For the purposes of this article, we played Air Rescue in an actual arcade that still had it. Yes, we live in the kind of backwater that hasn't upgraded their arcade games since 1992 (that's a lie, the same arcade has F-ZERO AX so 'ave that). While this means we've had the proper arcade experience (that arcade feel, if you will) necessary to review the game (seriously, playing this thing via emulation was painful for my writer cohort, which I took a certain glee in watching) our screenshots are going to be from MAME, and the video emulation is marked as not being 100% accurate. It seemed fine to us, beyond the flashing logo/helicopter on the title screen, but just bear that in mind, OK?
OK, let's have a show of hands. Who remembers Choplifter?
No, not that Choplifter. This one:
Alright, you got me, they're technically the same Choplifter. Except they're not. The first is the original Apple II Choplifter, written by Dan Gorlin and published by Broderbound, whereas the second is the arcade version. One of those odd games to be released on home consoles/computers before hitting the arcades (see also: Boulder Dash, Lode Runner), Choplifter is simple, but fun- in a little chopper with weapons for attacking enemies on your plane of the screen and the front of it (by tapping the second button, your helicopter turns around, and facing the screen lets you bomb enemies in the foreground), you must find the wounded, grab 'em, and take them back to your home base, all the while under enemy fire- and remember, it's a one-hit-kill world out there, so be careful. The arcade version was developed by Sega, and added a fuel meter which could be replenished by saving people, and this was the version used as the basis for the Master System version. It's a fun little game, whichever version you play, as it's fast-paced, and the arcade version in particular is pretty tough. Please be careful not to squash the people you're trying to rescue, though!
Sega didn't make any more games under the Choplifter name, but they clearly wanted more chopper-rescuing action.
This brings us to Air Rescue, which is essentially Choplifter in 3D. Running on Sega's System-32 hardware (that hardware with Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder, SegaSonic the Hedgehog and all those other games you wish had proper home-ports), your job is to airlift soldiers out of danger hot-spots and take them back to home base, with enemy tanks and choppers on you all the while. Yep, sounds pretty familiar. As this one is in a big cabinet, the controls are a bit different from its Choplifter forefathers- you've got a massive control stick which moves your chopper forwards, backwards and turns it around (despite what you may think, it's not analogue at all- just the one speed here), buttons on the stick for firing your gun (must be aimed) and missiles (infinite supply, homes in on enemies, must recharge) and a small lever, like the throttle from After Burner, used for controlling the height of your chopper (hold it all the way up to land, bring it down to lift-off). Your main obstacle will be the enemy forces (mostly helicopters and tanks) whose fire will chip at your fuel gauge... Which also runs down by itself anyway. Top it up by rescuing hostages and getting them to safety, and you also get it boosted upon completion of a stage. The final wrinkle is that your chopper can hold a maximum of eight passengers, and each mission adds more people to rescue, so you eventually get into a pattern- find people (nicely marked on the map and radar), take them back to base, repeat until you've saved them all.
And, er, that's it.
Well, OK, there's one other thing. A bit like Avengers, there's a few elements of Air Rescue that are, somehow, unintentionally amusing... The soldiers you pick up, for instance, look a bit off with huge gaping mouths as they approach the chopper and bizarre expressions when they give you the thumbs-up/salute you. The main source of humour, such as it is, is about the enemies, that comes about due to technical limitations. I initially thought that the radar only showing hostage positions and not enemies was a real pain, because how would I know when enemies were behind me? Then I realised that, uh, enemies cannot attack you from behind. They can only hit you when they're in view. So whenever you land to pick up soldiers, holding either left or right means that enemy choppers will constantly turn to get into your line of view and since they can't stop, they can't hit you. There's something faintly comical about this. It doesn't apply to stationary tanks, though, so you still have to shoot them before they can lodge a cannon shell in your rotor blades.
OK, that's really it. That's all there is to Air Rescue.
The problem with Air Rescue is, to be brutally honest, it's pretty insubstantial. Even for an arcade game, it's amazingly short (there are only five missions, and one of those is the training stage), so it feels more like an experience, if you know what I mean- we've got a big ol' control stick and a big-ass swivelin' seat to sit in, whee-ha! Even if we take it as that, though, it doesn't really do that much. Choplifter worked in 2D because it was fast, the stages were fairly long and decently populated with enemies, and one-hit kills were the order of the day, so the to-ing and fro-ing with passengers was exciting, and kept you playing to see how far you could get. With Air Rescue, though, there's none of that. The fuel gauge doubling as a health bar means you'll die too easily without it necessarily being your fault (compare with Galaxy Force II, where skillful play keeps you alive longer), the stages are pretty small but only feel bigger because your chopper has only 'stop' and 's-l-o-w' as its speed settings (no analogue, remember), and, well, it's just a bit dull. This made it tough to give it a score- it's not broken, and the core of Choplifter is still sort-of there which is nice, it's just a bit naff. Not enough to put it on the level of Crime Fighters and Block Gal- it's dull, but not punishingly so.
