1942: The Pacific Air War

Updated: September 30, 2007

This article includes movies! See below.

Great games are timeless. I remember the first time I tried 1942: The Pacific Air war. The year was late 1994 or early 1995. I had a 486SX 25MHz with 4MB RAM. The game came in a big shiny box and had a big manual included. Once, they used to make great gaming manuals; they were practically books.

The installation package was 6 floppies. The game would not run without plenty of EMS, so I had to create a boot disk, which later proved quite useful for many other memory-intensive DOS games. After that came 486DX 33MHz with a whooping 8MB RAM. I could finally pimp up the details to high and still enjoy smooth graphics.

After that, Windows 95, Windows 98. I never abandoned the game. 13 years later, it is still the best combat simulator ever made. These days, I use DOSBox to play the great oldies. 1942: The Pacific Air War runs quite well, with the exception of sound that sometimes stutters a bit, but it's exceptional fun regardless.

What is the game all about?

1942: The Pacific Air War tells the story of the American and Japanese pilots at the height of the WWII in the Pacific, pivoting around some of the most legendary campaigns of the time, like the Battle of Midway or the Marianas Turkey Shoot. You actually participate in the historical battles, as one of the many aviators who bled for their countries in the first modern naval war of all times. The game is special, as it has several unique features that can't be found in any other simulation game.

Single Missions

Nothing is easier than shooting down helpless bombers flying in the straight line

This is a good place to start. 1942 has a rich repertoire of single missions, divided into categories, including Combat Air Patrol (CAP), Bomber Escort, Bomb Ship, and others. Single missions can be played at all realism levels, including the Training Mode, with invincibility and unlimited ammunition of all types (including bombs and torpedoes), which allows the new players to get the feel of the game before diving into serious campaigning.

In the training mode, enemy planes will not resist; they will fly in straight line, never dodging the bullets you fire at them, never shooting back at you. Although quite appealing to the sadistic mind, this is only hors d'oeuvre, or in English, a horse from Dover. While air combat may not differ that much from other games you might have played, it is recommended to practice with the dive and torpedo bombers.

Pilot Career

Real fun begins here. The player can choose whether to fly under the American Stars and Stripes or shadowed by the Rising Sun of the Japanese Empire. The first version of the game offered pilot career as a naval pilot only; The much improved GOLD edition allows you to fly as an Army aviator, as well. For the naval pilots, there are three career types: fighter, dive bomber or torpedo bomber.

Torpedo run
Kate slowly descending toward the target, carrying a torpedo

As a torpedo bomber, you are given a bleak choice between a sluggish, please-shoot-me-down TBD Devastator or the much more rugged Kate, which lacks any forward guns and will not bring you any great air kills, save for the chance shot by the AI-operated rear machine gunner. Most of the torpedo missions will be slow runs at sea level, hammering torpedoes into ship hulls without any over-enthusiastic maneuvering.

Taking off
A flight of F6F Hellcats and TBF Avengers readying to take off on a mission; it's gonna be a busy day in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

I tried my luck with TBD and gave up after tearing off my wings in too-steep dives (realistic flight mode), retiring with a humble medal and a single air kill. As a Japanese Kate pilot, I lasted for 11 missions before giving up, no kills in my pockets.

Dive bombing is oh-so much more fun. The Americans have an advantage here. SBD Dauntless is a feisty little bird and will take a lot of pounding before relenting. The Japanese Val always annoyed me, with the non-retractable landing gear and the oversized diving sights, which made the pair of tiny nose guns as effective as Kate's lack of armament. For me, dive bombing was an American affair only.

Playing as a bomber is a great challenge. I always set the realism on, save for the ammunition limit, without which the game would have been impossible. Indeed, like all MicroProse games of the time, it offered thrill and kill for everyone, from the newbiest of noobs to best players out there.

As a zealous 90s gamer, I often took against Zeros, head-on, gun against gun. With better computers and improved smoothness, the gaming became easier. My first bombing careers ended with maybe 10 or 12 kills. Slowly, my skill improved, and combined with the advance in micro-processing technology, I managed to ramp up 61 kills flying SBD and SB2C Helldiver, which you receive later on in the campaign. 61 kills! One of the greatest thing about the dive bombers was that I could open the brakes in mid-flight and quickly decelerate, forcing the Zeros to overshoot.

Aside from the crazy air battles, I also loved bombing. Again, my skills grew up until I would rarely miss rather than rarely hit. Firing 5" rockets with Helldiver was also huge fun, as well as strafing the land bases. Night missions turned to be a disaster, though. Although I was 'supposed' to see the ships' wakes and use them to home on for the kill, I never saw a single speck in the pure-black night screens during the few midnight raids. One day I was so angry that I sat flying for four real-life hours before giving up. I never got my night kills.

