When piloted by yours truly, you don't want to get to this chopper...

Source // Wikipedia

With a title like Choplifter, there can't be too many things that I'll be tasked with, in what I assume will be my helicopter. For a simple concept though, I'm a little bit surprised to see it ported to so many home consoles after its initial release on the Apple II. I don't know why I am surprised though, because simple concepts do well seemingly anywhere.

It is a good job Choplifter was a success too, because I've got to dive into those ports to play it. The Apple II version looks like helicopters in space, which kind of defeats the point of using helicopters, rather than spaceships. The gameplay however is like Lunar Lander meets Defender, which is something I can get behind - providing the ports hold up against the original.

Fun Times

And they do. They do better than 'they do'. While my reactions aren't quite good enough to snap brilliant screenshots in the middle of the action, they are good enough to run away from tanks and jet fighters in the Atari 7800 release.

It's 1987 by this point in time, five years after the original release, and there have already been ports elsewhere to give players their Choplifter fix - even into the arcades - proving that the gameplay continues to draw gamers in, regardless of the graphics on offer.

Controls are simple. Movement buttons position and tilt your helicopter, with a button to fire and another button to rotate your helicopter to point in the other direction. You can of course fly backwards, but it's a neat little animation and enhances the feel of flying a helicopter - it's kind of floaty and will catch you off guard if you press your buttons too wildly, but it feels like a helicopter. The sound helps too, though it is a strange mix of actually sounding like rotor blades and just sounding like something has gone wrong with the speakers.

Shooting requires you to point in the right direction, namely down towards the ground, so you'll have to get the hang of aiming your nose down as you fly in order to shoot anything (that is if you want to look cool while firing, as opposed to playing it smart, slowing down, aiming properly...)

You're given a small amount of safety near your base to practice in before the terrain starts filling with problems, notably tanks. Outmaneuvering them is simple enough, you can just fly over them and out the way, but when it comes time to land and rescue those who need it, you're a sitting duck.

Nobody but me was harmed in the making of this explosion.

Mastering the controls is as essential as knowing when and when not to rescue somebody. Getting cocky won't be successful forever - I think I had a run of 7 people in need of rescue, all making it to my chopper, before the eighth had to watch a tank roll in and lob a single projectile my way. Goodbye helicopter. It was an entertaining run, while it lasted.

I'm not stuck with an Atari port though, as the Sega Master System screenshot above shows. The graphics are top notch, the sound is musical - literally, as there is music now - but the controls have taken a step up the difficulty curve.


With some games the difficulty curve can feel like a brick wall. I might have had an entirely different review if I'd started with this version, rather than the Atari. I think it's thanks to that port, and getting used to it there, that put me in somewhat good stead with this Master System port, but still, there is a noticeable difference.

The controls are all the same, but the button to rotate your helicopter requires a hold, not a press or two (update: it doesn't, I just haven't got the hang of it - told you it was tricky), and something that simple can throw you off in the moment. Tilting is also finer, with more angles at which your nose and therefore your gun can point. It's no good flapping about, looking at the sky, when there are ground to air missiles intent on shooting you down. A fiery death and a low score was rather common when I picked up this port.

Final Word

Like other games that require you to really get a handle on the controls before you get good, Choplifter can be a bit alienating to newcomers, but in many cases it really feels like a step in the right direction when it comes to realism. Spaceships gently thrusting above an asteroid is one thing, but fine tuning the direction of a helicopter skimming across the desert? C'mon, who wouldn't want a piece of that action?

I'd argue that the ports do a better job of that than the original did, but perhaps that's because they don't ask for so much of my imagination. In any case, whichever Choplifter version you find yourself in the vicinity of, do yourself a favour and get to the chopper.

Fun Facts

The first version of the game was deemed 'too realistic' when it came to the helicopter controls. They had to be tweaked to make it easier to fly.

Choplifter, developed by Dan Gorlin, first released in 1982.
Versions played: Atari 7800, 1987, via emulation.
Sega Master System, 1986, via emulation.