While the overall narrative on the importance of the release of SimCity 2000 might be a bit less impactful nowadays, it was a gamechanger, perhaps even more so than the original title, SimCopter? Well definitely less so. After the resounding success of its city builder, Maxis seemed to be struggling to find a market for the remainder of their software library. Their line of “SIM” titles, ever since the beginning, didn’t appear to adhere to any particular overall philosophy.
Their later titles seemed all over the place, with SimTower first released in Japan by OpenBook then Maxis subsequently converting it for PC and consoles. SimTown, in 1995, was developed internally as a simplified city building title but saw little to no success. By 1996 things were financially coming to a head, management ordered internal development to pump out as many titles as possible within the year. Sim Park and Sim Golf both came out in the same year and barely made an impression on the gaming public. It was, then, Will Wright’s turn to develop and release a title before the end of the year.
Electronic Arts’ buyout would arrive to both save the day and SimCity 3000 from a pretty gruesome 3D death, by forcing the developers to keep the game strictly 2D. But, even before 1999, it was abudantly clear that Maxis wasn’t really comfortable in developing simulations in 3D. Still, that doesn’t mean that their first 3D title, SimCopter, doesn’t feature a vast array of interesting design choices.
This is an alert from Central Dispatch
Designed by Will Wright, released by the tall end of 1996, SimCopter – as the name indeed suggests – puts the player into the cockpit of a police helicopter, tasked with resolving such diverse issues as traffic jams, fires, holdups, riots, overturned boats and UFO abductions. The overall gameplay was based on an old flight simulator that Wright had to shelve because of poor marketability, given a new coat of paint and injecting the novel idea of flying around Sim City 2000 maps.
While not really as relevant today, the possibility to play with imported maps from SC2000 was indeed revolutionary at the time. Designing a city then flying around in it, aboard the steel vehicle or even walking around like one of the citizens, it was a unique feeling: designing something then seeing it live and “breathe”. As far as the simulation part goes, the feeling of being in an helicopter is well rendered, apparently the work Wright did on the prototype paid off. The emergency calls system laid on top doesn’t really feel as robust, probably because of the short development time required for Copter to be out of the door by the end of 1996.
What’s most relevant, designwise, is how Wright made the title open to the player’s experimentation, allowing everyone to play at their desired pace, without a game over screen, in keeping with the philosophy of Sim City. Still, SimCopter was a game that looked toward the future, anticipating some of the key elements that will end up making The Sims one of the best selling titles of all time. For example, composer Jerry Martin not only did the soundtrack for Copter, but various of his songs will later make an appearence in the first Sims title.
You're only making a bad situation worse!
Playing SimCopter always takes me back to one vivid memory of winter of 1997, sitting at my Windows 95 computer in the early morning, flying around with Ride of the Valkyries at full blast. The sense of freedom of exploring the city while mostly ignoring the calls, it was a flavour of gameplay that felt unique and fun. It is not far removed from the feeling I got , years later, while playing The Sims for the first time: a sense of tranquillity and relaxation that few other games managed to offer. I was in control but I could also let go for a while, with no tragic consequences.
It is not a concidence, then, that SimCopter probably worked at its best as a sandbox flavoured gameplay and, as any player knows, a world is only as believable as the richness of its details. SimCopter is rich with small details. Cars will move around, boats will be seen drifting by, along with inhabitants minding (mostly) their own business. The deadpan humour radio commercials (in English weirdly enough), seemed to also anticipate the semiserious The Sims canon, like a PSA telling the pilot not to listen to PSAs while flying or the pilot himself screaming at cars to “get moving, you stupid idiots!”
The graphics in SimCopter are generally okay, with the draw distance at maximum in late 1996 this was nothing to scoff at, especially in a pre-3D acceleration world. If one starts to get in close, things take a turn for the weird especially regarding the Sims’ design: they look hastily put together, like a Frankenstein’s monster barely being able to stand and with mostly primitive walking animations. The use of colour is also very peculiar, to say the least, like the weird blue creatures with four legs with a surrealistic face (muzzle?). Are those supposed to be dogs? One look at the contents of the game’s folders will give an idea of how much stuff was left on the cutting floor, along with several of the smaller design ideas one barely notices while playing.
Does your mother know what you’re doing?
It’s telling that even the first 3D Grand Theft Auto didn’t even get close to SimCopter‘s attention to detail, shining through the jankyness of it all, even though most players aren’t bound to appreciate it if they’re not persistent in forcing the rules. For example, while flying after some criminal running through the streets, there’s a chance he will actually open fire at the helicopter. While it could make for some dangerous encounters, in all my hours of playing I never took damage from the bullets. I actually thought the game had no built-in bullet tracking system, but, from what I’ve researched for the article, it seems it is possible to be damaged.
