MICROSOFT SPACE SIMULATOR by BAO (Bruce Artwick Organization)

Distributed by Microsoft

Reviewed by J. Ollinger

Minimum system requirements

386/25 with 2meg RAM (550K conventional minimum, 768K expanded memory) 
MS-DOS 5 or higher 
Hard drive with 15 meg free HD floppy (for installation)
VGA graphics

Recommended system

486 or better SVGA graphics (800x600) Mouse Joystick Sound card

For this review, I ran SPACE SIMULATOR on a 386/25 with 4 meg ram, MS-DOS 6.2, with a Microsoft mouse, Virtual Pilot joystick, and a Soundblaster Pro sound card.

Americans were tromping around on the moon when I was a little kid. When I watch documentaries about those events now, they talk about the public apathy in the later missions. But I never knew it. That was a fine time to be a kid--it seemed like the country was space crazy. The missions were on tv--guys in white suits driving around the lunar surface in dune buggies and planting flags that didn't flap in the wind. Tang had little lunar rovers as prizes. There were all kinds of toys featuring astronauts, space suits, capsules, lunar modules, ray guns. STAR TREK went into syndication and began its journey into a media cash-cow beyond anyone's dreams.

I was space crazy too. If it had a space ship in it, I read it, watched it, or played with it. I dreamt of great adventures in far off regions of the universe. I looked at the news and the world around me, and I never thought (nor did I think most others) that twenty-five years later, the marvels of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY would be just as far away as they were then.

Twenty-five years passed. I grew up and got cynical. I realize that we are doing some of the fundamental, unglamorous data-gathering work that has to be done. But like many, I want all the glamour. It seems like by now we ought to have a space station, a moon base, a lunar observatory, and unmanned dune buggies driving across the Martian landscape.

What did we get instead? ALF. And Marina Sirtis in tight clothes.

Until now. BAO finally got around to taking their famous flight simulator, and turned propellers into rocket engines. The result is MICROSOFT SPACE SIMULATOR (SPACESIM)--flight simulator for the rest of the universe.

Where to begin? Where to begin...

First off, there are three fundamentally different ways to run the game. The first is free-flight--you do what you want to do, go where you want to go. No critters to fry. No sales to make.

Then there are the missions, where you're given assignments to fulfill. See this, do that. No aliens to kill, though. This isn't WING COMMANDER.

Finally, there's observatory, where you can look at the heavens from various locations throughout the universe. If you're a stargazer, this may be the part to check out first.

But Free Flight is the meat of the program. You chose what to do, where to go, and how to get there.

What to do: launching, transit, orbiting, docking, landing. In other words, exploration. If you aren't interested in space exploration, don't buy SPACE SIMULATOR. Unless you're interested in going places and seeing things, SPACESIM won't offer much to do. Go pay WING COMMANDER instead.

Where to go: all the planets in the solar system, about 30 moons, several comets and asteroids, various heavenly bodies, and three space stations.

How to get there: via several spacecraft both real and imagined, including the Apollo craft (both the command module and the lunar module), the space shuttle, a Bussard ram-jet, an all-terrain lander, a manned maneuvering unit (for EVA work), and deep-space explorers.


Space flight appears (to a layman) to be scientifically accurate. It works on Newtonian physics--stopping the ship requires you to swing the engines around 180-degrees and perform a burn that will properly counteract the ship's momentum. But gravitational forces (called gravity wells) weigh in as well--you will have to fight (or use, if you're smart) these forces as well. You can use gravity forces to slingshot your ship around just as real spacecraft do.

There are several ways to pilot the ship. First is manually, using both the big engines (certain ships can get close to the speed of light) and the little engines for critical maneuvers. Second is by slewing, which turns off the laws of physics and your engines and allows you to move your ship anywhere you want. There's a location fix, so you can just place yourself anywhere that's on the location list. And lastly there is the auto pilot and flight computer, which takes all the mundane work off your hands.

One of the things that surprises me about the program is the lack of real data on object location and movement. In real life, if you want to plan a mission from Earth orbit to Mars orbit, you would calculate the position of Earth at launch and the position of Mars at arrival, and set the course that way. With SPACESIM you target in on Mars and chase it, because Mars doesn't stand still. SPACESIM is smart enough to keep Mars moving in its orbit. But not smart enough to let you plot an efficient flight plan to intercept it. So pick a ship with plenty of fuel.


On my 386DX/25 with 4 meg ram and SVGA 512K card, I found SPACESIM ran surprisingly well. I did end up making a boot disk because of conventional memory shortages, but I was still able to load my vesa driver and my mouse without having to relocate them into high memory areas. I didn't do have to do any heavy editing or exotic patchwork to my config files. SPACESIM installed smoothly on the first try.

As to how the game plays--it's quirky but once I got used to it I've grown to like it. There are a lot of commands to learn at first, and I am still in the learning process, but I am getting to where the ship does what I want, where I can read and understand the instrument panel, and why things don't work the way I anticipated. SPACESIM is not really complicated. Most everything boils down to control over the ship's movement or the external views.


One big drawback to SPACE SIMULATOR is that it does not render the planet surfaces in detail. Landing on most of them is like landing on a rock. There are no craters, fissures, valleys, hills, or mountains. You can't land on them and explore much. And there is no simulated atmosphere. I landed on the surface of Jupiter, and was treated to an orange ground and bright blue skies. I also landed on the surface of the sun (couldn't get back off it though). It was even less spectacular.

