If you’re of a certain age, there’s a good chance you’ve played the Flash helicopter game. You know the one — you’re piloting a helicopter down a tunnel, avoiding obstacles and seeing how far you can go. It’s extremely straightforward, using only one button. You hold the mouse to ascend, and release it to let gravity pull you down. The game was a staple in my high school computer class, where simple web games like it could be furtively played for a few minutes while the teacher was out of the room. I was going to write about it a while ago for my column at Fanbyte, but I figured that unlike some of the topics I covered there, the helicopter game was so well-known that it wouldn’t be worth doing. Well, looking into it, I might have overestimated its reach — and I also discovered that its origins are difficult to pin down.
Many early Flash games are hard to trace back to their author, shared as they were through informal networks during a time when attribution was much less common online than it is now. I don’t remember the original address where I played the helicopter game — which is variously called Fly the Copter and, simply, Helicopter Game — so I went looking around. I found it hosted on a number of different sites like Addicting Games, Crazy Games, and so on. Addicting Games attributes Helicopter Game to SeeThru.co.uk, and says that it was originally released in 2004. The Web Gaming Wiki seconds Addicting Games’ attribution to SeeThru, though says the game’s initial release was in 2002.
The game can be found on an archived SeeThru.co.uk page, but here’s where things get a little strange. SeeThru was never a “real” website — it was a companion site created to a BBC program from the early 2000s called Attachments, about young people in London working for an internet startup. This in itself is kind of fascinating, as one of the earlier attempts I’ve heard about of an in-universe website being created to accompany a traditional television show or film. But it raises more questions about the origins of the helicopter game. Was it created by a BBC employee or contractor specifically for the site? Did it already exist elsewhere and I just can’t find it? And was it nearly as popular as I thought it was, or did it just happen to find its way into my Canadian high school computer classroom in 2003?
It’s possible that we’ll never know the answers to these questions. But, as best I can tell, Helicopter Game originated on SeeThru.co.uk (which now appears to be an actual online tech magazine). It’s not like the concept is particularly novel — I think there were earlier iterations of this kind of simple one-button gameplay, and it’s the same easy-to-learn but extremely frustrating experience that propelled Flappy Bird to superstardom almost a decade ago. At the time, we didn’t know where games like Helicopter Game came from, and mostly we didn’t really care — we were just grateful to them for letting us slack off in school. So thank you, nameless BBC Flash developer or whoever you are, and if you’re reading this, please do get in touch.