Jul 29, 2010

A look back at Red Baron

What you're about to read, is an excellent guest post by Bill, who is a blogger for thinkSMART, that came up with some rather intriguing educational DS games and even a little something for the Wii. Bill lives in Hell’s Kitchen, once game-tested for Dynamix, and was eaten by a Grue many, many times. You can read more of his material here.
Red Baron Stomping on turtles? Watching gravity win out against science with the help of fire and lead? Barrel rolls? Spinning hedgehogs doing loop-de-loops?

All of them fun, but limited in a sense. In the early 90s, games played out in little capsules. I could win the battle, build the city, save the princess, but it all disappeared the moment I flipped off the computer. Even the occasional game that told a story through the progression of levels felt hollow – there wasn’t much of a world behind whatever obstacles I’d been tasked to overcome.

It was like some perverted version of Descartes: I play; therefore, the world exists.

Red Baron screenshot DynamixThen along came a little company named Dynamix, a game maker determined to challenge my little philosophy. Red Baron was the first game I can remember that convinced me I was playing inside a “real” video game world, and that my actions had both immediate and broad implications on its future. The world, of course, was the Western Front of WWI. And from the moment you first signed on to join the fight against the German menace, the game kept a clock running on that world. Time crept forward between battles; as you moved along history’s timeline, battles were fought, world leaders met to make big decisions, and the war machine turned out technological advancements like faster planes, or machine guns that wouldn’t overheat as quickly.

Whether or not you got to use those cool new toys depended on how you flew, and Red Baron did a great job of rewarding good play. It kept track of your kills, how many times you’d been shot down, and if you’d managed to down one of Germany’s many “real-world” Aces. Rack up the kills, move into a better aerodrome. Better aerodromes meant better planes, and the chance to fly alongside one of the Allies’ elite Aces. Nothin’ wrong with some smarter AI piloting your wingman.

Between battles, you’d keep up with the “real world” through the game’s newspaper. I can’t tell you how proud I was (or how embarrassed I ought to be, today) when the newspaper’s lead story was on my bravery in shooting down some minor German Ace, or the stoic countenance I’d sported upon receiving my first medal. There was my teenage pride when, mouse in hand and Mountain Dew nearby, I’d read that my squadron’s efforts had led to a break in the lines, or frustration in reading about the Red Baron’s exponential kill-count. The newspaper was a (virtual) tangible anchor for the game’s sense of reality. Brilliant, really.

Reality didn’t begin and end with the in-game world, however. The various flyable planes each had their quirks, strengths and limitations. Guns would jam, often at the worst possible moment. One of the planes’ wings could literally rip off if you banked too hard, too often. You might parachute out of a plane and pray you avoid getting hit with flack.

Then there was the nightmare of your pilot taking a bullet from an enemy machine gun – as you lost blood, you’d begin to black out. Lose too much without finding an aerodrome or crash-landing (and hoping for a sympathetic farmer), adios. Game over. You’d have one last chance to read about your remarkable achievements and regrettable death in the aforementioned newspaper, and that was it. Reality was pretty harsh in WWI.

All of this would be for nothing if the gameplay wasn’t fun; luckily, it was amazing. The dogfights were edge-of-seat serious business, dodging around flack while emptying a machine gun into a zeppelin was the pinnacle of fun gaming. The game stomped its left foot in the muddy history of The Great War and placed its right foot in the shifting ground of an adjustable-reality flight simulator.

Red Baron put its feet down and straddled a line called “Best Game of Its Time,” and I’d dare anyone to try and knock it off.

Which is why I’m confused. It’s a strange phenomenon: Red Baron was – at the very least – the best flying game of its time, if not one of the best flight sims ever. In my opinion, it was the best game to come out around that period of gaming, beating out the likes of Civilization. For whatever reason, however, it’s also a game that today often goes un-remembered when bloggers and game magazines come up with “best of” lists. Strange.

Well, this is my little scream into the ether, for all it’s worth. Red Baron was and is one of the best games ever made, and God help you if you disagree.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:


  1. That sounds very interesting.
    I wish they did more of that "real world" like stuff in games.

  2. Sounds like an excellent addition to my DOS game collection. I'll have to look into acquiring this one.

  3. @ Jonathon: So do I. Also, wish for a proper Red BAron remake, complete with online play. Yes.

    @ Ithmeer: It's amazing my friend. Really is, I remember losing hours on it when I was younger (so much younger than today).

  4. @ gnome: Yes, it really sounded like it would be a great MMO. With the changing semi persistent world, it is pretty much their already.

  5. And let's not forget the relatively simple controls. These were simple airplanes after all...

  6. Thanks again, Kos. I think the more the world hears about the pure beauty that Red Baron is and was, the more the world will be a better place.

  7. I still have the game box and disks. Great game.

  8. Picked up game with box, 3.5" floppies, and all the manuals for under $15. I look forward to playing it when i get it. I've found that floppy versions of games are usually cheaper, since most people don't have floppy drives anymore.

  9. This looks really cool, I came a bit late to the PC party to catch this first time round, and it never came out for my humble Atari ST.

    I got my props and chocks kicks from Flying Corps, which is very similar from the looks of it. You could tear of a wing by turning too hard in that game, too. Came as a shock after playing TIE Fighter, I can tell you. Great article, Bill.


  10. @ Bill: Most probably! And thanks again for a fantastic review of an old favourite. I really want to play Red Baron again now.

    @ Guttertalk: Great game indeed my friend. And a great manual too.

    @ Ithmeer: Wow you're fast. Hape you enjoy it as much as the gods would like.

    @ Marc: Well, there was an Amiga version, so I'm pretty shocked to actually discover that you are right. Red Baron never made it to the ST. Shock! Horror! As for me I guess I'll have to give this Flying Corps thing a googling.

  11. @Jonathon - I think you just came up with a $1.5 billion idea. I'm stealing it!

    @Guttertalk - I'm jealous, man. I think my mom may've thrown my copy away. And I can't really blame her - I doubt I would've cared, since I was so young at the time.

    @Marc - thanks for the props, brother.

    @Gnome - no, thank YOU for giving me a little room on your soapbox. If I had 1/4th the traffic your site has, I wouldn't be worried about losing my job.

  12. (sorry to comment-spam...)

    @Ithmeer - Gnome's right. How'd you pull that one off so quick? Regardless, I think you'll be happy with the purchase.

  13. Oh man, one of my favourite games, and the thing got me interested in the First World War in the air in the first place.

    Also worth mentioning that the game is officially freeware now, and very playable through DosBox.

  14. Ah, yes, excellent! Thanks for reminding us that Pacian. Gotta search, search for it right now.

  15. @ Pacian: Where have you seen this? I've done some searching and come up with nothing.

  16. Actually, Red Baron 2 (Red Baron 3D) used to be freeware, but not anymore. At least according to wikipedia.

  17. Will have to investigate!

  18. I first saw it on some old Freeware site (possibly GameHippo). Wikipedia lists it as freeware and links to this page (although I don't think that counts as a reliable source).

    Although Sierra were bought up by Activision who then seemed to renege on a lot of Sierra's more magnanimous gestures (cf. The Silver Lining).

  19. This article got me thinking about other classic, sim-ish games that just don't get enough respect these days. Red Baron is one; F-15 Strike Eagle III is another. Come to think of it, I haven't seen any of the Wing Commander games on recent "Best of" lists, either. Do folks these days hate joystick-based games that much?

  20. @ Pacian: You are a god like creature Pacian, did you know that? Also, here's a cookie.

    @ Possum: You are right! Modern press hates joysticks. I do believe though they've gotten over their anti-Wing Commander period.