Flight Simulators: An Introduction | Games, Hardware, & History

Think back to when you were younger, did you want to be a farmer, train driver, or even a pilot? If you’ve always wanted to see what it would be like, there is a simulator for just about everything these days. Whether you want to recapture a bit of that childhood dream, or even use it as a tool to progress your career, simulators are an appealing genre.

Flight simulators are some of the oldest and most evolved simulators you can get your hands on, with multiple iterations going back almost 40 years. There are simulators catered towards different users, flight styles, and even budgets.

With the highly anticipated Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 on the way this year, we thought that now would be a great time to explore a bit of the history of flight simulators, the evolution of the games, and even the best hardware to play them on.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

One of the oldest flight simulators available is Microsoft Flight Simulator, which dates back to the early ’80s with the release of Flight Simulator 1.0. As you can see below, this simulator is pretty dated by today’s standards, but at the time it acted as a gateway into the world of aviation.

microsoft flight sim

Microsoft continued to improve on this success with the release of Flight Simulator 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, and 5.1. Each of these versions further refined the graphics, added additional aircraft, airports, and textures. Flight Simulator 5.1 also added the ability to have scenery libraries which included the use of satellite imagery when flying.

When Windows 95 was released, Microsoft also developed a version of its flight simulator for the platform. This featured a lot more 3D modeling, improved frame rates, and expanded scenery to outside of Europe and the USA.

During the 2000s, Microsoft developed Flight Simulator 2000, 2002, and most notably Flight Simulator X. These titles massively increased the number of airports in the game as well as adding more instruments found in real-life aircraft, including a GPS feature. Flight Simulator X even included multiplayer which allowed for two players to pilot the same plane as well as occupy control towers.

Flight Simulator X also made its way onto Steam in 2014, re-released as Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition. This edition is updated to use Steam’s functionality and also allows for an incredible amount of content to be easily purchased and installed alongside its 24 aircraft.

Finally, the latest edition of Microsoft’s flight simulators is set to be released on August 18th, 2020. This title is set to simulate the entire Earth and recreates 3D models of buildings and geographical features.


Microsoft has said that Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 will also feature more than 40,000 airports and over two million cities.


One of the main competitors of Microsoft’s flight simulator series is X-Plane. Originally released back in 1995, X-Plane is now on its 11th version and is well known for its realism and attention to detail.


Featuring an improved model of simulation for its aircraft, X-Plane quickly won over flight enthusiasts who strive for realism. X-Plane also allows pilots to connect with each other in multiplayer and has helped spawn a lot of tight-knit flying communities.

One downside with X-Plane (and many other flight simulators) is that although this is a great looking game, a lot of the scenery and files needed to make it look its best are only available as payware.


Developed by Lockheed Martin, Prepar3D is a flight simulator that aims more towards the professional crowd. The official website states that it is “Ideal for commercial, academic, professional, or military instruction. Prepar3D can be used to quickly create learning scenarios anywhere in the virtual world”.

This simulator is often used by those training for their real-life pilot license, which speaks volumes for its realism. It’s not cheap though, a professional license will set you back $199.00, but you can pick up an academic license for $59.95.


If you’d like to get a taste for flying before jumping into a paid simulator, FlightGear is a free, open-source option that does a great job. Aiming to become a simulator used in academic environments, pilot training, and of course, a gaming environment, FlightGear features three different flight dynamic models to play around with.

There are over 20,000 accurate real-world airports, a detailed sky model, and even multi-screen support. Although it isn’t the best looking simulator on the market, it doesn’t look horrible and even has some fairly moderate hardware requirements.

Combat Flight Simulators

Moving on from traditional flight simulators, a lot of people fell in love with flight simulators first through a combat simulator. Offering a more fast-paced experience than a traditional flying simulator, combat flight simulators put you in the hot seat of some of the world’s quickest and most dangerous aircraft.

If you’re familiar with the Microsoft Flight Simulator series, they also offer the Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator series to try out – although it’s starting to show its age now.

One of the most popular games available at the moment is the IL-2 Sturmovik series. This is a World War II combat flight simulator with a focus on air battles from the Eastern front. Although this is a fairly old title, there have been numerous updates and content packs released that make it a joy to play today.

If you’re looking for more of a modern feel, Digital Combat Simulator is a realistic simulation of military aircraft which boasts some pretty impressive graphics. You can currently pick up a free version to try out which has a limited amount of vehicles and airspace. This is a continuously developed game that offers some of the most detailed military aircraft found in any sim.

You can typically find an air combat simulator for almost every major military conflict over the last 100 years. If you aren’t striving for simulation, some games such as Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X offer a more casual approach, without sacrificing any of the action.

Taking Your Simulation to the Next Level

If you’re pretty dedicated to simulators, you’ll have no doubt bought some type of peripheral in the past. There are steering wheels for racing games, rail controllers for train simulators, and of course, a whole load of options for the frequent fliers.

It is possible to experience a flight simulator with just a mouse and keyboard or even a controller, but this can quickly become frustrating and take away a lot of the enjoyment. Luckily there are some pretty cheap options available when it comes to joysticks.

At the most basic level, you can pick up a joystick or HOTAS (hands-on throttle-and-stick) for around $30 which will allow you to control your aircraft with more precision. Some will even have a separate throttle and most will give you a couple of buttons that you can map to functions such as flaps or trim.

As with most things though, the sky’s the limit. You can easily spend up to $500 on a decent joystick and the price starts to further increase if you opt to purchase a yoke and some rudder pedals. If you’re just starting out on your journey, don’t feel the need to splash out. You may want to save some of that money for DLC or different simulators.

Companies such as Thrustmaster, Logitech, and CH Products all offer great products suitable for different budget levels.

In most flight simulators, you can also pick up extra aircraft from third-party developers. This isn’t cheap, however. A lot of models easily match the price of the game and some can cost in excess of $100. You are paying for quality and attention to detail in these models though and they are definitely aimed towards a hardcore user.

Can Your System Handle a Simulator?

If we take another quick look at the upcoming Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 trailer, we can see that it is a pretty impressive looking game. With so much rendered and calculated at any one time, this can start to take a toll on your system.

You will be able to turn some of these features down, reduce graphics and objects or even tone down the realism settings if needed. However, with a few simple upgrades, you should be able to get the most out of your simulator.

You’ll want to focus on your processor and graphics card as a priority for flight simulators. Although Microsoft has stated that their 2020 flight simulator won’t be as resource heavy as those in the past, you’ll still want a decent PC if you’re planning on playing other intensive simulators.

Unfortunately, a lot of simulators don’t use multi-threading to the best of its ability at the moment, but a decent AMD Ryzen processor with a high core count would make a good starting point for any Flight Simulator build.

Pair this with a graphics card with a decent amount of VRAM and a system with at least 16 GB of RAM and you should be in for a comfortable flight. If you’d like some ideas on where to get started with your upgrade, why not check out some of our build guides?

Final Word

Flight Simulators are a perfect way to spend a couple of hours flying through the clouds. We hope this introduction to flight simulators has helped you pick out one to try next or even given you some tips on upgrading your PC for the latest flight sims.

With the launch of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 coming in just a few short weeks, we can’t wait to see what it’ll be like. At first glance, the graphics look exceptional so you’ll definitely want to take a look at the system requirements for those before purchasing to get the most out of the game.

Are you a flight sim veteran or relatively new to the genre? Will you be picking up the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 next month? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.