F-16 Combat Pilot, now in glorious EGA!

Updated: May 29, 2024

In 1989, a phenomenal game came out. It was an F-16 simulator, and it was called F-16 Combat Pilot. This game had it all. A game manual foreword by legendary Bill Gunston, check. Realistic cockpit and flight regime, check. Blackouts and redouts, check. No external view for added realism, check. ILS, check. Campaign mode where you could control a squadron of planes, check. Reconnaissance missions (with an ATARS pod), check. Weather, difficult landings, check. Serial connection two-player Gladiator mode, check. All of this, and more, came in a humble package of just 680 KB.

Combat Pilot also had a clever anti-copy mechanism. You had to open the manual to a specific page, paragraph, and word, and input those to be able to fly. I happened to own the original European market CGA version, and one thing that irked me was that the box depicted the game in EGA. 16 colors rather than just 4. Later on, I got myself the EGA version, too, but the manual did not work. This was the North American version, what, and the manual was different. And so I waited and waited, until just recently, I finally figured it out. With a mild delay of just 35 years, I bright you the review of one of the finest combat aircraft simulators ever made.

Teaser

I have a need, a need for more than four colors

There's nothing wrong with CGA. Black, white, cyan, and pink. No problems there. But when the marketing materials teases with four squared colors, one doth perk up. Let's start with a bit of history, shall we. I had the game in its original box. The contents? Two 5.25-inch single-density 360KB floppy disks, plus the manual, which was essential for gameplay. One, if you didn't read it, you couldn't play this game. It was way too complicated for that. Two, without the magic word, you couldn't unlock the fun. Without the codes, you could only practice free flight and landing.

To be fair, the landing practice was essential, because landing planes in F-16 Combat Pilot was hard. You had to nail the descent rate and angle carefully. If you didn't, you'd crash. I think it took me a good month or two to land successfully for the very first time. Talking about the steep learning curve.

Manual

This is my manual (a picture from 2008). I still have it. Oh yes. In fact, I have all my old DOS era books and manuals. Some are hundreds of pages long, and weigh quite a bit. But I kept them, because they are precious. Not financially, but emotionally.

The game was truly way ahead of its time. Most DOS-based era games used the CPU clock to time their actions. So if you played a super-old game on a more modern PC, the action would run too fast. For some, you had to hit the Turbo button and turn it off (say go from 33 MHz down to 8 MHz for a DX machine). Not so with Combat Pilot. It ran as smoothly and beautifully on an XT as it did on the latest and greatest computer one could buy in 1993 or 1995 (for that matter, a DX3 100MHz beast).

Then, you could play with the joystick. This doesn't sound like much, but with the joystick you could really enjoy the simulator. Most other games of the era were so simple, so rudimentary, the keyboard was enough to do everything you liked. With Combat Pilot, the joystick unlocked its true potential, and helped you nail down the landings without crashing much. Like say playing the Assetto Corsa racing simulator with a keyboard versus a proper steering wheel + pedal set. Indeed.

It also offered a multiplayer mode - albeit, over a serial connection, but there it was. If you had two devices and the right cable, you could play with a friend, one against the other. Predictably, this was way over budget for most people, including myself, and so I NEVER got to try this option ...

... until I installed DOSBox in 2008, and then configured the program on two separate Windows machines. It could simulate both IPX and Serial connections, as I outlined in my tutorials back then, and this allowed me, for the first time ever, to try the F-16 Combat Pilot Gladiator mode. Man, was this glorious.

Playing, CGA version

M61 Vulcan ammo expended. Need to use Sidewinders now.

But it was still the four-color CGA version. This bugged me. I wanted 16 colors!

At some point, in the late 90s, a friend of mine gave me his collection of DOS games. As it happens, it included the EGA edition of Combat Pilot. I was delighted. But, to my horror, I couldn't play it. Whenever I tried to use the manual, it would give me the dreaded ERROR. My codes didn't work. Delight turned to frustration.

As the online world bloomed so did the availability of information. Slowly, I learned why certain things were and were not. The box had three or four images on its back, depicting the game action. There was a picture of a Mi-24 Hind helicopter there. But in all my time playing the F-16, I never once encountered a helicopter. Later on, I discovered it was only available in the ATARI version of this simulator. Pleasure denied.

