Skip to main content

1942: The Pacific Air War Is The Game Most Worth Saving From 1994

Saved Games: a retrospective series

Every game released before 2005 is being destroyed. We only have time to rescue one game from each year. Not those you've played to death, or the classics that the industry has already learned from. We're going to select the games that still have more to give. These are the Saved Games.

1942: The Pacific Air War is a game about jinking the Zeroes from your tail and also wondering where the Japanese fleet has gone since you last sighted it. It’s a game about being the best goddam tailgunner in the Pacific Theater and also about worrying that the Americans have shot down too many of your spotter planes. And it’s a game about holding steady and hoping your last torpedo will destroy the carrier that will send out planes to bomb your airfield.

It’s the game I think is worth saving from 1994, because of its incredible scope and scale. It interweaves a complex naval strategy game with a full-featured flight sim, and it’s a perfect example of the ambition of its age, ambition that was realised on 486 processors and yet is so rarely lived up to today.

1942: The Pacific Air War is a big game. A really big game. It’s played in a huge open world and there are many planes to fly, missions to beat and pilot careers to follow. But for me, 1942: The Pacific Air War is all about its Carrier Battle mode. Built on Task Force 1942, which Microprose released a couple of years earlier, Carrier Battle is a game in which you play as admiral of either the Japanese or American forces, and then play hide and seek against each other across hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, islands and atolls.

You don’t know where the enemy is, and the enemy doesn’t know where you are, either. Your first order is to send out fans of spotter planes from your carriers and airbases, which will radio back to you sightings of enemy ships they come across. The more planes you send out in a wave, the wider the slice of the Pacific that you’ll know about, but it’s only ever a snapshot, timed by the speed of a propeller engine. This is the Second World War, so information is patchy, and it’ll take several hours for your attack planes to reach distant sightings, by which time the fleet will probably have changed speed and course, perhaps having split into smaller groups.

This is a huge and analogue world, fuzzy and complex. All you know for sure is the fact there are metal hulks somewhere out there, wanting to kill you, and that knowledge invites hard decisions. You’re betting meagre stocks of planes on the blips that you discover: do you focus on one threat when you suspect an undiscovered one lies even closer? Do you leave yourself open by sending planes assigned to your defensive air patrol on a strike? Do you sweep the northern sea with your carrier’s spotters now, or sail to the south as fast as you can to support your threatened airbase? You’ve sent out an air strike, but now your carrier’s been spotted. Do you change course and speed to avoid a possible attack and risk your strike not being able to find you again and crashing, empty of fuel, into the sea?

Underpinned by uncertainty, these are exciting questions, and fortunately the enemy is in the same boat. Haha. Well, hopefully. I’m sure the lack of information on which 1942: The Pacific Air War trades also hides a thousand technical shortcuts that allow it to run on a 486, and I’ve read forum posts about how exploitable its AI is. But to know an intelligence with as fragmentary a knowledge of the world as you have is searching for you is delicious, and 1942: The Pacific Air War allows you to believe it if you don’t look too hard.

Should your planes find the enemy, you can choose to play the encounter as a pilot in a flight sim that’s an entire game in and of itself. 3D and fully textured if you put the detail settings up, it was beautiful in 1995, when I first played it. Bullets send plumes of spray into the air, wings tumble from mid-air explosions, smoke trails from stricken ships. For the time, the simulation is closely detailed, too, featuring a fully 3D virtual cockpit if you enable it, many different planes, and realism options that warranted a Pilot’s Handbook, an 82-page book that details flight dynamics and tactics.

You get to choose what features to endure, each boosting your mission score, including realistic aerodynamics and landings, engines overheating, blackouts and limited ammo. Frankly, limited ammo is no fun, and landings are terrifying; it all demonstrates very succinctly how utterly bonkers anyone was to fly warplanes from a carrier in the Second World War.

There are many different tasks to perform: in a fighter, like the Wawhawk or Zero (the Zero was far better), you might be sweeping enemy fighters, patrolling around your taskforce or defending your bombers on an attack. You might be torpedoing, making long, low approaches towards the flanks of battleships, often without front-facing guns. Or bombing, switching view to your bombsight and diving at your target amid flak. Or you can just be a tailgunner and let the AI fly. Each style demands specialised knowledge, and each plane handles differently, with different cockpit layout and gunsight design.

This is a game that celebrates its subject, back in an age of thick manuals. The scene-setting is simple but exemplary, told through historical accounts of battles, descriptions of the personalities of the admirals, and the fact that in 1942 the Japanese were sweeping, seemingly unstoppably, south and east across the Pacific, with the Americans attempting to stand in their way with inferior weaponry. This is the kind of game that lights a fire of fascination under you, if only to get a handle on what’s happening and what you should be doing.

What I’m trying to say here is that there’s a heck of a lot to get your head around in the flight sim. But you should be shot down, you can switch to another plane in your group, which in part acts as a set of lives that you set when you decided how big the strike was. And to lose a life is to spend a plane.

And that’s what I really love about 1942: The Pacific Air War, something I dearly wish was a greater feature of games today. Every scrape you get into is a result of your prior decisions, and will lead into future ones. A torpedo run against a ship might involve a routine set of actions you’ve performed before, but means so much more than when a game’s level design tells you to do it. In 1942: The Pacific Air War every scenario is inflected with the fact that you decided to attack this particular group with that many planes, meaning you’re up against a challenge that you provided yourself. And if you miss with your bombs, lose your planes or allow your ships to be destroyed, you’ll be bearing the consequences.

This is something I also loved about UFO: Enemy Unknown, which was released the same year and is probably my favourite game of all time. Similar to PAW, in UFO you’re setting strategic objectives of global importance for your on-the-ground tactical teams; yes, you’re doing another sweep of a crashed UFO, but this time you’ve made the personal decision to risk capturing an alien officer so you can research it. Missions feel vital, and when they don’t, it’s probably because you didn’t choose the right fight.

That’s what I mean about scope and scale. 1942: The Pacific Air War is a big game with a lot of features, but its real achievement is in making you feel in charge of so much, and yet able to see the results of your decisions on the micro level. It’s a game in which scoring a hit with the torpedo of your last Nakajima B5N Kate can make all the difference. And it’s a game in which your choice to send your fleet north can make all the difference, too. I wish more games played with scale like this. It’s like an idea that got left behind. Maybe it’s time to start exploring it again.

Read this next