I love it when a classic series comes back in one fashion or another. Rerelease, remake, sequel, it doesn’t matter, as long as it scratches that nostalgia itch. Choplifter HD, from Konami and developer Inxile Entertainment (who also briefly revived The Bard’s Tale a while back) is more of a sequel than a remake, but it adheres wonderfully close to the game I first played on the Atari 7800 as a kid. Choplifter returns in mostly fine form, though the difficulty may be too old-school for modern gamers.
In the original Choplifter, players took control of a helicopter from a side view. The goal: to rescue as many tiny hostages as possible from behind enemy lines and return them to base, all while fighting or avoiding aerial and land-based enemies. That’s exactly how Choplifter HD plays. The variety of objectives has increased – sometimes you’ll need to destroy specific targets or deliver a Special Forces operative to various sabotage points, but it all fits perfectly with the established design.
Early on, there’s a lot to love about Choplifter HD. Besides the authentic feel, the game boasts some fine production values. You won’t confuse the graphics with a retail title, but they still pack lots of detail. Tiny little goats and sheep run around many levels, and there are Achievements for killing each. Speaking of kills, strafing the ground and slicing up enemy soldiers (or hostages by mistake) elicits its share of laughs. Each mission packs well-voiced and witty dialogue as well. And with 30 missions, Choplifter HD is a long and varied game.
Unfortunately, many gamers won’t come anywhere near the end of Choplifter HD. Once the 13th mission (3-1) rolls around, the difficulty goes from fun and challenging to frustrating. I had to play that level more than 10 times, always dying near the end from enemy fire. It doesn’t get any easier from there, either. Now sometimes challenge is a good thing, but it always needs to feel fair, like in Rayman Origins. Choplifter HD’s difficulty, on the other hand, feels like the result of poor balancing more than anything else.
Many enemies fire homing weapons before you can even target them. These shots are guaranteed to hit unless you expend precious fuel to dodge them and have the room to even do so. With very little opportunity to dodge or get the jump on your foes, and veritable swarms of bad guys a-firing, the odds aren’t stacked in the player’s favor. Additionally, enemies can attack from three planes: the foreground, the middle ground (where most of the action takes place), and the background. Players can target enemies on the same plane or the foreground but not the background, making the jeeps and tanks that approach from back there quite a nuisance.
Choplifter HD does have a promising helicopter unlocking system that could have taken care of the difficulty problems. Upon completing a level, you’re awarded a star rating based on how many hostages survived, enemies defeated, etc. By reaching star milestones you’ll unlock new choppers with improved stats. The unlocking system doesn’t quite work out, though. When you first reach a level, you’re locked to a specific copter, so even if you’ve unlocked a better one it doesn’t do you any good. The unlockable choppers up until the point I quit just kept pace with the increasing challenge rather than instilling a sense of power, anyway.
First impressions are usually an accurate impression of a game’s experience, but not always. I absolutely adored Choplifter HD for the first 12 levels and felt it worth the hefty $15 asking price. But once I reached that difficulty hump, the experience went from red licorice tasty to black licorice painful. With all the care that Inxile lavished on this Choplifter revival, it’s a shame they didn’t make sure that everybody can enjoy it. Still, patient gamers who love an old-school challenge should give it a whirl.
Overall rating: 3 out of 5.
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of Choplifter HD was based on the XBLA version of the game. The review copy was provided by the publisher.