I am very happy to see developers taking up the challenge of remaking retro games, especially if they are done well. All the flashy graphics in the world will not mask shoddy game play (I have to resist the temptation to poke yet more fun at Rise of the Robots) and if a large part of your target audience has played the original then you better make sure its spot on. Retro gamers are a sensitive and picky lot, so lets get down and see if Choplifter manages to survive the lick of HD paint.
Gameplay and Story
Choplifter originally came out on the Apple II to relative success. It was then released on a multitude of other platforms including an arcade version. Being an Atari fan, I own the 8Bit 800 version and will base the comparisons on this.
Its premise was simple, fly your helicopter through a gauntlet of enemy fire, dodge the bullets, rescue some stranded soldiers/civilians/villagers and get back to base. As with most simple ideas it's very effective and has a nice dollop of 'one more go' as you crash in a fireball with a loss of all on board. This is still the idea and the developer has wisely decided not to tinker too much with such an obviously successful game mechanic. There are a few extras, some secret things to discover and lots of things to destroy as well as saving the day as a hero.
The controls are simple and the Chopper flies easily. My only tiny gripe is the slightly awkward aiming system (I was playing the XB360 version) in which you use the right thumb stick to aim while flying with the left. Weapons are launched with the triggers, but as I cannot pat my head and rub my tummy simultaneously, I find my aim a little off as I try to fly and target with my thumbs and shoot with my fingers.
The original game was not that pretty, but some versions including the Master System used parallax scrolling to give the game depth, but it really didn't matter as the gameplay more than made up for it, your mind smoothed the edges and filled in the blanks. Its the same here.
The Choppers are well detailed and the little extras (smoking engines, shorted out electrics when damaged) add a lot to the game. The locations and backgrounds are nicely drawn with little extras to look out for along the way, adding to the feel that this is a 'living' landscape you are moving through. Lighting is good and the explosions are satisfying.
This for me is where the game shines. The Chopper sounds convincing and the pilot and co-pilot banter away like a terrible all-American war flick from the 80's. Even the stricken soldiers get in on the act demanding “Do you know what I have been through??” It's rather cheesy but suits the game perfectly and will raise a smile as you 'Waste an SOB with a gun”. Music is dramatic and punchy, however I cannot believe that they left out 'Ride of the Valkyrie' as we all know how much we love the smell of Napalm in the morning...
Modes and Extras
There are a LOT of Choppers to play with, most of which have to be unlocked by doing well in missions and earning stars. The better you do the more points you get and in this game points mean stars and stars mean Choppers! Keeping the survivors alive, finishing the missions quickly and finding secrets are all ways to earn those points and move forward. There are few variations on the core theme in the main game, but mostly its centred around drop offs and destruction. As an extra twist and of course in accordance with current trends there is a very good 'Zombie' mode which I wont spoil, but just think what a Chopper plus Mini-Gun combined with a city packed with the undead will add up to and you get the idea.
Choplifter HD Gameplay Video
It's fun enough for a light hearted blast and just deep enough to give a good challenge with some tactical flying. The choice of Choppers is impressive and the locations varied enough to keep you interested. Its a game that can be picked up and dropped but if you put some time in you will be rewarded with high score kudos as your achievements will be noted and broadcast to the world via Steam or Xbox Live. The addition of the Zombie mode feels like a game in itself rather than a 'bolted on' idea to sell more copies to the current craze of flesh eaters. The HD remake has improved the game no end, it feels great and plays great. Like Elevator Action before it this proves that today's developers really can get it right if they put some effort into it.
Choplifter is now availiable on Steam and XBOX 360
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