Games That Changed Our Lives #35: Simcopter

Though loads of kids at my school were into video games, nobody except my friend Adam and I had ever heard of Simcopter. In the playground we both laughed and joked about what we’d been up to in its world; the missions we’d run, the criminals we’d caught and the bizarre-looking, purple-haired girl I’d found licking a lollipop, wandering across the roof of a nuclear power plant.

Released in October 1996 for PC, developed by Maxis and published by Electronic Arts, Simcopter was buried among the first outings of what would go on to become some of the biggest franchises in gaming history. Tomb Raider, Diablo, Quake and Resident Evil all had their first releases that year. Not forgetting other classics such as Duke Nukem 3D, Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Civilisation 2, Metal Slug, Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot; the list goes on. 1996 was a fantastic year to be a gamer. Competition was tough even for Maxis, whose previous releases in the Sim series (SimCity and SimCity 2000) had garnered a good amount of critical acclaim and recognition. Although Simcopter was released to generally positive reviews, it failed to achieve the same commercial success.

Following Simcopter, Maxis went on to develop the biggest selling franchise in PC gaming history – The Sims, led by designer Will Wright. Wright co-founded Maxis in 1987 and within two years, he’d created his first hit SimCity. SimCity is regarded as being one of the most influential games ever made for two reasons. Firstly, it was nothing short of a revolution in game design. Wright pioneered what he calls in his own words “possibility spaces” by making the player create something of their own out of smaller, simpler elements in the game. In the example of SimCity 2000 this meant giving the player the building blocks of which to build their own city. Secondly, SimCity‘s success paved the way to establish the Sim brand as one of the most important and influential in gaming.

“At the time I’d never seen anything like it. It allowed complete freedom of movement on foot and in your helicopter in a 3D environment, on a scale which I’d never seen before in a video game.”

Between 1987 and the release of The Sims in 2000, Wright had worked on seven Sim-branded games, all of which followed Wright’s ethos to games development. In a nutshell, he wanted to enable the creativity of the player and the built on the idea that games didn’t necessarily need to be ‘won’ or completed. They were creative spaces where player experimentation were the goals of the game. One of these seven games designed by Wright was Simcopter.

In Simcopter you’re placed in the role of a helicopter pilot, tasked with flying around various fictional cities, completing various missions. These missions range from rescuing Sims (the name given to the city’s inhabitants) in peril from boats, trains or burning buildings, clearing traffic jams, extinguishing fires, catching criminals, riot control, medical evacuations, being a glorified taxi service and catching speeding motorists. Missions are dispatched to you over the in-game radio and by completing missions, you’re credited with points and money. Once enough points are accumulated the player is given the option to return to base, where they can proceed to the next level. You can spend your hard-earned cash upgrading your current copter with different attachments – such as a safety rescue harness for those hard to reach rescues and a water cannon for putting out fires. And of course, no helicopter is complete without the essential tear-gas grenades to help with those tricky riot control situations. There’s also a slew of different helicopters to purchase, each with unique handling and differing capacities for carrying passengers and water.

The game penalises players by deducting points and money for needlessly injuring Sims (although crushing a fleeing criminal under the weight of your helicopter without a chance to surrender, is totally fine) and creating accidents. There are a few ways to accomplish this: by landing your copter in the middle of a road and causing a traffic jam, by crashing into cars and boats, or by deliberately throwing Sims out your helicopter whilst flying at 8,000 feet. Yes, that certainly would get you in a little bit of trouble. I soon learned however, that by throwing some poor Sim out of your helicopter, the game creates a “medical emergency” mission. Although you are punished for your crimes, completing the resulting mission actually awarded more points and money than you lost, so it was all worth it.

Crashing into buildings and other objects causes your helicopter to sustain damage, making it increasingly difficult to pilot and manoeuvre. Damage can be repaired by landing back at your hangar which serves as your base and spawn point in each city. You must also refuel at your hangar from time to time. The controls were fairly simple, yet the basic but responsive physics engine meant that your helicopter moved with a natural and predictable fluidity through the skies.

Cybernet, a weekly TV show that I watched religiously and was my main source of video game goodness at the time, ran a review of Simcopter upon its release. They praised it for its quirky humour and original mechanics and ideas. If my memory serves me, they scored it an 8.5. I was instantly attracted by the premise of the game and saved up my pocket money for two months, pestering my parents about the game the whole time. Eventually they caved in and drove me to Electronics Boutique in the local town centre so I could purchase the game, buying them peace and quiet in the process.

So why Simcopter?

