Puns, Promises and Poppycock: A Brief History Of Sim Ads

During the 1990s, cloud flanks were still blank, soft drinks came without A numbers, and the first Sutton Corp BrandGnat had yet to take flight. If you wanted to publicize your latest vehicle simulator, your best best was renting a page or two in a games magazine. Pulp-based periodicals like PC Gamer, PC Zone and Computer Gaming World came crammed with tempting ads for winged and wheeled fare. Looking back on those ads today, certain things stand out like Shermans on a skyline.

Browsing the archives at sites like The Computer Gaming World Museum and Pix’s Origins Adventures (whose selfless scanning activities made this article possible) the sheer quantity of sim advertising is striking. I’ve just leafed through a musty copy of GGW that contains advertisements for twelve different simulations. I’ve yet to find an issue that contains fewer than four. At a time when our realism providers are mostly shy or sidelined, it’s easy to forget that, for much of the last decade of the Twentieth Century, sim studios and their publishers were amongst the wealthiest and most voluble hawkers in the teeming PC games bazaar.

They were amongst the most boastful too. Extravagant claims came easily to the lips of simulation salesmen and saleswomen back then. Almost every ad seemed to promise pre-eminence. Parsoft’s A-10: Cuba! was “the most realistic flight simulator ever”. Buyers of US Navy Fighters were getting “the most sophisticated flight simulation on the market”. MicroProse’s European Air War was quite simply “the best WW2 flight simulation ever made”. EF2000 was “officially the world’s greatest PC combat flight sim”. Fighter Squadron: Screamin’ Demons Over Europe offered “Unprecedented physics and flight modelling”. Fly! was “the most realistic general aviation simulator ever created for PC”. The 3D graphics acceleration in Red Baron 3D created a world so real it required “real courage to step into the cockpit”. When it came to overclaiming, sim copywriters made the Battle of Britain-era Luftwaffe look like rank amateurs.

The admen’s red-hot hyperbole howitzers were probably at their most effective when loaded with third-party ammunition. When a Digital Integration spokesman suggested that Apache Longbow’s combination of “stunning presentation and captivating gameplay” made it “the best of its kind” the wary punter could be forgiven a spot of eye-narrowing and chin-caressing. When the same lines nestled within quotation marks and came with ‘PC Gamer, 95%’ attached, it was bally hard not to reach for the ball-pein hammer and the Brewster Buffalo-shaped piggybank.

Testimonials from experts like serving pilots and soldiers, were – considering the staggering realism levels most sim studios professed to have achieved – surprisingly rare components in adverts of the period. On the rare occasions they did appear, quotes were often suspiciously synthetic or too vague to have much of an impact. A retired colonel pointing out that a tank sim (NovaLogic’s Armored Fist 3) “really gets the adrenaline flowing!” possibly isn’t as helpful to sales as, say, a serving tank commander saying nice things about the ballistics modelling or enemy AI.

One thing that every Nineties sim advert needed was a prominent pun. The rampant wordplay ranged from the moderately clever to the criminally crass…

  • Steel Thunder “NOW SHOOTING ON LOCATION” (2/10)
  • US Navy Fighters “THIS CAT LOVES TO DOGFIGHT” (5/10)
  • Apache Longbow “UNLEASH HELLFIRE” (6/10)
  • Red Baron 3D “25 YEARS OLD. DRIVES A RED CONVERTIBLE” (8/10)
  • Flight Simulator 2000 “NEW YORK, NEW YORK, SO GOOD YOU LANDED TWICE” (11/10)
  • Combat Flight Simulator “YOUR FINEST HOUR” (Get thee to a punnery)
  • Flanker 2 “FALCONS BEWARE. THERE’S A NEW BIRD OF PREY ON YOUR TAIL.” (Sassy/10)
  • Hind “BETTER RED THAN DEAD” (Lacks hart)
  • F22 Lightning II “MEET OUR NEW £60 MILLION STRIKER” (Not awful)
  • F22 Lighting III “GO ON STRIKE!” (Awful)
  • Team Apache “APOCALYPSE RIGHT NOW!” (Namateurish)
  • Ka-52: Team Alligator “FROM RUSSIA WITH STEALTH” (Go sit on the naughty steppe)
  • F/A-18 Hornet “REACH OUT AND TORCH SOMEONE” (You’re fired. Ed)
  • Armoured Fist 3 “BE THE LAST THING TO GO THROUGH YOUR ENEMY’S HEAD” (Might work better in an advert for a shell simulator?)
  • Comanche 3 “TIME TO GET YOUR CHOPPER OUT” (You’ve let the devs down, you’ve let the publisher down, but, most of all, you’ve let yourself down)

In some ads, woeful wordsmithery blighted more than the tagline. MicroProse’s wonderful B-17 Flying Fortress (1992) was promoted in the US using a sepia photo of the Memphis Belle crew emblazoned with the slogan “Become a legend before your own time”. Beneath the pic, the block of descriptive text began with a question as ungainly as it was baffling: “What becomes a legend most? Find out for yourself as…”.

