In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
It used to be that pilots were something just short of Olympian deities. Charles Lindbergh (if you can disassociate his flying from his ugly politics) and Amelia Earhart were the Zeus and Athena of 1920s America. Accolades were heaped upon them for flying across the ocean in what were essentially lawnmowers with wings. No radar, no amphetamines, not even a Game Boy to pass the time. Nothing but a leather bomber jacket, goggles, and, probably, a pee jar.
Those glory days of flying are long gone. Military pilots today increasingly spend their time as drone joystick jockeys, launching Hellfire missiles at distant ground targets. It’s a far cry from the era of the Red Baron—the most famous pilot of all time—and his “Flying Circus,” dropping in and out of the sun and trading hot lead with a Sopwith Camel. Baron von Richthofen continues to be a curiosity almost 100 years after his death, and remains one of the more successful examples ever of wartime propaganda. As such, it is sometimes difficult to separate the man from the myth. His 80 confirmed kills are the most by any pilot during the First World War, and the vivid details of his biography—his ostentatious aircraft, the menacing yet aristocratic nickname, his early death—have only added to the legend. He’s sort of like a flying, German Jim Morrison, minus the crooning. The real Baron was a great pilot, but perhaps not quite the high-flying Übermensch made out by both German and British wartime bulletins.
Unlike the Baron, I’m a lousy pilot. I first learned this the hard way playing the 1997 World War I Sierra flight simulator Red Baron II. Before installation, I pictured myself as the living incarnation of Iron Maiden’s “Aces High,” single-handedly defeating the Kaiser and bringing peace to Europe. Hell, while I was at it, I’d fly over to Ypres to strafe a certain goose-stepping Austrian corporal and be back in time for a well-deserved Tom Collins at the officer’s club. Such bravado! But I didn’t win the war. I even was denied the dignity of being shot down. Instead, I found myself regularly stalling out after drifting into an impossible looping maneuver. Or veering into my wingman. My profound misunderstanding of physics and basic aeronautical engineering on my part did Richthofen’s bloody work for him. Like the infantry in the trenches at the Battle Of The Somme, dying dimmed my enthusiasm for the war considerably.
Red Baron II’s campaign brings you to the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. You fly as a French, British, American, or German pilot. Since the United States didn’t officially enter the war until April 1917, starting an American campaign prior to that puts you into the famed “Lafayette Escadrille,” the squadron in which the French placed American pilots who wanted to get into the fight. It was even a racially integrated unit, something that wouldn’t happen in the U.S. Armed Forces until 1948. Way to go, France.
A successful campaign requires bombings, escort missions, strafing, and not crashing into things. Players have the option to tinker with the realism level (ordnance, gun jams, G-forces, etc.), and compete with historical aces on the kill boards. The outcome is not predetermined. In fact, the other Western Front aerodromes send out their own missions simultaneous to yours, so you could be on your way to bomb a bridge, and the Red Baron’s squadron might pass you, heading in the other direction, off to lay waste to an Allied fuel depot.
This gives the game’s world an open feel, and I often found myself just flying around aimlessly. Sometimes, I’d get bored in transit to a waypoint and start shooting wildly at the horizon. After all, I had no real beef with the Baron. We were just a couple of bros trying to get through this crazy, mixed up war of European imperialist aggression.
The dogfights, when they happen, are stressful affairs (especially if you’ve burned through most of your ammo shooting at nothing). Without heat-seeking missiles or some kind of auto-tracking laser turret, odds are good that the enemy would escape me to fight another day. As for the real-life Baron, his Fokker Dr. 1 triplane was intimidating, but it also made for an enticing target. Richthofen was killed, probably from ground fire, in April 1918 at the age of 25.
The Red Baron, though, lives on as the villain in Snoopy Flying Ace. Released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2010, Snoopy isn’t a flight simulator by any stretch. There’s no way a real plane’s structure would be able to stand the beagle’s penchant for corkscrewing maneuvers. The weapons are not so historically accurate, either—I’m almost positive the Allies didn’t have access to an EMP pulse weapon or molten flail. But where the realistic instruments of Red Baron II practically ensure that I’ll become a grease stain on a Flanders dirt farm, the controls for Snoopy Flying Ace are simplicity itself.
That said, my preferred role of passive war spectator doesn’t really work in Snoopy Flying Ace; the game puts you in the thick of it immediately. Single-player missions pit Snoopy against the Baron, Colonel Lucy Van Pelt, Corporal Pigpen, and the rest of freedom’s animated enemies. The Baron’s wingmen come at Snoopy in waves. After dispatching the first few, the Baron gets annoyed and yells, “Fools! He’s just one beagle!” Yes, Baron. One beagle with a machine gun.
The good news is that the guns never jam, there is infinite fuel, your wings don’t spontaneously shear off, there is no ground fire (although you man turrets in a few missions), and every downed pilot parachutes to safety. The game’s major drawback is the lack of cockpit view. Unforgivably, you’re denied the satisfaction of getting Col. Lucy or the Baron in your crosshairs, depressing the trigger, and saying, “This one’s for Chuck.”
The character of the Red Baron in Snoopy is more Snidely Whiplash than historical figure, shaking his fist and cursing the incompetence of his minions. In the actual war, the Germans got within a few hours of Paris, but never took the city. In the Peanuts world, the evil Baron has captured the City Of Light and builds his zeppelin dreadnaught in the catacombs beneath. The dogfights around Paris allow you to zoom under the Arc De Triomphe and whip around the Eiffel Tower. It’s a great place to have an air battle, even if it’s taking license with history.
Despite their obvious differences, both games put pilots up on a pedestal, like knights facing off against one another at the Battle Of Agincourt. Success is as much a matter of skill as it is technological superiority. Snoopy doesn’t win because he has exclusive access to the best guns or biggest bombs; he wins because he’s the most daring and wily pilot in the sky.
Flying has become commonplace since its early days. These games that revisit the Red Baron myth also restore some of flight’s faded romance, by casting it as the rarefied, temperamental craft of talented eccentrics. They remind us of the lesson of Icarus—what pilot-author Beryl Markham poetically captured in her book, West With The Night: “We fly, but we have not ‘conquered’ the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us the study and the use of such of her forces as we may understand. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles and we rub the pain, staring upward, startled by our ignorance.”