There aren't many games about the USAF Stealth Fighter, if only because the F-117 specs remain classified to date, but this one is deservedly the most popular and of course the pioneer. Heck it was made by Microprose, by Sid Meier, 'nuff said. It's an absolute must-have for anyone into flight sims, but don't expect it to be like any other one you've played. What I mean is that a Stealth Fighter's purpose is not to shoot down everything in sight, and if you attempt that you will get yourself killed and you will have been guilty of the worst tax squander in history --and that's a lot to say.
Technically speaking, the graphics may seem pixelated nowadays but they were really good back in 1988 and a lot of hard eye-consuming work was invested into optimizing the assembly code to make this 3D game playable in the machines then available. The sound is... Well, we're talking about the PC platform in the 80's. You just press Alt+V once to turn the engine whirr off if you value your brains, while the rest of the sounds might be informative albeit very elemental.
Some wise guy might say, "Hey the USAF Stealth Fighter is not named F-19. Heck there's no F-19 whatsoever in the USAF." Well I didn't say that, did I wise guy? :P Now seriously, it's a very long story and you can learn it elsewhere, but this game was made when everything about the later called F-117 Nighthawk was secret, and so the game had to be based on guess-work, even regarding the very shape of the plane. However this game is very thoroughly documented and it's as realistic as it was possible without access to national security sensitive data; the gameplay wouldn't have been much different if Microprose would have had the Lockheed blueprints. If you want to know more go ahead and use Google or the Wikipedia. (Microprose eventually made a sequel to this game about the F-117.)
There is one big concession to realism though. The F-117 wasn't officially nicknamed Nighthawk without a reason. In real life all missions were carried out during nighttime. There's no point in flying a plane that's invisible to radar but stands out black against the blue sky--that's why warplanes are usually coloured blueish gray. In the game visibility is always perfect. I guess this, as well as the overly simple panels, were conscious decisions by the developers, understandable at the time.
As I've said, if you want to enjoy this game you'll have to understand that it's not a conventional flight sim. Uncle Sam didn't flush so many tax dollars into the development and construction of this bird for you to act like Tom Cruise. Besides the stealth comes at the cost of reducing the flight capabilities, the bird is slower and less manoeuvrable than most other fighters (actually it's more like a strategic attack craft than a fighter proper), and if we add that the missions routinely imply getting your electromagnetic absorbing rear very deep behind enemy lines all on your own and with very limited ammo, we reach the conclusion that either you play stealthy or you won't get far and, most important, you won't get the most out of this original game.
So your business consists in remaining undetected, that's the whole idea about this game and this bird. Things that will increase your radar footprint are flying high, flying fast, not remaining horizontal (when there's radar around and you need to change course do so quickly between radar pulses), and having your weapon bays open (open them just before firing and close them immediately afterwards). The F-19's panel is really easy to understand, there's a slot just in the middle that fills from the bottom to the top as you lose concealment, and from the top to the botton as the enemy radar pulses get stronger (because you get closer to the source or there's no longer a mountain in between or whatever); when the two bars join you're a dot in someone's radar screen, you'd better do something fast before you're locked.
Of course there's not much mystery involved in flying low and slow, and you might think that it gets boring fast. But even though this may be enough in the easiest scenarios, these are good only to learn how to play. The real challenge starts when you have to spend a couple of minutes for every mission before even taking off, thinking about the route you'll take in order to avoid getting too close to enemy airbases or SAM posts' radar, considering how to approach radar sites depending on whether they use pulse or Doppler equipment, stuff like that. And then when real action ensues you realize that you must change your carefully crafted plans because there's an AWACS craft buzzing around that Intel didn't tell you about. Yeah I warned you that this isn't your typical air superiority filght sim. However needless to say, when you're detected you get to dance some mambo too, but then it's all about getting out alive.
You really have to play this game taking each separate mission as a challenge, since there are no pre-written campaigns like in other sims. Some might resent this, but the makers of the game knew that they needed something to make the players keep coming for more, and that's a sophisticated scoring system where every pilot (you can have many at the same time) can get promoted or decorated if he does good; and you're encouraged to play in high difficulty levels because you get higher scores. The ultimate goal for a F-19 pilot is being awarded every decoration including the Congressional Medal of Honor, and reaching Brigadier General rank.
The missions are generated randomly just before playing and they can get somewhat repetitive (reminds of other Microprose games of the era), but to add variety to the show you must select some important parameters. There are air and ground strike missions, along with a training mode. You can choose the enemy's preparedness, from Green to Elite. Also there are four geographic scenarios, Libya, Iran, North Cap and Central Europe --ordered by increasing difficulty. And most important, there are three political scenarios: cold, limited, or conventional war. They're very different to play, specially the first one, and doing something that would get you a higher score in one setting will get you a lower one in another.
The game is started from "F19.com." The keyboard layout must be set to American ("US") for the controls to work right. You can enter "keyb us" into the command line of DOSBox or DOS before playing.
At the startup menu, for best graphics choose the first option (VGA/MCGA).
As an alternative to DOSBox the game runs in Windows 32-bit if you don't want to use a joystick. VDMSound will do the trick for the joystick support, and you can change CPU usage in VDMSound's advanced settings so that you don't have to use a separate slowdown utility; but the emulation will never be as smooth as in DOSBox and the sound will be even worse.
A web version of the manual can be found at www.flightsimbooks.com
It seems the game may crash in DOSBox if dynamic CPU core emulation is selected, but the default settings should work just fine. And keep in mind that DOSBox sometimes recognizes your joystick but doesn't map it: if it doesn't work but the DOSBox console tells you that it's recognized, map it manually (Ctrl+F1 in the Windows version).
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