• Hueman

Novalogic F-16 & MiG-29 - A Tale of Red and Blue

Updated: Jul 25



Before the rise of the first-person shooter and the JRPG, flight games were king in the realm of combat games. The 90’s in particular were a golden era for the flight sim, and many names became synonymous with flight and combat simulation games, to name a few: Jane’s Combat Simulations, Microprose - and Novalogic. Perhaps best known for their foray into first-person shooters with the Delta Force series, the company was also responsible for such franchises as the Comanche (Recently revived by THQ Nordic) and the F-22 series, as well as two very similar games which, despite not technically being part of a series, can’t really be discussed separately from each other: Novalogic’s F-16 Multirole Fighter and Novalogic’s MiG-29 Fulcrum.



Now, I’ll be the first to admit it’s hard for me to be impartial when talking about these two games, as I have a certain level of attachment to them. Apart from the nostalgia factor, Novalogic’s F-16 was not only my introduction to flight games, but also one of the first games I’ve ever had any contact with. One of my earliest memories is being a little kid and seeing one of my older cousins flying the blue-tinted F-16 on a computer screen, and at that moment I knew I had to try it out. I was already fascinated with aviation back then, so it would be untrue to say this game was what gave me that interest - a credit probably best given to the Ipanema cropdusters flying over the rural outskirts of Brazil - but it certainly helped fuel this interest in aviation and turn it into a lifelong passion which would ultimately guide the path I chose to take in life. It also introduced me to the F-16 and MiG-29, two aircraft which to this day rank among my very favorites and which I personally consider to be some of the most beautiful machines to ever take to the skies. As such, this article is not a game review - rather, take it for what it is, an opinion article on a retro game.


OVERVIEW


Before we go deeper into this pair of games and why would someone write an article about them, let’s have a brief general overview for context.


As far as flight simulators go, Novalogic’s F-16 and MiG-29 sit in a bit of a weird spot. Launched concurrently in 1998, it’s hard to call them groundbreaking even for their time, considering Falcon 3.0 launched in 1991 and Microprose’s Falcon 4.0, a game which maintains a devout following to this day, launched just two months after the duo. They are definitely not study simulators like Falcon - even game reviews of the time recommended harcdore sim fans to look elsewhere - but they are also very distinct from arcade flight games such as Ace Combat. Despite being referred to as “flight simulators” back in their day, Novalogic’s games fill an in-between spot which today we’d call a sim-lite - sacrificing realism for simplicity and ease of learning but still complex enough to give the player a taste of the aircraft’s capabilities and a good grasp of the basics.


Aircraft systems such as radar and targeting pods are there, but their functionality is very simplified - for instance, the radar can always detect all targets in its field of view, and shows them all on the HUD even if the targets aren’t locked. A “shootlist” lets you cycle through all targets visible either by your radar or AWACS datalink without ever having to worry about accidentally locking a friendly. The flight model, too, is highly simplified - this is a game that is perfectly playable on keyboard alone, though dogfighting with only a keyboard is not something I would recommend. Nevertheless, the game does attempt to deliver an authentic-feeling flying experience and the player is still bound by limitations not present in arcade titles, such as blackouts and redouts, as well as weapon characteristics (even if not necessarily represented accurately) and quantity. You can select an option which allows you to fire twice as many munitions as your plane is actually carrying, but that’s the most leeway you will get in that regard.


Ground targets are shown as boxes on the HUD when an air-to-ground weapon is selected - not a realistic implementation, but it makes finding targets much easier


The games feature quick missions (including training missions) and several campaigns - though strangely, it is not possible to select which campaign to play. Instead, one must play through them in order, which can be very annoying if you’re yearning to play one specific campaign again. The quick missions can become repetitive after a while, but both games come with a mission editor software which players can use to create their own mission files. It is surprisingly complete in terms of functionalities, though not exactly intuitive or easy to use.


The mission editor’s interface

Also featured is a multiplayer mode, where players could fight each other through LAN, modem connection by telephone number, or Novalogic’s proprietary online matchmaking system, Novaworld. In fact, F-16 players could fight MiG-29 players in the same servers - because really, they’re two versions of a single game.


RED AND BLUE


F-16 Multirole Fighter and MiG-29 Fulcrum are, at their core, essentially the same game. Both games use the same engine, have identical gameplay mechanics and nearly identical control setups (with differences in some specific aspects of each aircraft, such as the MiG-29’s IRST, the F-16’s LANTIRN pod controls, and the F-16 having a pickle button while the MiG-29 uses the trigger both for guns and weapon release), and share the same assets. But the differences go beyond which aircraft you’re flying - in that sense, they somewhat resemble the early Pokémon games somewhat, where there will be two versions with a few minor changes and a different color palette. Apart from obviously having to work with the different capabilities of each aircraft, the player is hit with a completely different ambience from the very moment they start the game up.