A burning Val goes down in a ball of black smoke as it zips past my P-40; make no mistake, the kill is mine

Being a fighter pilot is the real fun of the game. Oh boy! As an American, you start with the stubby Wildcat that is no match for the lithe Zero. Well, it's no different than the real war, with US pilots at great disadvantage during the first year and a half of the war. Fighting with Wildcat against Zeros took a lot of skill (and nerves).

After 19 missions with Wildcat, you are upgraded to the notorious Corsair. After Corsair comes Hellcat. Both F4U and F6F are so much more advanced. Having learned to survive against Zeros the hard way, the last part of the campaign becomes a treat. The new fighters can also carry rockets, which make for a whole lot of noise against ships, once you clear the enemy CAP.

With the Japanese, Zero remains the sole fighter plane you can fly, but it does its job extremely well from the first mission. It is fast and light and can outmaneuver every single plane in the game. Even the Army P-38 Lightnings are no match for Zero, although I remember quite a few hour-long dogfights at high altitude against them.

Even laden with a pair of bombs, which I carried on almost any escort mission, Zero would easily outturn and outclimb the American planes. I would sometimes fight with the drop tank still attached on without noticing the difference. My record with Zero stands at 161 kills - that's more than 5 kills per mission, with 6 Bushiko medals. As an American fighter pilot, I rammed up 139 kills, with a whole load of various medals.

Mission report Mission score Bushiko medal
The highest number of kills you can achieve is a sweet dirty dozen Good mission results, lots of kills and high level of realism will guarantee you get a very nice score The Japanese only have one type of medal, but when it is awarded, you know you have done some serious ass kicking

Carrier battles

Tactical map
The Battle of Midway is about to take place

What makes 1942: The Pacific Air War special is the unique ability to play historical carrier battles, commanding Task Forces on a tactical map. You play as the supreme commander of all friendly forces on the map, including task ground and land bases. You are responsible for making all the right choices to make sure your assets survive the encounter with enemy forces.

This means sending your ships on the right course at the right speed, establishing CAP around your task groups or airfields, sending scout planes to search for enemy ships or launching strikes.

It is extremely easy to get lost in these battles. If one is over-ambitious, he may send all of his fighter planes escorting the bombers, leaving the carriers unprotected. Or one may assign all of his fighters to the patrols, turning his strikes into sitting ducks.

Whenever an enemy scout plane is spotted, it is very important to shoot it down. In the olden days, sightings of ships were reported upon a successful return to the base, with the pilot estimating the size of the enemy force, the speed and the course. Based on these figures, strikes were planned. Usually, it is not a bad idea to alter the cruise parameters whenever an enemy scout slips by.

Zig-zagging across the blue is a nice evasion tactic, but it can be fatal once your planes are airborne. Just like the enemy, they too rely on your speed and course to safely return to the base. I made this classic mistake many times, losing entire flights when they missed the carrier, ran out of fuel and ditched.

Preparing strike
You should be careful when planning the raids; forsake neither the escort for the bombers nor the defense for carrier

It is also wise to make several smaller than one huge strikes. While the plane simulation is limited to 16 aircraft, there's no limit to how many planes you can assemble in the carrier battles, if your flight loses a battle, all of its planes will be doomed. Smaller strikes means more chance for individual victories and lesser strategic losses.

The real gem of the carrier battle is that any time your planes report a target, you can step into the cockpit and play, as one of the pilots in the attack. Even though your contribution may not be huge, you can make a difference! This combination of strategy and simulation is unparalleled in the world of PC gaming.

The gameplay can be saved, allowing to 'undo' your mistakes. The Carrier Battles feature also has its levels of realism. You can make it a simple affair, with weather, reports and history in your favor - or against you. I always prefer to play without the historical setup, as it makes the battles unpredictable.

GOLD edition

Getting ready for the mission
P-38 Lightning was sorely missing in the original game version; the GOLD edition allows you to fly this remarkable machine

The game was immensely popular. MicroProse made more than the right decision to release an add-on, which brings a whole new dimension to this already excellent simulator.

The major improvement is the ability to fly as an Army pilot, both American and Japanese, in six new planes, including the legendary P-38, Warhawk, Tony, Frank, and others.

Additionally, two new arenas were included, the Philippines and the New Guinea, as well as more than 300 new single missions were created.

