Twenty years after Choplifter first appeared on home computers, inXile Entertainment and Konami have brought the franchise back in full 2D side-scrolling glory, albeit in HD format. Similar to its aging ancestor, which was eventually ported onto an arcade cabinet, Choplifter HD tasks players with safely evacuating stranded PoWs from heavily militarized zones and participating in some of the shootin’est, flyin’est aerial rescue missions ever. With tough but rewarding gameplay, Choplifter HD is definitely out to scratch that arcade itch, and does a fine job of it, too.
inXile have taken the simple concept of picking up your troops and flying them to safety and broken it up with a deal of variety. Essentially, each level tasks players with getting from point A to point B, and sometimes shuttling back and forth between them multiple times. Some missions will switch it up, giving you all the passengers from the outset, and asking you to help them escape their base as the enemy closes in. Other times, you may escort a squad of elite rangers as they set explosives at enemy facilities. There are even the (almost obligatory) zombie outbreak levels, in which you not only have to exterminate the undead, but also secure hospitals, to which you can safely deliver the wounded for treatment. Each level also features optional bonus objectives, generally in the form of finding and rescuing wartime correspondent and field reporter Scoop Sanderson, who’s broadcasting live with his cameraman somewhere in each level. True to form, the grunts don’t take too kindly to Scoop’s reporting on the war, and their snarky comments about having to rescue him are often hilarious to listen to.
You’ll find yourself putting your piloting skills to the test in multiple terrains across the globe, whether it be a third-world countryside dotted with small villages and hovels, an out-of-the-way Arctic base under attack, or a metropolis that’s been overrun by an enemy regime. Each level starts in your home base – your only friendly foothold in the area – to which you must return to drop off prisoners, refuel and repair your bird. Additional refueling stations are sometimes placed throughout the level, but these are used at your own peril, as they can (and frequently are) occupied by opposing troops.
Keeping It Fresh
My first brush with a similar type of game, and really mission-based chopper games in general, was 1988’s NES shooter, Airwolf. The core gameplay concepts were the same, and I remember having a hell of a time piloting the aircraft from point to point, and frequently perished in mishaps during landing maneuvers. Whether it was clunky game design or just the ineptitude of my young years (I was eight at the time), I approached Choplifter HD with a certain amount of trepidation, cold-sweat-inducing flashbacks of the 8-bit nightmare playing through my mind.
Luckily, a few shared gameplay ideas is where the similarities with Choplifter HD end. Controls are smooth and simple to master: up is up, down is down, and the ‘copter responds readily to your commands. Realistic physics mean that the inertia gained while barreling forward can sometimes make sudden evasive maneuvers tricky as your momentum may carry you right into an obstacle or the line of fire of an anti-aircraft gun waiting for its next target, but you’ll quickly become adept at performing hairpin swerves to avoid an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.
Where the game could have quickly gotten stale with simple left-to-right movement on a 2D plane, only requiring one to shoot at the ground ahead, inXile have wisely chosen to incorporate the foreground into the action, effectively adding an extra “half dimension” into the mix; you can still only move sideways on the screen, but combat takes place in a three-dimensional setting. To this end, you can turn your chopper to face the foreground, effectively strafing left and right while shooting toward the screen. This concept was present in the very first iteration of Choplifter, and has been reinstated to great effect.
Oh, the Sights and Sounds!
Graphically, Choplifter HD is pleasantly satisfying. The colors are rich and varied from level to level, but never too bright or over-the-top. Of note are the backgrounds and vistas of your surroundings, which at times include a surprising amount of detail, like military jet fighters taking off in the distance, or Red Cross ambulances presumably recovering victims of war. The amount happening on-screen gets pretty frantic, especially in later levels, when tanks and AA guns assault from below while mortar fire continually crashes down all around you. Add to that the wailing of your chopper’s cockpit alarms after you’ve taken a few hits, and the intensity ramps up quickly.
Throughout all of this, your helicopter is always the focal point of the action. Enemy ground forces (as well as zombies and rescuees) are too small to show much in the way of detail, but it’s really not needed and doesn’t detract from the overall experience (though it is disturbingly fun to see them topple over in a spray of their own blood or run around after being set on fire, wailing). Sound cues play a big role in being prepared for all onslaughts of attacks. Sniper rifles give off a high-pitched whine before zapping your electronics, while the metallic lock-and-load sound of a tank missile means you better change your immediate course, or risk being blown to bits instantly. When the dung really hits the blades of your ‘copter (see what I did there?), the battlefield comes alive in a cacophony of sound, all signaling destruction directed right at you.
The School of Hard Knocks
Perhaps if a complaint could be leveled at the game, it is its unrelenting difficulty. Each stage features three difficulty settings and multiple choppers, each with their own advantages that can be unlocked later in the game or after completing it. But even on the easy setting, with the default helicopter, players must be prepared to be taken back to school. Frequently. During my time with the game, there were only two or three levels I was able to complete in my initial attempt; other ones took up to a dozen restarts to master. The real problem here isn’t the difficulty itself, but rather the fact that many stages require a certain amount of memorization; knowing exactly where the heavy offensive concentrations are, when to expect attacks from the foreground, and which areas are relatively safe to simply fly through become key factors to victory, and it just feels somewhat cheap. While skill certainly plays into it a bit, I can’t help but feel that memorization skills do not a sweet victory make.
The Final Verdict
Choplifter HD, despite a steep difficulty curve that makes one think it’d be almost easier to pursue an actual helicopter pilot’s license, does manage to provide that “just one more quarter” arcade experience. The levels are short, most taking well under fifteen minutes to complete, and stuffed full of tricky maneuvering and tight squeezes; in fact, many of the later levels would feel quite at home in a bullet-hell shoot-’em-up. The game also offers a lot of content for its asking price, shipping with thirty levels, each with multiple difficulties, bonus objectives, and unlockable helicopter classes that provide for different approaches to gameplay. With competent graphics, tight and simple navigation, and varied gameplay objectives, this is a game that is likely to have you return to it for snippets of action for quite a while to come.