Like a phoenix from the Escom inferno

Before ‘pushing the envelope’ started appearing on lists of the most irritating corporate marketing clichés, Runcorn-based Digital Image Design – previously responsible for F-29 Retaliator, RoboCop 3 and Epic – were considered prime candidates for doing just that thanks to the emergence of what was in 1993 their latest and greatest, groundbreaking flight simulator.

 

TFX (an acronym for Tactical Fighting eXperiment) was initially developed for the DOS platform with a view to subsequently porting it to the Amiga 1200 and CD32, aiming for an ETA of early 1994. For comparison, when the PC version was demonstration at the European Computer Trade Show in September 1993, a 486 DX4 100 MHz was employed. An A500/600 version was never a consideration since these entry-level systems couldn’t hope to meet the minimum hardware specifications of such a resource hungry polygon-shifter.

“Without a total rewrite it wouldn’t be possible to do TFX on the A500 – the processor simply can’t handle it. We can only develop for the A1200 from now on.”

“We wrote a little program to see how fast we could generate polygons – little 20 pixel by 20 pixel diamonds – on the A1200. What we’ve managed to achieve is 3-4000 polygons per second in 128 colour mode. The A500 could do about 1600 in 16 colour mode.”

-Digital Image Design’s MD and co-founder, Martin Kenwright

Like the PC iteration – leveraging a deal reported to be worth £1m – Amiga TFX was to be published by everyone’s favourite Manchester-based gaming industry legends, Ocean. With Ocean retaining a 25% stake in Digital Image Design it made perfect sense for them to become the sole publisher of the developer’s wares for western territories. Conversions for the PC-98 and PlayStation ensued in 1996, each published by Imagineer, a sub-division of Misawa Homes, one of the leading property groups in Japan.

Prior to the Infogrames acquisition in 1998, behind the scenes kitted out in overalls, ratchets and blowtorches at the ready were:-

Design and Direction: Martin Kenwright
Amiga Conversion: Charles Wallace, Steve Monks
3D Engine: Russell Payne
Programming: Colin Bell, Jamie Cansdale, Dave Dixon
Vectorgraphic Design: Ian Boardman, Andy Gahan
Graphic Design: Robert Ball, Roderick Kennedy
Flight Model: Roderick Kennedy, Jamie Cansdale
Audio: Barry Leitch
Additional Work: Tim Johnson, Shaun Hollywood

Following an understandably prolonged development cycle involving a scopious team of talented artists and programmers, “The Cutting Edge of Aerial Combat” was released as planned for the PC, yet the Amiga port didn’t leave the aircraft hangar until long after the real Commodore was dead and buried, despite being 95% finished and even reviewed by a number of popular publications. Any remaining die-hards still using an Amiga in October 1997 finally received their slice of the pie courtesy of a CU Amiga cover CD-ROM… the jubilant upshot of a well received, exclusive unveiling at the May 1997 World of Amiga event.

If you’d like to take your seat beside me in the cockpit and buckle up we’ll shortly be departing for the alluring Chinese province of Wotwentwong. It’s a land of intrigue and enlightenment, I’m sure they’ll have all the answers.

Set in the near future of 1999 amidst a purlieu of raging wars and deprivation in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, under the looming threat of nuclear war at the hands of Libyan despots, you assume the role of a rookie United Nations hotshot aviator. In the hot seat of one of three armed assault aircraft; a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Eurofighter 2000 or F-22 Superstar, you equip your ‘experiment’ (the UN aren’t known for piloting strike planes after all) with whatever WMDs take your fancy, and jet off into the sunset to tackle various topical – and no doubt dubious – peacekeeping missions as part of a rapid response sortie.

The eXperience is a blended compromise between the arcade action of F-29 Retaliator and ultra-realistic combat of Falcon 3.0, played in ten minute bursts, or for protracted sessions in ‘soap opera’ mode, incorporating a narrative, cinematic cut scenes and mission-centric objectives. Hiking the challenge further, refuelling either in mid-air or by first touching down safely is a necessity in campaign scenarios.

 

 

 

Punctuating the flight components are stills and news broadcasts equivalent to those found in RoboCop 3, only featuring real political figures such as George W. Bush and former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Weighing in at a luxurious £40, the package also comprised an engine that maps 20% of the earth’s surface, accurate to one mile squared, training modes, a UN Commander component that allows you to develop your own missions in addition to the 200 already included, and a 14 track CD quality score composed by none other than Barry Leitch.

