Retro Review: “Choplifter” (SEGA Master System, Attack Helicopter Week Special)

Welcome back to Attack Helicopter Week here at The Splintering!

Today, we’re taking off with Choplifter for the SEGA Master System. We previously reviewed Jaleco’s Nintendo Famicom port of Choplifter a while back, so let’s take a gander at how SEGA’s Master System port fares compared to its 8-bit contemporary. (Spoilers! – Pretty damn well)

Among side-scrolling shooters, Choplifter is certainly unique. It started life in 1982 as an Apple II game and was later ported to the arcades in 1985. The Master System version was later ported and released by SEGA in 1986.

The player controls a heavily armed rescue helicopter infiltrating enemy territory to recover P.O.W.s captured by the Soviets Bungeling Empire. You fly from right to left, dodging enemy attacks, blasting open prisons, and then cart recovered P.O.W.s back to your home base. If your helicopter is destroyed with prisoners in tow, those prisoners also die. Once you’ve recovered enough (40) prisoners, you advance to the next stage. There are essentially three environments: a desert, ocean, volcanic cave, each replayed once with some graphical and enemy variations for a total of six stages.

Nothing makes me want to blow up enemy battleships more than bubble-gum pink skies!

Choplifter’s Master System visuals are heads and shoulders above those of the its Famicom counterpart. There is some great use of parallax scrolling for an 8-bit game, and all of the stages, enemies, environments look colorful and distinct. Your bullets shoot from the side of your helicopter, not the front, which I thought showed some keen attention to detail. There’s also several fun guest appearances in the game, including Jaws and Superman, if you know where to find them.

Since most of the sprites are vehicles, there’s not much “animation” to speak of, but with that American flag waving proudly above home base, coupled with the game’s driving soundtrack, you’ll be ready to leap into action and bring our boys home! In particular, stage one’s BGM is one of my all-time favorite game tunes.

These screen grabs don’t do the parallax scrolling justice

All of my nostalgia-influenced praise aside, Choplifter still has plenty of flaws. The Master System sometimes struggles with the high number of onscreen sprites resulting in quite a bit of flicker. Also, despite being a short game, getting to the later stages may be more difficult than you think, as Choplifter – like many of its 8-bit contemporaries – is pretty tough. In particular, flying between stalactites and volcanic fireballs in the cave stage borders on unfair. The controls will take some time to adjust to as well, as you must hold down the “2” button to change the facing direction of your helicopter, and you can only attack certain enemies with bombs when in the “mid” position. You’re going to die a lot in the first stage, but you’ll get the hang of it, eventually, and you’ll learn the best strategies for clearing through enemy defenses as you go. Pro tip! Deftly “bounce” up and down off the ground, and you won’t be attacked by tanks when you are picking up the P.O.W.s.

All things considered, if you’re looking for an 8-bit port of Choplifter to add to your collection, I highly recommend the SEGA Master System version over the Famicom one. Not only is it relatively inexpensive and easier to track down, but in virtually every department, graphics, gameplay, and especially sound, the SMS version is the superior port, though the Famicom version does admittedly have an additional stage, if you can reach it.

Choplifter for Master is a well-crafted, unique, addictive game with a really catchy soundtrack. And though you will likely never “beat it”, it is still ridiculously fun to play, too. Besides, the ending is just a single credits screen, anyway. Womp, womp.

The Choplifter title screen is awesome (but it looks like you’re massacring the P.O.W.s)

Thanks for reading!

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