of. Apart from flying a real aeroplane, anyway.

A flight sim didn’t have to mean what the phrase usually entails now, and the genre hadn’t been dominated and imprisoned by a steely-gazed few who demanded ultimate simulation at the expense of escapism or fantasy-fulfillment.

While today I might shy from them, then I sought out flight sims because they were exciting, because they were wild and fantastical, not because they promised to faithfully recreate every last dial and lever. I thought the future was neither Doom or X-Plane: I thought it was Stunt Island.

The games-as-action-movie concept was, to me at least, not yet defined by the gun. It was defined by impossible, spectacular heroics – loop-the-loops around the Golden Gate bridge, plucking an escaped prisoner from the roof of Alcatraz, landing in the centre of a castle, nose-diving into the pyramids… In a pre-YouTube age, I could also ‘film’ and edit these polygonal tales of derring-do, reliving my own accomplishments without the need for a pop-up icon and some arbitrary reward of points to tell me that I’d done well.

This is perhaps to presuppose I was adept at Stunt Island. I most certainly was not. It was the near-death experiences which merited such treatment, not the achievement of cold, technical perfection. A nose dive recovered from, panicked steadying after a wing clipped on a skyscraper, a high-speed hurtle through a giant barn which missed fatal collision by mere millimetres: these are forever-memories, not the short-term pride of a perfectly-executed real-time flight from Stevenage to Orlando.

There is and always was a place for those too, and I do not deem them bad or unwelcome in any way: I simply wish that they’d not become a wholesale replacement for the adrenalised, tongue-in-proto-3D-cheek future which Stunt Island seemed to promise. It was a game by Disney in a way which seemed to make perfect sense then and now both – the very concept of Disney rather than the Epic Mickey-style license-milking of Disney.

All the thrills of a shooting game, none of the misanthropy. It was even a game I could play with my dad – granted, he was constantly admonishing me for my impatience and ineptitude, but at least his face wasn’t a mask of barely-concealed horror as bits of chopped man flew at the screen. And, at the end of the game-day, I wouldn’t simply click an Exit button – I would leave the set and head home, departing the island on a private ferry while I ruminated happily upon all that I had done, all the stunts I had pulled off, all the planes I had crashed, all the amazing micro-movies I had directed. It was always sunset.

It was always sunset, and it was always beautiful. It was always a fantasy, and unashamed to admit it.

No more.

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44 Comments »

  1. rickenbacker says:

    Mr Meer, you put your finger right on it. That no one has yet made a modern Stunt Island is nothing but shameful!

    • BarneyL says:

      The spirit lives on in things like Gary’s Mod and people “misusing” other games. Hunt out some of the videos for Silly Mondays in the Planetside 2 subforum for numerous madcap vehicle antics.

  2. razgon says:

    I loved this game – The sunset almost brings tears to my eyes.

    One question though – What is an RPS-Feature?

  3. Tony M says:

    My pilots nickname was “Sparrow”. It was the first game where I realized that understated nicknames were cooler than Macho Man nicknames.

  4. Richie Shoemaker says:

    Let’s not forget that Stunt Island cost a rather eye-watering £59.99. Quite expensive, even for 1993 prices.

    • terry says:

      Hearing my soundblaster knockoff crackle out “O.K. ace, you made it to the show” was worth every penny.

  5. Slabs says:

    Avalanche with their Just Cause engine would be perfect candidates.

    • rapchee says:

      yes! in fact, there are already plane races, many of them quite challenging. i must confess i “cheated” on most of them – i flown a fully upgraded rowlinson instead of the provided plane. i might just try them again. oh and the upcoming multi-mod will have scriptability as well so more races coming probably

      • LionsPhil says:

        Heh, there was one where I had to do that, because it had so many tight turns that made the INFURATING CAMERA misbehave.

        (Also it was quite hard.)

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      phuzz says:

      That’s pretty much how I played JC2 whenever I was in an aircraft.
      Yes, I could take off and fly sedately to my destination, but what I would actually do is stay at minimum possible altitude and get as close to ever piece of scenery possible.
      I think the majority of my deaths in that game were in a fiery ball of wreckage after my wingtip caught the edge of a tree/house/car/person/fish etc.

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        Surlywombat says:

        Since I truly believe the following statement, I write thus. More comments need to end with the words “fish etc.”

      • LionsPhil says:

        This also works, although obviously to a much smaller scale, for the VTOL in Saint’s Row 3, with the added bonus that wings will snap off without it exploding, at which point you can spin wildly and optionally shift to hover mode to actually survive (while the computer voice reads out SYSTEM FAILURE at you and makes exciting whooping noises).