Simply put, it’s the most unadulterated example of pure fun I’ve ever had with a game. It’s quirky, a little unhinged and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also not without its controversy. What really makes Simcopter so special for me is its humour and willingness to poke fun at itself and the Sim brand. I played nothing but Simcopter for months and still come back to it occasionally nearly 20 years later.

At the time I’d never seen anything like it. It allowed complete freedom of movement on foot and in your helicopter in a 3D environment, on a scale which I’d never seen before in a video game. It had a sense of humour that  has only been rivalled since by a couple of games (Grim Fandango is in my opinion a masterpiece in comic writing and still my favourite example of comedy writing in games, closely followed by The Stick of Truth). And what’s this? I can make my own cities in SimCity 2000, import them, then fly around them in my helicopter? This one feature alone, blew my tiny 12-year-old mind. The ability to import creations from an entirely different game is just one reason why Simcopter is more influential, and responsible for more innovations in gaming than many people give it credit for.

“I was instantly attracted by the premise of the game and saved up my pocket money for two months, pestering my parents about the game the whole time.”

 

Another aspect of Simcopter which instantly made it stand out from other games of its time was its soundtrack. The superb original music composed by Jerry Martin is the true highlight. He composed original rock, techno and jazz for your listening pleasure over the helicopter’s radio. A rendition of Flight of the Valkyries was also included in the soundtrack and it fit perfectly. Martin went onto work on many more games in the Sim series with Wright.

Way before Grand Theft Auto really perfected the in-game radio, Simcopter already had the ability to select different stations and shift genres of music, according to the player’s own preference. The radio stations also featured commercials which would often reference previous games in the Sim universe. The commercials were hilarious – each one a brilliant piece of comedy writing that enhanced the game experience. The people and animals (I use the word ‘animals’ loosely) that lived in this city were already more than a little peculiar in terms of appearance and AI behaviour, and so the fact that these adverts were a bit odd, made perfect sense. They’re subtle enough to go unnoticed to the casual listener, but once you’re in on the joke, they’re fantastically funny.

Another innovation, which became a staple of the Sims brand, was “Simlish” – a made-up language (although it did feature some elements of Ukrainian) that went on to be made famous by The Sims. Mostly it sounds like absolute gibberish. A collection of vocal sounds that aren’t words, more just vocal expressions. Your pilot, when approached by another Sim spoke in Simlish, whilst often standing on one leg and waving their arms frantically in the air. Like I said, this game gets pretty weird.

SimCopter basked in and embraced its weirdness. For example, the only way to clear a traffic jam is to use the helicopter’s megaphone and ask people to simply “move along!” Maybe you’d find a Sim standing proud atop a skyscraper speaking Simlish to absolutely nobody. But my personal favourite is the ability to issue a ‘greet’ command where over the megaphone, the pilot will say things like “Attention! Attention! Have a nice day!” At first, this seems completely pointless, and has no effect whatsoever, other than making me feel a little less guilty about throwing Sims out my helicopter. Keep repeating these megaphone niceties and the Sims go wild! They pull out firearms and start shooting at you, sometimes even rocketing head first into the air towards your helicopter with incredible speed and getting hit by the rotors blades in the process. They’d then fall back to earth and trigger a medical evacuation mission. Of course, as this was somehow your fault, you’d lose points and some of that hard-earned cash. It’s these magnificent creations of lunacy that permeate the game and make it so great and so memorable.

Yet another oddity is the Apache gunship helicopter that can be found at military bases on some maps or unlocked with a cheat code. Instead of a water cannon for crowd dispersal, you get a .50 cal machine gun, instead of teargas, missles. What better way to complete that troublesome speeding car mission than by blowing the car sky high! Dangerous arsonist on the loose? No problem! Show them who’s boss with your own brand of fireworks with the aid of your missles. Perhaps the most amusing use of the Apache was to find a nuclear power station and then light it up with a barrage of rockets. The resulting explosion would level the city, turning all buildings on the map, except the emergency service buildings to rubble. There wasn’t any real point in doing this as the map was pretty boring after that, but it didn’t matter. I was 12 years old and I’d just caused a nuclear explosion that obliterated an entire city.

 

As mentioned before, not only can you import your own creations from SimCity 2000 but other elements of the game are highly customisable too. All of the audio files were recorded as .wav files and clearly labelled in each directory in the Simcopter folder on your hard drive. These were there for the tinkering. In fact, in the SimCopter user manual it even gives clear instructions on how to create your own radio station: by creating a folder called ‘radio’ and inserting your own .wav files. The textures are stored as Bitmap files so again, these could easily be changed in to whatever your sick mind desired. There is also a way to display your own videos at the drive-in movie screens that were dotted throughout the cities. This type of early customisable experience is true to Wright’s ethos of game development and served to enhance the longevity of a game through player experimentation and creativity.

