AV-8B Harrier Assault, from VGA to the first Super VGA flight simulator

The advent of Super VGA, in the late ’80s, not only marked a new and exciting era in visual fidelity but also an end to IBM heralding the graphical standard for its personal computers and the vast amount of compatibles they had spawned throughout the decade. In 1987, when IBM launched its IBM PS/2 line of personal computers, the world was introduced to a new graphic standard, the Video Graphics Array, VGA. IBM’s new proprietary standard allowed for as many as 256 colors on screen simultaneously in 320×200 resolution and a maximum resolution of 640×480, in 16 colors.

By 1990 IBM’s VGA implementation was becoming ubiquitous in the PC industry and would permanently change the mainstream consumer market. PCs were finally able to surpass what other platforms and consoles were able to offer and largely helped solidify the PC as the future of personal computing. While IBM intended to supersede VGA with its Extended Graphics Array, XGA, they ultimately missed the mark, subsequently, VGA became the last graphic standard from IBM that the majority of clone manufacturers adhered to. Instead, VGA was adapted into many extended forms by third-party manufacturers, based on the specification collectively known as Super VGA.

Super VGA cards slowly started to enter the market in 1989 and common for all was they broke compatibility with IBM’s VGA standard, requiring developers to provide specific graphic drivers and implementations for each specific card. To unify a standard the Video Electronics Standards Association, VESA, was instituted in 1989, to establish specifications for SVGA card manufacturers. The association produced the VESA BIOS Extensions, VBE, to provide a common software interface to all cards implementing those specifications. The VBE standardized resolutions of 800×600, 1024×768, and 1280×1024 in 4- and 8-bit color depths.

While SVGA marked a new era in visual fidelity, it would take another few years before both developers and the consumer market was ready to fully embrace it. Pioneering products upon the newest technology, conforming tools and processes to new standards, required not only skills and knowledge but also an investment of money and time to create the framework and content that would suffice and employ the technology justifiable. Adapting already existing titles was for the most part not feasible as artwork and animation, some of the most time-consuming tasks in any game development process, had to be completely redone. In that aspect, real-time 3D games had an advantage as they more or less only required an upgrade to the 3D render engine. Untextured 3D objects could function in whatever resolution the game engine provided.

In 1988, Jonathan Newth, Chris Tubbs, Dave Payne, and Ian Baverstock, colleagues from the Harrier Jump Jet Simulator Research team at British Aerospace established SIMIS Limited, a small game development studio in Surrey, just south of London. Their combined knowledge of aerospace engineering, physics, and computer science became the building blocks for developing advanced flight simulator games portraying real-life aircrafts with true flight characteristics.
In 1989, the studio released its first game, Interdictor, for the British 8-bit Acorn Archimedes. The scope of the game was unmatched at the time and earned critical acclaim. The success led the team to expand further on the formula creating Interdictor 2 in 1991, one of the very first flight simulators to feature true 3D terrains. Interdictor 2 was built with a complete set of proprietary world-building tools which later on was published as the pioneering software Flight Sim Toolkit. The toolkit provided flight simulator fans the tools to create games of their own and spawned a thriving flight simulator-building community in the years to come.

In 1992 Simis finished its most elaborate game yet with AV-8B Harrier Assualt, a combined flight simulator and real-time strategy game where players could choose to focus on the real-time strategy part or directly participate in combat, flying the AV-8B Harrier II. The flight simulation part convincingly portrayed the flying characteristics of the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II jet. The vertical/short take-off and landing fighter was initially the result of a joint venture between the United States and the United Kingdom but because of budgetary constraints, the UK abandoned the project in 1975. The AV-8B made its maiden flight in November 1981 and entered service with the United States Marine Corps in January 1985.

AV-8B Harrier II plays out in a fictional conflict between United States forces and the Indonesian army occupying a part of the Southeast Asian island of Timor. Here the player must plan a strategic assault upon the enemy territory, heavily defended by Indonesian forces. As Commander of the Rapid Deployment Force, you will run the campaign of Operation Ocean Saber, an UN-authorized invasion of East Timor. The game was published for the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, and the IBM PC in 1992 by London-based Domark Software Ltd., a long-term relationship that had started with Simis’ successful 1990 title MIG-29 Fulcrum.
In North America, Spectrum Holobyte acted as the distributor before Domark set up its own US operations in San Mateo, California.

Simis’ AV-8B Harrier Assualt was published in 1992 by London-based Domark Software Ltd.,
Above, the US version

AV-8B Harrier Assualt became an unwitting participant in the censorship debate in Australia as the Catholic Teachers Federation found it offensive to the East Timorese. This was during a period when the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, which makes up parts of the Indonesian archipelago, was marked by violence and brutality. In 1991 the Dili Massacre became a turning point for the independence cause and an East Timor solidarity movement grew in Portugal, the Philippines, and Australia as well, where the game was banned.

While The Atari ST and Amiga were slowly losing their position in the market, the PC version, featuring 256-color VGA graphics, would become the basis for the first SVGA flight simulator game when released the following year.
By 1993, mainstream consumers were slowly adopting SVGA-capable hardware, and instead of Simis doing a completely new game to continue to stay relevant at the forefront of technology, the team fairly quickly managed to rewrite the 3D render engine to embrace the new high-resolution standard. The majority of the content for the flight simulator part consisted of non-textured polygonal surfaces which all could be transferred more or less directly to the new engine. AV8B Harrier Assault was rereleased in 1993 with upscaled graphics but otherwise identical to the VGA version. The new version was, for marketing purposes, re-branded to simply Super-VGA Harrier.

AV-8B Harrier Assault was rereleased as Super-VGA Harrier in 1993

Simis would demonstrate the full power of its Flight Sim Toolkit by using it to make the space combat game Absolute Zero in 1995. In September the same year, publicly-traded Eidos Public Limited Company acquired Domark, alongside Simis and Big Red Software, for a total of £12.9 million, to form the Eidos Interactive Group. Simis continued to operate as an in-house development studio.
In 1998, Baverstock and Newth led a management buyout of the studio from Eidos, forming Kuju Ltd.

Sources: Wikipedia, Guildford.Games

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