THE MAJORITY OF SIMULATIONS ARE FLASHES IN the pan---they're hot for a few months, but soon they're gone and forgotten. As PCs get faster and more capable, new sims come along that look, sound, and act more like real vehicles. Few of us take the time to remember, much less replay, older sims. Sure, you occasionally find folks still playing CHUCK YEAGER'S AIR COMBAT, SECRET WEAPONS OF THE LUFTWAFFE, and F-15 STRIKE EAGLE III, but when was the last time you heard someone mention flying around in BLUE MAX, SOLO FLIGHT, or even PACIFIC STRIKE?
On a very rare occasion, though, a simulation comes along that's so good that it stays available on store shelves not for weeks or months but for years. Ahead of their times, these sims pack so much realism and play value that they're able to stay competitive with their younger counterparts. This short list includes sims such as Spectrum HoloByte's FALCON 3.0, Sublogic's ATP and Dynamix's RED BARON.
These classic simulations remain fun, but they can be frustrating once you've gotten accustomed to the bells and whistles of newer simulations. Many don't support alternate input devices, while others don't run well on fast machines, and some just suffer from a limited number of missions or gameplay options.
If nostalgia strikes, don't let these setbacks keep you away from the cockpits of your favorite old flight simulators. Thanks to the efforts of some code-savvy flight sim fans, there are add-ons galore in the freeware and shareware arenas that can bring old sims up to speed.
Take, for example, Run BARON. Released in the dark ages of 1990, this sim from Damon Slye's team at Dynamix featured a revolutionary flight model complete with realistic spills and energy bleed. Amazingly, RED BARON is still selling today as part of CD-ROM bundles with other Dynamix flight sims.
In the five years since RED BARON's release, only Origin's WINGS OF GLORY has challenged it for the title of best World War I sim. But RED BARON does have some problems on today's PCs. It runs too fast on Pentium systems, which not only affects realism and gameplay, but also screws up the program's AI calculations. Also, its support of enhanced control devices isn't up to par with modern sims; rudder support isn't proportional, and extra buttons and view hats are ignored on non-programmable devices.
Programmers have poked around in RED BARON's program and data files over the years and found workarounds for these limitations. Checking CompuServe's flight sim forum (FSForum) I found dozens of patches, TSRs, and mission files designed to bring RED BARON up to par. While we wait for RED BARON II, these enhancements can make the golden oldie fly like a factory-fresh sim. After application of a few of these patches, about the only thing missing from RED BARON is SVGA graphics.
The simplest way to bring RED BARON up to speed is with Bob Church's XBARON patch. The most recent version as of this writing, XBARON 1.46, addresses nearly all of RED BARON's problems on fast machines. Most significant is the Frame Rate Limiter, which keeps screen updates from taking place so fast that the program doesn't operate properly. RED BARON does flight model calculations between screen updates, and if those updates take place too quickly, then the program doesn't have time to complete its calculations, making aircraft control difficult and causing computer-controlled enemies to fly strangely. XBARON limits the frame rate so that your Sopwith Camel won't speed over the landscape like an F-15. The screen up-dates still look silky smooth, though.
The Frame Rate Limiter also works in RED BARON's VCR mode and fixes a problem that's plagued all the Dynamix flight simulators. If you record a mission on a Pentium 90 and display it on a 486/33, the tape doesn't play back properly. If both systems are running an XBARON-patched version of RED BARON, though, everything plays back at the proper speed. XBARON also adds new functions for manually accelerating or decelerating tape playback.XBARON also adds one of the most flexible joystick configuration screens I've ever seen. You can set a dead zone where stick movement has no effect (great if your joystick doesn't center precisely), and adjust joystick sensitivity by altering the response curves for each axis.