Also, all of the images were in color. Real color. Well, 16 colors. The EGA mode. And so I wondered, well, is there was a to play the EGA version, after all? The Internet provided. There's a wealth of websites dedicated to old and abandoned games - in technical parlance, abandonware. You could find installers and archives for tons of DOS games out there.

Every few years, I would check online to see if someone had found an answer to my conundrum. But F-16 Combat Pilot had always been a relatively niche game. It was hard, super hard, and most gamers avoided it, preferring arcade to serious fun. Not unlike say ArmA 3 and the casual shooter out there.

One trick I did discover was that you could skip the challenge question in the EGA edition by removing the GROUND.OVL file from the game's directory. You would jump into a fully loaded and armed plane, sitting on the tarmac, and just scramble into action. But that's not what I wanted. I was interested in the full game, the five missions before you can unlock Conquest, and the play the campaign mode.

And then, at some point, I found the North American manual online. A scanned PDF, which was different from the European version. The former had 48 pages, the later 55. No wonder my codes wouldn't work. Whenever I consulted my trusted, dusty old manual, I would be looking in the wrong place, wrong page, paragraph, everything. But now, suddenly, I could play. The codes worked!

Some thirty odd years after I got me the game, a super expensive treat for that era, finally, I could play the game the way its box promised. Colors. Glorious colors. All sixteen of them.

Splash screen

Fire up DOSBox, load old pilot profiles

Of course, the best way to enjoy DOS games today is through this amazing emulator. I have also recently provided you with a guide on how to configure the program on HD/UHD screens. In their native, "tiny" resolution of 320x200 px (mostly), DOS titles look ridiculously small on modern displays - or too blurry. DOSBox comes with a few neat tweaks that lets you scale up DOS programs without compromising on the clarity of detail.

Then, to make a sublime experience perfect, I went rummaging in my hard disk archives, and I grabbed my old pilots logs. The F-16 game saves come in the form of pilot log files. Each pilot has its own, say DEDO.LOG. And so, your information, your flight time, your kills, your crashes, your campaign record, all of it, stored in 200-byte save files. Copy them out, in, and you can preserve your pilot careers.

My F-16 Combat Pilot logs went back as far as 1997, and as late as 2010. I grabbed these and copied them over into the game folder, proudly named F16EGA. I mounted this directory in DOSBox (in Linux), launched the game, put the right code in, and then, opened the pilot roster. I typed the first name in, and voila! The pilot data was there, as fresh as the day it was created. Two or three decades, give or take a few years.

Crew room

Pilot stats

F-16 Combat Pilot, the game

All right, let's talk about the actual simulator. And remember. 680 KB. Not mega. Kilo. We're talking about 1/5th of a typical MP3 song, an entire game that takes hours and hours and days to play and enjoy. This is a serious little simulator. You know it means business when there are no external views. You cannot see yourself flying the plane. You can glance left and right, and back. That's it. That's all the gazing you get.

Back view

Glancing back, behind your shoulder. That's as good as you get. No tomfoolery.

Side view

Rigth side view. The damage panel shows no problems - yet.

The game pays proper respect to flight procedures. For example, you need to taxi in and out of hangars at the beginning and the end of your mission - unless you're playing the scramble mission, where you start on the runway (QRA), or if you land with your engine out of action (due to damage or no more fuel). If you taxi too fast, you will "crash" and your mission will abort. If you spend too much time on the runway, the same will happen. Once you take off, you must fold the landing gear before your plane hits 300 knots, otherwise, you will have damage, and you won't be able to land nicely. In all my time playing Combat Pilot, I managed a few deadstick landings, but never once with no gear. No matter how gently I tried to do it, I would always crash. Perhaps that's how the game works - you crash, but you survive. Okay, fair.

When flying, your plane may be damaged - mostly due to enemy action (AAM and SAM). You have a damage control panel, which lets you know the extent of the damage. You could lose critical components, and if there's fire, you must eject immediately. You may not always survive the ejection, which will erase your pilot log, and you will have to start fresh.

Once, I even died from suffocation - the oxygen unit got damaged. I ignored it, stayed above 8,000 ft and simply died. I don't recall any other simulator modeling this scenario. Likewise, you can blackout and redout if you pull too much g. In the CGA version, the redouts are white, as there's no red color, hi hi.

Oxygen

My oxygen unit has been damaged - I must descend from 64,000 ft to below 8,000 ft, and fast. Tricky, as I'm not sure my fuel will be sufficient to accomplish the mission. The red light on the right side says my external tank is already empty.

