SeanNOLA’s Take: When I first started writing for Tech-Gaming, I would groan when “Old Game HD” would find its way onto across my desk. The idea of playing old Amiga games with cartoony graphics and techno remixes is not immediately appealing, but after tackling a few titles such as Spelunker and Digger, I’ve learned to appreciate the unique challenge it offers: researching the source material, comparing and contrasting the old and the new and reevaluating the state of the hobby, so to speak. I would go as far as to say that I was excited to review Choplifter HD, if for no other reason than for an excuse to dredge up an old port.
The original Choplifter was released in 1982 for the Apple II computer. It was published by Brøderbund, who were also responsible for The Print Shop and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Although Choplifter saw some immediate success on home computers, it wasn’t for a few years that the title really took off. In 1985 SEGA released a coin-op version which was a hit in arcades. At the same time, Brøderbund started packing Choplifter into suites of educational software, such as The Print Shop, Mavis Beacon, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego as an attempt to increase exposure. The play worked, as an entire generation of kids stopped shirked their typing assignments to rescue POWs.
Now, 30 years after the fact, inXile Entertainment has dragged the rescue chopper into the 21st century. Choplifter HD holds onto the classic taxicopter formula while breathing enough new life into the game to keep it from feeling stale. The 4-color pixelated environments have been replaced with fully-realized backdrops of middle-eastern deserts, jungle bases and even post-apocalyptic cityscapes. The Apple II’s bleeps and bloops are now interpreted through a library of gunshots and explosions as well as colorful commentary from your snarky copilot and ace reporter, Scoop Sanderson. If those had been the only changes made, I think I could have found myself perfectly content.
Unfortunately, several of the remake’s modernizations miss their mark. Although the classic gameplay holds up surprisingly well, certain elements felt dumbed down in order to smooth out frustration. Landing, which required a modicum of skill in the original title, is now essentially automatic. There is also an increased focus on combat in this game, which works completely to its detriment, since the twin-stick machine gun controls are unwieldy and tiny ground units blend into the often busy backdrops. The crowded visual style not only makes enemies difficult to see, but also makes it difficult to discern friends from foes. Enemy encampments hidden into the foreground often blend into buildings, and enemy ground-pounders like to hang out with your friendly POWs in order to goad unsuspecting pilots into murdering one of their own.
In spite of its name, Choplifter HD never feels like it was designed for HD consoles. The mission structure is very reminiscent of mobile games, like Angry Birds or Super Stick Man Golf, in that your main goal is to make enough points in each level to earn all 5 stars. Stars can be added together in order to earn new choppers and missions. Levels are quick, in order to promote repetition until you’ve mastered each stage. This type of progression works great in short bursts, but when it takes longer to start up my PS3 than it does to play a complete game of Choplifter, my attention is likely to turn elsewhere.
Choplifter HD is not a bad game, but it isn’t a $15 game either. I would love to see it revisited on the Vita, 3DS, or even smartphones. Its pick-up-and-play style is its biggest boon, but that never really comes across from the couch. Perhaps we’ll see more 30th Anniversary Choplifter love. If so, I’ll be looking forward to it.
DesertEagle’s Take: An emerging body of research suggests there is therapeutic benefit to be found in tranquil forms of interactive entertainment. In spite of these findings, I continue to take perverse pleasure in those moments of controller-clenching chaos which test nerve, reflex and mental fortitude. Although the first few levels of Choplifter HD show little of these obstinate virtues, by halfway through the title’s thirty stage campaign, a near-constant barrage of RPGs, jets and mortars help generate a remarkably frenzied and absorbing experience.
As my colleague Sean explained, Choplifter HD proficiently updates Dan Gorlin’s serendipitous adaption of Operation Eagle Claw. Use of the Unreal Engine has allowed developer inXile Entertainment to craft a series of busy battlefields which capably straddle the space between whimsical sandbox recreation and gritty theatre of war. In one stage, players soar imperviously above undead mobs, using the chain gun to take occasional pot-shots, until a touching down instigates a sense of genuine menace. Although chatter from the game’s pilots and P.O.W.’s often seems to be voiced by amateurs, sporadically a comical line is capable of producing a chuckle, and helps to offset the drone of whirling rotor blades and the persistent salvo of explosions. Whereas most of Choplifter’s follow-ups have preserved the simple taxiing of the original game, this revitalization throws an ever-shifting tide of objectives at players. One moment players a playing watchdog for a cluster of civilians, the next they are prioritizing the transport of mortally wounded against an ever-dwindling fuel supply.
Choplifter HD’s best movements are when critical events collide. As a cacophony of klaxons and buzzers wail to warn of missile locks, depleting fuel, and low armor, key decisions must be made. Should pilots prune away foes at the risk of burning avgas, boost past danger to the nearest friendly heliport, or venture to a remote fuel dump at the risk of endanger crew and cargo? With stage rankings dependent upon their assessments, (and players needing five-star performances to unlock the copters that are virtually necessary to succeed in later missions) the replay of levels is encouraged. Fortunately, the title’s stages are often just hectic enough to prod players along, without crushing them under an insurmountable assembly of opponents.
Regretfully, a few awkward design decisions mar Choplifter’s HD’s otherwise adept adaptation. Players are forced to toggle between two separate visual planes when aiming at enemies- one in the immediate foreground and another directly underneath players. Inexplicably, the triggers used to switch between the two fields are also used to turn the helicopter, which can cause a disruption of speed when switching targeting zones. What’s more, enemies in the closest field can fire and attack players before they are visible on-screen. Although it’s understandable that war-scarred civilians want to hop on the first helio out, having them bound beneath the skids can be frustrating. Help me to help you, ok?
While Choplifter HD may not be as radiant of a revival as Metroid: Zero Mission or Bionic Commando Rearmed, the title does offer a respectable update to the beloved Apple II classic. For anyone that grew up thanklessly whisking hostages from an intensifying battleground, the game is capable of rekindling those halcyon days, albeit with a handful of superfluous modifications. Admittedly, pardoning these blemishes would be easier if Choplifter HD launched at an economical price, but as a $15 downloadable title, players might expect a bit more refinement from the return of this beloved old bird.