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

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.

46 Comments

  1. wombat191 says:

    oh man i remember this, it had the most incredible manual with beautiful illustrations of every ship and plane in the game

  2. Magniankh says:

    Excellent write up. This quote, “…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” I couldn’t agree with more.

    Games in the mid-to-late 90’s were so ambitious and complex for the time! I’m still waiting for a follow up on Battlezone II, where you build a base and switch to FPS whenever you want, and pilot any vehicle. RTS/FPS is an underrepresented genre if you ask me.

    I can’t help but think that the switch to consoles as the primary platform has killed this level of ambition. If devs were focused on the PC as the primary platform, I’d like to think they’d be pushing the envelope again.

    Btw I’m not seeing 1942:PAW game on old-games.com, where can I get a copy?!

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      I think the problem with flight sims in particular is that a lot of the people who make them are obsessed with being absolutely as realistic as possible given current technology. In the ’80s and early ’90s, that meant fun, crunchy action games. By 2010, it meant 15-minute preflight checklists before you could take off.

      The action sim genre has vanished–there’s a vast middle ground between shallow shooters like Ace Combat and obsessive Jane’s-fondling simulators, and as far I can tell no one’s released any games in that middle ground for 20 years.

    • Nasarius says:

      The 90s were really interesting because we’d already been through the 80s phase of experimenting with computer technology and trying to figure out what a videogame could be, but the genres had yet to be rigidly defined. So there really was a lot of space for creativity with very few preconceptions and limitations, particularly as CPU power increased.

      Now, even the vast majority of indie developers seem heavily reliant on influences from the past and genre conventions. It’s hard to throw out what you know and try something new; it requires self-awareness and conscious effort. So getting something really novel and ambitious (eg, Dwarf Fortress) is rare.

      And that’s just the indies. Obviously the massive explosion of the videogame industry has lead to a homogenization of “AAA” games in several ways. Consoles are part of it (especially on a technical level: gamepads and limited RAM), but only part.

    • AlfieV says:

      1942:PAW is available via Steam, link to store.steampowered.com , along with several other Microprose wargames. I don’t know how long they’ve been there, but I discovered them during the recent sales. Silent Service 1+2, Task Force 1942, Across The Rhine, F-19 Stealth Fighter.

    • Mo says:

      Has way more to do with the increasing cost of development and (understandably) risk averse publishers than it does the console boogyman.

    • Unsheep says:

      Its not a console issue, its a “mainstream” issue.
      PC games are simplified and accessible thanks to Steam making PC gaming mainstream.

      Steam made PC gaming accessible to everyone, not just “basement-dwellers” with computer skills. With Steam anyone could easily install and play PC games. It also created a platform for developers to quickly patch and update their games, significantly increasing the service and support quality, further negating the technical skills required to be a PC gamer.

      As soon as something becomes mainstream it also becomes simplified because it needs to appeal to as many different people as possible, with different skills and backgrounds. Not just elitists who play competitive twitch shooters and 4x strategy games.

      So developers and publishers seeking to maximize their profits went for ‘accessibility’ and ‘simplicity’ as far as game design goes. You can’t make a game like Master of Orion or 1942 and expect the same sales as GTA 5 or Skyrim. That’s not what the mainstream wants. Its really that simple, and it has nothing to do with consoles.

      Lastly, ‘1942: The Pacific Air War’ was a niche game even when it came out, it was not a game that the average PC gamer was playing. They were busy playing games like Wolfenstein, Doom, Street Fighter and Ultima.

      By definition a niche game does not have mainstream appeal. So complaining over a niche game not being mainstream and popular is irrational, they are designed for a very specific and narrow consumer base.

  3. Premium User Badge

    CdrJameson says:

    So, like a more realistic, wider scope Carrier Command?
    Sounds good.
    There really is no reason why games like this can’t be made these days. They just… aren’t for some reason.

    • JonWood says:

      It was a few years back, but a new Carrier Command was released in recent memory. I can’t quite remember why, but it didn’t hook me nearly as much – possibly it was because they did just put a fresh coat of paint on the original game.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I’m finding From the Depths is tickling some of the same neurons as old Carrier Command. It’s a different game, the custom shipbuilding being an obvious front-and-centre thing, but it’s got the same sea-full-of-islands expand-and-conquer manually-control-any-one-thing-while-the-rest-automate-(badly) thing going on.

    • Unsheep says:

      They can definitely be made, and I guarantee there’s an indie studio out there somewhere that has contemplated it, the problem is selling enough of them to justify making them. Games like this don’t exactly have mainstream appeal.
      Its much more complicated, and thus more expensive, to make a sim game today than it was in the past.

      The popularity of World War I & II games has diminished greatly as well, gamers today are predominantly interested in Fantasy and Sci-fi.