Neither should I let it escape your notice that TFX is recognised as the only game to support Creative Labs’ ASP/CSP chip, thereby facilitating the potential for surround sound for owners of certain Sound Blaster 16 and AWE32 audio configurations.

Checking out the competition at the time, DID’s managing director, Martin Kenwright, commented, “God, I was amazed. Ours is twenty times ahead of anybody else’s”. Of course he would say that, his mortgage depended on it. Even so, he wasn’t that far off the mark. How many other flight sims, for instance, let you commit suicide by ejecting from your inverted ride while cruising in dangerously close proximity to terra firma?

Development initiated in April 1992 with the first preview surfacing in August 1993. Buoyed by a eulogistic reception on the PC (an average score of 84% across 15 reviews, one of them clocking in at 100%), anticipation was riding high for an Amiga counterpart that would push the system to its limits.

“TFX doesn’t do anything you won’t have seen before. Instead it takes familiar flight sim ingredients and takes them to whole new vistas of refinement. It’s totally beautiful to watch, and even if that means slogging through some humdrum old flight missions, hell, you’d be stupid to refuse for that reason.”

80% – Edge (December 1993)

“Overall, this sim paved the way for what was to be two of the best flight sims ever, EF2000 and F-22 ADF. This game is usually forgotten amongst its more popular peers, probably because it wasn’t marketed as well. One would have to say that if you were interested at ALL in modern jet combat, let alone stealth combat, you’d be doing yourself a favor by picking TFX up. Being able to fly the F-117A alone is worth the price of admission.”

80% – All Game Guide (1998)

“All in all, the game is a good flight sim with great graphics. However, I believe the quality of the product has been let down by some of the more cosmetic bits strapped on the outside.”

80% – PC Zone (June 1994)

Teasing updates were fed to the critics right up until the almost complete game was reviewed in April and May of 1995, only the next logical step – the big shiny box inc. paperweight flight sim manual appearing on retailer’s shelves – regrettably failed to transpire. Throughout 1995 Ocean deliberated over what – if anything – to do with the impressive, yet troublingly niche title. Another year passed with little hope of a resolution, at which point the plug was terminally pulled, and several years of hard-fought conversion toil was flushed away… or so we thought at the time.

“Problems aside, this game beats its closest rival both in detail and speed. TFX is the best sim on the Amiga of all time, and that’s a fact unlikely to change in a long, long time.”

90% – Amiga Computing (June 1995)

“There is one thing that may make some people have second thoughts about buying this game. Although it is possible to play TFX from floppy drives and an unexpanded Amiga, you would get much more out of the game if you had an accelerated machine (with an 030 processor) and a hard drive. It’s silky-smooth on the Amiga Format A4000 040!”

“At last a flight sim that can be played without years of study.”

91% – Amiga Format (May 1995)

“It’s so busy being an accurate simulator that sometimes it forgets that it’s supposed to be fun as well. But otherwise, TFX is a great accomplishment – an attractive, well-rounded and absorbing game that we like.”

85% – Amiga Power (A4000 version, May 1995)

“Well. it’s here. But it can’t hide the fact that it’s a game designed for more expensive machines that’s been cut down to fit onto the Amiga, rather than a game developed with the Amiga in mind.”

62% – Amiga Power (A1200 version, May 1995)

“TFX looks like the high-octane mother of all flight sims. Probe a little deeper, however, and you’ll find the fuel supply on this one is exhausted long before it reaches the end of the runway. The most immediate problem, unless you’ve got a hard drive, is the lengthy disk loading time. Ocean actually recommends that you play it from a hard drive, though, so it would be unfair to slag it off for that.

All seems great as you tap in your callsign, go into training, equip your plane and wait expectantly for take-off. But, as you kick in the engines and the plane begins to rumble along the runway, you find yourself pondering the physics of an aircraft weighing some 14,000kg taking off at an apparent velocity of 10mph!

