Why can’t bicycles work like helicopters? The Commodore 64 hidden gem Mancopter does not really provide us a straight answer but, there are plenty of good reasons. But the question still stands, wouldn’t it be nice to fly around in a comfy helibike controlled by the magical power of our own quadriceps? Also, wouldn’t it be even nicer to fly around in the bikecopter while landing on other bikers’ heads, avoiding stormy clouds and grabbing fishes from sirens?
Exactly what happens in Mancopter, a perfect little gem from 1984, one that offers little in terms of variety but whose gameplay and design are still tight like tourniquets almost forty years later.
Designed by the great Scott Spanburg, of The Goonies and Airborne Ranger fame, and released by Datasoft, Mancopter plays closer to an arcade conversion than an actual home-computer racing game. So much so that some people have put forward the theory that it was actually based on an idea for an arcade by Nichibutsu (Nihon Busson’s video game brand) that never materialized but, again, that’s mere speculation.
The only requirement to complete the race is cutting the finish line, there is no real winner since everyone is just out for blood. Hey, just like real life! Points are gained for every competitor passed, as opposed to thrown into the water which is done by butting the bike on their heads. Similar to Road Rash, survival equals winning the race, even if there’s only one thing that will actually cause a game over: getting eaten by the black shark that always lies in wait in the omnipresent waters below. The only way the player can be saved from the hungry predator is by using fish to call a friendly whale who will take the bikecopter out of the water, allowing a speedy recovery.
Fishes, thus, double as generic video game lives, which might be an already interesting design feature, but it actually comes strategically into play. As opposed to other games where “1-ups” are rare, fishes are gained and lost continuously throughout the level. Some of the enemies one might encounter while racing, like the pelicans that brush against the bikecopter, can grant the player a fish. But, should their beaks be empty, the pesky birdies will instead steal one from our pilot. The mermaids, on the other hand, are just there to help the player by gifting fish. Staying in the air is mostly a combination of strategy and skill, exploiting the game’s enemies and with the right amount of dexterity for manoeuvering the helibike around.
The copter is propelled by using the fire button to speed up the pedaling, thus gaining altitude and speed through the player’s constant pressing of the button: indeed, as good as a simulation of pedaling via a single button can get. The controls can be used to great effect when one is required to slow down and then rapidly pedal back up. Mancopter offers one single race for each of the three difficulty levels. The hardest mode, “Expert”, sure doesn’t kid around: it is a serious competition where even I, with two decades of training and muscle reflexes, often struggle to reach the end before the timer runs out.
The main problem is the “jungle” part of the level, where the copter must fly below the trees and there is much less space to maneuver in order to avoid falling into the water. Inevitably, all the enemies are twice as dangerous: both other competitors and “natural” obstacles like huge pink birds (Dodos?) and squids that jump out of the water to bring anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way down with them. Taking one’s time in that section is indeed required, unfortunately, the clock is continuously ticking and, once it runs out, it will start consuming all remaining fishes pretty fast while giving the player only a few more seconds.
Normally the competitors are mostly harmless, other times they tend to gravitate towards the player’s copter to make him fall into the water but are not particularly aggressive. With one big exception: the grey-shirted one is just after the player’s life, ready and willing to do anything to overtake and make them fall. Letting him pass is usually a good idea, since waging war is only possible when there’s time to spare.
Graphically Mancopter will not turn heads, but it is immediate and features pretty smooth fluid scrolling; for 1984 C64 graphics, there’s really nothing to complain about. The single music track, even though simple manages to never get repetitively irritating, even though it will loop at least ten times during a single race. Or, perhaps it’s my nostalgic brain doing the thinking in my place, which might make sense. The few magazines that reviewed the game at the time unanimously praised Mancopter with pretty high scores (Computer Entertainer 3,5/4 Commodore Format 84%).
It took almost thirty years after the game’s release for humanity to build a real functioning bike copter: the bike AeroVelo Atlas completed a flight of 64 seconds and reached an altitude of 3.3 meters in June 2013. Even though we as humans have, thus far, failed at organizing bikecopter racing, Mancopter proudly still stands as a simple game that managed to bring a simple original idea to fruition via incredibly efficient and inventive design.
Spanburg’s title does indeed function like a well oiled bikecopter, while it could certainly be further improved with more racing modes and different tracks, what is there is nothing short of exquisite: strategic, tight and entertaining gameplay. It will even provide a real challenge should one need to, can alternatively be frenetic or relaxing, competitive or just plain tight racing. It still stands as one of my favorite games of all time, along with being one of the first I’ve ever played in my life, its memory still burns bright. So much so that is one of the few titles in existence that I need to replay at least once every couple of months.
It is that great.