Today we take a look at Choplifter for the SEGA Master System. In Choplifter you take the controls of a helicopter (looks like a Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” if you ask me) on a mission to save as many prisoners of war as you can. Your missions will have you flying through the desert in the middle-east, weaving through navy cruisers and destroyers in the pacific, and even entering a mountain cave in some distant forrest. You must fly your bird into the teeth of the enemy who are hell bent on stopping you. They will scramble jets, send tanks, fire anti-aircraft batteries, launch missiles and more, and that’s just the first mission! It is non-stop action from the start all the way to your fiery wreckage.
I originally played Choplifter on the Apple II (the original release) and then later on the ColecoVision, which was the same game as the Apple version. The SEGA Master System Choplifter was a complete redesign by SEGA and expands on the original concept in great fashion. Instead of a single map in the original you get three on the Master System with each one having a harder layout for basically six levels.
Choplifter is a side scrolling shooter at its core, but has some very unique mechanics. You start off at your base, which is always located on the right side of the mission map. Your brave tiny digital persona runs out of the base, takes a moment to wave at you and climbs into the chopper. You then lift off and fly headlong into danger. You are looking for prison camps that each house 16 poor souls in need of rescuing. But before you can do that you have to blow a hole in the building so that they can escape. Once the prisoners start pouring out of the burning prison it’s time to take your helicopter in close and land on the ground. Then things get hairy! You are a sitting duck, patiently waiting for up to 16 prisoners to board the chopper you’ll be assaulted by tanks, jeeps, and other machines of war. Once everyone who can make it are on board (and they may not all make it), it’s time to get the boys home. Lift off once more, this time with a belly full of precious cargo, and weave your way back through the war zone to the relative safety of your base. After landing under heavy duress your passengers jump to the ground and run into the base, some will stop and wave at their savior before heading in, making it all worth it. But your job isn’t over, there are more men out there and they are counting on you.
The graphics for Choplifter got a major overhaul on the Master System, it is the best looking version of the game. The levels themselves all look very good with colorful backgrounds. They’re a bit sparse but they need to be to show all the action up front. The ground is broken in to 3-4 parallax scrolling levels that give the game a great sensation of speed as you zip along, skimming the surface of both land and water.
Jets break and turn around to take a shot at you, turrets will rotate and track you, and tanks and jeeps roll-in guns blazing. Your bases look detailed with flags waving and in the case of the water mission you have an awesome aircraft carrier. Speaking of the water level, I particularly like the details of the various ships, each of them is brimming with turrets that give a nice little explosion when you take them out.
The highlight in the graphics department is the chopper and the guys you are saving. The helicopter can rotate from left to right and can face the screen head on, with frames in between each position that create a very smooth direction change. As you pick-up speed or pull back to stop the chopper, it pitches back and forth convincingly, again with several frames of animation. To save your buddies you first have to blow a hole in the compound holding them (or ship), which starts a fire that all the prisoners come running out of. While the guys are tiny on the screen they are active! They will wave you down as you fly by, changing direction and running towards you. When you take out a bad guy they will jump up and down in celebration before running for their lives again. And if you manage to bring any of them back to the base, after hopping off and running towards the base door, some will stop and wave at you, thanking you for saving them.
Looking at still pictures of the game you might not think the graphics are all that, but when everything is in motion and the real bullets are flying you can see the attention to detail SEGA took.
This controls in Choplifter are spot on. The helicopter has weight and momentum which really adds to the fun of controlling it. You only have two buttons to press, the A button fires your guns and the B button will rotate your helicopter. The D-pad moves your chopper around, lifting it off the ground and flying in any direction, but it will not change the direction you are facing. This allows you to stay pointing in one direction while going forwards or backwards to change your angle and aim your guns up or down. Holding the B button will turn your chopper the way you are traveling. Tapping the B button will rotate you between facing left or right and forward. Facing forward is the only way to attack certain enemies that appear in the foreground. Tapping A will fire your machine guns. One press per shot which you can spam 4 times before there is a slight pause to reload.
