WedNESday: Tiger-Heli

Less than a year after its release, the Nintendo Entertainment System was a hot ticket item in the US.  Finally it appeared there was a savior for the dying games industry, which by 1985 had lost roughly 95% of all market value since its 1983 revenue peak!  After Nintendo almost single-handedly revitalized the gaming market by labeling the NES as an “entertainment system”, not a “video game system” (hence the famous “toaster” model not having a top-slot), more and more companies were encouraged to fill up the NES library.  For many publishers, ports of popular arcade titles seemed a safe bet.  Even during the games market collapse titles like Dig Dug, Pac-Man and Galaga were doing well on home PC electronics such as the Tandy machines and later the Commodore 64.  So, naturally the big brands who were limping along in Arcades sought to get as much of their software NES-ready as quickly as possible.  The question was, “How do we get all of these games ready for the NES by next Christmas?!”  Outsourcing, of course!  By 1986 (less than a year after the NES’s North American launch) there were dozens of ports of classic arcade games on the console, many developed by unnamed, third-party contractors.  Some were reworked from Famicom ports of arcade cabs that either had very limited releases in the US from Japan but others were pretty solid 1-to-1 ports of the most internationally-popular arcade games of the time; as best as the NES could manage anyway, due to the obvious hardware limitations of the console versus its arcade contemporaries.  Still, weaknesses of the console hardware aside, many of these arcade ports were very, very well done. Taito’s 1985 arcade classic Tiger-Heli received its NES port (redesigned by the short-lived Micronics) this very same year.  Micronics is an interesting company, having done NES and SNES ports of arcade games not only from Taito but Capcom, SNK and Activision.  They were not originally credited for their ports but Kazzo Yagi, the principal software engineer for Micronics, was open about the company’s involvement.  Nintendo, as well as a few of the major brands such as Capcom, felt that having the copyright owner’s label on the game (despite not actually developing the NES port) would help the game sell as many of the games they published from Japanese arcades actually did not receive a wide US release.

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Tiger-Heli is a very simplistic vertical shooter in the vein of Capcom’s 1942 (another Micronics port from the same period) in which you pilot a tiny helicopter through very long gauntlets of bullets and waves of enemies.  That said, I  believe Tiger-Heli is harder than 1942.  In fact, this is a prime example of “Nintendo-hard”.  Tiger-Heli’s difficulty stems from the slow-moving chopper you have to negotiate through scattering bullets and a global timer that often has all enemies on screen firing at the same time.  In terms of bullet hell games, this might seem like something that would make things easier, but not here.  You just do not move fast enough sometimes to get through the waves of bullets and your chopper’s hitbox is pretty large compared to that of other NES SHMUP’s.  

There are a few things to help you, though.  Your tiger doesn’t go “splat” on a single hit.  You have three health per life and when you are struck, bombs scatter around the place you were damaged, hitting enemies in a radius near where you were hit.  Powerups are also plentiful and include health pickups and support choppers who fly by your side firing either upward, expanding the width of your shots, or sideways to support taking out enemies who creep from the left or right.  Tiger-Heli also has destructible environments, so you can enjoy the comedy of flying over an unnamed suburban landscape and mindlessly blowing up all the denizens’ cars that are parked haphazardly in the grass near their tiny, 8-bit homes!

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Graphically Tiger-Heli doesn’t do much to impress.  It’s certainly more impressive than the endless waters of 1942 or the grey, black and blue anti-landscapes of Xevious, though.  There are just far more varied environments and slightly more detail to parts of the world.  This doesn’t stop things from getting repetitive, however.  Still, the game looks fine compared to its arcade counterpart.  In fact, the objects have an almost vector-style to them, a visual theme that was common in arcades at the time, but no so much on consoles.  The sound is also fine, but I hope you like the music you hear, because there are four songs you will hear in every stage, over and over again, and that’s it!  In terms of the sound, we are definitely not talking Konami-levels of audio variety and quality here.

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I would call Tiger-Heli a fun “score attack” game.  Pick it up and see how far you make it and see if you can improve upon your score.  There are two sequels as well.  The first, Twin Cobra, received an NES port but the third title, Twin Cobra II, did not.  In fact, the only port the final entry in the series ever saw was for the Sega Saturn in Japan that today ranks among the rarest and most valuable games on the system, and for the Saturn that is saying something!  Tiger-Heli on the NES though is a very, very common game.  You can typically find these lying in piles for a few bucks and, honestly, if you do not have it and you do see it, pick it up!  It’s certainly worth owning and is one of the better deals in terms of challenge and replayability in the “very-common” category.