  4. Oakreef says:

    I’m sorry I’m one of those arseholes who comments before reading the article properly but how is the game you pick not System Shock??!?!?!?!

    • BooleanBob says:

      Think of these articles as ‘saving’ their subjects from historical obscurity, rather than some sort of ostensible gaming extinction event.

    • Great Cthulhu says:

      As intro says:

      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.

      And rightfully so, IMO. I already know all about System Shock, but I had no idea that 1942: TPAW was an exceptional game.

      • Great Cthulhu says:

        Ugh. Another vote to please bring the edit button back.

      • BooleanBob says:

        It’s this bit from the intro –

        “Every game released before 2005 is being destroyed. We only have time to rescue one game from each year.”

        which seems to be a source of needless angst. The games are already being saved from fading out of memory, so why do we also need the destruction conceit?

        • LionsPhil says:

          It is also the title. The conceit is kind of broken; in practice, it is precisely the most influential cultural artefacts that we go to efforts to preserving, because they’re historically significant and we want to let them carry on influencing future generations.

          The underappreciated-spotlight intent is right, though. I don’t need to read more articles about System Shock. I didn’t remember this game at all.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      Or the original X-COM: Enemy Unknown/UFO Defense, which was also released in ’94.

      I mean, I’m all for highlighting lesser-known games from each year. But if you could only save one… you’d pick 1942 over X-COM? For serious?

      • Premium User Badge

        Graham Smith says:

        I would! I’ve played X-COM. I have XCOM to play forever. If all of the pre-2005 games were destroyed, X-COM’s DNA would live on in a hundred other games. But 1942 needs our rescue.

        • unacom says:

          Spot-on! It is precisely this game that lurks in my mind when I fire up IL-2. It is THIS game the VR-goggles are actually made for.

        • Blastaz says:

          So the real title of this column should be “Game of the Year 199X: the Hipsters Choice”?

      • Stellar Duck says:

        At least read the intro! Or better yet, read the article and why the author thought that this game was the one that should be saved instead of games whose lessons were already learned.

        For goodness sake, why must you people always make these comments?

        It’s not a popularity contest and your soul won’t splinter if we don’t talk about whatever game you love the mostest.

  5. pauleyc says:

    This is just a kind reminder that 1994 brought us not only the excellent UFO: Enemy Unknown but also the absolutely brilliant TIE Fighter. Thus I conclude this article’s title is very, very incorrect.

    • unacom says:

      You guys do that on purpose? Don´t you?
      It says:

      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.

      It´s about the overlooked games.
      I agree TIE-fighter was damn-near perfect. But did you ever cast mor than a nervous glance at your fuel gauge and wonder: How Long do I have in combat? Is there enough fuel to make it back to my stardestroyer? Do I even know where it is right now? -So 1942 is the OTHER better game.

      • pauleyc says:

        Sigh…I now wish there was a better reason for my post than a mixture of late hour, tiredness, not reading the opening paragraph and the outrage over somebody choosing a different Gouraud-shaded 1994 sim over my beloved TIE Fighter.

        Unfortunately there isn’t; I turned into the embodiment of a classic XKCD comic (“someone is wrong on the internet!”) and rightfully deserve your criticism.

        /hangs head in shame

        • unacom says:

          Well the late-hour thing goes for me too.
          Didn´t want to stomp/rage on you.
          I actually tried to clarify that this article looks for very good gaming-experiences that have been overlooked.
          So maybe it should have been called different.

    • unacom says:

      if you wanted, you could have thrown in a lot more excellent games from 1994:
      warcraft
      battle isle 2
      wing commander 3
      earthworm Jim
      jagged alliance
      transport tycoon
      panzer general
      colonization
      aces of the deep
      each of these is a true classic and TIE-fighter, good as it is, really does not shine well against this list.

      • aircool says:

        Aces of the Deep was an enjoyable game. PC Zone’s Mr Cursor (Duncan MacDonald) did a great piss take of someone playing the game in real time…

        …I wonder, whatever happened to him?

      • pauleyc says:

        Speaking from a personal perspective, I never got into Warcraft. I did play Dune and the C&C games extensively but something about Warcraft always turned me away; maybe it was a kind of “fantasy fatigue” at the time. I finished Jagged Alliance several times but it didn’t have the same impact as UFO. TT and Colonization though were played to death (I still return occasionally to OpenTTD for a “quick” game).

        I guess all of this just supports your point; the first half of the 1990s was a great period for gaming.

        (Also, it’s good I completely forgot that System Shock was released in ’94. Otherwise I’d go “full retard”, which is something one is never supposed to do.)

      • thelastpointer says:

        COLONIZATION… *_*

    • Rhodokasaurus says:

      I feel like you guys are too wrapped up in technicalities here. Oh God, won’t someone think of XCOM?! It’s just an article about old games with good forgotten ideas.