The F-16 and the MiG-29 are not just fighter aircraft, they’re icons of the Cold War. They are similar in many ways - two lightweight fighters designed to supplement larger, more expensive types over the battlefields of Europe. They are both ubiquitous, serving with dozens of air forces across the globe - if the FN FAL was the “right arm of the free world”, F-16s are its wings; And even though the MiG-29 is not as widespread as the MiG-21, it nevertheless equipped the air forces of virtually every Warsaw Pact country. They codify the alliances they were designed to fight for.


In short, they’re opposite sides of the same coin - and Novalogic lets you feel it whenever you flip that coin around. Apart from the obvious color coding, the main menu’s layout is mirrored between the two games - while in F-16 Multirole Fighter the player must look left - to the “west” - for the menu items, in MiG-29 Fulcrum one must look right - to the “east”. It’s a subtle detail, but it helps set the ambience, the feeling of being in a different environment.


Going further into the menus, things like the mission briefings and loadout menu have different design languages, reminiscent of the instrument panels of the two aircraft. While the F-16’s menus are made to look more digital and computer-like, the MiG-29’s menus are touched up to have some analog elements to them, and metal panels and screws adorn the screen.


Briefing and loadout selection screens. Note how the F-16 can somehow carry a double rail for AMRAAMs on stations 3 and 7


While hopping into the F-16’s training missions will land you in a semi-arid environment not unlike what you’d find somewhere like Nevada, the MiG-29’s training missions send you straight to a cold, snowy and mountainous environment based on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Novalogic’s MiG-29 has another neat trick up its sleeve - the tower, GCI, your wingman and other aircraft all have voice lines in Russian. The player may choose to switch them to English in the options, but it certainly adds that little bit of extra immersion.

The first thing the player sees upon firing up the training missions. The ambience is noticeably different - note the contrast between the warm and cool color palettes


I remember firing up MiG-29 Fulcrum for the first time and being almost shocked by the vivid red background of the menu. I was already used to F-16 Multirole Fighter at that point, and as a kid, you’re taught that blue means good guys and red means bad guys, so it was a surprise at first - but after flying the first mission, I fell in love with the plane. I still preferred flying the F-16, with its two multifunctional displays and much greater weapons load - but being red wasn’t so bad after all. I came to appreciate both aircraft and their different design philosophies.


FEATURES AND GAMEPLAY


One of the strong points of the games were their graphics - though obviously unflattering by today’s standards, in 1998 they received praise for their good looks, especially if the user had a 3D accelerator card. While I’m not sure whether the AI aircraft looked that good even for the time, the player’s aircraft certainly look beautiful in both games. The visual effects arena is less impressive, particularly the explosions, but contrail effects on the wingtips and LERX fit in well with the models.


Some of the enemy AI aircraft - F-7 Airguard, F-4 Phantom, F-5E Tiger II, JAS-39 Gripen


The stars of the show. The textures are quite detailed for the time.


The cockpits look a bit flat, but they are three-dimensional and the player can look around, though the controls for that are a bit slow. The player will look around mostly through hat snap views and using padlock to keep visual on a close-range enemy. The cockpits are a bit simplified, but the main instruments work - most notably, the F-16’s two MFDs have clickable buttons which can be used to cycle through their pages.

Standard cockpit views.


One part where the game lets down is the HUD - while in the F-16 it looks like a simplified F-16 HUD, which is all well and good, in the MiG-29 it looks like they took the HUD they had made for the F-16 and “made it Russian” - that is, the aircraft symbol rolls to indicate bank instead of the pitch ladder. But the biggest issue in both games is that the HUD is not aligned with the external world in the default cockpit view. This makes it necessary to switch to HUD view for any sort of weapons employment, which can be troublesome in dogfights.


Attempting to gun a Flanker. Notice how the target box is displaced from the target in this view.



When zoomed into the HUD view, symbology is properly aligned.



The F-16’s HUD has another trick up its sleeve - the ability to project the LANTIRN FLIR image for night navigation and attack.


Though the flight models aren’t the most accurate out there, the aircraft do perform in general terms how you’d expect them to - the Viper likes being high and fast, and there’s no enemy unit out there which will out-rate you in a turn (though it feels like it retains energy too well); and the Fulcrum prefers being at medium altitude, using its high AoA authority to get missile solutions on targets at close range. The MiG-29’s flight model is capable of performing hammerheads and even Pugachev’s Cobra - a maneuver which the game’s manual acknowledges has little to no combat value, but encourages the player to try practicing anyways simply for fun.


MiG-29 performing the Cobra maneuver.


Enemy AI is not smart - there frankly isn’t much of a challenge if you are carrying similar weapons in a 1v1 fight. However, missiles are scary, much scarier than in DCS, for instance: though their guidance algorithm is very poor (seems to be pure pursuit), they seem to behave as if the rocket motor never runs out of fuel. Furthermore, enemy planes almost always launch within the no-escape zone - so while it’s easy to plink them with AMRAAMs or R-77s from afar before they launch, if you do get launched on, you better hope there’s some terrain to mask behind, as your countermeasures are mere suggestions.



