Richard Wilcox, Elite Systems & The Curious Case of the High-Tech Attack Helicopter(s)

HEXdidnt

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One of the highlights of last night's (16/9/21) Club meet for me was that insanely difficult and twitchy Airwolf game on Rob's Atari 800 XL. It was one of those games from the days when they had to be excruciatingly difficult simply because a perfect run would only offer about 5 minutes gameplay. Limited fuel ticking down all too quickly from the moment of takeoff, ground-based gun emplacements, laser barriers, heavily armoured hot air balloons dropping bombs... This game has everything.

...But it was also eerily familiar to me - someone who grew up with a Spectrum - and the name Richard Wilcox caused the penny to drop. Richard Wilcox software - precursor to Elite Systems - was founded in 1984, but it looks like the only game published under that brand was... Blue Thunder. It's a game in which you pilot a blue helicopter, launching from an aircraft carrier, flying over an archipelago to rescue a bunch of prisoners from a heavily-protected facility. Despite the high-profile name, it has no connection with either the 1983 Roy Scheider movie or the 1984 TV series based upon it.

The game's inlay for the Spectrum version made a big deal of such features as "PIXEL SCROLLING — over six screens!" and "INCREDIBLE PERSPECTIVE GRAPHICS!" and includes bold claims like "5 DIFFERENT MISSIONS!" and the assurance that it's "100% MACHINE CODE!". However, when a game's instructions include a detailed breakdown of how of accomplish a key gameplay task - specifically, how to knock out the 'nuclear reactor' powering the prison's defenses - one has to wonder if there's something broken about the game.

This look familiar..?

Here's the version I played as a kid (the commentary really gets across how frustrating it is!):

And there's even a C64 version:

What's fascinating here is the number of differences between what is ostensibly the same game. The landscape is broadly similar, but the mechanics are a little different between versions. The C64 scrolls from right to left, like most traditional scrolling shooters, but the Atari and Spectrum versions buck the trend and scroll from left to right. Players of the Atari version must fight a constant battle with gravity to keep their chopper in the air, while the Spectrum and C64 versions are content to hover perfectly in place. On the Atari version, the nuclear reactor is present immediately, and the player simply has to infiltrate and destroy it. On the Spectrum, upon reaching the leftmost point on the map, a certain sprite has to be shot, causing the reactor to rise from the ocean in dramatic fashion, while the C64 version simply teleports the player to a new screen featuring the reactor and the prison.

The 'five different missions' described are actually anything but: all use the same map, with the difficulty being increased by way of additional hazards, from submarines to jets, taking ever more pot-shots at your beleaguered blue chopper.

Here's where it gets weird: the Atari 8-bit version of Airwolf is literally just a rebranding of Wilcox's Blue Thunder game, while the other 8-bit machines gained a new and wholly original game, now under the Elite Systems brand and officially licensed from the Universal Pictures TV show. This game actually namedrops Stringfellow Hawke, the implausibly-named Vietnam veteran protagonist, and he is tasked with rescuing "Five important U.S. scientists ... held hostage deep in a subterranean base beneath the scorching Arizona desert." in a kind of hybrid shooting/puzzle game.

The punishingly difficult Spectrum version (in which the player must... shoot their way through a waterfall?) was written by Wilcox and, like Blue Thunder, starts by scrolling toward the left:

The c64 version, by Neil Bate, seems to offer a marginally better experience of navigating a cave system in a helicopter:

While the Amstrad version is described by this streamer as "stupidly broken and difficult":

(Addendum: I've just noticed, on the cover of the Amstrad version, above, it actually states that: "This program was previously test-marketed under the name Blue Thunder")

Elite later published Airwolf II, which was a somewhat more traditional scrolling shoot 'em up written by Neil Latarche (Spectrum/Amstrad) and Stuart Cook (C64), with the exception that it scrolls left-to-right, rather than the usual right-to-left.

There's a real rabbit hole of other Airwolf games to tumble down, should you wish to investigate further, from the flight sim-style NES game to 'Super Airwolf', the vertically scrolling arcade shooter (not dissimilar to SWIV) for the Megadrive, each featuring their own rendition of that iconic theme tune.
 
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