        Also if you fly too close to the water it’ll actually gloop into it and create waves, at which point you get a split-second to break free again before you lose too much flightspeed/the engine is submerged.

    • faelnor says:

      Just slap that first-person mod for JC2 on and it feels exactly like that. It works great.

  6. Godwhacker says:

    I got my parents to buy this for me from PC World when it first opened in London- I’ve still got the original box, manual and diskettes. Couldn’t fly for toffee but I still spent hours just exploring the map, which at the time felt like the biggest thing ever

  7. neolith says:

    It pains me a little to read this as a few weeks ago I went through my old computer stuff and came across the Stunt Island manual. The disks and the rest of the box were nowhere to be found and the manual smelled a little funny after all these years, so I threw it out. :(

    I have very fond memories of Stunt Island – all those times I flew the triplane through the barn and the Corsair between the skyscrapers… :)

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    amateurviking says:

    I never played this, but it reminds me a lot of Pilotwings. Loved that game. No sign of a new one either :(

    • djbriandamage says:

      The games have some similarities in that they both have you perform various stunts and feats, but Stunt Island had so much more. It was framed as a movie stuntman game where you could create or modify sets, set up cameras, and film short movies.

      Oddly, in addition to setting up static sets with props, you could also drive or fly any prop as if it were a vehicle. I have fond memories of flying corkscrews and immelmans in an episcopal church, firing missiles at monster trucks floating in the ocean!

  9. H-Hour says:

    Wow, I have never found another person who has even heard of this game, but it ate up multiple summers of my childhood and sparked a life-long obsession with tinkering and modding whatever games I was playing.

    The “campaign” stunts may not have been all about shooting, but my own productions always were. Bombing a convoy on the road, taking out a SAM site, then checking the editor to see if all of my carefully configured cameras caught the action.

    I too sucked donkey balls at it, but that didn’t stop me from building my own action scenes and trying endlessly to get the shots. I even used this for a school project, recreating a scene from a book, then holding a video camera up to my screen to record the film and play it back in class. It was boring as hell, but hey, in 1993 who would have thought a 12-year-old kid could incorporate 3D visualization into his project!

    • djbriandamage says:

      I have the amazing poster map hung in my living room!

    • buzzmong says:

      Completely unrelated to this topic, but H-Hour, you wouldn’t happen to be the same chap as the H-Hour who works on UFO:AI would you?

  10. buzzmong says:

    I’ve never heard of this game, but after watching the videos and reading the text here, I do suspect that Crimson Skies’ Hollywood movie set chapters were inspired by this.

  11. Reapy says:

    I don’t know how I forgot this one, I,played the hell out of it, though in my head that terrain didn’t look as shitty ;) I remember taking the f16 through the canyon area countless times, recreating whatever Hollywood chases I’d seen that end in canyons.

    My dad went the extra mile, he set up a stunt where there was a jumper on a bride and you flew down under it to just catch him as he was falling where he would glue himself be standing up on the wing.

    You know what I miss the most, and Starcraft 2 got kudos for doing this, are the pictures as menus that games used todo at the time, especially the flight sim style games. Always loved those.

  12. LennyLeonardo says:

    Might seem a bit weird, but some of the best times I’ve had with Rise of Flight and Il2 have been spent doing crazy stunts and watching them back, or reviewing inch-close calls in practice battles.

  13. rapchee says:

    although it’s f2p and mostly shooting oriented, i found war thunder to be quite enjoyable. it’s team dogfight with various levels of realism, and there are some missions too.

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    Tinus says:

    I had no idea this existed, it looks so nice! I thought only Pilot Wings dared to inhabit this spectrum of the flight sim.

    Right, I’m stealing a lot of the ideas contained in Stunt Island and putting them straight into Volo Airsport.

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    Harlander says:

    There was a whole community of people making and sharing the films they made with this. I remember watching a series of Independence Day spoofs which involved defeating the aliens by dropping various things on them: cattle, lumber…

  16. BarneyL says:

    The sound effects library was brilliant many sounded as though thewy’s been picked out from Disney animations. “I think I zigged when I should have zagged” appeared in virtually everything my brother and I created.
    Would love to see this in GoG.

  17. Stevostin says:

    Wow nostalgia, that’s a tough blow below the belt Mr Meer !

