Retro Coin Op Synopsis
Real-world helicopter simulation finally took flight in 1991’s Steel Talons. Atari Games had scored a direct hit in its earlier military simulator, 1980’s tank game Battlezone, and they were hoping to recapture that ground with this foray into pseudo-reality. Veteran game designer Ed Logg (Asteroids, Gauntlet) was brought in as developer, and a set of realistic helicopter controls were designed for the game’s two-player sit-down cabinet. The result was one of the arcade’s most faithful flight simulators, a true-life recreation of helicopter combat.
Everything in the Steel Talons world was built out of 3-D polygon graphics, still a rarity in 1991. The polygon world allowed free movement anywhere on the game map, over several types of terrain. It was tempting just to fly around sightseeing, but the shock of enemy fire reminded you that this was no joyride. Each of the game’s missions had a clear objective—destroy enemy tanks, strafe fighters still on the runway, take a training flight through narrow canyons, engage a jet fighter in air-to-air combat, etc.—and most missions had targets that shot back.
Atari’s “Rump-Thump” made sure players felt the returned fire, delivering a quick thwack to the underside of the seat as shells hit your craft. Crashing wouldn’t end the game, but it did cost precious fuel, and once the tank ran dry, it was game over for that chopper pilot. Extra fuel was only awarded once a mission was successfully completed.
The game allowed players to choose from three missions at a time, and when two players joined in, a fourth option was available: head to head combat. On a playing field with several tall towers to hide behind, the two copters played a deadly game of cat and mouse, hunting down their counterparts and delivering a barrage of 30mm cannon fire (from the joystick trigger) and rocket blasts (from a thumb button). The two players could also choose to work together on a single mission, doubling their chances of success, but the thrill of the one-on-one hunt was usually too tempting to resist.
The twin Steel Talons cabinet had matching sets of helicopter controls. A joystick tilted the craft forward, backward, left and right, while a foot rudder allowed players to rotate the helicopter while hovering in one place. At the left of the cabinet was the collective, a handle that controlled the helicopter’s altitude.
If those controls weren’t enough of a challenge, expert players could select “Real Helicopter Flight” mode, which behaved almost exactly like the real thing. The two easier modes allowed players to fly from a third-person chase cam view or from a first-person view through the helicopter’s windshield. In any of the three modes, the game offered a realistic instrument panel, showing altitude, bearing, speed, fuel and more.
Steel Talons’ groundbreaking realism made it a must-play for expert gamers, but those same features made it a huge challenge for the younger set. Helicopters were simply harder to control than tanks, preventing Steel Talons from achieving the same level of success as Battlezone. Still, the drive for realism in simulators lived on, as games like Virtua Racing and Tokyo Wars brought real-world controls and physics to auto racing, tanks and other vehicles.