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BRIEF: Rescue Raiders (1984)

[Apple II, Sir-Tech]

Everyone loves helicopters, and video game designers like them most. Helicopters are fast, but they can also stop. They’re instantly recognizable, but you can customize them with whatever set of weapons you need. They can strafe, they can land, they can pick up cargo they can drop commandos or evacuate hostages. In a nutshell, they are the perfect vehicle gameplay-wise. Early designers did not miss that, and the “helicopter” theme has 60 entries in for 1984 and earlier, including some popular names in the era: Choplifter!, Raid on Bungeling Bay and, today’s entry, Rescue Raiders.

I am myself certainly no stranger to helicopter games, having moved over time toward increasingly simulationist games. I started as a kid with the arcade Striker, then played the Desert Strike series, then the Comanche series and finally the Enemy Engaged series. I must confess, however, I had never heard of Rescue Raiders until two different commenters mentioned it as being one of the first RTS. The comments prompted the DataDrivenGamer to cover the game (part 1, part 2) and now it is my turn.

Striker might be a generic side-scroller, but it is the generic side-scroller I played as a kid.

Rescue Raiders‘ storyline is all over the place. After discussing the impact of coincidence and butterfly effect on history, the manual releases a swarm of ornithopters: “Now suppose that a group of people […] has the means to alter the outcome of the battle in such a way that the group will benefit. Using time travel, members of the group will take soldiers and modern weapons to the Europe of 1944 to influence the Battle of Normandy so that the group will gain enormous political and economic power forty years later.” Indeed, the mind boggles at such a thought! In Rescue Raiders, the time terrorists decided to travel back to WWII to change the course of history for some undisclosed nefarious purpose, and, well, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a time machine is a good guy with a time machine and a helicopter.

« Look, it is too much pressure. I won’t. »

Rescue Raiders is level-based, with the campaign following the march of the Western Allies toward Germany in WW2. I think it would have worked better if the borders shown on the intro screen of each level were not those of post-war Europe, with a very obvious West/East Germany split:

The first level is Cherbourg. In this alternate reality, the Dutch colonized Ireland and then started to polderize toward Iceland.

The game starts immediately thereafter, with one objective: destroying the time-machine on the left side of the map, and one tool: the helicopter. It does everything you expect a helicopter to do (take-off, land, hover ominously, turn left and right) and comes with 3 weapons:

  • A fast firing-canon, with a high number of ammo but tricky to use as it shoots straight ahead,
  • 10 dumb bombs, extremely efficient against enemy vehicles,
  • 2 anti-air missiles – the only reliable weapons to destroy enemy choppers that will invariably come from the left of the screen.
The start of the first scenario, with a helipad to refuel & reload, and your time machine.

I am sorry to report that as far as the piloting experience is concerned, I found Rescue Raiders sub-par: the weapons are not satisfying to use and the helicopter is too big compared to its speed, which makes the time-to-react to something entering the screen absurdly low. In particular, if the enemy helicopter manages to dodge your missiles and enter your screen, it is almost impossible to prevail with canon and dumb bombs.

Returning to my lines for support as an enemy chopper got too close to me to use my weapons

But of course, Rescue Raiders is more than just an arcade helicopter game. To assist with their mission, the player can call various assets on the battlefield. The player accumulates over time a currency called “bags”, which can be used to call the following units:

  • The tank (cost: 4 bags), able to destroy most enemy ground assets, but totally helpless against enemy choppers
  • The infantry (cost: 5 bags for 5 of them), a quantity-over-quality version of the tank. The soldiers can also be carried by my helicopter and deployed on the front line,
  • The engineers (cost: 5 bags for 2 of them), soldiers who can also occupy and repair static buildings,
  • The anti-aircraft missile carrier (cost: 3 bags), which can launch ONE missile toward an enemy chopper and will then auto-destruct,
  • The demolition team (cost: 2 bags), defenceless, but the only vehicle able to destroy the enemy time machine,
  • Finally, I can buy extra choppers, effectively “lives”
Tank, demolition vehicle, AA carrier and infantry [engineers look the same], all in one screen.

The static defences between my time machine and the enemy time machine are barely threats and easily overcome, at least in the first scenarios. The real opposition comes from the combination of enemy helicopters (respawning shortly after being destroyed) and the ground forces that my enemy keeps calling: for now only tanks & infantry – the terrorists don’t have access to anti-aircraft missile carriers in the first levels. The enemy helicopter is the worst one: I have only two missiles, and after launching them I have to return to base to reload. However, as my forces get closer and closer to the enemy base, my landing pad gets further and further away, and it can take up to a full minute between my departure and my return – which is enough for the enemy chopper to respawn and destroy all my ground assets.

