As someone that collects and plays retro video games as a hobby, the Atari 2600 has a special place in my collection. Something akin to honoring an ancestor. Getting my hands on a physical copy of Dan Kitchen's Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator (1989) for this game console felt like recovering an artifact of simulated aviation. It was rather impressive for a flight game on a second-generation game console. Its development team squeezed out every ounce of hardware performance, even using the game console itself as a controller.
To build a perspective of when this game existed, it came out very late in the Atari 2600's life cycle. The Atari 2600 was released in 1977. Its fellow second-generation consoles included the Vectrex, ColecoVision, and Magnavox Odyssey². In 1989, the Nintendo Entertainment System had been around for a few years, and the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis had barely been released in Japan in 1988, with overseas models arriving in mid-1989. And yet, across all of those game consoles, the flight games on them did not pursue simulation as this title did. Most sought to emulate the insanely high speed, pure action titles like After Burner from the busy game arcades of the day.
Rather than take that approach, Dan Kitchen's F-14 Tomcat Simulator grades players on how efficiently they fly and fight. Both during the day and at night. Its most notable feature is the management of aircraft systems for navigation and weapon systems. Navigation, weapon systems, and electronic countermeasures must be worked in unison for mission success. Approaching the aircraft carrier at the right speed and angle is paramount, and retaining as many weapons as possible increases player score. Takeoff, combat efficiency, and landing are all graded.
Of course, it's still playing on an Atari 2600; having 1:1 simulated system accuracy is just not possible. Furthermore, managing everything with a single joystick and single-button controller sounds impractical. However, this lack of controls was overcome by utilizing both the physical switches on the console and combining button functions on the controller. You could say it is a "hands on console and stick" control layout made out of necessity.
Most impressively, the switches on the top of the front and top of the Atari 2600 controlled a majority of the game's systems and functions:
Game Reset: Starts the game. Enters function selection mode from the Threat screen. Holding reset for three seconds eventually causes the console to reset the game.
Game Select: Cycles through computer display screens.
Right Difficulty: Arresting hook toggle. (top of console, center-right)
Left Difficulty: Landing Gear Toggle. (top of console, center-left)
When in the game's Threat screen, the joystick button acts as the launch button for the selected weapon. When not on the Threat screen, pressing and holding the joystick button while moving the joystick forward or backward controls the engine throttle. While the joystick button is not held down, the joystick is used for pitch and roll, with the engine throttle position remaining unchanged during maneuvers.
Using these control methods, this F-14 Tomcat simulator suddenly had five buttons and one joystick with the equivalent of a computer modifier key to double the function of the joystick as a throttle. Scanned images of the game manual provide more detail:
Image source: Atari Mania
In the 2020s, most people would likely have played Dan Kitchen's Tomcat: F-14 Fighter Simulator through an emulation service or maybe from a compilation release like the absolutely excellent Activision Anthology (2002) for the Sony PlayStation 2. Unless someone owns an Atari 2600, a region-specific copy of the game cartridge, and a CRT television old enough to have a coax input and/or RF adapter, the experience cannot be recreated. It is genuinely a control method from a long-gone era.
Having to reach out and flip buttons on a game console to manage simulated systems is still a memorable experience. From the eyes of people interacting with this control method for the first time back in the late 80s, flipping the switches on their Atari 2600 was as tinglingly exciting as hitting the buttons on our Thrustmaster throttles, WingWing flight sticks, and BlackHog button boxes.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.