Saturday, August 23, 2014

C64 Review - Choplifter! (C) 1982 Br0derbund

(thanks Mayhem64)

Chuck: After a bit of a looong delay we're back with Choplifter!  Programmed in 1982 by Dan Gorlin (Apple) and Dane Bigham (C64).

John: Are we going to offer any explanation as to why we stepped back a year to 1982?

Chuck: Nope.  Honestly, though, I'm not 100% convinced that it didnt hit the C64 until 1983.

This is by far the most popular game we've reviewed yet, with sequels hitting consoles, remakes hitting arcades and popularity that continues nearly to this day.  Dan Gorlin struck gold with this idea.  Initially intended as a realistic simulation of helicopter controls, it was carved into a super-tight action game that PC players were decidedly unused to experiencing on their home computers.  This is straight out of the arcade.

John:  Aside from how it scores you, that is.

Chuck:  We'll get to that.  Dan Gorlin was obviously an ace programmer and animator.  My favorite game of his is the very unfortunately overlooked Typhoon Thompson for the Amiga.  Do yourself a favor and check that one out.

John:  Been there and done that.  It's a little too aggravating for me personally, but the graphics and animation are incredible.

Chuck:  I was talking to the readers, dummy.  One of these days we'll have to hash that out between us though.  Dane Bigham is probably best known as the programmer of Carmen Sandiego.  Br0derbund needs no introduction, surely!  This game may be the one that introduced us to Br0derbund's go-to bad guys, the Bungeling Empire of Raid on Bungeling Bay and Lode Runner lore.

It's hard to beat what these folks accomplished in 1982, especially on the C64.  Fort Apocalypse may have made it out in 1982 as well, though, so I'm not completely prepared to say this is the very best C64 game of 1982, but it's way up there.

John: Definitely top 3.  1982 is a bit of a...

Chuck:  Crap-fest?

John:  It definitely has some commercial releases that will make you question the sanity of all involved, including yourself.  But there's Axis Assassin, Zork... I think Omega Race turned out pretty good.

Chuck:  You're being extremely kind.  1982 is hell on the C64.  Choplifter was one of the few exceptions.  It's a AAA game among 100 other things that shouldnt have been saved to disk after they were programmed.

John:  And yet, it isnt perfect.  It's got a bit of that Apple-itis.  Maybe more than a bit.

Chuck:  I agree.  It's hard to get critical about it since this is 1982 and the power of the C64 is nearly entirely untapped.  Still, the color scheme definitely leaves something to be desired.  Red, white, blue and grey.  OK, it's almost ugly looking.

John:  I honestly think the palette is deliberately chosen to make the tiny little people animate better.  If you look closely at them they should be blobs of clashing colors, but they look perfect when they're waving, running, etc.  Their level of detail is fantastic when you consider how small they really are.  A nice big tube TV or a small CRT blends everything very well.

Chuck:  It is all about the animation.  This game looks and feels incredibly alive.  It's fun to just watch the helicopter fly around and turn in different directions.  The blue Jets look fantastic.  The little tank treads are animated.  The explosions have several frames.  The stars in the sky are always twinkling.  It's like watching a little living universe.

John:  Ha, I dont know if I would go that far but yes, the animation is top notch, the scrolling is very smooth, the rate of fire is excellent.  Things hardly ever slow down and when they do it's not bothersome.  The controls are extremely tight and finely-tuned.

Chuck:  The gameplay is nearly perfect.  I mean, this is what people really love about the game.  It's very basic in a way.  There could have been more going on in the game, a la Defender, but instead it is stripped back to a single objective: dont let your little dudes die.

John:  Right.  Take off, fly to the left, dont let the blue Jet kill you, bomb tanks that are too close to the hostages, pick them up and fly them back.

Chuck:  The Jets are a little annoying.  They fly extremely fast (duh) and sometimes shoot you down before you even know they're coming.  The tanks pose little threat to you unless you're loading hostages.  It's not worth it to shoot everything because there's no score.  You dont even really feel like you've accomplished much unless you rescue all 64 hostages, and they are pretty easy to lose.  The tanks pose the biggest threat to the hostages but you'll certainly kill a few of them yourself by landing too hard on them.

John:  The Jets are never worth shooting down.  Another one is always nearby.  They dont pose that much of a threat as long as you know where to land. The hostages, though, might be in danger from the Jet's missiles if the hostages are spread across the screen.   Basically you should stay low to avoid the jets and bomb the tanks closest to the hostages.  Learn how to land softly so you dont kill yourself or the hostages and get used to lifting off and landing rapidly, as if you are jumping up and down - dont wait for the hostages to come to you!  Leap over to where they are and pick them up fast, there's always another tank on the way.

As for the scoring, as you mentioned there are no points for shooting anything.  You get one point per hostage delivered to the base which adds to the number next to the heart at the top-right.  The number on the top-left counts dead hostages.  The middle number is the number of hostages on-board.  I think scoring the game this way was the right decision.  It makes every hostage's life count.  Getting points for shooting the Jets and Tanks would have created a distraction.

The helicopter controls are outstanding.  Very intuitive and fun.  You can fly forward and backward without turning the helicopter and there is a near-perfect weight to the vehicle.  When you stop pushing the stick the helicopter will keep moving in that direction in perfect proportion to how fast you were moving.  It's very easy to see how this started out as a simulator.

Chuck:   It's easy to under-state what a revelation this game was at the time.  Animation: A++.  Controls: A++.  Gameplay: A++.  All is not rosy in Choplifter-land though.  John, tell them about the sound.

John:  Ha, what sound?  Seriously, though, the sound was not improved from the Apple II version at all.  The whir of your blade in decent enough, and I like that it slows down when you're on the ground and speeds up when you're in the air.  Your gunfire makes a you-have-to-be-kidding me plinky-plink sound that sounds like every Apple II sound effect you've ever heard.  Everything else is almost as awful.

There are two, maybe three different chirps that indicate a hostage has made it into the copter or that a hostage has died.  They're distinguishable, but just barely.  If you are new to the game you'll be killing hostages left and right and not even know it, such as when you land in a big crowd of them.  There's no death animation for these guys (surprisingly), so the only indication that YOU killed one, as opposed to an explosion from a Tank shot which is more noticeable, is this slightly angrier-sounding chirp which sounds nearly identical to the hooray-you-rescued-me chirp.  So did you rescue them or kill them?  Better check the numbers at the top.

The enemies make no sounds at all.  The explosions make no sound.  There's no sound when you die.  I guess it goes without saying that there's no music.

You can certainly chalk all this up to the era and you can definitely blame it on the Apple II, but really they knew they had an awesome game here.. would it have killed them to have some real sound effects?

Chuck:  Another nit-pick would be your own death sequence.  Your helicopter gets stuck half-way in the ground?  It's almost like an afterthought.

Sorry to end on a sour note folks but that's how our autopsies go.  No stone un-turned and all that.  So does it get our seal of approval?  Does Choplifter soar as in Airwolf or crash and burn as in Twilight Zone: The Movie?

John:  Oh man did you have to go there?  Yes, of course Choplifter gets it.  This is a phenom that goes beyond the era that birthed it and beyond the C64 itself.  As classic as they get.