I've always had this thing about 8-bit simulations: They're too mathematical and pensive to be stimulating, and yet they often attempt to cross over into the genre of action games. In this identity crisis they just come out looking like cumbersome attempts at first-person contests. Y'know?
Granted, every video or computer game is technically a simulation of some sort. But we all know about the myriad full-blown tank or aircraft sims, and there are very, very few that succeed in being adrenaline-instigating and strategically complex, while avoiding anal details that just frustrate the player. Examples of the worst are Pro Logic's Flight Simulator series and MicroProse's Gunship; the rare gems I mentioned include Firebird's fantastic space-bound Elite and, oddly, for a nice balance between strategic planning and reasonably fast target fun, MicroProse's vintage F-15 Strike Eagle.
I mentioned MicroProse twice. That granddaddy of wartime flight simulators has always seemed completely frightened of releasing anything that could possibly be construed as a shoot-'em-up, even if paring down the countless rules and elements of any one of their complicated simulations could have sped everything up or made the game play a little more satisfying and less aggravating. But there was one release for which they lightened up. One development team at the company admitted briefly that these are, after all, games. And their admission, in the form of a top-down scroller set in an unspecified unrestful overseas climate, was the most fun, most exciting piece of software yet to emerge from their floppy factory line.
Airborne Ranger offers several missions, spread over two disk sides, from which to choose. It's a blast just picking the mission you want to try to accomplish; although there are only three seasonal environments, comprising changes in landscape and natural hazards, each mission, whichever season it takes place in, features a different map (although they're all random, certain hazards are fixtures) and something different that you have to try and steal, blow up or liberate at the end.
It's a regular search-and-destroy, with things to hide behind or walls with holes through which to sneak shots to try and wipe out one of the numerous enemy soldiers. The simulation part comes in when you have to find one of the supply pods you dispersed over the map via aircraft before the mission itself began, figuring in what each pod will add to your inventory as you conserve ammo, keep tabs on your health and basically decide on machine gun vs. rocket launcher vs. grenade vs. time-bomb.
Incidentally, the graphics are top-notch. The hi-res screens incorporate a variety of smoothly scrolling landscapes with undetectable color transitions, and the soldiers' running animation, as well as your own, is impeccable. They never get confused and run into each other or anything, as the manual brags.
Such a satisfying balance between strategy and action was all too rare in the era of 8-bit simulators. If this really is a simulation, it's one of the most exciting!
This review originally appeared in Video Magic, issue 139 (June / July 1998).