SimCopter basked in and embraced its weirdness.”

However, Simcopter was far, far from perfect. Most of the negative review comments focused on the game’s admittedly terrible graphics. Even an inhabitant of the LEGO universe could have imagined less blocky, more human-like residents. Whilst playing, I’d frequently ask myself “What the hell is that? A person? Perhaps a bear? A cow? A llama maybe?” Even the nameless player controlled pilot looked god awful. The trains were little more than grey cuboids that zoomed around the city and the cars weren’t much of an improvement. Some assets had no textures and just looked plain bad. Wright must have known that what he was making looked sub-par compared to his other creations. So why do it? Was the game not as polished because it was hurried out the door; pushed by a publisher keen to make some more pennies from the Sim brand?

The controversy that engulfed the game post release, would go to further support that the game was rushed through development. It was obvious even at release the game engine was past its prime. It suffered from a terribly short draw distance meaning in order to play the game on some machines, you had to fly around the city blind to what was ten feet in front of you. However, aside from the Sims, vehicles and draw distance, the rest of the game didn’t look too bad. The helicopter models were pretty detailed for the time and so was the helicopter’s dashboard HUD, which also serves as a secondary UI for the player, controlled using the mouse. Each individual building model from SimCity 2000 had been lovingly recreated to look different to the next, including the most iconic buildings from the franchise. If there is a greater building in the known universe than The Llamadome, please let me know in the comments.

Soon after its release, came the real controversy.

At the time of SimCopter‘s development, Maxis had a programmer working for them called Jacques Servin. Originally working on development of The Sims, he was retasked to work on SimCopter. Servin, unhappy with the long hours and what he described as “inhumane” working conditions at Maxis (another sign that perhaps the game was rushed in its final stages to get it out the door), he was approached by an organisation called RTmark (pronounced Artmark). They proposed a little payback. RTmark’s undertakings have been described as everything from harmless pranks to commercial terrorism. They could be summarised as an anti-consumerist activist collective. Servin, also unhappy at the under and misrepresentation of homosexuals in video games (Servin himself was openly gay), coded into the game men in tight swim trunks that only appeared on certain dates within the game, mainly Friday the 13th and Servin’s birthday. These “himbos”, as they were called, had illuminous nipples that shone like bright landing strip lights through the fog. They were pretty hard to miss. They gathered in large groups, kissing each other and making a ridiculous smooching sound as they, well, smooched. They took the place of some of the scantily-clad women that were sometimes seen wandering the streets of the city. Servin was undoubtedly making a strong statement about gender and the representation of homosexuals in games.


Upwards of 60,000 copies of SimCopter were shipped with this intentional bug and it wasn’t until the weekend after release that it was discovered. Consequently Servin was fired, however he received $5,000 from RTmark for his efforts. Maxis hurried to remove the Himbos by offering a service where people could call and get a replacement disk sent through the post – this was long before the days of downloadable patches. Servin described it as a win-win situation for himself. Thanks to the publicity, he received more work after being fired than he ever did whilst working at Maxis and probably helped sell a few more copies of SimCopter in the process. Though I doubt Maxis would agree that it was a win-win situation for them, you have to feel empathy for Servin. With modern day developers both big and small discussing and highlighting homosexuality and other LGBT issues in their games, Servin should be proud of being part of that conversation so early on. In my opinion his actions were extreme and rash as he jeopardised the hard work of all the other individuals that were working on the game. However his reasons for doing so sound as if they were entirely justified if his statements regarding working conditions are to be believed.

So, it’s fair to say that the release of Simcopter wasn’t smooth. Although I didn’t hear about the Himbo controversy until a year later (my copy had already been patched from the original release), it only went to cement my love for this bonkers game. Yes, it has its flaws, and honestly,  yes there were better games in terms of gameplay and graphics out at the time. But, I’ve yet to find a game that gives me the same childish feeling of fun that SimCopter still does.

I’m still in touch with Adam. Our conversations almost exclusively revolve around Simcopter memes jokes and quotes. Not only did Simcopter help to forge a lasting friendship but it taught me so much about what video games could be and where they were heading in terms of large 3D explorable spaces. That’s why every once in a while I still enjoy jumping back in and joining the madness of the most insane, brilliant, hilarious and yet underappreciated game I know.