The contrast between the care and industry of sim makers and the care and the industry of sim marketers could be horribly stark. In August 1996 someone at Interactive Magic signed-off an advert for DI’s Hind that included the following: “Just remember, once you get the enemy in your sites, lock in and fire when ready.”. Even Microsoft’s astronomical advertising budget didn’t guarantee well-chosen words. The ugliest lump of prose in the January, 1999 issue of PC Zone wasn’t to be found in the reviews section or on the letters page. It was in an ad for Combat Flight Simulator. “Nothing beats the feeling of flying a WWII fighter, except filling one full of lead and watching it plummet pitifully to the ground, as you fly over London, Paris, and Berlin, all below you in heart stopping detail.”

The inability of period graphics engines to display “heart stopping detail” may explain why so many Nineties ads were dominated by photographs or art rather than screenshots. The gaudy yet gorgeous illustrations used to sell titles like Task Force 1942 and Battle of the Ironclads became less and less common as the decade progressed, but the industry’s taste for aspirational imagery never completely went away.

An early example of boldness and honesty came in 1990 when LucasFilm Games chose to demonstrate the “near-photographic realism” of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe forerunner Their Finest Hour with a juxtaposed photo and screenshot.

Virgin Interactive may have been the first publisher courageous enough to use a full-page screenshot in an advert. Readers turning to page 265 of the December 1994 issue of CGW were confronted by a polygonal Flight Unlimited Pitts Special soaring over a murky mountainscape. Interestingly, the FU ad that appeared later in British mags used a rendered aircraft in place of the in-game model.

Other notable Nineties naturists included Jane’s Combat Simulations, Eidos Interactive/Innerloop Studios and Empire Interactive/Rowan Software. Longbow 2, Joint Strike Fighter, and MiG Alley were all proudly publicised used single screengrabs spread over multiple pages (though Rowan/Empire did, somewhat cheekily, tart-up their pyrotechnics for the occasion).

Whether a publisher plumped for a screenshot-dominated print campaign or a photo-based one, poor Photoshop skills and a lack of design flair could still leave a silk purse looking like a sow’s ear. I imagine Digital Integration weren’t exactly over the moon when they saw how American publisher Interactive Magic was marketing Hind.

Before we move on to the sim publicity that stood out for all the right reasons, a mention of parochialism in sim advertising. Wandering down this billboard-lined memory lane, every so often you stumble upon ads that almost certainly never left their country of origin. While British punters were enduring lazy chopper jokes, US ones were processing publicity that occasionally relied on national stereotypes and obscure (outside the States) automobiles for pulling power.

Possibly concerned that some potential purchasers wouldn’t know a Panavia Tornado from a Paveway crater, Spectrum HoloByte introduced DI’s Tornado to American magazine readers with a photo of the real machine and a playful observation: “LASER GUIDED MISSILES THAT CAN PINPOINT A WINDOW. A 10-TON BOMB LOAD THAT CAN LEVEL A TOWN. MAYBE THE BRITISH AREN’T SO CIVILISED AFTER ALL”.

In the UK, the Made-in-Germany Panzer Elite was promoted with a clever if somewhat misleading (the scene was rendered) annotated picture of a ‘deserted’ rural landscape. In the US the copywriters decided to go with a design that, at first, second, and third glance, looks like a strong candidate for Simulation’s Crassest Advert.

Is hanging a ‘WHAT GERMANS REALLY DO BEST!’ banner over an Operation Barbarossa photo of an advancing StuG, more or less objectionable than using a ballerina’s buttocks to sell your naval aviation sim? You decide while I select the ads I think represent 1990s sim publicity at its very best.

While Golden Age simulations were often poorly served by the words and images selected to promote them, there were times when the stars aligned and the admen delivered…

AEGIS: Guardian of the Fleet, a 1994 guided-missile cruiser sim, was promoted with this delightful piece of whimsy.

Military polyglots Jane’s using a double-page-spread to striking effect in 1996.

If you’re going to belittle the opposition then at least do it with humour and style. The only fly in the ointment here is the second half of the tagline. Shouldn’t it read ‘AND THERE IS FLIGHT UNLIMITED III.’?

A perfectly delivered punchline, this time from MicroProse (M1 Tank Platoon II, 1998)

Probably, my all-time favourite sim ad. In 1998 F/A-18: Korea’s publicists pique interest with a visual pun that’s as ingenious as it is incisive.