Blackout

Pulling out 7.2 g while chasing a MiG-31 (well, today we know this wouldn't be a practical scenario, given the manuverability limits of the Mach 3 interceptor, but hey), and my vision is slowly blacking out. My radar is damaged, so it doesn't show any more info, and I won't be able use to AMRAAM.

Damage

Reviewing the plane's damage after landing. My engine had died, so it was a deadstick landing.

The game also features night flying - which can be quite disorienting, and you must use your instruments. There's weather, too - wind and cloud. The former will take you off course and make landings harder, the latter will make IR- and laser-guided weapons fail to lock. Tricky if you plan on using AIM-9 or AGM-65.

Night mission

A night mission, with cloud cover. Not the best time for flying.

The bombs are unguided, but you have the CCIP on your HUD. Even so, using gravity bombs is hard and you will often miss. Best to use the guided missiles to destroy ground targets, then. Oh, you cannot destroy bridges, no matter what the manual says, so remember that.

When it comes to landing, you can use ILS, but it is not always available, on every runway, plus you must be within certain flight envelope parameters to use it - altitude, speed and angle of approach. Very demanding, and even more so if you're coming back from a mission, damaged or with enemy planes hot on your tail. You also need to contact the control tower so they tell you which runway and direction you can use for ILS.

Landing

Trying to land - I've chosen the wrong runway, and ILS is not active. C'est la vie.

Debriefing

Post-mission debriefing. My landing was a bit ... off. Hard, hard, uncompromising gameplay.

The five missions

You can practice flying for as long as you like, but then, you can embark onto a proper combat tour. Before the game lets you fly campaigns (and command a squadron of planes), you must first complete five individual missions - interception (scrable from QRA), multiple strike missions (deep strike, interdiction, and anti-armor), and photorecce of an enemy installation.

I don't recall any other simulator of that time (or any time, for that matter) placing focus on a combat, no-shooting mission. But here, you must place an ATARS pod under your centerline pylon and fly deep into the enemy territory. The pod only works under 500 feet, so you must zoom in low and fast, photograph the target, and fly back in one piece. Very demanding.

Mission planning

You need to use XY coordinates to mark your waypoints.

The strike missions are equally hard. Not only do you need to avoid permanent enemy SAM emplacements, but there are also mobile SAM launchers and infrantry all over the map, and they can also engage you. The enemy warning stations will track you and vector interceptors onto your position. Here, you must play a clever game of tradeoff - risk, speed, altitude, fuel consumption.

Ground attack

Firing laser-guided Mavericks against an enemy factory.

You can fly high and fast, conserving fuel and extending your combat range, but then you're visible to enemy radars. You can fly low, but you will be slower, and you might not have enough fuel to reach the target and come back. Flying high, you can mostly "ignore" enemy SAM if you engage the afterburner and drop chaff. Flying low, IR-guided SAM pose a serious threat, and you can easily get hit and damaged. In Combat Pilot, there's a very thin margin between a fantastic and a horrible mission. You might get damaged, and oops, your engine's dead, or there's fire, or your navigation goes, and you won't necessarily know how to return to your base (which means paying attention to landmarks or the flight map is critical). If you lose the landing gear, you're probably going to crash coming back. The list of what might go wrong is long and cruel.

The game is clever. During one of the SEAD missions (Hammerblow), I managed to avoid enemy air units, and successfully engaged the targets. On the way back, I noticed a number of MiGs at my tail, but they kept their distance. Then, just as I was about to land, and had engaged the ILS autopilot on, the plane comms informed that the airfield was under attack, and aborted the landing sequence. I then had to quickly engage the three MiG-27s, defend the base, and then touch down. Quite uncanny.

Airfield under attack

The MiGs brazenly circling around me, as I abort my landing sequence and prepare to engage.

Conquest

Once you complete the standalone missions, the middle section of the "Pentagon" will unlock, and allow you to assume your leader role. Like before, you can fly all sorts of missions, but now, you also must command your team (an entire squadron of about 20 planes, but you can send only four warbirds on strike missions at any one time, plus yours).

The idea of Conquest is to achieve total superiority over your enemy. You can do that in multiple ways. First, you can try to completely destroy their air assets. This is the easiest and quickest way. Simply fly air combat missions, firing off AIM-9s and AIM-120s until you win. Kind of makes sense, as in most scenarios, if you have complete dominion of the airspace, you are most likely to be the victor (in conventional warfare).

