From modder to game developer, Brian Hernandez’s marvelous tribute to the flight simulations of the ‘90s

A story about fighter aircrafts, space ships, game design, modding and programming, with a pinch of nostalgia.

Brian Hernandez’s tweets are like madeleines de Proust to me, a reminiscence of an era that shaped my taste in video games. Every now and then, Brian drops a video of his upcoming project featuring an aircraft simulator straight from the ’90s. And every time, the way he blends deliberate angular style and super dynamic effects brings me joy. Tiny Combat Arena is the perfect combo between nostalgia and modernity.

Flight Simulator 2020 and its mesmerizing scenery (left) — Brian’s Tiny Combat Arena and its low poly style (right)
The AV-8B Harrier II bombing sequence (Tiny Combat Arena)

The early days

Born in 1989 in the suburbs of Chicago, Brian was brought into gaming very early on: “My father was a PC gamer through and through, so my early years playing games were exclusively PC DOS games and later on Windows 95/98 […] Eventually he built me a computer out of spare parts from an old computer of his.” Insisting on being a PC gamer doesn’t seem quite relevant, as nowadays computers and consoles share roughly the same technical capabilities and even game catalog, but until the 2000s they were two very distinct worlds.

An advertisement for PC back then
A typical ’90s packaging for computer at the time (kudos to Gamrok for preserving this precious video game history)
Ace Combat 3 (1999) and Ace Combat 7 (2019) by Namco, the ultimate franchise for combat arcade simulation

The Golden Age of modding

In the late ’90s, the release of Star Wars: Jedi Knight introduced Brian to the concept of modding. A mod (short for “modification”) is basically something added by fans to alter the original game. It can be anything, from new content, enhanced features, new rules of gameplay, to even a whole new experience where you barely could recognize the original. The endless possibilities brought by the usage of mods captivated Brian right away. “I spent countless hours downloading and playing on the many, many custom maps and mods people had made.”

Star Wars: Jedi Knight is still getting updated with mods from fans. Jkgfxmod offers an impressive graphical upgrade for the 1997 game
Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942. For Brian, “it was probably the mod partly responsible for the shift in the FPS genre from WWII to Modern Combat”
FreeWorlds mod features a Star Wars total conversion for Freelancer
The Half-Life mod Counter-Strike (1999) vs the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012)

I… think I know how to do that

Brian switched to computer science halfway through college after not doing too well as a mechanical engineer, and got hooked right away by programming: “It was pretty amazing to me since it seemed so much more powerful than modding.” Brian later became a software engineer working most of his career on various defense simulation and training software. “I’ve worked on flight simulators for a couple U.S. (and one German) aircraft, as well a land-based combined arms trainer.”

House of the Dying Sun, by Mike Tipul
Unity Combat Space Sim, his first promising step as game developer, inspired by House of the Dying Sun

Unfinished business

A few years later, the young developer then started to work on a series of aircraft simulator games, each one with a different approach and goal. Brian calls affectionately this series “the failed franchise” for being mostly composed of unfinished games.

Tiny Combat (Mar 2018), Tiny Combat Redux (May 2018), Tiny Combat Arcade (Nov 2018), Tiny Combat Arena (July 2019-) side by side

At last, Tiny Combat Arena

In July 2019, noticing that “nobody makes flight sims like the more accessible ’90s flight sims anymore,” he launched the development of his most ambitious project, an “open ended sim-lite flying game. Inspired by realistic mechanics where they add depth, but streamlined so that you don’t need to read a 200-page manual to play,” this time called Tiny Combat Arena.

Tiny Combat Arena as of today, featuring the AV-8B Harrier II
Adding an interface and menus required an almost ground-up rewrite for Brian (Tiny Combat Arena)

The perfect visual recipe

The retro graphics are evidently the first things that catch the eye when you look at Tiny Combat Arena. As I previously wrote in an article about Frédéric Souchu and the Pico-8, creating retro-ish games in 2020 might be done in various ways. One of them is setting imaginative technical boundaries as much as possible to have a genuine vintage look and feel. Brian decided to “pretend that Tiny Combat Arena is actually running on a fictional game engine with many of the same restrictions a circa ’90s engine would have, though stretched in places because it’s still a modern game. Some of the restrictions are actually technical limitations, while others are more of a conscious effort.” Brian pays tribute to Lexaloffle’s fantasy console calling this approach the “Pico-8 school of thinking”.

Su Flanker 2.0 from Eagle Dynamics (1995), one of the visual inspiration
A SEPECAT Jaguar evading SAM missiles thanks to its flares (Tiny Combat Arena)
A10 Cuba! by Parsoft Interactive (1996) that changed Tiny Combat Arena’s artistic direction overnight

The quest for the right flight model

Reducing Tiny Combat Arena to a visual homage of the ’90s would be a great mistake. The colorful environment and sharp edges are a bit deceiving, as Brian’s intention is not to create a completely arcade game such as Ace Combat, nor to reproduce an authentic old school gameplay. He is looking for the perfect equilibrium between fun and simulation.

SAM-site destroyed by an AV-8B Harrier II flying on VTOL mode (Tiny Combat Arena)
Some of Brian’s strong influences: Falcon 3.0 (1991), Jetfighter II (1990), Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat (1991), EF-2000 (1995), F/A-18 Hornet 3.0 (1997), Jane’s Fighters Anthology (1997), iF-16 (1996)

The future of Tiny Combat Arena

What will the final version look like? “I know broadly what I’d like it to be, but exactly how to achieve it is maybe not as concrete as I’d wish.” Planned to be released this year, Tiny Combat Arena is obviously delayed but when asked about it, the very talkative creator reverts to the cagey and mysterious Brian from the beginning: “I have a plan for release, and what is in it, but I don’t really want to talk about it yet.

A SEPECAT Jaguar — with the very uncommon hardpoints over the wings — taking off (Brian’s Tiny Combat Arena)
The F-20 blasting (Tiny Combat Arena)

The evolution of mods

Besides his project, I was interested about Brian’s perspective on mods as a creative process. After all, the mods of the ’90s were a bridge that led him to proper game development and helped him craft his game designer skills. The answer was less straightforward than expected as a lot of things changed in the industry since.

Brian’s Unity interface, as he’s programming Tiny Combat Arena
Star Wars: Battlefront 2 by Electronic Arts, selling content with its evil microtransactions
Minecraft Java Edition modding is not just editing config files, but proper programming

Where to follow Brian Hernandez aka Why485


Co-founder at Gamekult, SensCritique, Molotov TV and Galion.exe. Previously at AlloCiné & daphni. Tech and product lover, VC & indie game enthusiast. @Paris

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store