Author: John Legendoffzelda
The only entry in its series made for the console, the pleasantly rudimentary helicopter adventure Choplifter III came a long way to reach the Super Nintendo. The first installment was made back in 1982 for the Apple II home computer; the high-end machine of the days when games were but the most basically programmed entertainment software. With its blocky graphics and simplified concept, the game wasn’t all that different from say, Breakout – it had a formula, and it executed that formula well. For the game’s 16-bit descendant, the development team of Ocean, Beam Software, and Extreme knew better than to tinker with that formula too much, which thankfully they didn’t. Their collaborative result is an engaging diversion, which retains the charms of its predecessor and reaps much value from its single idea.
Throughout the series, the Choplifter games were powered by one concept. As the anonymous pilot of a military helicopter, the player flies back and forth through a confined zone, rescuing hostages and delivering a select amount of them back to the landing pad to advance. At the core it’s about collection, and the player keeps collecting in order to move through the game. But at the same time there are enough obstacles to makes things interesting. The hostages are the tiny guys in gray outfits and they’ll only board the helicopter when it completely lands. In some cases the copter will have to deploy a rescue rope for them to climb, but otherwise they won’t do anything if it just hovers. If there are ten hostages on board already, no more will come. Controlling a military vehicle, the player naturally fights enemy military soldiers, tiny guys in tan outfits who shoot at the copter from below in hopes of sending it crashing down. Faced with this opposition, the copter can either fly over the enemy fire, or take a risk and shoot back. There are weapons to use in the game if inclined to shoot back – there’s a main turret that has unlimited ammo and secondary weapons such as missiles and napalm that parachute down from the sky.
The turret makes more sense to use in the long run, as it’s the easiest to manage and it has notable practicality outside of combat, doing things like eliminating landmines and blowing up huts to reveal further hostages. It even teaches the importance of changing which direction the copter is facing; if turned left or right the player can move faster and clear the stages more easily. If turned towards the front, the player can aim the turret downwards in a safer striking pattern, and land in tighter spots where hostages might be. These positions have their advantages and disadvantages, and since there’s always something happening on screen it’s important to plan out these movements. There may only be one objective in the entire game, but there’s still plenty to take into consideration while doing so. As for the secondary weapons, they don’t make much sense to use while in rescue mode: they’re overpowered but scarce, and as such would logically be reserved for the boss battles. Every so often the copter will run into something with much more firepower than it has, perhaps a big enemy vehicle or an array of ground turrets. And if the player is willing to take a good amount of bullets while throwing bombs, then they go down quickly.
Already this is a lot that the game throws at the player, not even mentioning the enemy vehicles that trail the copter when they come in sight or the stages that incorporate wind physics. Little amenities like landing pads that restore the copter’s health are helpful, and they have a place within the overall design. Unfortunately, for as simple a concept as it has, Choplifter III feels just a little too top-heavy with superfluous ideas, With that said, the tricky part about this detriment is trying to determine which idea is the most extraneous. Some people may find the enemies unnecessary, or others may take issue with just the boss fights – in either instance the layer of action on top of this game doesn’t fully work. It’s enjoyable, like any game designed around a single action button, but in some areas it doesn’t really coalesce with the task of collecting hostages and delivering them to safety. But to that layer’s credit, there’s just about nothing else to the game apart from this task, so it at least raises the stakes and keeps everything from getting repetitive. That’s usually the main problem with updating old-school video game experiences: determining which parts can stand some attachments and which ones are fine is easier in theory than practice.
Presentation enhancements, on the other hand, are foolproof parts of updating such experiences, and in that sense this game delivers. Rich, husky colors paint the skies, reflecting perhaps an everlasting sunset or the expansive, gloomy ocean; and in the foreground the details of jungle foliage and steely battleship hulls can be made out with a surprising amount of clarity. The copter, a slinky green bulb of metal and machinery, has a strong design and its sprite is enjoyable enough for the player to continuously stare at it. Some parts of the graphics and sound really contribute a heavy pseudo-realism to the military trappings; the main turret makes thick popping sounds while explosions rattle and buzz and the flames bubble outwards. These enhancements are the nicest and most interesting feature of Choplifter III, which is otherwise a simple game – a good cup of coffee with a distractingly weak amount of sugar. Aside from the action-y bits that seem tacked on, the basic concept remains as sturdy now as it did in 1982, and anyone interested in even a taste of gaming in those days would be interested in giving this title a spin.
Four out of five stars.
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