Flying at 20,000ft above the scorched Afghan landscape, my F-35 Lightning II's active radar lights up and a nearby AWACS E-3D Sentry chimes in with an updated threat-picture of the target area. A duo of Russian Su-27 fighters have seemingly appeared out of the dunes 50 nautical miles northwest of us. I order my three wingmen to break off, hit the deck and deal with the bandits. I stay on course, however, diving to 2,000ft while activating my Joint Strike Fighter's next generation synthetic object overlay to map the rolling dunes ahead of me. Stealth is the name of the game in this mission, and flying as low as I can will help surprise the enemy. Closing in, I break the contoured lines of the F-35's sleek body by opening up the internal weapons bay. My radar signature blooms, alerting a nearby Russian SA-13 missile system, but it's already too late for my target.
Video games are a befitting home futuristic technologies, and flight simulators in particular have a legacy of putting avid gamers in the pilot's seat of next-generation fighter jets. F-19 Stealth Fighter for DOS, released in 1988, let players soar in what was essentially a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk before it was even revealed to the public (the F-19 was based off a Testor's model kit that predicted America's next stealth fighter), while NovaLogic's F-22 Raptor flight sim was released just one month after the fifth-generation fighter's first ever flight in September 1997.
So to me, a nine-year-old, budding pilot learning to fly in his bedroom in the late 1990s, getting the chance to strap into the cockpits of two relatively unheard of, cutting-edge fighter jets designated the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35 was a tantalizing prospect.
I found my old copy of the 1997 PC game Joint Strike Fighter a few weeks ago whilst staying at my childhood home over Christmas. I remember vividly the day my dad bought it for me for around £2 at a local boot sale. It must have been around 1999. My parents dutifully keep anything that they think may be of nostalgic worth, and this was the jackpot, hidden in a box of other games next to my bed. I loved this game so miuch, and what with the current presidential fracas surrounding the F-35—in which President Trump has forced Lockheed Martin to the bargaining table after suggesting Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet could do a better job—the find seemed timely. Delving into the box, I flicked through all of the physical paraphernalia that came as standard with video games before the digital age: manuals, maps, jewel CD case, a quick tips reference card. Would it still work?
"Let me just rewind, this is a long time ago," laughs Rune Spaans, who's speaking to me over Skype from his home in Oslo, Norway. It's been two decades since Rune was lead designer on the first ever game about the then-mysterious Lockheed Martin F-35 (then designated the X-35), and its Joint Strike Fighter program competitor the Boeing X-32.
"My first job was doing video games for a company in Norway called Funcom," says Rune. "We were at this little group in Funcom working for Nintendo, and Nintendo weren't that happy with the company, so [Nintendo] asked if we wanted to start our own company with them helping us out with finding an investor. So we did that, back in 1997. And I was the only graphic artist, together with...it must have been five programmers I think, and a producer. We then started looking for game ideas amongst ourselves."
That company was called Innerloop Studios (which actually started in 1996, sorry Rune), and the team possessed some brand new graphics technology to flaunt to the gaming world. The team, including Rune heading up the art direction, graphics, and 3D design, set to task deciding what type of game could best demonstrate this new graphics technology.
"The programmers had made this amazing landscape technology that was fractal based, and that could progressively add detail as you moved closer to the surface of the landscape," remembers Rune. "We were looking for games that would work with that technology. I think one game we thought about was a sports game, and there was possibly a war strategy game, and then there was this airplane game idea. We started thinking about those great flight games we played on the early PC and Amiga."
Rune mentions flight sim classics such as A-10 Tank Killer and Strike Commander as inspirations for their yet-to-be decided Joint Strike Fighter simulation. I also namedrop F/A-18 Hornet, my own first flight sim experience.
"We really liked those games and I remember airplane games at that time were turning into pretty hardcore simulations," he says. "There was this trend of simulations becoming more and more real, even though that was pretty much impossible with the computing power we had back then. We had to fake everything anyway, but still. That was the way everything was going."
Rune recalls how the team at Innerloop Studios had a basic game text for a flight simulator, when the game studio's new publisher, Eidos, bought into the idea. "I'm thinking that [Joint Strike Fighter] might have actually been suggested from the publisher because our producer took all these game ideas and travelled around in the US trying to get an investor for our company, and Eidos, who ended up purchasing half our company, well they really fell for the flight simulator idea."
In 1997, the Joint Strike Fighter program was already four years into development, but the Pentagon was still three years away from eventually selecting a winner out of the two remaining competitors: Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Having already fended off McDonnell Douglas and Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing were vying for the favor of the Department of Defense with their radical prototypes for a fifth-generation fighter aircraft that could be flown from conventional airbases as well as aircraft carriers, and eventually replace America's F-16, A-10, and F/A-18 aircraft: the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35.
