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.