Once you master the controls you will be able to zip around and pull off some awesome maneuvers. You will lift off from you base and rotate around as you cross the enemy border into the danger zone. Flying high to avoid some missiles you swoop down and pass low over the prison to destroy a defending AA battery on the other side. After blowing it up you flip around blow a hole in the prison, your men start pouring out and waving you down. You drop to the ground to allow as many men as you can onboard, lifting off at the last second to avoid the incoming tank. Once air-born you turn back towards base only to have several fighters incoming. You make evasive maneuvers to avoid the first two then pull back to angle up and shoot the last one out of the sky. With clear skies you hit the throttle again and head to base to drop off the boys. Yes it’s a bit dramatized, but accurate!
Choplifter does a decent job in the sound department. There are three different songs, one for each level. The driving up-tempo beat works well when you’re screaming over the desert shooting everything in your path.
Another nice feature is the pitch and sound of your helicopter increases and decrease with your altitude. The guns are more of a pew-pew sound and explosions are more of a pop, but this is all standard Master System stuff. Overall the sound and music are good.
Choplifter can be deceptively hard. They ease you in on level one and then turn it up a couple notches for level two. Then level three comes and they crank it up to eleven. You will become a blazing hunk of twisted metal many times. But if you stay vigilant you will master it and feel like a champ with some of the situations you manage to survive. That’s one thing I really like about the game. It can be very hard and almost crazy at times, but you can make it through, and when you make it home with a full load of men safely it is satisfying. And when that last guy waves back at you before running in the base and calling his wife, it chokes you up a bit.
I wouldn’t say the game cheats or takes cheap shots, there are just times when you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. There also seems to be no rhyme or reason to the difficulty. You might play a level and only see a couple jets and the whole level seems a breeze. But the next time you play the game will throw everything it has at you. It will keep you on your toes and makes each play different. Stationary enemies are always in the same place, but everything else is random.
One interesting aspect is the number of helicopters you get. You start each mission with three. Once you score 30,000 points on a single level you get another life. But they do not carry over to the next level. Instead, you start that level with three lives, and no matter what your score is from the previous level, you will get another life when you score 30,000 more points on the new level. This continues with each level. So you can never have more than 4 lives, but you always get 3 at the start of a level.
I really enjoy this game. I enjoyed it back in the day and choose it for one of my first reviews for that reason. For this review I decided I was going to win this sucker (and record it for the YouTube channel), as I never did in my younger days. It was much harder than I thought it would be, taking many hour long sessions. There are times when it could get frustrating, but I would quickly restart and try again. It is a fast game to play and one you can pop in and go for half an hour, which I enjoy.
This is also a game you can go for a high score on. There are a few factors that can result in big points each level, which had me going back and trying to beat my personal. My high-score is listed below! If you can beat it, let me know what you scored in the comments!
This game is just plain fun. It is also very easy and inexpensive to attain. If you have a SEGA Master System I would highly recommend it for your collection, it’s a near perfect game.
GameTrog Video Review
GameTrog High Score: 947,500
GameTrog Tips for Choplifter
Click the box below to view some helpful tips I have after many hours of playing. Warning! Spoiler Alert!
Going for points:
At the end of each level you will be given bonus points. If no prisoners are killed during the mission, you will get a bonus of 100,000 points! If just one guy dies, your bonus will be in the 3000 point range! A 97,000 point error!
Try and drop off a full 16 men at a time. As each one gets off the chopper you get points. The first guy is 200 points, then each one after that adds another 200 with the last guy giving you 3200 points. So a full load of men will net you 27,200 points.
Don’t accidentally lift up when you are dropping off guys! If you do, the points reset at 200.
All enemies are only 100 points each, so farming them is not really a good option. They are all but inconsequential. Also repeating enemies like missiles and drones give you no points!
Picking up Men
To pass a level you need to get 40 men to the base. When the 40th guy gets out of the helicopter, the level ends. It doesn’t matter how many are left on board., you will not get any extra points for having dudes left on the chopper, so you only need to bring 40.
Each level has 4 “prisons” each with 16 men. That’s a total of 64 men on each level. If 25 men die you cannot complete the level and your game will end.
The two closest prisons are normally the easiest. If you can get each of them back you will only need to get 8 more guys back. Also, if you drop off a full load of 16 you’ll get over 27,000 points, then on the second load you will hit the 30,000 point threshold after 3-4 guys hop off and get an extra chopper for this level. This can help in getting the last group.
