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Choplifter (Commodore 64) artwork

Choplifter (Commodore 64) review

"This review takes us back almost twenty years in time, to the first of the two golden years of the Commodore 64: 1982. Many of the most famous Commodore titles are from this year (in which the system was released) and 1983. Some are merely names that may or may no longer be familiar to gamers these days. Others were the beginning of a series that was later continued on other systems. Choplifter is an example of the latter, spawning a second and a third title on various systems including the Supe..."

This review takes us back almost twenty years in time, to the first of the two golden years of the Commodore 64: 1982. Many of the most famous Commodore titles are from this year (in which the system was released) and 1983. Some are merely names that may or may no longer be familiar to gamers these days. Others were the beginning of a series that was later continued on other systems. Choplifter is an example of the latter, spawning a second and a third title on various systems including the Super Nintendo and the handheld Gameboy.

Choplifter is a fairly basic action game featuring a helicopter rescuing prisoners of war from hostile territory. What sets it apart from similar shooters is that, while your chopper is armed, the purpose of the game is not to destroy the enemy at all. You don't even get points for it. Your only purpose is to get in there, rescue your people and get back out - and you'll find that the more time you spend shooting at your numerically superior and better armed opponents, the worse you will perform in your rescue activities. This encourages a cautious, cunning and pacifistic playing style.

The game's area is about twenty screens wide and uses scrolling to keep your helicopter in the middle. You start out on a friendly air base on the right side of the level. The game's map stretches to the left, into enemy territory, where four prison buildings filled with POWs are waiting for you to stop by. The enemy territory is patrolled by tanks at first, but as you pick up and rescue POWs, their alertness increases and soon the tanks will be joined by jet fighters and eventually UFOs. (Don't ask.) Each of the four prison buildings contains 16 prisoners, and your helicopter can carry 16 people at a time. Ideally, it is possible to finish the game in four sorties, each taking the maximum number of people on board.

However, getting everybody out alive is almost impossible. First off, you have to shoot at each of the buildings to break open the fortified doors, after which POWs begin to stream out. You must then land, trying not to land on top of the poor people, and pick them up before they are killed by stray shots from tanks or jets. Lastly, once your chopper is full or near full, you will have to get out and back to friendly territory without being shot down. If you are, you do not only lose one of your three choppers, but everybody who was on board at the time is dead. Even a careless landing can result in the loss of a life. The game ends when all 64 POWs are either dead or back in friendly territory, or you lose your last chopper.

Your helicopter is controlled simply with the joystick in a non-surprising fashion: push the stick in any of the four directions to move the chopper, and tap fire to use your cannon or drop bombs. The only thing that takes some getting used to is turning your helicopter around. This is accomplished by pressing and holding fire for a short while. Your helicopter can be in three positions: facing left, facing right, or facing the player. The first two modes are used to be able to fire in that direction (useful to shoot down incoming jets). The player facing mode is useful to land because you take up less space on the map that way (and reduce the chance of landing on POWs), and because this mode allows you to drop bombs at tanks.

It has to be noted that actually hitting a tank or a jet isn't very easy. Your cannon fires slowly and you need to score a direct hit, whereas their weapons are far more powerful. Whenever you are in the air, jets can be a menace (on all except your first sortie in enemy territory, when they haven't been launched yet). Whenever you are on the ground, tanks become a problem, and jets can still destroy you with a lucky strafing run. The fact that your chopper moves clumsily and responds to all of your commands with a slight delay doesn't help much. This is realistic, however, that is how helicopters work. The game gives you the feeling that your chopper isn't intended for combat - and that is exactly the idea.

So how does it all look? In the later years of the Commodore, programmers became quite creative at using the system's limited options to make excellent graphics. Choplifter is an early game, however, and as such not much to look at. All graphics are done in fair detail and some work has obviously gone into them, but there is very little use of colour. The night sky is black, the ground is grey, your helicopter is entirely in white, jets are almost entirely blue with a slight streak of white - you get the idea. The game runs smoothly as long as there aren't too many graphics on the screen, but once a screen gets filled up with jets, tanks, UFOs and particularly POWs (as there can easily be 10 or more on the screen at the same time), it all slows down to a crawl as the good old Commodore is strained to capacity. This slowdown can unfortunately be very fatal, especially considering that your chopper isn't all that good at evading incoming fire to begin with.

As for the game's sound, there isn't much to mention. No background music, and the steady roar of your main rotor is hardly a substitute for that. Enemy tanks and jets make no sound at all, which contributes to their ability to appear out of nowhere at the edge of the screen and take you by surprise. UFOs make a nasty beeping sound which usually prompts me to shoot them down, if only to be rid of the noise.

So what is the verdict for this game? It certainly deserves recognition for an interesting formula. Shooting at your enemies buys you nothing but time, as you score no points for this in any way and enemies always respawn. In fact, it can often be better to lure tanks and jets away from an intended landing zone rather than destroying them. Nevertheless, you'll often face the prospect of a hot LZ where tanks, jets and UFOs threaten you and the people you are trying to rescue from all sides and you cannot afford to be on the ground for more than two seconds before you need to take off, evade or destroy enemies, and quickly put down again to have some more people enter your chopper. It's a very refreshing and challenging game to play, that's for sure.

However, the game's quality is hampered by the fact that it tends to be unfair at times. Jets usually come into the screen at a relatively slow speed, fly over to the other side, then turn around for a firing pass. This gives you time to see them coming and dodge their fire. However, sometimes they come into the screen with guns blazing and there is nothing you can do to keep from being shot down. This is particularly irritating if you just brilliantly picked up 16 people, and are shot down on the way back through no fault of your own. UFOs are even worse in this regard, as you can crash right into them if you are flying at full speed, with simply not enough time to react and evade them. What it comes down to is that there is no absolutely safe way to fly. Regardless of whether you are flying high or low, slow or fast, you can get into situations in which you will be shot down and there's not a thing you can do about it. If that happened less, the game would be much better.

As it is, Choplifter requires almost as much patience and luck as skill. It's a simple game with easy controls, but a high level of challenge. While it rates as a classic, it is certainly not without its faults, and in the end can only be rated as 'above average'. Give it a look if you can spare the time.

sashanan's avatar
Community review by sashanan (June 19, 2009)

Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.

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