Retrogamer and Champion of the Obscure and Defenceless
Turbo Chopper Simulator is a game I was unaware of until a few years ago, when I decided to take retrogaming a little bit more seriously and look past the obvious gold records in favour of something more obscure or unusual. This is one game which I consider essential for any CPC owner.
An Amstrad CPC-exclusive game from 1989, Turbo Chopper Simulator is an arcade-action game reminiscent of classics like Manic Miner and Berzerk while injecting its own unique brand of gameplay into the mix. The player assumes the role of a helicopter pilot operating the eponymous whirlybird. This game will run on all CPC machines.
The game’s title screen gives way to a rather simplistic main menu with a jaunty melody. Here, the player has the option to define his or her own keys or to press the fire button on their Atari-standard single-button joystick to start the game. For the purpose of this retrospective and review, I played the game using my custom-made arcade joystick for retrocomputers.
The game itself consists of a colourful screen thanks to the CPC’s low-resolution, 16-colour mode and is divided into approximately 30 levels, with each level taking up its own screen and indicated by letters instead of numbers at the top of the screen (Level A, Level B, Level C, etc. for the last few levels, the game uses Greek letters). For a CPC game, it runs very smoothly and there are no noticeable artefacts such as slowdown or drops in framerate, having been tailored for its hardware. The main player sprite is the eponymous Turbo Chopper, identifiable by a large red helicopter. The goal of each level is to take out enemy defences, namely:
Further enemy defences will be added as the game progresses. Occasionally, fuel tanks for the Turbo Chopper will appear out of nowhere, which can be acquired by setting down below them. The game gives you four (4) lives – when you run out, the game ends and depending on your score, you will be able to enter your initials in the high score table.
The controls for this game take some getting used to, as they are developed for the Atari standard single-button joystick which was commonplace on home computers of this era. With the fire button released, the chopper can move freely – in an interesting twist (and crucial to master), the helicopter can either back away slightly (if the joystick is tapped and then released in the opposite direction) or it can turn around entirely (if the joystick is held in the opposite direction for more than a second). This technique will prove to be beneficial and even essential to making progress, as this game relies just as much on pixel-perfect accuracy as it does on near-instantaneous reaction time.
With the fire button held down, however, the whirlybird can engage the enemy depending on which direction is pushed on the joystick. Up and Down will launch a grenade in either direction, which time out after approximately five (5) seconds, although the player MUST be careful, as the grenade does not discriminate friend from foe. These grenades will be useful for taking out enemies in tight spots or places which are otherwise inaccessible to the Turbo Chopper. Pushing Forward on the joystick will launch a missile in a straight line, while attempting to move Backwards will perform a hasty retreat, although the player must be careful when using it to avoid any unintentional collisions with enemies or scenery, which will result in the loss of a life.
The game has a minimal, almost Spartan, level of presentation – the only flair the game shows is at the title screen and main menu. Upon first glance, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a game coded in BASIC if it were not for the jaunty and slightly energetic music. No fancy effects, nothing really sticks out – just plain red text on a blue background, so the game does not fare well in this regard.
Graphics (Detail, Colour)
This is where the game shines, as the Amstrad CPC’s low-resolution 16-colour mode really shows off what the system can do when it is programmed competently with games built from the ground up for the CPC instead of trying to pander to multiple platforms with downgraded ZX Spectrum ports. Every sprite is both detailed sufficiently enough despite the low screen resolution and is also very colourful so the player gets the best of both worlds: Characters that are easily identifiable (particularly the main player sprite) and images that pop out at the player, so to speak. There is no lag or slowdown and everything scrolls smoothly thanks to the CPC’s hardware being pushed to the limit.
Sound effects are more than adequate, generated by the CPC’s AY sound chip – each sound effect in the game sounds approximately close to what it is supposed to represent and doubles as a form of feedback for the player. In terms of music, however, there is only a single tune in the game, which plays during the main menu, recycled from the Codemasters budget racer Super Stuntman from 1987. A short faux-jingle plays when the player advances to the next level and when the game ends, but other than that, there is very little in terms of melody.
The controls are the part of the game that will either make or break the game for a potential player. As explained beforehand, trying to move the Turbo Chopper backwards will result in it turning around if held down long enough or simply backing way if nudged briefly – the player MUST get used to using the emergency retreat by holding down the fire button and pushing back on the joystick. The player must also take into consideration the game’s usage of physics (grenades bounce off boundaries such as walls or ceilings and missiles can only be fired one at a time), which can make the game slightly harder than necessary. However, once learned and mastered, the player should be able to traverse the 30 or so levels with relative ease.
Gameplay (Difficulty, Fun-to-Frustration Ratio)
The game’s gameplay is, at its essence, an arcade-esque affair – easy to learn but hard to master. From the third level onwards (Level C), the player will be greeted by additional enemies such as turrets, mines and even invisible adversaries that blend into the background, which changes colour with each new level. This adds a level of challenge to the game and forces the player to think of new ways to defeat the enemies in the current level – there is no time limit, thankfully, so the player can take his or her time in trying to work out new ways in accomplishing their task.
Turbo Chopper Simulator is an overlooked entry in the Amstrad CPC catalogue, often overshadowed by bigger titles such as Chase HQ and TLL: Tornado Low Level. However, despite its budget price at the time of release, it can still offer solid hours of gameplay and entertainment once one gets to grips with the unconventional control scheme, particularly for a game of this nature. Definitely recommended for fans of arcade shooters and CPC owners.
Final Score: 4 ½ out of 5.
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