Retro isn’t a strong enough word for what Choplifter HD encompasses. Ancient is more like it. The original Choplifter came out in 19-fricken’-82 on the Apple II, so even if you are old enough to remember it, you probably played it in the arcades a few years later. The premise remains wholesomely simple: fly a physics-affected helicopter in 2D sidescrolling levels and rescue dinky people while dealing with ornery ground troops. Everything about the game is cute, but it’s also the kind of cute that gets annoying sometimes.
Adding “HD” to the title only makes sense relatively – yes, it looks better than the original that came out thirty years ago, but its visuals are rudimentary by modern standards. There’s something appealing about tiny vehicles and people that defies our brains’ demands for hi-tech visual gimmickry, but there could have been more effort put into the game’s look nonetheless. Environments are somewhat drab and repetitive, and lacking in that extra bit of detail that makes games of this sort sometimes so wonderful to look at (see Renegade Ops for reference).
We like the basic mechanics of flying the chopper because they don’t feel like anything else in the 2D action field. Your chopper has quite a bit of weight and momentum to it, so this is not some fast-dodging bullet-hell shooter (in practice the momentum causes frustrations, but more on that in a bit). You aim with the right stick, bringing up a neat red laser sight so you can aim your guns and rockets precisely, and you need to use short bursts to avoid overheating. Often enemies perch in the foreground, so you need to tap the shoulder buttons to orient your chopper toward the camera to snipe those jerks. The game isn’t mindless: you need to carefully manage your chopper’s momentum and also plan out your missions by watching your fuel, armor, and passenger limit.
Blowing away hapless foot soldiers while your pilot and co-pilot make snide remarks is empowering, especially when said victims catch fire and run around screaming (somehow it’s still cute). However, the game’s combat and level structure can become a chore later on when the difficulty ramps up. One of the main problems is that your chopper is just a tad too sluggish and big. Actually reacting to enemy fire is next to impossible: by the time you see bullets coming, your slow-ass chopper won’t be able to avoid them no matter you much you crank the stick and boost. This is compounded by itchy-trigger enemies: the moment they appear on screen they are already shooting at you. Early on this isn’t a problem because enemies do little damage and you can always repair yourself. Later on, though, the game throws insane amounts of enemy fire at you while also imposing time limits.
So in many of the later missions, it’s not that the game becomes too difficult, but that it forces you to be so tentative that the combat slows to a crawl and it becomes boring. If you don’t want to die over and over, you’ll have to repeatedly return to base to repair, slowing the pace of the game further (respawning enemies don’t help, either). The biggest irritation in the game, though, is a certain type of mission: escape. In these missions, you have one shot to race through a gauntlet of enemies. In theory it would be harrowing and intense (and fun), but in practice it’s an obnoxious crapshoot: one wrong move and you’re screwed and you have to start all over. These missions are bizarre difficulty spikes, way out of whack with the rest of the game. They should have been toned down or taken out completely, because they do not work on any level of fun – when one comes up we always said “Crap, another slog of dying over and over until we get through on sheer luck, and then we can get back to the real game.”
If you like the idea of flying a cool-looking helicopter in a 2D action game that makes you think, Choplifter HD is totally worth checking out. When it works, it’s old-fashioned and yet not quite like anything else out there currently. If the chopper had controlled just a bit more nimbly, it’s possible all of the game’s problems would disappear or at least be reduced to much more tolerable levels. You’ll need a lot of patience to make it through the whole thing, but it’s fun for the early part of the game, even if you can’t stomach dying for the fifteenth time on one of those damn escape missions.