When you look at the title of our next GX4000 game, Copter 271, it looks like something’s missing…a ‘Heli,’ perhaps? Either way, it turns out that the title’s pretty apt. Turn the power on, and you’ll find out that there’s something missing throughout your gaming experience.
Released in 1991, Copter 271 was the last official title released for the GX4000, and possibly the most ambitious one on the system. Developed by Frenchies Loriciel (who were quite profilific in the volume of CPC, Amiga and PC titles they pushed onto the French-speaking world) the game is an impressive scrolling shooter that seems to have been specificially designed to use all of the technical enhancements Amstrad baked into the GX4000. From the fancy high-definition hardware sprite used for the player’s chopper through to the deployment of the GX’s extended colour pallette, split screen effects and raster interupts, this game is evidence for why Amstrad probably believed they’d created a half-decent console.
The results are a bit mixed though. The title screen (complete with fancy shooting star effects and animated helicopters) is pretty impressive, and the player’s copter definitely looks like something generated by one of the fancier consoles instead of the aged CPC, however the fanciness of the helicopter contrasts painfully with the vaguely ropey sprites used for the enemies. Plus, the ground they’re all flying over also looks like it was drawn rather crudely on graph paper. Oh dear.
Graphics, of course, aren’t everything, but the gameplay contains an equally frustrating mix of highlights and frustrations. First, the good: though a vertical shooter at heart, Copter’s horizontal space is around two screens wide. Consequently, while the screen scrolls automatically on the vertical, the player is in full control of the horizontal axis, which is a nice mechanic.
Likewise the inevitable missile/bomb/power-ups that seem to spawn relatively randomly will attach themselves onto the mount point closest to their point of contact with the helicopter which, while not entirely original, is also a nice touch.
It’s a shame then, that there are major setbacks which will hinder any attempts to extract enjoyment from Copter 271. For a start, Copter introduces the cardinal sin for any scrolling shooter: chronic slowdown. There’s one particular enemy (a flight of three jets that zoom from the top left to the bottom right of the screen) that will cause issues not because of the fiendishness of its design, but because its simple presense on screen is enough to reduce your capability to move and fire in response to it.
Speaking of firing, the bullets themselves are also an issue, as (regardless of source) they’re basically pixel-sized black dots. While this may be realistic from the perspective of the size/speed of real bullets, from a gameplay perspective it makes it highly difficult to keep track of what’s going on (and that’s from a physical sight perspective as opposed to a deliberate gameplay choice.) I think there’s a reason why the likes of 1942 had such exaggerated bullet effects in the arcades.
Perhaps the biggest problem overall, however, is the level design. Yes, the sideways scrolling mechanic is interesting, but it feels like it should have been taken in one of two directions: Either pull the player from left to right with intelligent level design, drip feeding the enemy placements so that the player instinctively followers a path across the full width of the level, or place enough enemies and pick ups to allow them to carve their own way through.
Sadly Copter does neither. It feels like there are definite hot spots where the enemies and items appear, but these randomly chop and change without any warning or logic. This can be doubly frustrating if an enemy zooms in unnannouned from the side and gets you before your Copter can physically react. Bah humbug.
In fact, design issues aren’t restricted to the X axis, as the levels seem to meander on without resolution. Sure, the scenery is jolly enough (you’ll fly over islands and island bases,) but you dont feel as if you’re progressing towards anything. In fact, i don’t know if this game even has other levels at all. No one online seems to have got off the first one, and none of the GX4000 sites seem to have that much info about the game.
These issues are frustrating, as i actually quite like the core mechanics of what i see here. At full speed, moving and firing are as rewarding as they are in any other vertical shooter, and its nice to see that someone tried to push the GC4000 to its absolute limit. Copter even includes a simultaneous 2 player mode, which is very welcome indeed.
Indeed, the setting itself also has cult classic written all over it. Sure, the stop-the-aliens plotline might be as generic as they come, but opposition’s eclectic mix of real-world jets and machine gun-toting Saucers feels original and intriguing.
Overall then, it’s a shame that the high-production values of the completed areas only help to emphasise how rushed and empty the rest of the experience feels. As the last official release for the GX4000, it clearly seems that Loriciel needed to get something out of the door to try and extract some cash from the GX4000 before it finally collapsed – and this shines through clearly in the enemy placement/general optimisation. Rather than a glorious last hurrah, Copter-271 was an ignominious end for a console doomed to be forgotten.