Now, while you might think there's other arcade games that do this kind of thing too, i.e. put the experience before the game itself- keeping things Sega, let's say After Burner II- it's still a bit different. In ABII's case, the game goes at one hell of a pace, there's more stuff you can do like barrel-rolls and actually lock-on to enemies, and there's even a bit of missile-management. Air Rescue has none of this. It just sort-of plods along, not doling out much excitement at all. Another one is Galaxy Force II- again, very flashy, but it also has more game-like bits (getting extra energy to survive is far more reliant on player skill than in Air Rescue, and there's those tunnel sections) which make it more than a graphical showcase. All this kind of thing is lost in this one. ABII and GFII are probably the best point of comparison, really- if anything, Air Rescue is like a successor to the Sega Super Scaler games and the Y Board Hardware games like Power Drift, so it's like the third generation of games with 2D graphics trying to emulate 3D through scaling. The difference is, those games may have been more limited in movement, but they still let you do more than in Air Rescue. Less is more, in this case.
It's a shame, as the fourth and fifth missions are visually pretty striking- the fourth is a ruined, abandoned city at dusk (could've done with more buildings, but still) while the fifth is my favourite, an oil refinery on fire at night, with flames covering the backdrop as you ferry passengers to and fro. I also have an inherent weakness for this graphical style (see previous gushing comments about Galaxy Force II) so you'd think I'd be naturally inclined to this one. Sadly, it can't back up its relatively solid core (that core being Choplifter) with exciting and engaging game mechanics and 'feel', possibly because it's a wee bit too ambitious for its hardware. This sort of search-and-rescue concept is better executed on more advanced technology, and with things taken back to the ground- stuff like Crazy Taxi and Zombie Virus have a similar concept (Zombie Virus even has passenger capacity options) but with bigger maps so they're more engaging and fun to play. If you're very curious as to how Choplifter would work in 3D, then Air Rescue is OK, but it's in the same league as King of the Monsters 2 and PS2 Altered Beast- nice ideas and a certain charm, but not executed well enough. Oh well!
For not doing much at all, Air Rescue is awarded...
In a sentence, Air Rescue is... Just a bit dull, really.
And now, it's that time, folks!
You know how I like Sega games where the home ports are totally different from the original arcade games?
Air Rescue is another one, it's just that I'm more interested in the arcade game this time.
The Master System version of Air Rescue was released the same year as the arcade game, developed by Sanritsu, and only made it to Europe, Brazil and South Korea as by that time the Master System was dead everywhere else. Whereas the arcade game is a bit like Choplifter but in 3D, the Master System version is a bit like Choplifter but more scrolling. Also, less fun. As ever, you must rescue the hapless hostages, but the stages are bigger than the horizontal-only world of the original Choplifter, you can now select one of four different weapons back at the home base (including one for putting out fires) and there's a 'retract ladder' button for picking up hostages. The locations (again, only five of 'em) are also more varied, including an amusement park, a high-rise building on fire, and a crashed ocean liner (my favourite, because the stage is called Panic Ocean).
Much like the arcade game, there's not much going on here- it's a short game, even by the standards of when it was released. The main issue here is that the controls take a lot of getting used to, especially movement- it feels very fiddly, as if it's trying to be as precise as possible but it's still hard to judge how much you'll lurch forward when you tap the direction button. I can understand why they'd go for these controls- unlike Choplifter where there's only the ground to land on, hostages in Air Rescue could be trapped inside buildings or elsewhere, which means more precise movement is necessary... It's just not that much fun, though. Probably better than the arcade game in that, well, it's got a little meat to it, but it's still no Choplifter.
Now, let's have a look at some photos.
Specifically, photos of the Air Rescue cabinet I played the game on for this review.
A few notes about the cabinet, then. Quite a complex thing, really- the chair you sit in swivels slightly to the left or right when you turn in those directions, the flight stick goes down to the floor and controls movement, and the speakers are actually in the head-rest of the chair you sit in, so you get an ear-full of EMERGENCY ALERT! EMERGENCY ALERT! COME IN, AIR RESCUE! at the start of a mission whether you like it or not. Oddly, this particular cabinet has two start buttons, but they're never used- you start playing by pressing the fire button instead. For a dedicated, complex cabinet that's over 20 years old, this isn't in horrible condition... At least the Player 1 side isn't. As you can see, the Player 2 side's monitor is busted and shows the wrong colours. The flight stick is also a lot looser, as if it's about to break apart at any moment, and the speakers are much quieter. Oddly, inserting a coin gives a credit to both player sides, so you technically get two goes for the price of one. Bargain!
Speaking of differences, depending on how recent your version of MAME is, you may be missing some stuff! Older versions of MAME boot the game up thinking it's linked-up- the first time you see the title screen, the word Rescue is cut off before it can finish the E, as the other half of the word is supposed to appear on the second monitor. After that, it appears as normal, and never asks you to wait for the second player when starting a game. However, as explained by HAZE's MAME WIP page, this isn't because it's a different version from the one I saw in the arcade, but because the second game board isn't hooked up. As such, only in more recent versions of MAME can you see the slight differences when two players play the game at the same time. Specifically, more hostages are added to each stage, and a new counter for the amount of hostages rescued by the other player (called your 'rival') appears on the top of the screen. Your individual totals are also flashed up on-screen after each mission.
Additionally, there's an intro to the game that only plays when both monitors are hooked up, seen at 1:59 in the video above.
To see us off, here's the ending of Air Rescue, as seen in the arcade.
That's right, I'm showing off... Not that I beat this in one credit, mind.