This article was funded by the RPS supporter program.

48 Comments

  1. Martel says:

    That was really fun to read, I even remembered a few of those.

    I also think this needs to be an official rating for games – (Sassy/10)

  2. OctoStepdad says:

    Great Read!

    And for the Plymouth Superbird Ad, why would they pick a image of the car spinning out during what seems to be a oval track

  3. daver4470 says:

    MiG Alley was a great little game that got no love at all and disappeared all too quickly. The MiG 15 and the F-86 were modeled pretty well (for the time), and it was realistically difficult to dogfight them. Plus, it had a dynamic campaign that generated new missions based on how the previous missions fared.

    • Zenicetus says:

      i enjoyed MiG Alley too, and it’s a shame it didn’t get more recognition. It wasn’t easy to engage enemy jets with guns at those closing speeds, and maybe that’s why more people didn’t like it. Guns-only combat is more manageable in WW1 and WW1 planes. The scenery was a bit dull too, over brown hills and over white cloud tops…. realistic but not exactly awe-inspiring. Or maybe it was just the timing, being released when sims were starting to wind down in the marketplace, just before the rise of the big FPS and MMO titles. Maybe people were just burned out on the whole air combat thing?

      We have a few more accurately modeled survey and study sims now, and they sure look good, but it seems that everyone has forgotten how to program a compelling campaign context for flying those lovely models. I miss dynamic campaigns like MiG Alley, and (especially) Apache Longbow. I blame the growing emphasis on multiplayer support for this. Once enough people got broadband and the netcode protocols were sorted, it was easier for game studios to promote MP instead of programming good singleplayer campaigns. I’ts a lost art now.

      Anyway, thanks Tim for a great trip down memory lane. I had forgotten how hyperbolic those ads were.

    • Wret says:

      It’s been awhile but from what I can remember the campaign was this fantastic meta-strategy game where you need to pick your course and target on the map to support the ground war. It doesn’t matter if you turn a random supply base into farmland if it doesn’t actually help the front lines, you could lose the war with your decisions. And by ‘could’ I mean I lost every time. I was maybe 10 or something when my dad showed it to me, and the idea that you could lose “in the story” in spite of ‘winning’ the “player shooty bang bang” parts was magnificent. The war existed outside of me playing a mission. Unfortunately the closest I’ve come to that feeling since is the STALKER and Dynasty Warriors series, and E.Y.E to a lesser extent (and this bizarre thing called A.I.M. that I think it’s developers are ashamed to talk about)

    • Shadowcat says:

      Spins in the MiG 15 were brutal!

  4. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Great article, surprised this isn’t in the supporter content tbh. Not that I’m complaining!

    Ahh, US Navy Fighters, how I loved that game. Mainly remembered for the deliciously adult (or so I thought at the time) radio banter. I think I’m gettin’ a hard on!

    *cough*

    • MrThingy says:

      Yes! I loved USNF, I think it was the reason I whined at my parents to go for a 16mb Pentium 90 . ;)

      It had a great mission editor and I used to just set up a ton of opposing forces just to watch them blow each other to pieces.

  5. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Nostalgia overload! Hilarious article, Mr Stone. Fine work.

  6. heretic says:

    awesome, comanche 3 was GREAT despite the ad – what happened to novalogic?

  7. Llewyn says:

    It’s not even Friday! RPS, with these Tim Stone you are really spoiling us!

    Military sims weren’t (and aren’t) really my bag, but I remember Flight Unlimited as something truly special, provoking a similar response in me to OMSI in Graham’s post earlier today. Perhaps I need OMSI.

    (By the way, a couple of the good adverts aren’t showing, at least for me.)

  8. RARARA says:

    Oh hey, finally a Tim Stone article that didn’t completely…

    *puts on sunglasses*

    … fly over my head.

  9. captain nemo says:

    :) good article

  10. Premium User Badge

    Joshua says:

    This has actually gotten me mightily interested in those 90s sims, any recommendations?

    Also: Excellent article, as always.

    • P.Funk says:

      A-10 Cuba was unbelievable given the time. Its still unbelievable honestly. Though I will say the A-10 was never as fast in real life as it was in that game.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I don’t know if any of these 90’s games would run on a modern computer and OS. You would also need a joystick for the flight sims, since few of them ever supported mouse control. That was the heyday of joystick control; most PC gamers had them. Mig Alley might be recent enough to run on current Windows, but you’d have to do some searching to make sure.

      One of the old games that does still work, although it’s a space game not realistic sim, is Freespace 2 with mod support. Search for the “Freespace Open” project, which increases screen resolution. A joystick or full HOTAS works fine for that game on my Windows 7 machine. It’s no comparison to a modern revival project like Elite: Dangerous, but it’s a fun blast from the past; back when you had to learn dozens of controls and wingman commands in a singleplayer game.

