Why can’t bicycles work like helicopters?
Well, there’s actually 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 quadriceps? Also, wouldn’t it be even nicer to fly around in your 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.
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 homecomputer racing game. The only requirement to finish the race is cutting the finish line, there is no first place since everyone is just out for blood. Just like real life!
Points are gained for every competitor passed, instead of thrown into the water by butting on their heads. Similarly to Road Rash, survival equals winning the race, even if there’s only one thing that will actually make the player lose a life: 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 fishes to call a friendly whale who will take the bikecopter out of the water, allowing a speedy recovery.
Fishes act thus a bit like lives, with a pretty interesting design feature: as opposed to other games where “1ups” 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 actually grant the player a fish. But, should their beaks be empty, the pesky birdies will instead steal one fish. The mermaids, on the other hand, are just there to help the player by gifting fishes. Staying in the air is mostly a combination of strategy and skill, exploiting the game’s enemies and with the right skill in moving the helibike around.
The copter is controlled by using the fire button to speed up the pedaling, thus gaining altitude and speed, which is 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, struggle to get to the end.
This is mainly because of the “jungle” part of the level, where the copter must fly below the trees and has much less space to maneouver 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 standing around, down with them. Taking one’s time in that section is required, unfortunately the clock is ticking and, once it runs out, it will start consuming all remaining fishes pretty fast.
Normally the competitors are mostly harmless, sometimes they tend to gravitate towards the player’s copter to make him fall into the water, but ordinarily they tend to their racing. 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 him 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 and repetitive, manages to never get irritating even though it will loop at least ten times during one race. Or perhaps it’s my nostalgic brain doing the thinking in my place. The few magazines that reviewed the game at the time unanoumisly 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 so-called AeroVelo Atlas completed a flight of 64 seconds and reached an altitude of 3.3 meters in June 2013. Even though we’re still pretty far away from bikecopter races, Mancopter still stands as a simple game that managed to take an original idea and brought it to fruition via incredibly perfect design.
Spanburg’s title functions like a well oiled bikecopter, while it could certainly be improved with more races and different tracks, what is there is 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 favourite games of all time, along with being one of the first I’ve ever played in my life, whose memory still burns bright and one that I need to replay at least once every couple of months.
It is that great.