No longer satisfied with occasionally roaming around on the website, I recently made the plunge and purchased a PICO-8 "fantasy game console." My first serious interaction with this software was in September 2022. The surprise of finding flight games and simulators on this platform led me to write the article "Curious Case of PICO-8 Flying". With the official virtual console now in my collection and a newfound interest in trying games created by users worldwide, I once again dove into what other flight titles were available or in development.
The most useful feature of the PICO-8 software is the Splore function. It primarily acts as the search function for games made for the platform with extended functions like saving them to a favorites list, accessing game jam collections, seeing recently featured games, and similar helpful features.
Recently I was engrossed with Combat Helicopter, created by Mot (Twitter, Itch.io). I cracked a smile reading the game description about being the pilot of the P8 64K Apachi armored attack helicopter tasked with a series of missions in enemy territory. The initial visuals of the game reminded me of LHX Attack Chopper, which I enjoyed the Sega Genesis port of in the 1990s.
The moment I slowly increased the collective and felt distinguishable weight behind the controls, I figured there was more going on than I was expecting. This wasn't just another flight arcade game where I could set the engine power to near max and barrel roll the helicopter whenever I wanted to. I looked up the game cartridge's webpage for detailed information developers occasionally add that the Splore function doesn't present.
The warning note from Mot tells users up front that the game emulates 8-bit flight simulators from the 1980s and 1990s. It isn't a straightforward arcade helicopter shooter game like the Strike series, but firmly more of a combat helicopter flight simulator. It can be played in a web browser or on the PICO-8 software for free using a keyboard and mouse or a USB gamepad.
Even though advanced flight controllers aren't supported, the game's flight model was detailed enough to be noticeable within seconds of starting a mission. Managing the output of the collective lever, limiting bank angles, battle damage that decreases engine output, flying nap of the earth to avoid search and tracking radars, and similar tactics you'd expect to use in a more modern flight simulator. Having played Apache Air Assault somewhat frequently as of late, I found myself applying the same tactics in Combat Copter while noticing that this smaller indie game is less forgiving.
Cockpit diagrams by Mot, developer of Combat Chopper.
Everything you'd expect from a game of the era portraying attack helicopters is there. 30mm chain gun, unguided rockets, and anti-tank missiles are available in amounts realistic to the real-world AH-64 Apache. A limited supply of countermeasures are selected and deployed manually by the player. There is also an option to switch to no weapon selected - effectively "Master Arm Off".
Enemies include main battle tanks, outposts, bases, surface-to-air missiles, AA guns, ships, and armored personnel carriers. When a potential friend or foe is within weapon range, they are displayed in the aircraft's camera display. The unit, distance from the target, and status as friend or foe are shown. A blue or red box is projected around the target for quick visual reference.
A simple threat detector represented by two lights beneath the altimeter shows when the helicopter is being tracked by enemy radar (IR) and when a missile has been launched and is following the helicopter (S). Besides using flares, flying behind terrain, or last ditch effort, high-energy maneuvers may defeat missiles and other anti-aircraft fire.
Navigation is based on coordinates that must be cross-referenced on the moving map display. The mission objective is shown on top of the instrument panel, it's important to take note of the coordinates of the home base. Normally only mission objective's coordinates are shown with the takeoff coordinates appearing after mission completion. But landing at base mid-mission rearms and repairs the helicopter. Both running in chain gun blazing and a slower pace of engaging targets from distance and returning for are supported.
My first few playthroughs admittedly ended in failure, mainly because I was underestimating such a simple-looking game. After taking it seriously and approaching it at a slower pace with more planning in mind, I was slipping behind mountains and more surgically choosing my targets with a higher success rate. It was satisfying to get into the flow of the game. The path to victory wasn't destroying half an army in a day, but meaningfully choosing where to cross the frontline, which targets to prioritize and when to leave to re-attack from a different direction.
After my experience with Tiny Sim, a PICO-8 civilian flight simulator for the Cessna 172R Skyhawk, I had thought there wouldn't be other full-flight games available. Combat Copter has been a fun homage to flight simulators I vaguely remember from my childhood. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in combat helicopter games and sims. It seems like I'm bound to dig deeper into this faux retro gaming platform, look forward to a future piece about what else is out there.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.