The 80s were rife with titles focusing on the tensions between superpowers, skullduggery, grand strategy, and a healthy amount of daring devil-may-care escapades over everything from secrets to defecting spies. The Cold War was, if not anything else, an exciting time to mine for developers to mine for ideas. One of those was Infiltrator, a helicopter/stealth game developed by Chris Gray and distributed by Mindscape in the US in 1986. U. S. Gold did the distribution duty for Europe.
Infiltrator was something of a product for its time, this being the 80s with the Cold War still in effect, Roger Moore as Bond, and with First Blood Part II out the year before in ’85. It played off the idea of sneaking into an enemy country like a super spy and saving the free world as someone following in Doc Savage’s footsteps — or Buckaroo Banzai’s. As the back cover of the manual describes him:
“Johnny ‘Jimbo-Baby’ McGibbits — super-soldier, ace helicopter pilot, ballistics expert, engineer, neurosurgeon, politician, movie actor, rock star, world-class motorcyclist, explorer, karate expert and devil-may-care all around nice guy…”
The manual is also crammed with the lost art in being more than just a set of instructions. It was graffiti’d with marketing spiel describing the “Snuffmaster” chopper from Whizbang Enterprises (which comes with TM marks on everything from the Whizbang Waster air-to-air heat seeking missiles to the Whizbang Whisper stealth capabilities). Quotes from Whizbang, and Johnny, are found on the bottom of most of the pages sharing nuggets of wisdom such as “Whizbang Enterprises — Pride, heritage, and the highest employee mortality rate of any free world corporation.”
The game was divided into two modes — the chopper sim part and the ground action. The chopper part took place exclusively in the cockpit of a chopper. After following the simple launch procedure, it was time to set course for your mission destination and head off into the horizon. Occasionally, enemy and allied planes will do fly-bys and demand ID either as Overlord (to bad guys) or Infiltrator (to good guys). Screwing up meant either a quick death or in being able to shoot them down first.
This was also the most complex part of the game riddled with options galore. As exciting as the idea was to infiltrate a base as a secret agent, the chopper stuff just felt as if it got in the way of the better parts. It wasn’t a hardcore flight sim, but neither was it an arcade game which placed it in a kind of limbo that could often be more frustrating than fun. Figuring out whether the plane doing the fly-by was either a baddie or a good-guy depended on how well you could read into their codenames.
Failing to identify yourself would throw you right into the clunky combat and, more often than not, a flaming end to your mission. For some planes, it doesn’t matter what you punch in — they’ll attack anyway adding an even more random variable of annoyance. On the plus side, after dying so many times, one gets an idea of which names are which. But once I made it to one of the Mad Leader’s bases, the real fun began.
Infiltrator’s stealth stuff was done against an isometric map where you controlled a tiny guy as he presented guards papers proving that he was one of them and finding his way to where he needed to be. Entering the buildings switched the game to a 2D, side-view of the room and our hero as he searched rooms for valuable keys, documents, locations to plant explosives, and intel to photograph while staying as secret as possible.
Unlike a lot of stealth games today, killing people was out of the question — this was a non-fatal infiltrator. Gas grenades were what I used the most to shake guards that got too close. I also had a can of sleeping gas that knocked out guards and made them forget I was ever there. And both worked just fine in lieu of having to use a gun or a knife. Each of the three missions were also timed with 20 real-time minutes kicking off as soon as you touched down.
The stealthy elements were far and beyond my favorite parts and were fairly sophisticated for the time. A mini-map system that tracked your exploration progress, inventory, and search functions made each mission a fun adventure on the cutting edge of spy tech.
The game was ported to the Amstrad, Atari 8-bit PCs, Commodore 64, DOS, the Apple II, and the ZX Spectrum. It was followed up by the tougher, and penultimate, sequel, Infiltrator II, which ended in literally re-programming the Mad Leader which, in an odd twist, ended up on the NES in 1989…as Infiltrator.
Today, the game exists in that shadow world of abandonware as it hasn’t infiltrated its way into a digital distribution channel like Good Old Games or Desura. Still, the ground it helped to break can be found in a lot of other stealthy games today that follow in the same footsteps whether it’s in outsmarting the guards, skirting security, or searching for that missing piece of intel that could save the world.