Choplifter might be a familiar name to longtime gamers from the early 1980s. Originally created by Dan Gorlin in 1982, the game made the rounds on the various 8-bit computer formats and did well enough that Sega decided to remake it into an arcade coin-op several years later, keeping the core gameplay but expanding upon it with new locales and such. In other words it took the opposite direction most arcade titles took, starting at home before becoming a coin-op. Anyway it’s a port of said arcade version that we find here on the Master System and many consider it one of the first good games to hit the console, some even putting it on their ‘Top 10’ lists. Let’s see if it’s truly deserving of that honor.
As you might imagine you’re a helicopter pilot who’s on a mission to rescue POWs that are trapped behind enemy lines at six different war zones. In each level you take off from your home base to pilot your chopper across the battlefield which is heavily littered with enemy artilerly such as tanks, planes, anti-aircraft guns, and so on. While you can blow away the artillery, you’re main objective is to locate the barracks where the hostages are kept and blow them open to set them free. You then need to pick up as many as you can and airlift them to the safety of your base where you drop them off before going back to retrieve the rest. Thing is you chopper can only hold a certain amount of captives on board at a time and you’ll be constantly under fire. At the same time once outside the hostages are extremely vunerable to enemy fire and can be killed if you fail to get them before the tanks do. So the main strategy is deciding how many you can take back to the base before coming back for the rest, if they’re still alive. In addition your chopper can only take one hit before crashing and any hostages you have on board will perish in the impact as well. Each stage has 64 captives but you only need to rescue 40 of them to move on to the next stage. The first stage follows the coputer original but just like the arcade, the next stages have you at sea attempting the rescue the captives from enemy ships and sumbarines, and trying to save them from a futuristic base inside a cave. After that you face pallette-swaped but much harder versions of the previous three levels. The game ends if you lose all your choppers or if more than 24 hostages are killed in a level (which would prevent you from reaching your quota).
The game plays very well as the premise is simple to understand and execute but proves to be fun and a little addicting. Even though the environments are somewhat repeated the action keeps you engaged and is never boring. For the most part the controls work well and are simple to use; one button fires bombs and bullets, the other turns your chopper. Handling the chopper may feel awkward at first but with practice you’ll get it down. The graphics are nicely done with some nice colorful stages, and even a little bit of parallax scrolling in the backgrounds. Most of the sprites are well detailted and animated, while the captives aren’t as well done they do react if you take off without rescuing them, almost begging you to come back. The audio is okay with some mildly interesting background tunes and there are some nice sound effects such as your chopper blades spinning and the explosions, but you still get the usual beeps and boops.
However the difficulty can seem a little extreme at times since enemies and projectiles will constantly swarm the screen forcing you to be on the move at all times, and it can be real easy to crash your chopper, especially in the cave levels where maneuvering space is tight. There are also some cheap spots such as the missiles in the sea levels that pop out without warning. It also doesn’t help that the captives don’t have the best intelligence; often times they’ll run out of the prisons right in the way of your chopper just as you try to land, resulting in them getting crushed needleslly. There’s no continue feature but the game does contain a level-select code if you want to jump to the later areas.
So overall Choplifter may be a little overrated at times but it does prove to be a fine release for the Master System. Even with the difficulty issues and the slight lack of depth, there’s enough exciting and addicting gameplay to keep you coming back for a while. This chopper mission is definintely worthy of a medal.