After the resounding success of SimCity 2000, Maxis was struggling to find a market for its software library. Their line of “SIM” titles, ever since the beginning, appeared to have no particular philosophy.
SimTower was first released in Japan by OpenBook then Maxis subsequently converted 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 were first and barely made an impression on the gaming public, then came Will Wright’s turn to develop and release a title before the end of the year.
While EA’s buyout would later come to save the day and SimCity 3000 from a pretty gruesome 3D death, by forcing the developers to keep the game strictly 2D, even before 1999 it was abudantly clear that Maxis wasn’t really accustomed to make 3D games.
Still, that doesn’t mean that their first 3D title, SimCopter, doesn’t feature a very interesting array of design choices.
This is an alert from Central dispatch…
Designed by Will Wright and 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 game was based on an old flight simulator that Wright had to shelve because of poor marketability, given a new coat of paint and the idea of flying around Sim City maps.
While not 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 your steel vehicle or even walking around like one of the citizens, there was nothing like it.
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 laid on top don’t feel as robust, probably because of the short development time required for Copter to be out of the door by the end of 1996.
But what’s most relevant, designwise, is how Wright made it 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 make The Sims one of the best selling titles of all time. For example, not only composer Jerry Martin did the soundtrack for Copter, but various of his songs will also make an appearence on the first Sims title.
You’re only making a bad situation worse!
Thinking about SimCopter always takes me back to one vivid memory of winter of 1997, sitting at my Windows95 computer in the early morning, flying around with the
The sense of freedom of exploring the city while ignoring the calls, this flavour of gameplay felt unique and fun.
It is not distant from the feeling I got while playing The Sims for the first time, years later, a sense of tranquillity and relaxation that few other games managed to offer.
But a gameworld is believable only when filled with small details; SimCopter is full of them.
The deadpan humour radio commercials, in English weirdly enough, also anticipated the semiserious Sims canon, like a PSA telling you not to listen to PSAs while flying or the pilot 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 an Atari2600-worthy walking animation.
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 you an idea of how much stuff was left on the cutting floor, along with the 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 have SimCopter’s level of 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, if you’re flying after some criminal running through the streets, there’s a chance he will open fire at your 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 read online, it is possible to be damaged.
SimCopter reacts promptly to the player’s random actions, though, lending itself easily to experiments.
Crash into a car on the street? You will be probably called to extinguish the fire you’ve created. Left your 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 is way less than the bonus one gets for solving the 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 Sims series, most of what happens is played for laughs and pretty hard to take seriously.
Another classic element of the Sims’ 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…
Even the bugs seem to incourage the player into shenanigans in the mentally unbalanced world of SimCopter.
Medical emergencies might cause the hurt sim to be forever trapped (clipped) in the building with no way of getting the poor soul out of trouble. Also, greeting people with the megaphone results in weird occurrences: I’ve seen sims turning upside down, while there are reports of them hurling themselves into the blades of the helicopter or opening fire.
Police cars instead of pulling over, will many times 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 rhyme or reason whatsoever.
Plenty of cheats allow further experimentation, like flying in an Apache armed with guns and missiles, hence the possibility to go on a killing spree, shoot down UFOs or make a nuclear power plant explode, killing everyone including yourself. Yay! Also, there was a cheat that turned the pilot into a dog that could run a 200mph all around the map.
But that’s not all: even how SimCopter was programmed seems to encourage further experimentation, since it uses accessible files like Wavs or videos in smack format. Thus, the player can easily substitute songs or ADs for the radio stations and 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 wrong and right at the same time.
Simcopter Radio ADs
Move along now!
SimCopter feels like a time capsule on an alternate timeline that never came to fruition, the one in which Maxis managed to embrace the 3D Sim City model without shooting itself in the foot.
Will Wright is a good game designer, but surely he wasn’t capable of miracles: SimCopter allowed Maxis a little breathing space and to survive the year. He then 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 was barely supported post release, nothing more than a couple of patches, then it disappeared from the face of the earth. Electronic Arts also cared 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 again and again for a remake or a reboot, even going so far as to work on a mod for Cities:Skylines that was left unfinished.
I stand by my opinion that SimCopter doesn’t need 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.
But naturally, no article on SimCopter would be complete without mentioning the infamous “gay easter egg”.
Apparently, the story is that one programmer inserted a hidden routine 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 miss the Christmas season.
The programmer was consequently fired, even after he admitted of being blackmailed by a group of hackers. Then, in an Ace Attorney-like turnabout of events, it was revealed that he was the mastermind behind the group itself.
I guess we’ll never know what exactly came to pass but, whatever way you spin the tale, I think it fits perfectly into the crazed narrative of SimCopter.