The GOLD edition also packs a rich library of documentaries and interviews from the period, allowing you a personal glimpse into the grim world of the WWII in the Pacific area. Lots of technical data about the planes and weapons found in the game was made available to the player, a real boon to the simulator fans.


Virtual cockpit
Virtual cockpit was a revolution for its time; 13 years later, it's still rather impressive

Although the mid-90s graphics may seem absurd to some today, I find them very pleasing. The rendering is good, especially of the planes and the sea. You can actually feel the altitude at which you are flying. Over the sea, the player has a feeling of vastness, even through the pixilated screen of his monitor.

Even with the textures at lowest quality, the game still proved very enjoyable, due to its high core quality. Sunrise and dusk effects were made with care.

1942: The Pacific Air War is the first game ever to feature a 3D virtual cockpit. While not as spectacular as some of the fancy tricks you see today, it was phenomenal for its time and still rather cool today. It is very useful to look around for enemy fighters, especially directly above.


Like all MicroProse games of that time, it offered inanely easy all the way up to insanely difficult levels, to please every soul. Dedication would allow you to play at 70-80% of the maximum difficulty, while sheer genius was needed to make it all the way up. But this is one of the great aspects of the 1942: The Pacific Air War.

Wit settings fired up, one would actually empathize with the character he was playing, suffering like he was, with blackouts and spins and smoking, bullet-riddled engine. Luckily, missions are replayable without any penalty, and you can abort and start over as many times as you like, provided you do not die during the mission.

Death can come in many ways, but usually the player has enough time to make a decision. Collisions with other planes and crashes are often fatal. Ditching above enemy territory is equal to suicide. When hit, the plane will usually lose its engine completely, go in a slow, tumbling spin, flame up for a few seconds before exploding, or gently lose speed and altitude as a smoking engine fails before ramming into Planet Earth's crust. Ungracefully, like many hundreds of times I did, you can abort at this stage and try again. You can die if you get shot, even if there is no indication that you are wounded.

Belly landing never worked for me. Normal landings were extremely hard. I rarely attempted them, ending the mission as soon as the goals were accomplished. Dying in the game was not an option. Reviving a pilot meant starting all over. Although campaigns were relatively short, only 30 missions, they took quite some time and a whole lot of emotion.


Every mission is automatically recorded. Whether you abort or successfully complete it, there's the option to save a cinematic reply. And there's the modem play, which allows you to fight online, against your friends. Here are some more game screenshots:

Strafing a base Rear gunner Bomb sights
Strafing helpless planes and fuel dumps is a great stress relief It must have sucked to be a rear gunner Bombing in 1942 is much more difficult than one may think

I would like to thank to MicroProse (and Sid Meier in particular) for making one of the best games ever. When you think about it, most of the games I still play were either made by MicroProse, Sid Meier or both. 1942: The Pacific Air War, UFO: Enemy Unknown, Transport Tycoon, M1 Tank Platoon, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Civilization, all titles of superb games that made the difference. The 80s and 90s were so much sweeter because of them. Thank you guys.

And now, the dessert!

I have made a couple of movies showing my extreme skills as an Imperial Japanese Navy pilot in a Zero fighting against United States Navy Wildcats. If you feel adventurous, you might want to download them and watch them.

Several things need to be taken into consideration when watching the movies: I play without a joystick, which can partially explain the slight jitter during turns, since keypad does not warrant the same smoothness of motion. I'm a relatively old man, which can partially explain the slight noobishness. Now, a few technical bits:

DOSBox records the movies using Zip Motion-Block Video (ZMBV) codec. First, this is not the most common of codecs. Second, the original movies were rather big, about 4.3 and 2.8MB in size, completely impractical for web usage. So I decided to be a geek.

I transcoded the movies in VirtualDub, using the XviD MPEG-4 codec, managing to reduce them in size to 950 and 600KB - a much more reasonable total. Then, using ffpmeg, I transcoded the two .avi files to flash. I tried ffmpeg in both Windows and Linux and got better quality and compression by doing it in Linux. I did not add any flash metadata to the files, although I could have done using flvtool2. Oh, humanity.

Windows users

You do not need the ZMBV codec to see the movies, although it is included in the DOSBox folder upon installation. You will need the XviD codec though. VLC media player has the required codecs built-in, both for the .avi and .flv files, although you can also use the FLV Player for the flash content.

Linux users

To watch the .avi movies in the basic Movie Player, you might need the following packages:

Alternatively, you could use the VLC Player to watch both .avi and .flv files without any special preparations. MPlayer also offers excellent support for all these formats, including the ZMBV codec. All this said, it's time to enjoy the movies.

Movie preview 1
Movie preview 1
Movie preview 2
Movie preview 2