For the last group, only load up 8 guys at a time, leave the other 8 on the ground. That way if you get shot down you only lose 8 men, and can try again with the next 8. Nothing like having your helicopter full to the brim with the last group and getting shot out of the sky as you approach base.
Jets will only fire straight ahead at the level they are flying. As long as you are not directly in front of them you are in no danger. You can not collide with them.
All enemy bullets can be shot.
When picking up prisoners, if you stay on the ground for a short period of time a tank (or ship) will appear in the foreground to shoot you and the escaping men. When you land, every other second lift off the ground. Just push up real quick and your chopper will settle back down and guys will keep climbing on. But this will reset the tank timer and it will never show up. This doesn’t always work for the boats, but it helps.
Speaking of tanks and boats, they can ruin your bonus point chance as they will shoot your dudes. If one comes on the screen, lift up quickly, leaving the remaining men and fly away until the tank is off screen, as soon as it is, it is gone and you can return.
The hover-craft guys on the cave level are a pain in the rotor. Watch out for them as they are the ONLY enemy that can kill you when you are dropping off men. They normally fly in at a certain level and then loop down or up a little bit before they shoot. So if you are on the ground and you see one flying in a little above the ground, it is in perfect position to drop down a bit and ruin your day.
AA turrets will not shoot you on the ground. If you happen to land and one is on screen, lift up a bit and shoot it.
Jeeps will sometimes appear when you are picking up men, they will not shoot you on the ground. If you lift up, they put out a deadly stream of bullets. Let them pass off the screen before flying away. Better yet, as they pass, lift up just slightly and shoot them. You may need to rotate the chopper to do so.
Ocean level missiles… These are the bane of all Choplifters! On the ocean level when you are picking up men, there is a chance that a missile (presumably launched from a sub) will shoot out of the water right below you. You have almost zero time to react. If you are on a ship, you have a split second. If you are on the water (picking up men from the subs) you have no time, you just die, along with anyone on board. The lift up and down method seems to slow there appearance down, and sometimes they will appear but slightly off to the side and miss you. You will learn to fear them.
You can start at any of the 6 levels on the game.
At the first title screen press U, D, L, R then press A, the second title screen will show, do the same U, D, L, R and A code again. Then start screen will appear like normal saying “Level 1” but the “1” will rotate from 1 to 6. Press A on the level you want to start on. This is a good way to practice a level you are having trouble with, and then try and run through the whole game.
GameTrog Super Secret Level 3 Strategy
Level 3 of the game, the Cave level, is brutal. A new player will initially feel like there is no way to get through it. There are lava pits that throw up balls of fire that have NO pattern what-so-ever! And to make things worse there are stalactites above you, so you are between a rock and a lava place. But that’s not all! While you hover in front of the first lava pit wondering what you’re going to do, several hover-craft can come flying in and start shooting. And this is just the first few feet inside the cave, it gets worse.
While loosing my mind on this level and knowing that the programmers are still, to this day, laying in bed and chuckling at the torture they created, I had an epiphany… I don’t know if anyone else has done this (I haven’t watched anyone else run through the game), but I was recording when I figured it out. If you really want to know, look in the next tab… or you could try and figure it out on your own!
OK, first, clear out the enemies outside the cave. All 4 of the ground guns and the turrets guarding the cave. To get the turrets clear the ground guns first. Then ease in very slowly at the same height as the top turret until you see the tip of its gun and shoot. It may shoot also but your bullets will hit it’s bullet. Then drop down and do the same thing to the bottom gun, which sits just a touch further back than the top one. Now you have the path to your base clear.
And now, to deal with ALL the lava and falling rock traps in the level… Fly backwards! That’s right, if you fly backwards at top speed, you can easily avoid all lava and rocks. You need to be at the edge of the screen. So your tail is right at the edge, you will pass over the lava and they will start to fly, but you are already passed. This works both directions. With this method you can fly all the way to the back of the cave and not be hit.
This however does nothing for the hover-crafts. Also, you will need to know the location of the stalactites and stalagmites as you will be flying backwards and can’t see them, just stay dead center of the screen. This only makes the level somewhat easier, but it is a HUGE help. Good Luck!