(I suppose I should have written "Codemasters were a major developer on the British scene" to accommodate the local grammatical treatment of companies as plural, but I digress.)
Games like Firehawk were often overlooked in the States because Nintendo, and therefore Nintendo Power magazine, did not even acknowledge their existence -- Camerica was an unlicensed third-party publisher, and Codemasters an unlicensed developer at the time. But unlike most of these under-the-radar companies, forced to distribute their titles directly outside of Nintendo's official channels, the resulting products were often of a high technical standard. Here's the actual game title screen --it looks much better in motion, as it uses palette cycling to bring the title logo image to flaming life, and deep parallax scrolling on the ground below the helicopter, an effect rarely seen on the NES:
Codemasters brought their storied programming talents to bear on these projects, reverse-engineering the NES and pushing it beyond its standard capabilities. The title screen benefits from music reminiscent of great old Commodore 64 loading screen tunes, with thumping percussion and strobing harmonies -- though it seems those old tricks use up quite a bit of the NES' horsepower, because once the game starts the audio goes silent aside from sound effects.
The plot concerns a fictional, developing foreign country overtaken by drug lords -- a theme not generally on the official Nintendo-approved list -- and the United States Congress' authorization of the military to help its third-world brethren out by deploying Green Beret spies to gather information. Of course, these paratroopers must be retrieved after carrying out their reconnaisance, and this can only be done using the player's helicopter gunship. So some collateral damage in search of excitement and power ups is only to be expected; here, our heroic pilot looks forward to the inevitable carnage:
|"What kind of Helicopter Gunship, sir? A DEVASTATING Helicopter Gunship, you say? Hot diggity!"|
The action is simple in concept, but the semi-realistic controls take some work to master. The D-pad doesn't work in the traditional manner -- instead, as we're piloting a helicopter, we move forward by pressing up, and backward by pressing down (fortunately, altitude doesn't factor into it.) Pressing left or right rotates the helicopter, with a helpful directional "sight" that also contains an arrow indicating the location of the nearest paratrooper. We must avoid enemy fire and diagonal D-pad presses whenever possible.
We can shoot and bomb enemy tanks and aircraft, as well as the local landscape; indiscriminately destroyed buildings often yield damage repair icons and power-ups like multi-fire capability. Damage we've inflicted persists on the intentionally small, tight maps, so the game doesn't suffer from the NES' usual habit of resurrecting vanquished enemies if we return to an area. The engine is capable of slinging quite a few sprites around, and the action can get fairly hairy even in the early going:
When we approach a waving paratrooper (they look a bit like Frogger from this height), the viewpoint shifts to a side-on pick-up sequence -- a line is dropped for the rescuee, while the player keeps busy hitting the A and B buttons to fire as enemy choppers line up with the floating, auto-aiming sights. Missing too many opportunities to take these out results in additional damage inflicted to our own craft.
Our copter can't take very much damage, and if we're not careful, we're given a less-than-glowing performance review. The official U.S. Armed Forces typewriter (No. 362) also provides some constructive criticism -- I hadn't realized I needed to return the soldier to the ship right away, and had wandered off in search of stuff to shoot at, so I had to do it over. Not a big deal for me, but I feel bad for the poor Green Beret, especially if he heard about what happened to the last guy.
Returning the rescued paratrooper to the ship allows us to watch the American flag blowing in the breeze as our cargo disembarks and rushes off to the commissary without so much as a wave farewell, unlike those nice Choplifter boys.
With all the paratroopers in one region of Lafia rescued, we move on to another mission on another section of the map. We continue to rescue our people in the field, facing stronger opposition, until we take too much damage and run out of expensive military helicopters:
Firehawk is a much better game than I was expecting -- the Codemasters pedigree serves it well, and the action is challenging from the get-go. Like most NES-era games, the action becomes repetitive after a while. But the player has a lot of freedom in determining how best to approach each situation, and as a result Firehawk's gameplay still holds up well two decades after its original release.