  6. ooshp says:

    It’s amazing how many people head to a news site to NOT read the articles. Maybe the font is too small?

  7. aircool says:

    Yeah, this was a cracker of a game. I just loved being the gunner because at that time, it was amazing that a video game could play itself with you just playing a minor part; you set up all the pieces and then let the game do it’s thing.

    I must admit, the complexity and vision of PAW is something I was hoping to see in the new generation of space sims, but sadly, it’s all breadth and no depth so far.

  8. zagibu says:

    Great article. It’s pieces like this one that separate this website from other gaming websites and makes it so very relevant.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    This game reminds me of Rowan’s Battle for Britian, which has a similar feel with you playing both the airforce commander on either the RAF or the Axis side and allowing you to jump straight into the planes itself. It plays similarily to what this sounds like, albeit with the tactics and technologies of Britian in 1940 rather then the pacific.

  10. GWOP says:

    Excellent writeup.

  11. Unsheep says:

    GOG has already saved most of the classics I liked:
    Star Trek, Star Wars Dark Forces, System Shock, Master of Orion, Syndicate, Myst and many, many more.

    If I could only pick one to save though: Master of Orion.

  12. Robyrt says:

    What 1942 did for the flight sim – wrapping it in an ambitious, flavorful web of long-term consequences – One Must Fall 2097 did for the fighting game. This is a game that took Street Fighter 2 and layered an entire modern sports game on top. There’s an entire simulated pro league, with opponents that fight each other and earn cash to upgrade their stats and enter more prestigious tournaments, just like you do. Mod tools! Custom paint jobs! Multiplayer lobbies with custom game modes! Match replays you can share online! Arenas with hazards you can trigger on your opponent! Et cetera.

    Basically, this game had the kind of bold ideas we associate with famous games like XCOM and System Shock, but it is forgotten today because it tried to do so in a genre that consoles already had on lockdown. In 1994, a PC game that advises you to use a joystick instead of a mouse was never going to go over well.

    • sinboundhaibane says:

      I also feel like Traffic Department 2192 (link to en.wikipedia.org) deserves a mention. The game itself wasn’t fantastic, being a simple shooter with shit AI and repetitive mission objectives, but it had a great soundtrack and the script was like a novel; with long cut scenes, complicated characters, and really “adult” dialogue long before these practices were standard in the industry. Like One Must Fall and Pacific Air War though, it’s mostly been forgotten, probably because for all it’s merits it wasn’t really much of an action game. But I think it’s worth a look today. 1994 was a great year for gaming, looking back on it. It would be hard to pick a game to keep, even sticking to the underrated titles.

    • carewolf says:

      A PC game that used joystick wouldn’t go over well?? This also the year of wingcommander 3. It was still during the height of flight-stick PC gaming. And gaming with mouse still didn’t work well, it would be a year before WASD + mouse look was invented, and two or three before it became standard.

      • Llewyn says:

        Arcade sticks and flight sticks are different things entirely.

  13. Acumen says:

    I loved this game. I remember flying coop with a buddy and communicating via internet chat looking for ground targets. He would fly cover and I would go pound some dirt. Good times. F14 Fleet Defender was great too.

  14. iainl says:

    OK, I’ll be Norman Negative, then:

    “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.”

    Not only does the next paragraph mention that the same year brought us UFO: Enemy Unknown, which taught us the same lesson, but we’ve seen a fair few games since then try to teach the same thing – that your successes and failures have consequences you’ll feel later on. Whether that’s losing your multiplier in The Swindle or more obviously the late-game difficulty variance in XCOM, there are still people trying to get fun with it.

    And part of me wishes they wouldn’t.

    See, as much as I’ve not mentioned a single less-than-excellent game, it can so often go horribly wrong. Because there’s also a whole raft of RPG examples I can mention, where a poor decision early on (like investing your stat upgrades in the wrong place, long before you have any clue what the right place is) can turn out to be utterly crippling 20, 30 or 40 hours later. I had Pacific Air War, and Carrier Command, and several other games that did this. I never finished any of them, because in each and every instance I would get about a third of the way through before realising I should have done something differently in the first hour or two and restarting.

    It doesn’t help that there’s only one way that the industry seems to have figured out how to stop this from happening, and that’s where the entire latter half of the game is a total cakewalk because only a total screwup can stop you from being totally overpowered, just in case that’s exactly what you had.

    • unacom says:

      You´re putting your finger in a sore spot there. If every dev went this way, games would only serve one type of player. That cannot be good. Maybe there was one or the other good game that went according to your line of thought, fored players to think laterally rather than ahead. I´m curious. Dig it out. Could be a good write-up for the next article in line…