      • Premium User Badge

        Joshua says:

        I actaully already own FS2, and a HOTAS (which I bought because of FS2). Huge fan of that game and it’s community.

  11. Heliocentric says:

    You must get results, or you go down. Live by it.

  12. Shiloh says:

    “This article was funded by the RPS supporter program”

    On the one hand, I’m delighted that my suggestion to Jim to funnel Weimar Republic-sized wheelbarrows full of supporter cash Mr Stone’s way has been heeded.

    On the other hand, what I wasn’t counting on was the intense, stabbing pain of envy and bitterness which it’s brought on.

    • FurryLippedSquid says:

      Hmm, has this slipped through the pay-net, then? Or are they just teasing us non-monetary supporting folk with the excellence that lies a click and several pounds away?

      • mpk says:

        Moar Stone was promised. I hope that this is but the first batch.

        • Paul B says:

          First Picture: Part I – The 90s. I’m hoping for Part II – the 00s.

      • Llewyn says:

        No, this is the bit Jim mentioned of the supporter program funding main-page articles by other writers. Rest assured, you haven’t been missing out on additional Stone by not paying. Alas.

  13. mpk says:

    Quite glad that the FS200 score wasn’t nine out of eleven.

  14. Chaz says:

    I don’t remember my copy of Jane’s WWII Fighters having any of that schlock.

    What ever happened to the Jane’s licensed sims?

  15. Gog Magog says:

    That’s all excellent // dreadsome but “GET THE DICK” is still the greatest tagline ever.

  16. ChrisMidget says:

    This article is brilliant, and I am not even old enough to be Nostalgic.

    • All is Well says:

      This – I was neither old nor British enough to have been made aware of these ads the first time round, but it’s still very nice to be able to enjoy them now.

    • P.Funk says:

      For just one moment I thought you’d written “Novastalgic” and I got very excited.

  17. Buuurr says:

    The 90’s were awesome… best decade ever.

  18. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    I… I don’t get the ‘so good you landed twice’ pun. I’m so sorry :-(

    • All is Well says:

      While we’re admitting to not getting things, could someone please explain the “visual pun” in the F/A-18: Korea ad? Is the thinking that landing on a carrier is really hard, which is symbolized by it being the size of a stamp?

      • P.Funk says:

        Yes. It goes with the common vernacular which terms it “shooting a landing” which in this context means you thought shooting bad guys was bad but shooting a landing is even worse. I’ve heard it described as well that trying to land on a carrier is like trying to land on a postage stamp rocking back and forth in the ocean.

        Anybody deeply immersed in the world of fighter pilot lingo would no doubt recognize these things pretty quickly and so would create a sudden surge of emotional connection to the ad, as it is quietly promising to make your experience in it everything you’re fantasizing about.

        Brilliant marketing.

        • jezcentral says:

          Damn, so it wasn’t about it being difficult to pick your bogeys with that helmet and breathing mask, then?

  19. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Shouldn’t that be “E numbers”, or have I gone through another parallel universe transition without noticing?

  20. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    What a fantastic read!

    That’s a whole hour (several fresh cups of tea were consumed while enjoying this piece) that made work feel more like home.

    Thanks Tim!

  21. Shadowcat says:

    Tim, this was awesome. So much nostalgia! (and really neat to see some of the adverts which never appeared in the mags I read).

  22. Shadowcat says:

    In fairness, not all of those claims were hyperbole. For example, I would suggest that “Fighter Squadron: Screamin’ Demons Over Europe” genuinely did offer “Unprecedented physics and flight modelling”. OpenPlane was kinda awesome.

  23. peterako1989 says:

    Flight sims?! Man this hits a sweet spot!

  24. udat says:

    There seems to be some text describing images I can’t see in the article, especially near the end, the Janes “double spread” and the FA/18 Korean ad…

    Anyone else unable to see all the images?

    • All is Well says:

      I had trouble too, but it turns out it’s just a problem with your adblocker. Hilariously enough, adblockers (or at least µBlock) identifies the images as ads (which, of course, they are), so just disable yours and they should pop right up when you reload the page.

  25. Radiant says:

    Posters like these were why I went to ECTS.

  26. bill says:

    I remember the multi-page mig alley ad. It looked great (even if the explosions were photoshopped). And a few years later I spotted Mig Alley going for a few quid in a charity shop and picked it up.

    Only to find that it wouldn’t work on modern PCs, and that nowhere in my city sold joysticks anymore anyway. So I still have the cd around somewhere and never actually tried it.