Depositing infantry behind an enemy tank so they destroy an enemy AA position. Not really necessary gameplay-wise, but still cool to do.

Of course, the solution is to build a lot of anti-aircraft missiles, but these can’t engage ground targets, so they need to be escorted by a tank, and the computer has tanks of its own, which will trade with your own tank at 1:1 ratio. So you need to destroy those tanks, but the time thus spent is time not used to return to base to reload your AA missiles. Did I mention that the demolition vehicles can explode if debris hit them? Now I have.

Did I also mention fuel?

Obviously, the game is not impossible, but it requires calling a combination of reinforcement that’s able to slowly gain ground, while not making mistakes in the air. Unfortunately, it takes some long minutes for your troops to cross the map, during which you cannot change the “order” in which they advance (you can deposit or paradrop infantry in front of your army, but its impact is inconsequential). Furthermore, the only way to gain resources is by waiting – there isn’t any building you can capture to accelerate the process – so the most effective strategy is to defend while waiting for cash to pile-on, then summon an army as “deep” as possible and hope that it makes it through, with no reason to summon more troops between your waves of assault.

The army of victory in the first scenario

The DataDrivenGamer stated that “you don’t beat Rescue Raiders’ missions with skill or strategy – you out-endure them“, and he is spot on. The enemy is never going to destroy your time-machine with its attacks as long as you are active behind your keyboard, and if you start to lack helicopters you can easily play defensively until you can pay for new ones. Instead, the game is about sending the best combination of force you can imagine and hoping that the stars align (the forces that the AI randomly summons don’t counter your own, the enemy chopper doesn’t respawn at the wrong moment, debris doesn’t fall on your demolition vehicle,…) – from what I read, the more you progress in the game the more the stars need to align perfectly.

I managed to win the Cherbourg scenario, and then in the middle of the battle of Caen I realized I had seen enough of Rescue Raiders. The DataDrivenGamer held on until the 6th scenario (Verdun), but similarly tagged the game as “not-won”, pointing to a YouTube video to see the end.

The exact trigger of my decision to end the game was reaching the enemy time machine with my ground force in Caen only to realize that my demolition vans were missing, presumably destroyed by debris or a stray AA missile.

The DataDrivenGamer excels in game genealogy, and he reports that Rescue Raiders inspired the Herzog series, which itself inspired Dune II, so Rescue Raiders is a direct ancestor of the RTS genre. Then, one only needs to expand the genealogy in both directions: Choplifter inspired Rescue Raiders, the RTS genre branched into MOBAs and MOBAs into auto-battlers, and now it can be confidently asserted that Choplifter is a distant ancestor to auto-battlers. Fun trivia! However, in itself Rescue Raiders is a mediocre arcade game with a thin varnish of strategy. While it has more strategy than Sir-Tech’s earlier title Galactic Attack, it still does not qualify as a wargame in my opinion and is certainly less “strategic” than Panzer War, the least strategic hybrid that I covered so far with a full-fledged article. I suppose Rescue Raiders had the prestige of novelty and lack of competition in the hybrid genre back then, but this waned off. It was interesting to learn about the game, but alas I derived no pleasure from playing it.

At the end of each battle, the player receives a lecture on the city’s history. I guess I’ll never know the history of Caen.

Having played the game, read articles on it and seen a couple of videos, two questions remain: why Rescue? Why Raiders?


  1. WhatHoSnorkers WhatHoSnorkers

    Did it also inspire Ch-Ch-Ch-Chip and Dale, Rescue Rangers?

    Fascinating read of what looked like a cool game but sounds ultimately disappointing. I laughed, I learned, I grew as a person…

    • Are you rescuing raiders, or are you raiders who rescue? Nobody knows.

  2. syntax horror syntax horror

    the Jeux & Stratégie reviewer at the time liked it a lot (issue 34, page 45, 4/5 “we like” rating)

    that review comes with a screenshot (which should be attached to this post) that I kind of love for how pixel soup-y and incomprehensible it is, it’s a work of art

    • Oh boy. It looks like Noita, but with a chopper!
      Magazines until the late 90s had no way to take screenshots, so they took picture with a camera using a dedicated system to make sure no outside light ruined the shot. For games that went particularly fast, it was maybe not a good solution still!

  3. Dayyalu Dayyalu

    I have an incredible soft spot for the genre of “direct control RTS”, mostly from my youth spent playing the multiplayer of Battlezone 1998. RTS often devolves into a chess-like series of optimal movement, adding a physicality to the player adds a layer than further evolves the difference between macroing and microing (one could be an excellent pilot supporting mediocre macro skills, or excellent macro skills could support mediocre piloting).

    Well, this is a flawed prototype, at best. Also the plot reminds me a lot of Turtledove.

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