Despite being AGA-only, TFX suffers a sloth-like lack of speed. Sure, you can change the detail to reduce the horizon colours, simplify objects and change the visibility to something suicidal, but you’re still flying a Sopwith rather than a Stealth. Controls are another problem. At the default arcade setting, TFX lets you fly with the mouse which, given the slow update, is the most responsive way to play. Select a more complex level though, say “simple”, and you’re forced to use either joystick or keyboard, both of which are completely arse. The sound also disappoints, and with the garbled radio messages and a pathetic farting for the mighty chain guns, TFX begins to feel a bit shaky. The problems do not end there. Having plodded through the training missions and tackled a campaign, it begins to dawn on you that TFX isn’t offering much that’s new – you’ve played these missions before in F-15 Strike Eagle 2, Combat Air Patrol, F-117A etc.

True, it attempts an exciting cinematic style, but without a fast 3D engine, the show is dull. In its defence, TFX boasts some very nice graphic tricks such as a convincing cloud layer and groovy storm effects, but regrettably they fail to lift this sim from the ranks of the ‘also flews’.”

67% – The One (April 1995)

Reading the reviews with hindsight, the writing was already on the wall. Critics although bewitched by the spectacle were hamstrung by reservations concerning the game’s performance running via the average Amigan’s home setup. TFX despite having its colour palette slashed from 256 to 128 to accommodate unexpanded 68020 Amiga models ran like an arthritic manatee flailing through treacle. Multiple floppy swaps were obligatory even before the 7 disk game could commence, while playing with the graphical detail ramped up to maximum would result in an unbearable single frame per second tribulation.

Chuck in extra fast memory, a hard drive, and an accelerator card (or better still, switch to an A3000 or A4000) and TFX becomes exponentially more fun to play. A shame then that the majority of the dwindling number of Amiga users wouldn’t be sufficiently privileged to own one of the high-end models and so would effectively be cut out of the loop. If you soldiered on regardless, tweaking the presence of the bells and whistles accordingly, a diluted shadow of the unabridged game could be executed, though how many people would stand in line to tolerate that?

Adding insult to injury, certain features of the DOS original wouldn’t be available to A1200 owners no matter how amenable they were to performance concessions. Left on the cutting room floor was the option to fly the military specification stealth bomber, radio chatter, Gouraud shading, full texture mapping, and the UN Commander mode which would have enabled you to devise and fly your own missions.

At one point Ocean approached Commodore’s new owners, Escom, with a proposal to include TFX in their revamped A1200 ‘Magic Pack’. Sadly they dismissed the offer, instead backing Flair Software’s isometric platformer, Whizz, and Pinball Mania by Spidersoft. This marked the final nail in the coffin. With such a diminished potential target audience, the chances of an Amiga port being economically viable were minuscule.

Two years on TFX wasn’t the hot property it once was, making a deal with CU Amiga magazine far more feasible. In 1997 they forged a deal with DID to secure exclusive publishing rights, and in October the 17mb game made its long awaited debut on their 15th ‘Super CD-ROM’. Readers of their alternative floppy disk edition were also catered for with the opportunity to purchase a 7 disk version of TFX for £4 by mail order.

Three versions of the CU Amiga release were made available, allowing users of ‘differently abled’ systems to experience the game in a customised format:-

TFX_68000 (designed for AGA machines without FPU)
TFX_FPU (for AGA machines with FPU)
TFX_040 (for AGA machines with 68040/060 CPUs)

As welcome a surprise as this was, the game only being 95% complete still contained a number of bugs causing graphical glitches and execution malfunctions under certain conditions. In response to such technical difficulties, in December 1997 Amiga coder Charlie Wallace made updated beta executables available, though offered no guarantees that this would squish each and every last bug.

Still, Amigans couldn’t be choosers, especially during the era when we were eternally grateful for whatever scraps fell from the PC’s burgeoning table. To snag such a high-profile gift from an esteemed developer this long after the Amiga’s heyday was nothing short of a miracle, notwithstanding the Escom debacle.

When EF2000, the sequel to TFX, was released for DOS in 1995 (incidentally crowned Computer Gaming World’s ‘Simulation of the Year’ 12 months later), I very much doubt the word ‘Amiga’ crossed the minds of the development team. At that stage the trauma may still have been too fresh to even joke about it!

2 thoughts on “Like a phoenix from the Escom inferno

  • June 7, 2017 at 4:01 pm
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    My pleasure. It was a fascinating story to investigate so thanks for the idea. 🙂

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