In an interview with Scott Stilphen over at 2600 Connection, Bob Whitehead recounts how programmers were referred to over at Atari as “towel designers” by the president of the company.
That president was likely Ray Kassar, although Whitehead mentioned a connection to Ralph Lauren which is a bit confusing because he didn’t seem (at least as far as I could dig) to have any experience with the luxury company.
But Kassar did have a background of around three decades in the textile industry over at Burlington and had been referred to as the “sock king” by Atari employees that resented the autocratic empire he molded the company into. In a great interview with who Vintage Computing and Gaming’s Benj Edwards refers to as the first professional female game designer, Carol Shaw, she recalls Kassar coming down to their department and saying “Oh, at last! We have a female game designer. She can do cosmetics color matching and interior decorating cartridges!” which her fellow designers told her to ignore afterward and do whatever she wanted to do (she also notes that she didn’t experience that kind of behavior from anyone else she worked with).
Incidents like these gave readers a first-hand account of one of the reasons why Bob Whitehead and a number of others left to help form Activision. Despite the billions that Atari eventually made under Kassar’s presidency, it was done at a brutal cost to the actual people responsible for making the games who were paid paltry sums for their genius and whose craft was considered to be little more than building titles on an “assembly line”.
Activision’s games seemed to leap out from the screen at players better than many of the in-house titles that Atari had put together. There were still gifted people over there that created programming miracles, but Activision’s games had also distinguished themselves with a lot of flashy effects, challenging action, and a mentality that celebrated the gamer extending out to actual patches you could mail out for after hitting certain point milestones in their games. They also recognized the designers with their names on the boxes and who had even offered up tips on how to play their games in the manual.
Chopper Command was like that with Bob Whitehead’s photo and tips included with those instructions. The box art wasn’t the kind of lifelike montage that Atari’s games attempted to catch the eyes of players with. Instead, it was more akin to something that you might see on the side of an arcade stand-up with simple lines and bright colors and it didn’t try to embellish too much of what the game would actually be like onscreen.
Like a lot of Atari VCS games at the time, Chopper Command had a simple concept. It was a side-scrolling action game where the player controlled a small chopper that fired massive Activision-like lasers across the screen. “Activision-like” because of the fancy color gradient technique used in many of their effects. Using a joystick, you could fly left, right, up, or down, and tried to defend a convoy of twelve traveling trucks on the ground from enemies such as jets and other enemy choppers. They, in turn, shot bullets that burst into vertical shrapnel to make things even trickier.
You had only three lives with one earned at every ten thousand point interval. Making it to ten thousand points also made you eligible for a Chopper Command patch!
A “radar screen” also showed what was to the left and right of where your chopper in the huge level and clearing out all of the enemies bumped you to the next one with a bit more difficulty.
Even though the game is decades old, it surprisingly holds up well today as a retro arcade shooter with a score system in place to challenge yourself or friends with. It had even drawn comparisons to Atari’s Defender port in being a much better implementation of the same concept with fewer technical issues. It also wasn’t alone in being the only side-scrolling chopper game — Choplifter had also come out from Broderbund in the same year for the Apple II (and would later be ported to a number of platforms and become an arcade hit thanks to Sega). And there was also Sir-Tech’s Rescue Raiders in 1984 which took on a slightly different approach but also bore a few similarities to Chopper Command’s escort-based approach.
Today, you can try Chopper Command for yourself over at Virtual Atari, or pick up an actual cartridge (and even the patch!) for a few bucks on auction sites like Ebay for your vintage Atari VCS/2600 if you have one. It was also included as part of the Activision Anthology initially released in 2002 for the PS2 and later ported across a number of different platforms like the Gameboy Advance, Microsoft’s Game Room, iOS, and Android, giving a new generation a retro flavored taste of a really fun game.