Developer:Microprose; M. Franssen
I never owned a C64. But I'm finding myself playing a number of C64 games in emulation, as well as remakes of C64 games. One of the best I've found yet is "Kennedy Approach", a minimalist gem that makes air traffic control at least as tense and gripping as surviving a Zerg rush.
Kennedy Approach was released by MicroProse in 1986, but has only recently been ported to Windows by one M. Frassen, aka "Weps", who very kindly released the game as freeware. This is definitely a port rather than a remake; everything's just as it was on the 64, graphics, interface and all, though at least you can use a mouse rather than a joystick. The result is a rather stark experience, with simple, lo-res pixel graphics that convey exactly as much as is needed to play the game, and no more -- although the game does have digitized speech, a pretty heavy technical feat on the original machine.
The action is exactly what you'd think, managing aircraft as they move in and out of busy airports, carefully directing them through takeoff, landing, and the inevitable holding patterns, all in nail-biting real time. Play is divided into ten-minute "shifts", but you get a lot done in those ten minutes. As a simulation, KA isn't all that realistic; aircraft can only travel in eight directions, and at a constant speed, and airports have only one arrival and one departure runway. But the abstraction doesn't make it easy -- you need to be thinking every moment about where everything is going. That Cessna needs to land, but there's a 747 in its path, passing through between faraway cities. You can divert the Cessna, but be careful to avoid the heavy weather to the north and the second jetliner that's just taken off, which needs to be vectored towards its destination. And where does the Concorde that just appeared on your radar screen fit into your plan? This is hard, especially when that new aircraft wanders onto the map and upsets your delicate pattern of planes waiting for their landing slots. I hope some modern RTS players try their hands at controlling the airspace above New York City in bad weather. I may never be able to do it, that shit is relentless.
There's a definite learning curve. The controls are not immediately intuitive, although they'll get familiar after an hour or so of playing. There's a simple but mostly helpful manual on the game's website. To my mind, the only serious flaw is in the visual display -- not the low resolution, but the choice and format of visible information about all the planes in flight. It seems a little harder than it needs to be to assemble all the data into an intuitive picture of what exactly is going on. It would be useful to see the past and projected flight paths of individual planes, for instance, or to have their source and destination next to their icons on the radar.
Those niceties will have to go in a different game, though. (And apparently M. Frassen is hoping to make a sequel...) KA is, again, a port -- take it or leave it. I'd take it, despite its flaws. For all its simplicity, Kennedy Approach is almost as much fun as Starcraft or its successors. And the ten-minute playing time makes it easy to pick up and put down -- this is a great game for coffee breaks, if you can resist the urge to play shift after shift. Even if the words "air traffic control game" make you start to yawn, give this one a try.