"Actually, I think it was almost starting to be public, because we had this consultant who helped us out to do research. I think it was just starting to come out, and to me it was completely new," says Rune. "We talked about the competition going on between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, so we thought it would be fun to have both those planes in the game, so that the player could decide for themselves which one was best."
And that decision was a joy. Sitting somewhere between hardcore flight sim and an arcade-style flight sim, JSF came bundled with a wealth of technical information as well as cockpit options, many of which fell beyond the grasp of my immature brain. The game came with four physical maps representing the four theaters of war in-game (Afghanistan, Korea, Russia, and Columbia), and a hefty flight manual that includes a detailed history of the JSF program as well as cockpit tutorials and information on in-game vehicles. Clickable MFDs (multi-function displays) in the cockpit made for an immersive gaming experience, as well as new concept technologies such as a Satellite Landing System and advanced night vision.
Players could fly alongside three wingmen in quick dogfights or get stuck in on multi-sortie missions in the campaign mode that came with its very own mission editor. The maps felt alive, too. There were cities, ports, armored columns of targets. Weather effects were modelled, as well as a day and night cycle. One particularly fun, yet time wasting, easter egg was the ability for your pilot to walk around on the ground with a pistol after having ejected. It served no purpose, but showed off the impressive level terrain detail. It was an outstanding feat for the small studio, based out of their native Norway, and is a milestone simulator in my video gaming personal history. "We were a super small team, we all actually took a part of the manual and wrote it. I actually wrote the part about enemy aircraft. I think there were around ten people working on the game," recollects Rune.
As the chief designer, Rune's job was to design two airframes with very little information available. Unlike most other aircraft, it was pretty hard to be get hold of accurate images of the JSF prototypes, but Rune says he managed to find a few low-resolution photographs online, with the consultant for Eidos helping to bring in other images needed for the project.
It paid off. Joint Strike Fighter was released to positive reviews. Gamespot said the game had "most detailed, fluid, impressive graphics of any combat simulation" then available, while this reviewer noted that the "flight model is good, featuring stalls, damage, speed bleeds in turns, and angle-of-attack effects". Obviously, the flight model had to be completely hypothetical as Rune and his team were trying to emulate a still experimental aircraft, but for 1997, the game was to many ahead of its time, both content-wise and for graphics.
Fast forward twenty years, and the Joint Strike Fighter program, now in the form of the Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II, hasn't quite turned out how many people thought it would back in 1997. Dogged by overspending, delays, and software issues, it was only in January of this year when the F-35 was for the first time deployed by the United States military overseas, 24 years after it started development. Rune's native Norway hasn't had the smoothest ride with the F-35, either, with spiraling costs and delays worrying Norway's government ahead of its F-16 fighter phase out.
"I'm divided on the F-35. Politically I am very opposed to it, but personally I think it's a beautiful plane," says Rune. "But it's a huge cut into our small national budget and I don't see the point of Norway having it. Norway has this weird duality, because we have the Nobel prize and we work really hard with peacekeeping in the Middle East, but then we have one of the biggest weapons manufacturers in the world—Kongsberg Gruppen. I think there's a bit of paranoia here since we're so close to the Russian border. There's lots of pressure from NATO in terms of having a certain size of military."
But, while Norway still waits for its first F-35 Lightning II delivery, it's clear it's not something that's been troubling Rune. Since finishing up on the JSF game, and helping to create a few more Innerloop games such as Extreme Sports for the Sega Dreamcast, Rune left the company in 1999 to pursue a career in film and illustration. Most recently, Rune says he's turned to directing, winning an award for the best children's film at the 2015 Norwegian International Film Festival. Just before that, Rune helped create a particularly memorable moment in the successful Norwegian monster mockumentary Trollhunter. "I was responsible for the troll that's on the bridge," smiles Rune.
As for myself, while not a fighter pilot, I like to think I've kept up with the latest and greatest in the world of flight simulators. I'm now mostly proficient in flying the A-10 Warthog and F-15 Eagle in the ruthlessly accurate sim Digital Combat Simulator. As is obvious from some of the images, I managed to get my 20-year-old copy of Joint Strike Fighter up and running on a Windows 10 machine especially for this article. The nostalgia flooded back instantly, it's time to fly the F-35 again.
Main image: The programmers in a London cab, heading for the European Computer Trade Show to demo the game for the first time. Image: Rune Spaans.