Conquest

Weapons

Getting ready for a heavy attack mission. Hopefully, I can make it. With the current loadout, including six AAM (two Sidewinders, two Slammers), a dozen Mavericks, LANTIRN pods, plus an drop tank on the centerline, my F-16 is limited to a 5.5g load.

Recon

And here's a recon mission load ... with a side load of AAM, just to be sure.

Another way is to degrade the air force almost to the point of surrender (at that point, the enemy planes will mostly avoid you), and then fly ground attack missions. I would often do this, as it's more fun. In addition to my own work, I'd send the rest of my team on strikes against enemy infrastructure - factories, SAM batteries, tank batallions. And as the campaign would progress, you could see the shift of forces on the pre-mission theater map.

Sometimes, you could see your own F-16s going or coming back from their own sorties. They would occasionally engage in air-to-air combat, but most of the time, they would stick to the attack profile. Conquest had some rather interesting surprises in store - unpredictable weather, dynamic changes in the combat situation, and, if you land on one of the smaller airstrips, there might not be enough weapons for your next flight. You would have to compromise with a reduced set of bombs and missiles. Or you might not be able to fix all of the damage to your F-16. Very tricky.

If you eject over the enemy territory, there's a fair chance you might be captured or die. Likewise, if you land on an enemy airfield, by choice or mistake (having your navigation damaged), you would be declared a defector, and your mission log reset.

Combat

A dog fight with an enemy MiG. Sometimes, you might come across a MiG-27 - these would usually try to flee rather than engage. This is one of those scenarios.

Engagement

Another air battle, 7-miles distance. A lot is happening right there. While I'm trying to get rid of the bogey, there are no less than four enemy missiles targeting me - AAM and SAM. I've dispensed some chaff and flare, but I'm not sure if that's gonna help. Another enemy plane (T1) is some 70 miles away.

You will most likely lose a plane or two, often due to botched landings after having your undercarriage damaged. If you don't make too many mistakes, you can win the conquest campaign after roughly 10 missions or so - or earlier if you destroy the enemy air force. I found focus on the ground missions more exciting, and more dangerous. Flying in low and close, evading enemy SAM, and then occasionally going head to head with the MiGs. Quite daring and risky.

Command

You can send your squadron against tanks inside your own territory, on dispatch them against enemy command centers or airfields. Once you obliterate a target, it will disappear from the map (except air bases, but you can still destroy the air tower and any SAM or AAA assets there, as well as drop DURANDAL bombs against runways).

Fighting above cloud cover

An air engagement after the ground element has been complete. Sidewinders cannot lock onto enemy aircraft through the cloud cover, so you need to be careful with your AIM-120. For good measure, there's an enemy SAM in the air, too, just to add spice to an already hot situation.

Victory

The campaign is over, the enemy has surrendered.

Promotion

And I get my promotion to the next squadron. Notice the Hollywood sign in the background. LULZORS.

Medal

After you finish eight conquests and get eight promotions, there's a medal for you.

Conclusion

Perhaps I sound like an overly nostalgic dinosaur, but there. F-16 Combat Pilot is a really cool game, and it still retains quite a bit of charm of sophistication, 35 years later. Yes, it's "primitive" in the sense that a lot of what makes flying complicated could not be compressed into 680 KB worth of data. But then, you get a hard, brutal simulator with things like no-fast-travel, realistic ILS-supported landings, weather modeling, use of recon and targeting pods, blackouts, damage, and a fairly complex campaign mode. Everything else on top of that would just be layers of graphics to make things pretty.

I loved F-16 Combat Pilot the day I laid my eyes on the box, and my impression has not changed. Sometimes, it's quite dangerous revisiting the heroes of yore, as you may suddenly discover it was only childish infatuation. But no. This simulator is serious stuff. Complicated, hard, very clever. It has the right essence, be it in only in four colors, or this magnificent plethora of hues, all sixteen of them. Well, hopefully, this was a fun trip down the memory lane. Or perhaps, this is an opportunity for you to try this ancient, abandoned simulator, and taste what it was like to play games "back then". You may discover that things were far more advanced than their crude visuals might suggest. Indeed, it's not about the graphics. It never was. This is a top notch simulator, and you can still enjoy it in 2024. Fox Two.

Cheers.