And if it isn't on the location list, it isn't out there. I patched myself into the Andromeda Galaxy, which just put me next to a poster of the galaxy that was fun to look at, but it wasn't like I could go in there and explore it. I'm not complaining--having SPACESIM build up billions of stars and planets to create a true, explorable universe would probably have been infinitely more difficult. But I mention this because it is important to understand--SPACESIM has a very finite universe. If it isn't on the location list, you can't go there (well, you can go there if you can figure out how to get there. But you won't find anything to look at when you arrive). SPACESIM is much better at the local area than it is at deep space. I do hope BAO plans to sell add-ons with more stars and objects-- particularly space stations.


SPACESIM has three graphic level settings--VGA (320x400 at 256 colors), SVGA with 512K memory (640x400 at 256) and SVGA with 1meg memory (800x600 at 256). I started out with vga on my lowly 386 and then changed to svga graphics. Both are acceptable quality but svga looks much better and the frame rate doesn't seem to suffer that much.

At each graphics level you can also tinker with how the scenery works. Objects can be faceted or smoothed (faceted images are quicker to draw), the shading can be dithered and smoothed, and the scenery complexity can be simple or complex. You can also choose what objects can be displayed, so if you don't want to see the milky way clouds, turn them off. If you don't want to see so many stars, turn down the magnitude level. There are a number of choices that control the scenery.

That said, I should remark that in my own non-scientific tests, I've found that I can have most of the goodies turned on and still get acceptable frame rates (the program has a built-in frame-rate counter that tells the animation speed). An important thing to realize is that much of SPACESIM's scenery objects are so far away and so small that the computer doesn't have to kill itself calculating and displaying rapidly changing objects. And since much of space flight is not the rapid, seat of the pants kind of maneuvering of an airplane in FLIGHT SIMULATOR, the program does not need the same kind of constant hands-on control. The result is that frame rates that are completely unplayable in an action program like FLIGHT SIMULATOR are quite tolerable on SPACESIM. Also, it seems that I don't really see a useful difference in frame rates using sparse, easy graphics modes than when I use the complex, pretty ones. So I use the good looking stuff.

The graphics are very nice. None of it is going to be confused with NASA photographs, but there are some nice looking graphics once you get used to it. I was sightseeing the planets and looked at what I thought were great sunrises. That's an important part of the simulation--the light is point- source from the sun so depending on where you are, you may see an object in light or in shadow. Watching a planet as it goes from shadow to light to shadow again is a beautiful thing.

In an experiment to see if SPACESIM models time dilation (it doesn't), I flew from the Andromeda Galaxy to Earth (at the speed of light, it took 2.2 million years on the ship's clock). The view on full-screen was great-- watching Andromeda fade away, then switching over to watch the Milky Way arrive. On autopilot it only took about 10 minutes. It's a voyage I recommend for sight-seers.

Seeing all this stuff is one of the harder parts of SPACESIM. There are two kinds of views--panning and tracking. Panning lets you stand at a particular point and look up and down or side to side. Tracking aims the view at a particular object, and then you can vary the position of the camera to see it from all sides. Sounds simple enough, but the location of the camera can be from the cockpit of the spaceship, from a chase (behind the spaceship) position, or from some other assigned point. And two different view screens can be on at the same time. And then there's the reference object and the tracking object in each view. People who can't set the clocks on their vcr's are going to have problems with this.

But for those who do get a handle on it, the reward is a huge measure of control over what you see on the screen. You tell the computer what you want, instead of getting what the computer feels like giving you. It's a refreshing change.


Sound doesn't travel through space, so there doesn't seem to be much to hear. Even with the sound on I have not heard much in the way of sound effects--no beeps or bops or screeches. That suits me fine since I usually turn the sound off on most games anyway, but there some things I would like to hear--like the auto pilot shutting off.

The game offers classical music selections that play in the background, giving the game a bit of a 2001 feeling. You can select the music (a feature more products should incorporate). On my Soundblaster it sounds like typical computer versions--all bleeps and boops, and after a few minutes I turned it off and fired up my audio gear and put on music I preferred.


I have not exhaustively tested the program, but so far the only real problem I've found is a bug with the mouse pointer. When I call up a dialog box or click on one of the items on the instrument panel, I'll end up with a copy of the mouse pointer that's frozen in place and blinking. I still have control of my mouse and a working mouse pointer, but I have having extra flashing pointers just sitting there. I can rid of them by hitting W twice (toggles between full screen external view and back) which refreshes the screen, so it's just an annoyance. But I look forward to the patch that fixes this problem.


At this beginning of this review I talked about being a little kid when space flight seemed to be more a part of popular culture. I had my astronaut figures (girls play with dolls. Guys had action figures) and their spaceships. For anyone who grew up playing with cars and action figures, think about how they were used. The figure walked along the floor or the bed or a bookshelf, but in my imagination it was the moon's surface or some alien city. As I held my spacecraft in my hand and waved it in midair, I imagined my bedroom was outer space. The figures inside pushed buttons and talked. They had all kinds of adventures using just a few familiar objects that my imagination transformed into a plethora of things.

SPACESIM works the same way. For the literal minded, SPACESIM is a good educational toy--it's a great way to show people the mechanics of starflight and the application of forces on objects in space. For the gamers, though, imagination is required or the game gets dull quick. Just like FLIGHT SIMULATOR, you have to make up your own motivation for going places and doing things--be it making critical repairs, or being first in a race around Pluto and back, or being the first to arrive at Alpha Centuri in search of gold. Without imagination there really isn't much to do--it's just go here and go there and look at that. With imagination it's go here for this reason, and play like you're doing that. If you like to set your own goals and make your own storylines, then SPACESIM can be great fun. Otherwise SPACESIM will quickly become a dust collector on the bookshelf.

This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by J. Ollinger for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.