RED BARON does support an analog throttle and rudder pedals, but only in a very limited fashion. The inputs work as if they're coming from the keyboard---moving the throttle jumps the setting by 10 percent, and hitting the rudder pedals makes the rudder deflect 100 percent. XBARON patches the throttle to work as a true proportional throttle, making for smooth engine adjustments. It also supports proportional rudder response, so you can kick the rudder over a little or a lot. You can even set up a partial aileron-rudder linkage so the plane will realistically roll a little when the rudder pedals are depressed.
Up to four joystick buttons can be programmed for a variety of functions, including setting various views, "blipping" the engine power, and unjamming the guns. XBARON 1.46 also supports the Thrustmaster-style view hat, but not the one on the CH Flightstick Pro.
Once XBARON is set up by patching the RED BARON executable and running XB-SETUP, it's completely transparent. The freeware program works on both the original floppy version of the program, as well as the slightly enhanced CD-ROM update.
XBARON makes some changes to RED BARON to make it smoother running and easier to control, but it doesn't alter the gameplay. If you want to dive into RED BARON's guts and change how it works, Joe Scoleri's RB-HEX 3 is the package for you. It includes a hex editor and a full explanation of the various values in RED BARON's data files so that you can go in and change almost any value in the simulation. You can alter aircraft performance, gun field of fire, service ceiling, wing strength, and a host of other values. If you don't feel one of the planes really performs like the real thing, change the performance. You can even use the patches to alter an existing aircraft so it simulates another fighter not included in RED BARON. One warning: Hex editing is a bit dangerous. If you alter the wrong value, you can cause the program to malfunction or even crash, But the program is pretty easy to use, and if you follow the detailed instructions you should have no problems.
Along with the editor, RB-HEX includes a number of prebuilt patches. You can use these to lessen the likelihood of mid-air collisions, make wing strength more realistic on some of the fighters, turn some single-gun planes into twin-gunners, and adjust some improper performance values. My favorite additions, though, are the Blitz Machine fighter and Blitz Bomber, ultra-powerful and completely unrealistic planes thrown in just for fun. The Blitz Machine is a blast to fly when you want to mow down everything in your path (imagine flying an A-10 in the first World War). Like XBARON, RB-HEX is freeware.
Also from Joe Scoleri comes RB COLOR, a neat little utility that lets you customize aircraft color schemes. If you've always wanted to fly a Sopwith Snipe with yellow wings and a blue fuselage, now you can. You might want to duplicate a particular ace's color scheme, or perhaps change both enemy and allied aircraft to the same color scheme to make combat even more challenging. The unregistered version only lets you fly color-altered Sopwith Snipes and Fokker D.VIIs, but the $10 full program lets you alter the paint job on any fighter.
There are a host of other patches available. You can turn a Sopwith Camel into the later Sopwith Dolphin, use ACE-CONTROL to revive dead pilots and edit your pilot roster, and even fix improper pluralizations in the MISSION BUILDER. History buffs can use Graham von Cree's RICHTH patch to change RED BARON to reflect that Richtofen flew a Halberstadt in January, 1917 when his Albatros was damaged, and a Pfalz in February, 1918 when airframe failure grounded Fokker Dr.1s.
Once you've fine-tuned the sim, check out the dozens of custom missions for the RED BARON MISSION BUILDER available online. Some of these reenact historical battles, while others simply create challenging historical scenarios.
RED BARON's not the only sim with unofficial patches. Break out your modem or browse your local PD/shareware library and you'll find fixes and enhancements for FALCON 3.0, SECRET WEAPONS OF THE LUFTWAFFE, ACES OVER EUROPE, and a host of other sims. Even recent sims have already been enhanced by enthusiastic programmers---there's a patch floating around the Internet that lets you fly any of the planes in EA's U.S. NAVY FIGHTERS. Happy hunting!
These patches and modifications are not the product of Dynamix nor are they supported or endorsed by them. These patches have gone through rigorous testing but the authors assume no responsibility for any damage caused by their use. Please read all instructions and back up necessary files before running any of these patches!