Video games allow us to live out the fantasies we can’t actualize in real life. Sometimes our fantasies, however, are a little more grounded than being a plumber who pretends to ride dinosaurs through sewage pipes.
The best flight simulators hit that hard to reach sweet spot between reality and games. It’s a fantasy we could conceivably achieve, but it would require much more effort and time than simply picking up a video game.
This list narrows in on only the best flight simulators, not simulations in general or even weird games passed off as “simulation.” We honor the best flight simulators in six categories, including best of the best. But first, let’s start with an honorable mention.
Honorable mention: Google Earth: Flight Simulator
You could be playing a flight simulator game right now — and for free. All you have to do is download Google Earth. The Google Earth: Flight Simulator game is not as involved, or even as realistic, as some of the other best flight simulators on this list, but it’s worth a mention.
Aside from the unbeatable price, Google Earth: Flight Simulator allows the player to view the 3-D landscapes created by Google satellite imaging. In either an F-16 Viper or Cirrus SR22 propeller plane, you can explore the actual Earth as much as you want, and even take off or land in world-famous airports.
Best in realism: Falcon 4.0: Allied Force
We first mentioned Falcon 4.0: Allied Force in our article on the five best flight simulators. While overall it’s a fun and intricate game, it’s the realism of Falcon 4.0 that made us fall in love with it. Everything from the layout of the cockpit to the little touches, like the vapor streaming over your leading edge flaps, makes it easier to forget you’re just playing a game.
Just how accurate is Falcon 4.0? Its real-time campaigns were approved by F-16 pilots. Only the best flight simulators can get credibility like that.
Best old-school flight simulator: Jane’s USAF
The year is 1999. You just finished watching a rerun of CBS’s Family Matters, and now you don’t know what to do. Luckily, your friends from an AOL chatroom recommended this hot new game, Jane’s USAF. The best part (are you sitting down for this)? The game is played in 3-D! Can you imagine that?
Those were simpler times, but in the 1990s, a game like Jane’s USAF broke all the records. Ahead of its time, this game set the bar for other flight simulators with its expansive options — players could choose from eight different planes and four campaigns around the globe. While not as involved as more modern flying games, Jane’s USAF is still playable today, although you will feel its simplicity.
Best in space flight (non-Star Wars division): Kerbal Space Program
Don’t let the cute, minion-esque characters fool you. Kerbal Space Program is one of the most advanced and realistic space flight simulators to date. And just like real-life astrophysics, you need to spend a very long time studying and learning the rules before the fun begins.
Still, once you get through the tutorials (the game’s marketers actually promote the tutorials as one of the game’s selling points), then you can embark on a multi-genre game that takes you through conception, construction, launch, and the inevitable flight of a spacecraft of your own design. The committed physics engine makes sure that your plane will crash in the game, just like it would in reality, so get ready for some Dark Souls-style ups and downs.
Best in space flight (Star Wars division): Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader
On the opposite end of reality, there are flight simulations that involve shooting aliens with lasers in a futuristic spaceship. Fans of space flight simulators expect the same kind of realism and consistency as those that take place on Earth, but in outer space with lasers.
Still, if we’re playing make-believe, we might as well go with Star Wars. Although the major downside of Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader is that it was only available for the GameCube system, those that were lucky enough to play it, call it one of the best flight simulators ever.
Set in the Star Wars universe with their famous vehicles, you play as Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles, going up against the empire in 10 missions across different environments.
Best in World War I era: Rise of Flight
Before we get into the popular World War II category of games, let’s touch on the less popular World War I genre, which brings us back to the historical roots of flight. In other words: biplanes.
History buffs will love Rise of Flight’s historical accuracy and attention to detail. With recreations of famous World War I battles and great combat mechanics, you might just learn something from playing it. For example, I learned that shooting a moving target is even harder in the air than on the ground.
Best in World War II era: IL-2 Sturmovik
As good as Battle of Britain II: Wings of Victory is, there can only be one best World War II flight simulator. IL-2 Sturmovik is the definitive World War II era flying game, and one of the best flight simulators of all time.
Once you get over the graphics and enjoy the gameplay, you’ll see that it comes with a realistic interface that displays every real-life button and knob featured in the 31 in-game planes. One great touch is the multiplayer option, which allows you to play online with up to 100 players at a time.
Best in general combat: Strike Fighters 2
Aside from appreciating the majesty of the world from a bird’s eye view, it’s also fun to blow up stuff with missiles. When it comes to the best flight simulators that focus more on action than anything else, Strike Fighters 2 is a clear winner.
One of the best parts about Strike Fighters 2 is the wide range of planes available: what the expansion packs don’t add on their own, the dedicated modding community picks up on. Together, they recreate the best battle plans, from the United States Vietnam era planes to modern Israeli jets.
Runner-up: X-Plane 10
You can’t list the best flight simulators without mentioning the X-Plane series. We gave X-Plane 10 the honor of runner-up because it’s the most recent one (although, X-Plane 11 is already in beta mode, and could upset the entire list by stealing the title).
The interesting thing about X-Plane 10 that separates it from the other best flight simulators is that it uses the blade element theory as an aerodynamic model. Its competitors calculate flight behavior based on preexisting empirical data, which is fine when you’re simulating a known environment. However, X-Plane 10 allows better simulations for new and undefined scenarios — the blade element theory allows them to evaluate each separate piece of the aircraft to arrive at a realistic, if not hypothetical, flight behavior.
All around, X-Plane 10 is a solid, well-researched, and thoroughly fun flying game with depth and range to suit almost any type of player. The same can be said of our next entry, the best of the best. Although, the game comes with better scenery than X-Plane 10, which gives them the victory.
Best of the best: Flight Simulator X
All things considered, we have to give Flight Simulator X the honor of being the best game out there. This flying game goes beyond what people thought the best flight simulators — or even video games in general — were capable of. Like Strike Fighters 2, the modding community and fan-based designs are a large part of what sets this game apart.
The reason we’ve giving Flight Simulator X the best of the best slot is because it offers so much more than its competition. Want the relaxing, long walk atmosphere you might find in Google Earth: Flight Simulator? This one has it. How about the pulse pounding action of Strike Fighters 2? This game also has that.
There’s a little something for everybody in Flight Simulator X, meaning you can easily spend more hours than you’d like playing it. Though if you have more eclectic tastes, you may need to spend some time searching the freeware section.