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    Hypocee says:

    I thought the site had glitched and redated something when I read this. It turns out it wasn’t, of course – I was just flashing back to Tims Stone’s thing in PCG. No snark: Great minds think alike – it’s spooky how almost exactly the same sentiments and points appear in pretty much the same order.

    As ever, people craving This Kind Of Thing should check out Sky Odyssey for the PS2. Stormy carrier landings, gathering stuff from escaped balloons, refueling from a train that keeps going through tunnels, blasting through microbursts in a thunderstorm, weaving between stalactites through a cavern, dumping fuel to claw over the top of a mountain range…though TBH I haven’t beaten that last one yet because it’s seemingly quite iterative and takes a long time. It’s bastard hard right from the start, the flight models have just the right amount of give, and it’s ugly as sin. I love it to death. I first discovered it thanks to Aaron Linde at Destructoid

  19. longbeast says:

    The family friendly flight-and-insane-stunt simulator of the modern age is Kerbal Space program. You can spend entire evenings with it, never once touching a rocket, let alone going into space, just messing about with planes around the space centre.

  20. Kamos says:

    The thing that always comes to my mind when I play games from the classic era (pre 1998) is that they were little universes in themselves. There wasn’t yet a set way to accomplish things. If you wanted a sprite / polygon on your screen, you probably had to code it from scratch. Photorealistic rendering wasn’t yet the be all end all of computer games, and there was seemingly a sweet spot of constraint / possibility that led to great game design. It was like anything could be done in a computer game. It was always something new, something unexpected. Strange rules, strange abstractions, little naive simulations of the real world.

    They hardly had the computational power to do a straight forward approach to physics / 3D, so you’d see these… Again, little universes, each with their own rules, and you had so many lenses to look at them. Top down, isometric, side camera, 3D – anything was allowed. Mix and match, whatever it took to represent the game universe.

    When you look at games made from 98 onwards, so many of them are just so FUGLY. Not to mention that, before the advent of shaders, everything made with OpenGL/Direct3D looked so much alike. And while I remember the sense of wonder I felt while playing games like Half-Life, I can’t quite understand how people could actually accept low poly abominations replacing beautiful, hand crafted pixel art. Compare King’s Quest 8 (1998) with King’s Quest 7 (1994) and 6 (1992).

    Anyway. Rant time over; sorry about that. My point is, even flight sims were so fresh back then. They were trying hard to be a 3D simulation of the real world, but there was a naive approach to it, I guess. I remember games like Chuck Yeager, Stunt Island and Space Sim (not technically a flight sim, but still) fondly.

  21. caddyB says:

    Crimson Skies. Enough said.

  22. MadTinkerer says:

    DID YOU SAY STUNT ISLAND!?! AW YEEEEEEEAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!

  23. Hungry Like the Wholphin says:

    Yes. This.

    Flight sims used to embrace fun. Now they embrace super realism for keyboard pilots.

  24. sgt. grumbles says:

    Oh god I loved this game. It was my first introduction to video editing, too! And flying that SR-71 under the bridge…..good times.

  25. Axess Denyd says:

    You have: A lacerated forearm, eight broken ribs, a punctured spleen, and a bad haircut.

  26. Shadowcat says:

    Anyone in agreement with this thread who never had the pleasure of playing “Airfix Dogfighter” needs to find themselves a copy of that wonderful game.

    It’s less a simulation of flying than it is a simulation of a boy’s imagination as he runs through the house with his model aeroplanes causing havoc; but I think that description should tell you whether or not you’re interested.

    It’s both incredibly endearing, and also exceptionally well made. I had an absolute ball playing it, and you probably would too.

  27. fsj101 says:

    Looks like I might have to get a copy of this Stunt Island and the Airfix Dogfighter – only so much fun you can have flying a ‘realistic’ 737 on a FSX ‘mission’.

  28. McGuit says:

    I was part of the core team that helped to form Disney Computer Software, which was the forerunner to Disney Interactive.
    This is the group that developed Stunt Island, Sound Blaster and many other early, primitive, beautiful, and utterly exciting software products.
    That was in the days when Disney formed this software group in the Records division since what they knew about software was that records came on discs and software came on discs.
    Made sense to them.
    Since the corporation knew next to nothing about computer entertainment was, it allowed us to create products that completely broke all the rules as to what entertainment software was or should be. Those were strange days, but they still hold a special, squishy, place in my heart.
    Some amazing, talented people worked there way back then.
    Thank you for bringing back such wonderful memories for me.

  29. Grayman says:

    My parents 486 came with a video for this game and I always wanted it. Now I want to find something that lets me find that flying passion.