“Hang On!- er, Choplifter!”
PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating
DEVELOPER: Broderbund (SG-1000 port by Sega); Sega (Master System)
RELEASE DATE: 1985 (SG-1000); 1986 (Master System)
Sega’s steadfast love for Choplifter began in 1985 when they ported the 1982 Apple II game to the SG-1000. In this version, you pilot a helicopter across enemy territory and rescue little stick figure hostages from burning houses. The helicopter only holds sixteen hostages at a time, so once it’s full, fly back into friendly territory and drop off the hostages at the base. Any hostage killed along the way doesn’t count against you, per say, but you won’t acquire points for the hostage.
Each trip you take back into enemy territory will see the enemies increase. When you rescue your first set of hostages, only tanks will attack you. The second time you go back, jet fighters will fly in and shoot hard-to-see, accurate missiles at you. Third time in, it’s air mines that don’t shoot, but do get in your way. The first time you collect hostages, you don’t want to lose any of them. You love them, especially their little hand-waving gestures. But as time goes on and the enemy presence grows more severe, life becomes cheap. Your attitude shifts from “That tank just shot a hostage?! I’ll burn it alive!” to “Get in my helicopter or die already, you maggots!” Harsh, but real, just like war.
Hey, we didn’t start the fire, alright? It was always burning.
The SG-1000 version of Choplifter looks fantastic, sounds amazing, and plays astonishingly well. The helicopter controls in particular are some of the tightest I’ve felt on the system. Cor blimey, is this game tough, though. Once the jet fighters get called in, you have to tiptoe your way across the desert (as much as helicopter can tiptoe, anyway) to get back to where your hostages are located. If you fly like a banshee spitting hot fire, you’re guaranteed to get hit by the jet fighters barely visible pixel bullets or by the fighter itself. I made it to the second level once, and the difficulty there was even more frightening. Instead of land hostages, you’re rescuing hostages stranded at sea. Right from the time you enter into enemy territory, you’re bombarded by ships and jet fighters and air mines all at once. Let’s just say a certain junior pilot – we’ll call him D. Cornelius – lost his wings in a hurry.
Sega’s liaison with Choplifter didn’t end with the SG-1000. In 1985 – the same year the SG-1000 port emerged – Sega remade Choplifter for the arcades. It’s easy to see why Sega would do this: Choplifter‘s sharp bursts of difficulty coupled with addictive gameplay had an arcade feel, despite first being released for computers.
For the arcade, Sega added additional enemies like anti-aircraft guns (tailored more to the level’s landscape than to the amount of trips you make into the level), a point system (which could also be found in the SG-1000 port, but not the original Apple II game), and a fuel meter which could only be filled by rescuing hostages. In the SG-1000/Apple II, the game would continue even if you had lost most of your hostages, but in the arcade, you had to rescue at least twenty hostages before you could proceed to the next level. If the arcade version sounds infinitely harder than the already difficult original, that’s because it was. Sega saw that there was millions of quarters to be had and they went for it.
You must be a certain amount of Mega to chop this lift.
The Master System version of Choplifter is a straight arcade port. The landscapes are more colorful and detailed, and the challenge is that much greater. Instead of the enemies being doled out to you in small portions, every type of enemy – tank, anti-aircraft, jet fighter, jeep with gunner – is now coming at you all at once, all the time. Thankfully, the jet fighters aren’t as difficult to avoid here, but the sheer volume of enemies unleashed on you from the first level onward is a sight to behold. Now, there’s only four stages, so the insane difficulty makes sense (gotta get your money’s worth, yeah?). But if you’re not in the mood to be shot at from every direction, the increased enemy presence is overwhelming and, frankly, not very enjoyable.
Run, boys! To freedom!
Choplifter doesn’t seem to be remembered much today, despite having a couple sequels portioned to the Game Boy, Game Gear, and SNES in the early 90s. It does hold the distinction of being one of the few, if only, games to begin its life on a computer before being remade for the arcade, then ported back to a home console. What a trippy, overly aggressive journey.
MASTER SYSTEM: B-