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CowboyTodd41

Hellcats Over the Pacific Retrospective

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Hellcats box art (from GiantBomb)

 

Have you ever had the bug to play an old sim? Say, European Air War or Jane's Longbow. What about Hellcats Over the Pacific, or A-10! Attack? Wait… you may be saying, I've never even heard of these sims! I understand if you haven't, as these sims were released only for MacOS, an operating system most hardcore sim pilots have never even considered.

In the 1990's, however, there was a very large, and rather unique simulation community built around the Macintosh. While many PC sims such as A-10 Tank Killer and Armored Fist were only starting to scratch the surface of "True 3D", with voxel graphics rendering low resolution textures, Mac developers knew they would have to take some risks to achieve the greatness that was already on full display on the DOS/Windows shelves of CompUSA and ElekTek.

Their solution? A typical Mac developer response. They would sacrifice the then high resolution, "photo-realistic" textures for flat shaded polygons to create fully realized 3D worlds and models, including real-time shadows and highly accurate physics. From Wikipedia: "Hellcats was a major release for the Mac platform, one of the first 3D games to be able to drive a 640 x 480 x 8-bit display at reasonable frame rates in an era when the PC clone's VGA at 320 x 240 x 4-bit was the standard."

Having only had my parent's Mac to play on, and being crazy about flying (thanks to them no less!) I dove into this world full bore. My first experience in this new world of flight was Microsoft Flight Simulator 4.0, a fantastic sim I taught myself how to play at the young age of five, mostly by trial and error. Soaring above the Chicago skyline in my Cessna 182RG was truly amazing for my young self, but something was lacking. That something was obviously guns.

By 1991, I was six years old. With the combination of ever increasing hours of time spent in FS4 and the excitement of reading about the air to air victories from the just ended Gulf War, I was ready. During a trip to the store I saw the game I wanted, and I begged my parents to get it for me. Amazingly enough, they actually relented. Soon, I knew, I would be soaring over tropical locales and splashing Zeroes!

Hellcats Over The Pacific was released in 1991 by Graphsim Entertainment, who would go on to release the excellent Hornet series a few years later, which will be the subject of a future write-up. Developed by Parsoft Interactive and coded by Eric Parker, it would become maybe the most popular sim ever released on the Macintosh. Sporting bright graphics, excellent physics and flight models, and rudimentary carrier ops it was, much like its namesake the F6F Hellcat, truly a beast to be reckoned with that outclassed and outdated all opponents.

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Bagging a Zero at the merge. You can see the rudimentary "radar" here (Photo courtesy of mobygames.com)

Taking place on a large map of the Solomon Islands, it focused on the Battle of Guadalcanal and related engagements in "The Slot". The missions themselves were rather basic, with accordingly basic mission names. "Bomb Base" for instance had you bombing a Japanese held airfield, which would eventually become Henderson. "Scramble!" is pretty self-explanatory, take off, shoot down the G4M Betty while mixing it up with a pair of escorting Zeroes. Rarely were there more than just a few aircraft in any given scenario. Typically no more than four or five, including your aircraft, most likely to keep memory usage down.  Only two missions ever had you flying with allied aircraft, the first an escort mission with a B-17 called, you guessed it, "Flying Fortress". And the final mission of the game, "The Duel", paired you up with ultimate Hellcat ace Cpt. David McCampbell (34 victories, including 9 in one sortie, and the Medal of Honor). 

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Number two behind McCampbell (Photo courtesy of mobygames.com)

 

A particularly grueling trial came in the form of the mission "Flat Top" where you needed to bomb and sink an opposing Japanese carrier. One bomb usually wouldn't do it, and it was hard to get both on target with the massive AAA fire from the surrounding task force. Sometimes this meant multiple sorties in a single mission, returning to trap on the carrier over and over till you finished. Since many flight sims don't include an in-mission re-arming mechanic, this made this fairly unique, especially considering the fact that in many missions you would be returning to the carrier, and not a nice long stretch of concrete. Trapping once is tough enough, but doing it multiple times per mission seriously heightened the challenge! Another tricky mission was "Divine Wind" where you needed to defend your carrier against kamikaze attacks. As the enemy aircraft spawned at a regular interval there was usually no time to return to base and rearm, necessitating careful ammunition and fuel management.

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With the carrier sinking, the mission is effectively over. (Photo courtesy of mobygames.com)

But like all things, it was not without its problems. Chief among them was the seriously lacking draw distance, a common issue amongst many games in the nineties. It is not typically an issue in say, an RTS or corridor FPS shooter, but in flight sims, the farther you can push the draw distance, the better off you are, and the more immersive it becomes. Unfortunately, the distance in Hellcats was short even for the time, making strafing runs on enemy airfields with parked aircraft and long distance intercept missions harder than they probably needed to be. The work around was a sort of radar, in the center of the instrument panel. This radar gave a 360 view around the aircraft out to a few miles, with other aircraft represented as white dots.

The enemy AI was also quite lacking. Most engagements typically quickly devolved into a tight turning fight that the Hellcat could easily win by use of the aircraft's flaps to gain a significant turning advantage over the opposing Zero. This was a feature the Hellcat did not have, but that ironically, many Japanese fighters did. The hit detection was spotty at close ranges, causing many bullets to simply pass through the opposing aircraft and simply drain away your ammo. At longer ranges accuracy was better, but many times the enemy would simply smoke then ditch, requiring close in strafing runs near the ocean's surface to get credit for the kill.

I can still remember my first kill in any combat sim ever, a snapshot with a deflection angle of nearly 90 degrees. I turned sharply to the right to chase and was rewarded with a swiftly descending, and heavily smoking Zero. It's an image forever burned into my mind, and I was hooked. For better or for worse, I had begun a lifetime obsessed with the skill curve of the Combat Sim.

It was a fun jaunt into the past writing this article. I even remembered most of the key bindings! If you're ever looking into the retro-sim scene yourself, don't count out the Macintosh platform. There are several other great sims from this era for the mac, a few of which will be the subjects of future articles. If anyone would like to know how to get into the world of emulating Mac or DOS games for a similar trip down memory lane, PM me. I'll get back to you as soon as I can!

Thanks for reading, good luck, and good hunting.

 

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At first I tought it was a Aces over the Pacific for the Mac, but it seems it had it's own good points! thanks for sharing.

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Brings back memories...

Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe was also another amazing early 90's title...ran awesome on my 386 :)

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