The usual outcome of having more than one missile launched against you.


Of course, the best defense is to not get launched on at all, or even better, avoid detection entirely. The game does encourage the player to control their own radar emissions. Keeping your radar off will allow you to sneak behind enemy aircraft undetected and close in for a Sidewinder or R-73 shot. The MiG-29’s IRST comes in very handy here.


Damage modelling is nearly non-existent for enemy aircraft, which instantly explode when hit by any missile and smoke if hit by a few gun rounds - but it is surprisingly complex for the player’s aircraft, which may suffer damage to individual subsystems, which affect the aircraft’s behavior accordingly. You might lose an engine, have a punctured fuel tank, lose radar or fire control systems, the list goes on.



Close range combat usually ends with the enemy aircraft being vaporized in a large pixelated explosion.


After a mission is completed, a summary displaying how many aircraft were lost on both sides, how many aircraft were shot down by the player, and weapon accuracy statistics. It’s not the best debriefing out there, but it is very concise.


Mission summary.


The player can also edit waypoints before a mission, through a map which displays the current programmed route and known threats. It’s a pretty neat feature which allows for a certain degree of extra planning.


The player can change the location of waypoints and look at known threats before flying the mission.


CAMPAIGNS

The campaigns aren’t much to write home about, following loose storylines told only on the briefings. The enemy is usually (but not always) some fictional organization which is attempting to stage a coup somewhere, or has succeeded in staging a coup and is invading its neighbors. There isn’t really a plot to speak of, and the story serves merely as a conduit to the gameplay.


That being said, the campaigns do have some interesting features: the most important one being that the player actually has to keep logistics in mind. During each campaign, the player’s squadron will start with a certain quantity of weapons, from drop tanks to missiles. These supplies are depleted as you use these weapons, and this is where the challenge comes in. Because frankly, nearly all of the missions are quite easy if you fully load up your jet with AMRAAMs and use them to obliterate everything in your path. But if you do that, there will be a point in later missions where you’ll run out of them and will have to resort to Sidewinders only, and if you’re not careful with those, eventually you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to defend an airbase against a massive air attack using only your guns (ask me how I know).


So the challenge of the campaign is asking yourself: Do you really need those AMRAAMS for this particular mission? Is it really worth it to try and face enemy aircraft head-on or is it better to try and figure out a way around them to the mission objective, saving precious air-to-air missiles?


When air-to-air missiles are at a premium, a Q-5 Fantam isn’t a target worth spending an Archer on. Go for guns!


Campaign missions are usually pretty standard - fly CAP, provide CAS, intercept bombers, attack a supply convoy, bomb a high-value target. However, every now and then something different pops up. One of the missions in the F-16’s second campaign has the player escort NASA’s Shuttle Carrier, carrying the Discovery Space Shuttle, through contested airspace.


In what other game can you escort the Space Shuttle?


And, because this game is a window into the 90’s, you can see the hope for a future where the “blue” forces and “red” forces are not necessarily opposed to each other. In several campaigns, US and Russian forces work together, and sometimes you’ll even see the other game’s “protagonists” helping you out - in some missions of the F-16 campaigns, you’ll be helped by MiG-29s from “300 Squadron”, the unit you play as in MiG-29 Fulcrum; and in the MiG-29 campaign, you’ll sometimes be helped by F-16s from “Viper Squadron”, the unit you play as in F-16 Multirole Fighter. The developers’ hopes for a bright future of international cooperation do not seem to extend to France however, seeing as in both games the player will constantly fight modern French-designed aircraft such as the Mirage 2000 and Rafale, in the hands of everything from African paramilitary organizations to Russian ultranationalist groups attempting to stage a coup.


In one of the MiG-29 campaign missions, the player’s unit escorts American B-1B bombers to their targets.


CONCLUSION


MiG-29 Fulcrum and F-16 Multirole Fighter definitely aren’t hardcore simulators, but they do give the player a taste for the unique character of the respective aircraft they feature, and an appreciation for their capabilities. The F-16 with its advanced avionics, multi-function displays and low-bleed, high-rate turns, and the MiG-29 with its mostly analog systems but great maneuvering at high angles of attack.

The simplified systems and fast learning curve means that these games probably got many other newcomers such as myself hooked into the world of flight simulation. Playing them once again after all these years made me acutely aware of their flaws, but gave me an even greater appreciation for what they managed to achieve - a flight sim which could be easily picked up by non-flight simmers, even if they happened to be a child playing their first flight game.


They are two games I have fond memories of, and will always remember it as what taught me to appreciate all kinds of aircraft, no matter whether they’re blue or red.

 

About the author:

Hueman

An incurable aviation fanatic since childhood, fascinated by the design and history of practically anything that flies. A long-time fan of flight games, he currently studies aeronautical engineering and pursues his hobbies of drawing, writing and flight simulation on his spare time. Twitter | Discord: Hueman#5123

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