Monday, March 30, 2020

Game 168: Choplifter!

Just... how was I supposed to dodge that?

After playing four derivative, uninspired, and really flawed Apple II arcade games by Broderbund, I was a little worried for Choplifter!

Turns out this is not only the best Broderbund game yet, this is also the best arcade-style computer game I've played yet, even if there is a luck-based performance ceiling. And despite taking some obvious cues from Defender, it would be wrong to think of this as Apple Defender; unlike so many contemporaries, it was designed from the ground up as an original concept, and not as a programming exercise to re-create a popular arcade game on the 6502-driven Apple II.

Regarding emulation, I found that the WOZ disk image doesn't work on current versions of MAME, which is the only Apple II emulator I've seen that properly supports analog joystick input. The 4am crack worked just fine, though.

The back of the manual details a plot that's simultaneously self-aware ridiculous and uncomfortably close to the current events of 1982. The evil Bungeling Empire (we'll see them again) has captured 64 United Nations delegates and holds them hostage for unspecified but surely nefarious reasons. A rescue attempt is underway, by smuggling a choplifter into a nearby post office, heavily armed and capable of transporting 16 passengers at a time (plus two backup choppers, which may only take off should the first one fail for some reason).

At first you'll catch the Bungelings off-guard, with only a few tanks to deal with, which are no threat to your chopper whatsoever as long as you're in the air. They'll shoot in your general direction regardless, and their fire has a tendency to hit hostages. Your ATS fire, thankfully, can't harm the hostages (low-angled ATA fire, unfortunately, can).

After the first rescue, upon your return to airlift the next batch, they'll scramble jets, which are nearly impossible to deal with in any way except evasion, and will easily blast you out of the sky if you aren't alert, skilled, and at least a little bit lucky. After the second rescue there will be drone air mines, which move slowly but will track your chopper relentlessly, and mostly make your life miserable when contending with combined forces. And after the third, at which point there should be no more than 16 hostages left, the drones will fire bullets too, and tanks and jets will spawn even more aggressively. You'll be under massive pressure from hostile vehicles coming in from all directions, opportunities to safely land and pick up the last stragglers are few and short-lasted, and the slightest miscalculation, badly performed evasive maneuver, or unlucky blindsiding by an off-screen jet can destroy your chopper, killing everyone aboard.

I didn't think it could be done on the Apple II, but Choplifter is beautifully animated, and in a way that you don't see in arcade games of the time. Your chopper pitches and yaws as you fly it up, down, forwards, backwards, and rotate it to face the tanks in the foreground. It bounces on the landing gear when you make a hard landing. When you crash or take a hit, the fuselage implodes on itself as the wreck burns. Enemy jets spin into U-turns, entering the background or foreground before they return to your plane and fire missiles at your tail rotor. Hostages run around in a confused panic as the world burns around them, some of them waving to get your attention, some of them running right into enemy fire, and others making a mad dash directly toward your helicopter, even parking themselves directly below it. As the manual puts it, "don't land on the hostages. That kills them." All of this visual splendor comes at a cost, as the frame rate tanks into the single digits when there's a lot of action on the screen, especially when there are several hostages running around.

Choplifter controls beautifully too. What took me most by surprise is that this game makes full use of the analog joystick - I had only played Apple II games on a keyboard before, and it feels a little surreal to see an early 80's sidescroller with analog movement! You'll want to take advantage of this; using a keyboard deprives you of a lot of nuance over the slightly tricky chopper controls, which are just physics-driven enough to make it a satisfying challenge to pull off graceful, controlled, and often death defying maneuvers. Lift is partly counteracted by gravity, just enough that you'll need to throw the joystick partway vertically to hover in place, or you can Flappy Bird your way across the field, letting inertia carry you forward in short, choppy bursts.

My best attempt rescued 58 of the hostages, and there were a lot of lucky near misses. For each lucky near miss in this run, there were probably at least five runs that ended because of not so lucky non-misses.

GAB rating: Good

Choplifter looks, controls, and plays great, but there's one thing that made me want to keep coming back that you don't often see in arcade games of the era. It has a definite end point. Defender and other games can go on forever, challenging you to last longer, finish more levels, and get a higher and higher score. Choplifter has no scorekeeping except for the number of hostages rescued, and once all 64 are rescued or dead, the game ends. Even after I figured out how to reliably live long enough to reach that point, I wanted to keep trying again to see if I could save more next time.

Granted, luck does play a big role in how many you save past 48 - there's only so much you can do keep them from running into enemy fire, or to deal with off-screen jets ruining your day. So many runs ended with an off-screen jet popping into view without warning and immediately blowing away a chopper full of the last passengers. There are techniques that help manage risk - I learned quickly, for instance, not to fly at full forward speed once the Bungelings scramble jets, because you'll probably just fly right into the path of their missiles with no time to react. But I don't believe there is any technique that ensures your safety. In any event, very few games of this era were both challenging and completely fair about it.

That's the end of my Broderbund 1979-1982 retrospective. I had hoped to find out if playing a selection of their best-selling and most important predecessors would shine any light on an evolving style. I'm not quite sure that it did - while Digital Antiquarian's article about Choplifter mentions that Broderbund was instrumental in helping Dan Gorlin to fine tune the experience, especially with regards to the controls, I don't see much parallel in their earlier products. The Galactic Saga games are altogether different types, the arcade-style games licensed from Starcraft and other Japanese developers appear to have been created independently, and there's little information at all about David's Midnight Magic. These are the games that solidified Broderbund as the leading publisher of arcade computer games, so at the very least, it's not surprising that Choplifter would appeal to them.


  1. Broderbund always struck me as a publisher that simply had a good eye for what to release, rather than a company with a distinct aesthetic. Choplifter and Lode Runner are probably their greatest contributions.

  2. If video games work like films, then the auteur theory might apply here — that is, the aesthetic of the game is determined more by the lead developer (Dan Gorlin) than the company. I haven’t played his other games, though, so I don’t know if that’s the case with Choplifter.

    1. Auteur theory probably applies even more to video games of this era than it does to the film industry at the height of the term's popularity! Films are, after all, large scale collaborative efforts even under the most tyrannical directors, while a 48KB computer game can be entirely designed, programmed, and produced by a single person, and often were.

      That said, I have to think that the company where a game is made plays a role in how it turns out, and I'm just as interested in exploring that as I am in exploring developers' personal achievements. For instance, I find stronger parallels in Activision's Atari 2600 games than I do in the cross-company oeuvre of any of their individual founders. In Gorlin's case, though, there aren't any non-Broderbund games where he's credited as principal developer or designer. The closest thing is Banzai Bug, where he is credited as Lead Programmer and also as one of several designers, but the roles of Producer, Director, Lead Designer, Lead Artist, and even Original Concept are all filled by other people.

      In any event, the Bungelings will return in later Broderbund games and provide a tangible sort of continuity even though Gorlin won't be involved.

  3. For me, Myst is what really put them on the map.


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