We've something of a history with remote control helicopters here on SlashGear. They don't crop up all that often, but when they do we find that readers go for them in a big way. Developments in contra-rotating blades and other cleverness has done a lot to minimize what user expertise is required, and now WowWee have stepped into the fray with their own, super-simple Bladestar remote control helicopters. Can they carry over their tradition of straightforward, right-out-of-the-box fun to historically finnicky flight? We put on our best pilot's goggles and silk scarves and took a look.
The WowWee Bladestar comes in a transparent plastic carry-case, complete with sturdy latches, with all the individual components supported inside in different sized cavities. Aside from the Bladestar helicopter itself, which is the size of a small egg and clad in polystyrene, the kit contains two sets of lightweight plastic blades, a three-channel infrared remote control, two spare propellor rotors and the "Dogfight" accessory (more on that later). You'll need to add six AA batteries, which fit into the remote; there's also clips in the case to store spare batteries, but don't forget a screwdriver as you'll need it to open the compartment.
Initially just a little setup is required. The blades snap into pivoted clips mounted on the helicopter body (and can only be fitted one way round) and then an initial recharge is necessary. Like some other WowWee toys, the remote provides the power source; the right end-cap unscrews and a short cable plugs into the helicopter (kids might need some assistance with this, as it's a relatively fiddly plug & socket). Flick the switch on the bottom of the remote to "Charge" and, in roughly ten minutes, there's enough juice in the Bladestar's rechargeable li-ion battery for five minutes of flight.
The central lights on the remote tell you when it's finished charging, at which point it's time to flick the Bladestar power switch to 'on', set it down on the floor (or a table) and retire to a safe distance. On the remote, the left hand controls the throttle (e.g. the height the helicopter hovers at) with a sliding control, the central LEDs rising and falling accordingly, while the right hand manages the forward, backward, left and right buttons, together with the 'fire' button used in "Dogfight" mode. Unlike most other remote control toys, the direction of the Bladestar is in relation to where you are, not where it's "pointing"; press 'left' and it moves to your left, 'right' and it moves to your right.
Take off requires a little caution and no animals in close proximity (though they'll soon scarper; the tiny propellor motors make a surprising amount of noise). Since the remote uses infrared, rather than radio, it requires line of sight to the helicopter. Since you're unlikely to be piloting from the next room along that's no great issue, but it does mean that you need to constantly ensure the remote is pointing directly at the Bladestar at all times. Initially it was easy to forget and keep it trained on the ground, where the helicopter had taken off from; after climbing out of reach of the IR LED we confusingly lost control.
In fact, losing control - and subsequent crash landings - were a common occurence at first. The Bladestar has a steeper initial learning curve than ground-based remote control toys, and younger children might find that frustrating. Perservere, however, and there's a surprising amount of finesse to be had in its flight. It's also testament to the build-quality, as despite the regular crashes we're still on our first - scratched, but not broken - wings, and the seemingly flimsy propellor arms are unmarked.
Once you've got the hang of keeping the Bladestar airborne, it's time to focus on bringing it plummiting down. With two or more of the helicopters there's the "Dogfight" mode to be played with. Screw on the "Dogfight" accessory - which basically narrows the infrared spread so two controllers can be used without interfering with each other - and then attempt to not only pilot your Bladestar but, by momentarily pointing the remote at the opponent helicopter and pressing "fire", shoot them out of the air. The first two 'hits' cause the helicopter to stumble in mid-flight; the third kills the engines and brings it down.
It sounds straightforward, but without control input within 5-10 seconds your own Bladestar will cut its engines. Since it's hovering without user input, too, it's a prime target for your opponent. Dogfight mode demands two roughly equal (and generally reasonable ability) pilots, as otherwise it can get especially frustrating, and with the further limited infrared spread the need to consistently point the controller at the helicopter is only magnified.
WowWee have also granted the Bladestar an intelligent Autopilot mode, triggered before take-off and which uses infrared sensors built into the helicopter itself to auto-control. Although it will still respond to the remote, in Autopilot the Bladestar will maintain distance from walls and ceilings - you can also guide it around by holding out your hand or a piece of paper. In practice, Autopilot is very room-dependent. It requires clear, light-colored walls and ceilings (hanging pendant lights can't be seen, and can be inadvertent crash targets), and while the Bladestar is auto-navigating it won't respond to user input. On several occassions we watched, powerless to intervene, as the helicopter bounced from light fitting to wall to under the bed.
Still, it's a clever addition and, in the right room, works surprisingly well. Our overiding impression of the WowWee Bladestar is highly positive, not least because of its resilience to the sort of cack-handed control only dubious tech geeks can offer. It's not perfect - you have to remove the wings, a tricky proceedure, before everything will stow into the carry case, and once you've done that the manual has nowhere to go - and it requires a little perseverence to get the most out of it, but that could be the difference between a toy discarded on Christmas afternoon and one that maintains interest for a whole lot longer.
The WowWee Bladestar helicopter is available now, priced at around $49.99 each.