Best Games - Choplifter!
The best early 8-bit computer games did a lot with a little. They were written for computers built around MOS 6502 or Zilog Z80 processors. Moderately powerful chips at the time, but still absolutely dwarfed by the comparatively monstrous boards and chips in most arcade machines.
There was never any hope that the graphics of an Apple II would come anywhere near to the graphics of a contemporary arcade machine. The frame rate would never be as smooth. The sound would never be as rich and full. An Apple II computer can do a wide variety of things, but being a match for any arcade machine would never be one of them.
Maybe this is why a lot of the greatest innovations in gameplay arrived on computers first. If you can’t match them on razzle dazzle, you better be able to make the game interesting in other ways.
Choplifter! is a rare breed of game where the main objective is something ancillary to the main verbs the player has available.
If I told you that you are controlling a helicopter that can fly quickly or slowly, pitch up or down, fly backward or forward, rotate to face in one of three directions, and it can shoot in any of them, what would you imagine the main game objective would be? If you picked flying around and shooting, I wouldn’t be surprised. It seems obvious that the player would use those verbs to play the game.
Other than flying, you don’t really need any of them. It would be possible to play, and win Choplifter! never firing a shot and never rotating the helicopter.
The main objective of Choplifter! Is to save as many captured prisoners of war as you possibly can. Not all, not a set amount. As many as you can. Maybe that’s only one. Maybe that’s all of them. Honestly, that’s up to you. The game only demands that you save as many as you can.
You could fly out, land, pick up prisoners, and take them back, while never engaging with any other verb in the game. Never pressing a button on the controller. It wouldn’t be as much fun, but you could do it.
Add to that, all the small interactions in the game. There are tanks, airplanes, and depending on the version you play, ground based cannons, and some sort of drone unit. You can choose to fight them or avoid them, and most of the time it’s best to just avoid them. You can shoot open the prison huts, or get a tank to do it for you. Prisoners can be killed by tank fire, missiles from airplanes, your own shots, or just by landing on them.
The best part about all of this interactivity is, you don’t really need to engage with any of it to play the game. You will, because it’s fun, but you don’t need to. How you play the game is left to you.
This is really what I mean when I say ‘did a lot with a little’. Sure, the processors and memory of those 8-bit computers were laughably small by comparison to today, or even the arcade machines of the time, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Here is a game that is about a single objective. Rescue prisoners. But the way you go about doing that is extremely nuanced. You can shoot every enemy, or never shoot at all. You can pick up as many prisoners as your chopper can hold, or you can make dozens of small trips. The game doesn’t care. There are a lot of tools here, and you can use them however you like.
Choplifter! Lets you decide how you will play it, and that’s almost always a recipe for the best games.