Let’s get this out of the way right now: even though The Helicopter features a radio-controlled helicopter, it is not in any sort of competition with Shiny’s RC Stunt Copter. It doesn’t remotely aspire to that game’s level of simulation, and it won’t appeal to anybody expecting an extremely accurate flight model. What this is is a simple, pleasant, unassuming mission-based flight game not unlike Rescue Copter. It’s also the sequel to a Simple 1500 title for Playstation of the same title, which was released overseas as simply “RC Helicopter.”
The game’s set in a suburban Japanese environment, with three different major locations: the player’s home, a shop-lined street, and a school building. The player controls the helicopter at all times, from the very beginning of the game, and is free to roam about the available locations looking for work that needs to be done. Golden stars are scattered around the environments, and picking one up by running into it with the helicopter will cause a mission to start. The missions each involve one of the game’s NPCs giving the player a fairly mundane task to carry out, like washing windows, killing cockroaches with bug spray, scaring away crows, cleaning up empty soda cans in a vacant lot, or returning lost bikini tops to distraught female swimmers (um, yeah). Auxillary actions are handled with the R1 (and sometimes L1) button, and these actions – whether squirting or grabbing – behave predictably and reliably, unlike in Rescue Copter. All of the NPC speech is in Japanese text only, but it’s easy to tell when they mention the buttons one will be using on a mission, and easy to figure out mission goals even if one doesn’t understand a word of moonspeak.
The dual-stick controls (the usual collective and cyclic) take a little getting used to at first, but once learned, they’re very smooth and predictable, and they rarely get in the way of trying to get a job done, which makes the missions fun to carry out. There are three helicopters to choose from, two of which must be purchased, and each successive chopper is more maneuverable. Also, there are ten or so levels of upgradeability for each helicopter, and these affect the engine (power), gyro (manueverability), body (durability), and battery (running time). When upgraded, the default helicopter is positively sluggish, but upgrades go a long way toward making it more useful. This sort of serves as a tutorial for the game, as the helicopter becomes more maneuverable as the player becomes more adept at using it, rather than having a possibly inexperienced player tossed in with a testy chopper right from the start. There’s a small selection of decals to buy, too, so you can slap on that D3 Publisher logo you’ve always fantasized about. Vibration is used fairly sparsely, but one neat effect is the upside-down-stomach feeling it gives you when you drop the collective (vertical thrust) all the way out and your helicopter plummets.
The Helicopter is not exactly state-of-the-art, graphically. Textures are very basic, polygon counts are low, and every shortcut imaginable has been taken in making the environments and objects cheap to model and render. But this isn’t to say that the game is ugly; rather, it still presents attractive, colorful environments that portray idyllic, safe suburban environments appropriately. The game runs at a constant and smooth sixty frames per second, too, which helps keep the game’s look clean. And developer Tomcat System’s in-house character designer has turned in top-class work here with the game’s NPC designs. Nearly every character’s look is pleasing, colorful, and cute. The three to five tracks of background music are that sort of irresistably cheerful, instrumental Japanese pop that makes the whole game feel like a sunny Saturday afternoon.
There are some irritating problems with the game, which are mostly related to its collision detection and camera work. Sometimes the player might maneuver too quickly for the camera to follow when too close to an obstacle and might end up smacking into a nearby object. The helicopter’s top rotor is particularly easy to bump against objects, and it can be jarring to end up on the floor after running into something that seemed just a few inches further away than it was (though this might be a result of sloppy stickwork on my part). A few missions position the player far away from the helicopter, from a fixed point of view instead of the usual chase view, and this can make maneuvering near objects and walls touch-and-go. Invisible walls keep the player out of areas the developer designated as off-limits, and as it’s not easy to consistently tell what roofs are okay to fly over and which aren’t when one is roaming the city, it can be frustrating to be rebuffed in spots where appears that passage is allowed. This issue doesn’t affect the actual missions, though, which all take place in clearly-delineated areas.
All twenty-someodd missions in the game can be completed in three to four hours, and all of the helicopters purchased and fully upgraded in not much more time than that, but the game is fun enough that replaying missions in order to get better times isn’t an unreasonable idea. Even $20-$25 might be a high price for this kind of playtime for some, but the game is available as part of a double pack bundled with the two Shienryu games, which sweetens the deal quite a bit. The Helicopter may not be ambitious, but it embodies the simple philosophy: it’s a simple game with simple goals and controls, and it’s simple fun.