"Mattel Electronics presents:"
"Beeeee Seventeeeeeeen Boooooooomber!"
— spoken Intellivoice introduction
B-17 Bomber (Mattel Electronics, 1982) was one of the handful of the 1980s Intellivision games that made use of the Intellivoice module, an add-on to the Intellivision video game console that allowed the inclusion of understandable voices in the game. This was a huge step above the square wave generated buzzes and beeps to which all the other games were limited, and B-17 Bomber made extensive use of it.
The game was set during World War II, when the United States was flying B-17 bombing missions over German-controlled territory in Europe from England. The B-17 wasn't called the flying fortress for nothing – it was armed with four machine guns for defense against fighter aircraft, armored well enough to survive several hits from anti-aircraft artillery, and its four engines provided enough power to carry a massive bomb payload the long distances over Europe to its target. At different points in the game, you played the navigator, the pilot, each of the four gunners, and the bombardier.
It wasn't totally historically accurate. First of all, you flew alone rather than in a bomber wing and had no fighter escorts. B-17s were not effective against ships, and Germany never quite conquered the entirety of Europe although they controlled the whole mainland in the game. But these details were ultimately unimportant. Of interesting note was that the word Nazi was never used anywhere in the game or instructions, nor were such figures as Adolf Hitler named.
The game started off showing a map of Europe, with England in the top left corner. A white crosshairs over Europe showed the location of your plane, and various icons on Europe showed the locations of factories, airports, and anti-aircraft batteries. There were also ships in the ocean around Europe. You could check this map at any point during the game to see how close you were to your target and any targets of opportunity. The first step was to select your target by moving the a selector box to a location in Europe.
Next you would go to the gauges screen. The gauges screen wasn't supposed to have been in the final version of the game – it was a debugging tool used by the programmers to display altitude, airspeed, engine RPM, fuel remaining and the number of bombs remaining – but it was so useful they wound up keeping it in the game. Here you would adjust your bomb payload, taking as many bombs as you thought you would need. It didn't pay to be greedy though, since the extra weight of the bombs meant that you couldn't bring as much fuel along, and you had to have enough to make it back to England to land. Once satisfied with your payload, you would start up the engines and take off. Once airborne you could adjust your engine RPM and the pitch of the bomber to fly at any altitude and speed you wanted. Flying faster and higher used up your precious fuel more quickly, but it also made it harder for the flak cannons to hit you.
Enemy fighters and flak:
AA flak would fire up at you whenever you were close to one of the AA emplacements on the map, getting worse the closer you passed to them. If you passed directly over them, you could try bombing them, but they were small and difficult to hit. Likewise fighter aircraft could try to shoot you down, but unlike AA flak, a fighter could show up at any time, although they showed up more frequently the closer you were to an airport. The Intellivoice module would warn you when you were getting close to AA guns or when fighters were attacking. "Watch out for flack!" was a clear sign that you should increase your altitude and start adjusting the pitch and yaw to make yourself harder to hit. The Intellivoice would say "That was close..." when you took a direct hit.† "Bandits! 3 o'clock!" meant that you needed to switch to your 3 o'clock gun to shoot at the incoming fighter. You had a limited amount of ammunition for your guns, and if you ran out that gun was useless until you landed back in England for resupply. If the fighter got in a lucky shot, he could also kill the gunner (represented by three bullet holes in the window), making that gun position useless until you landed back in England. If you shot down the fighter, the Intellivoice would congratulate you with "Good shot!"
The game would keep track of the number of hits you took from the AA flak and fighter planes, and if you took too many hits your engines would start to fail. Eventually you would find yourself losing altitude no matter how hard you pushed them, and if you couldn't make it back to England you would crash and the game would be over. The same consequences applied for running out of fuel, although if you had enough altitude you could glide in to England if it came to that. Either way, the Intellivoice would start calling out "Mayday! Mayday!" to alert you to the danger as your engines sputtered and coughed.
The voice you really wanted to hear was "Target in sight!", meaning you were close to the target you selected when you took off. Switching to the bombardier view would show you a patchwork quilt-like countryside with crosshairs over it. Soon the AA emplacement, or factory, or airport, or enemy ship would scroll into view below you, and you would drop your payload with a rousing "Bombs away!" from the Intellivoice. Just like in real life, the bombs would take time to fall before they hit the ground, so you had to drop your bombs well before the target was directly below you depending on your airspeed and altitude. If you were really good, you could drop a single bomb to destroy the target, but it was better to carpet bomb the area with a dozen or so because each successful hit awarded you points.
Factories were worth the most points, but you could usually only land three or four bombs on them because of their size. Airports were worth fewer points but the runways were so long that you could easily land a dozen bombs across it. AA guns were only a threat to you, not the war effort in general, and were only worth a few points despite being very difficult to hit. The point value of ships varied widely and seemed random to me at the time.
If you still had fuel and bombs left, you could select another target and make another bombing run on that same flight, but if you were running low or if the B-17 was too damaged, the next step was to fly back to England. Once safely back in England, you automatically landed for resupplying and refueling, ready to select another target for another bombing mission. Meanwhile more targets would be built in Europe, and you would have to destroy several of them per mission to stay ahead of the game.
B-17 Bomber was incredibly fun, and although it contained many elements each of them was simple enough that it was easy to get the hang of the game. Flying out to your target took a while, but it was broken up and kept interesting by attacking fighters and flak, as well as the possibility of bombing targets of opportunity along the way if you wanted. Although shooting down fighters earned you some points, bombing targets was where you really earned your score. Targets deeper in Europe were worth more points, and carpet bombing them earned you points for each successful hit. Trying to balance your fuel requirements with your bomb payload was part of the fun, and if you had extra fuel you could always fly down the coast of France to take out extra targets without risking too long a flight back to England when you started running low. The game just couldn't have worked without the Intellivoice though, since the running commentary by your other crewmembers was an absolute necessity due to all the roles you had to play.
They just don't make'em like this anymore. Despite the blocky graphics, low quality sound, and highly distorted (but easily understandable) voices due to the basic limitations of the game system and the technology of the day, the game was just plain fun to play, and had an excellent replay value.
There were multiple levels of difficulty to keep you interested, each one reducing your total payload capacity and number of hits it took to bring down your B-17. Practice mode gave you infinite fuel and more bombs than you could ever use, while the hardest mode could barely get you out to the most distant targets with enough fuel to make it back to England. There was no way to win, Europe would always build more targets no matter how many you bombed, so the goal was to see how high you could raise your score. B-17 Bomber is still one of my favorite video games.
† Transitional Man says "A direct hit from an 88 will do a Flying Fortress every time. And an M4 Sherman Tank. The plane was tough, but not that tough."