Retro Game Of The Week: Choplifter (Sega Master System)

Choplifter Sega Master System

Choplifter is a classic game, and the Sega Master System version has aged beautifully — it’s a must play game for any retro game fan.

In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish.

I will often say that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is the finest of all the consoles — mostly because it’s true — but I cannot deny the very special place that the Sega Master System has in my heart.

You see, while the SNES sits undeniably on the retro throne, the humble Sega Master System was the first console I bought with my own money, and that’s special, at least in a nostalgic sense.

By the time I did — this would have been late 1990, maybe early 1991 — Sega’s conversion of Choplifter was not a new game by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I certainly played it first on an Apple II, because that’s where the game had its genesis all the way back in 1982.

With a heavy dollop of inspiration by way of Defender, Choplifter casts you as a helicopter rescue pilot in a war zone — publishers Brøderbund tried to recast Dan Gorlin’s game as taking place in the same world as later Brøderbund military titles, but that really, truly doesn’t matter — tasked with freeing military prisoners and flying them back to a safe zone on a base or nearby ship.

Choplifter Sega Master System

Based on this flag, presumably all the POWs are from… England?


Sounds easy, right? Nope.

Choplifter was reworked by Sega as an arcade title, and that’s what the Sega Master System version that I have such fond memories of is built around.

Your chopper can turn into three facing directions, left, right or front-facing, with each determining an optimal move speed and firing direction relative to the enemies seeking to stop you sitting on a parallax plane that makes up a lot of the landscape — or seascape, depending on the level.

Choplifter Sega Master System

Tom Cruise felt the need, the need for speed around this time.
Choplifter gives me the ability to shoot him out of the sky. Feels good.

What makes Choplifter stand out from the oh-so-many scrolling shooters of the era are, I think, a couple of factors.

Firstly, it has wonderfully balanced inertia and control. Yes, it’s very hard and you will get shot down a lot, sometimes through brutal difficulty curves and sometimes your own flying stupidity, but when it all comes together and you’re dodging bullets and rescuing POWs, you feel like a flying GOD. It’s quite addictive stuff.

Choplifter Sega Master System

EVERYBODY LIVES! (This doesn’t happen often)

It’s also one of the earliest games I can think of that plays very directly with your emotions in a way that goes beyond “Hey, I just lost a life/character/go at this game”.

You do only have a limited number of choppers that can be shot down, but you also have to rescue a set number of POWs per level — and their lives, literally are in your hands. There’s a counter for how many POWs you’re ferrying at one time, how many you’ve actually rescued… and how many have died.

Choplifter Sega Master System

“Sarge, why is the sky pink?”
“That’ll be the LSD they put in your ration pack kicking in, son…”

Your POWs can be shot by the enemy, but they can also be squashed by you if you’re not careful, and if you are shot down with a full contingent of prisoners on board, they all die too.

For what are just a collection of pixels, you really do start to feel the sting of getting shot down when it’s not just your digital “life” on the line.

I guess technically Defender did it first, but the difference that just a few more pixels and a little more animation — they cheer if you blow up a nearby tank as you’re rescuing them! — has on your attachment is quite profound. In Defender they’re these blocky abstract humans. In Choplifter they feel distinctly more alive.

Choplifter Sega Master System

It’s astonishing what a few frames of animation can do. I feel a distinct thrill when these POWs make it to safety that’s markedly different, from, say, the way I might feel about Pac-Man or the Space Invaders tank.

Or at least they do until I get shot out of the sky with 16 on them aboard. That’s a lot of telegrams to be sent out to significant others, right there.

Choplifter Sega Master System

“Technically, Ma’am, your husband did make it back to base. It’s just that he got shot down AT the base, just before he landed. Yes, that was rude of the enemy forces, Ma’am.”

In all honesty, I’m not terribly good at Choplifter; typically I make it to the third cave stage and that’s where the difficulty curve absolutely kicks my rear end.

Choplifter Sega Master System

I am NOT good at the cave level. Unless the objective is dying, I’m quite good at that.

This is perfectly fine, however, because Choplifter is one of those games best enjoyed in smaller bursts in that classic old-school arcade style.

How to play Choplifter (Sega Master System) now

Choplifter Sega Master System

The box is a little worn, but I like to think of it as battle worn, you know?

Back in the day Choplifter was ported to nearly everything going in the 1980s — though I can’t seem to find evidence of an Amstrad version, oddly enough.

The version above is mine and, for once, I’m not 100% sure where I got it from, so I can’t quote the price I paid for it. I think it was part of a bulk lot I got from an ex GameSpot Au editor back about 23 years ago (long after I’d sold off my original Master System, but into the point where I’d started getting those games back again), but I’m not sure.

That’s unusual, because for most games in my collection I can point to them and distinctly say when and where I got them. It’s part of the fun, honestly.

The rights for Choplifter are, as far as I can tell… complicated. Developed by Dan Gorlin, published by Brøderbund, redeveloped for the arcade by Sega and then ported by Sega in-house for the Master System, later developed by (amongst others) Aussie firm Beam Software into the excellent Choplifter III, but Brøderbund’s been through a few hands since (including Ubisoft, oddly enough) and it’s been many years since there was any kind of “new” version of Choplifter either. As such, it’s really hard to work out who might own this one. If anyone knows, drop me a comment below!

In any case, that does mean that the Master System version I’ve got hasn’t featured at all in compilations or the like in the years since 1985.

Sega sold a lot of copies of Choplifter (remember kids, the underlying Internet narrative that only the NES succeeded in this era is US-centric NONSENSE) and as such it’s a readily available and quite affordable game to buy – eBay completed prices suggest that you can pay between $10-$40 for a copy, sometimes boxed with instructions, sometimes not.

It’s easily worth that. Time to…

wait for it…

Choplifter Sega Master System


(Hey, I had to, somewhere.)

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