SimCopter also promptly reacts to the player’s random actions, which is a feature that just invites experimentations. Crash into a car on the street? The helicopter will be probably called to extinguish the fire that has just broken out. Left the helicopter in the middle of the road? Get ready to solve the subsequent traffic jam, and so on. Bad behaviour is punished with points detraction, but it’s not that hard to cheat the system. A quick way to make some points and bucks is dropping a sim from the helicopter: the point deduction will, in fact, be way less than the bonus won for solving the subsequent medical evacuation.
Another nice touch is how the passengers in the helicopter will get scared when going too fast or trying to drag them out of a flying vehicle. Hurt sims will also show a sort of health level while in the helicopter, smiling when fine or reclining their heads if they’re going to soon meet their maker (Will himself?). Indeed, SimCopter is not afraid to go to some dark places, but as with the general tone of the Sims series, most of what happens is played for laughs and pretty hard to take seriously. Another classic element of the series makes its first appereance, the Simlish language, even though it’s made-up of screams and unintelligible grunts.
Let's hope it stays quiet for a while
Apart from “ordinary” gameplay experiments, even the bugs seem to tie-in with the mentally unbalanced world of SimCopter. Medical emergencies might cause the hurt sim to be forever trapped (or rather, clipped) in the building with no way of getting the poor soul out of trouble. Also, greeting people with the megaphone results in several weird occurrences, like sims turning upside down or even hurling themselves into the blades of the helicopter or opening fire. Police cars, instead of pulling over, many times will just stop in the middle of the road, causing never ending traffic jams. People that need to be transported will sometimes run away and scatter in random directions with no apparent rhyme or reason whatsoever.
Plenty of cheats allow further experimentation, like flying in an Apache armed with guns and missiles giving the player the possibility to go on a killing spree, shoot down UFOs or, going as far, as to cause a nuclear explosion by destroying the nuclear power. The subsequent atomic detonation will end up killing everyone, including the player. Fallout in SimCopter! There is also a cheat that turned the pilot into a dog that could run a 200mph all around the map, but it seemed to have been subsequently removed for patched versions.
But that’s not all: even the way SimCopter was programmed seems to encourage, at least, some primitive form of modding, since it uses accessible files like Wavs for sounds or videos in smack format. Thus, the player can easily substitute songs or ADs for the radio stations and also insert small movies that will be played at the drive-in cinemas. Indeed, as far as sandbox gaming goes, SimCopter was one of the brightest examples of the time, even anticipating a bit the “mod” craze that will come years later. Only Maxis could release a game that feels this janky but also this robust at the same time.
Simcopter Radio ADs
Move along now!
SimCopter feels a bit like a time capsule on an alternate timeline that never came to fruition, the one in which Maxis managed to embrace the 3D SimCity model without shooting itself in the foot.
Will Wright is a great designer, but he wasn’t really capable of working miracles: SimCopter allowed Maxis a little breathing space and to survive the end of the fiscal year. He started working on The Sims right away, with a release date that would come in 2000, while the software house started on its downward spiral yet again. Copter itself was barely supported post release, receiving just a couple of patches, then it disappeared from the face of the earth. Electronic Arts also seemed to care little for it, since it is not on Steam or GOG, nor was it ever ported on a console.
Many of the game’s fans have asked several times for a remake or a reboot, even going so far as to work on a mod for Cities:Skylines that was left unfinished. Personally, I feel that SimCopter is one of those titles that wouldn’t improve with a reboot or remake, it’s fine as it is, weird quirks and all. It is a product of a pre-Sims/3D world, a playground to test ideas, no sane person would be able to replicate its zanyness on such a large scale, while also making a fun title that invites the player to experiment.
Should one wish to play SimCopter on a modern pc, it is now feasible even in 16:9. Visit archive.org to download the full ISO, then copy the contents of the CD on your hard disk and use SimCopterX to play.
On a closing note, no article on SimCopter would be complete without mentioning the infamous “gay easter egg”.
Apparently, the story goes that one programmer inserted a hidden routine in the code that would spawn, on certain days of the month, a big number of men with speedos going around kissing each other. This forced Maxis to recall all copies of the game and, consequently, miss the Christmas season. The programmer was consequently fired, even after he admitted of actually having being blackmailed by a group of hackers. Then, in an Ace Attorney-like turnabout of events, it was revealed that he was actually the mastermind behind the group itself and the gesture was done as a protest against Maxis’ policies of mistreating employees.
Probably, finding out what exactly came to pass is impossible at this point but, whatever way one spins the tale, it still somehow fits perfectly into the crazed narrative of SimCopter.