I grew up with flight simulators, primarily due to my father being both a proper propellerhead and a writer for a computing magazine — in other words, we got a lot of review copies of such games.
One thing that struck me about the genre was that it was rather rare to see games based around just flying; instead, prolific developers such as MicroProse tended to emphasise the military angle, simulating exciting aircraft such as the F-16 “Fighting Falcon”, the F-15 “Strike Eagle” and the somewhat-less-exciting-but-appeared-in-a-movie A-6 Intruder.
There was Microsoft Flight Simulator, of course — or subLOGIC’s Flight Simulator as it was known in the early days — but that was slow-paced, rather complicated and, according to my father “not a game”. Clearly there was room for something in between the two extremes.
Enter Pilotwings, then, originally released shortly after the Super Famicom in Japan, and subsequently localised and released as a launch title for the Western Super NES in 1991. This was a game that offered something altogether unique: rather than emphasising exciting dogfights and reams of military technology designed to make things go “boom” both on the ground and in the air, here we had an experience that was quite simply about the joy of flying.
In Pilotwings, you had the opportunity to fly a light aircraft, a hang-glider and a rocket belt as well as indulge in some skydiving, with a bonus mission involving an attack helicopter once you cleared all the training courses in the other vehicles. It was a showcase title for the Super NES’ Mode 7 capabilities, making extensive use of the hardware’s scaling and rotation capabilities to create the illusion of 3D graphics.
It was natural we’d see a sequel at some point, and in keeping with the series’ reputation as a “showcase” title for its host hardware, the second game in the series launched in 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64, once again showing off the new console’s capabilities — this time in full, polygonal 3D.
Pilotwings 64 doesn’t deviate significantly from the formula set by its predecessor. The majority of the game still involves flying various non-military aircraft — though this time around the light aircraft has been replaced by a gyrocopter — and is completely non-violent. There are some missions where you get missiles to fire, but these are only ever used to destroy targets; there’s no dogfighting here, and the attack helicopter bonus missions from the original are completely absent.
But that’s fine; the appeal of Pilotwings has never been about flying around and blowing stuff up — if you want that, I most certainly have the series for you — but rather the inherently contemplative, relaxing art of flying low-powered (or unpowered!) aircraft in various situations, enjoying the scenery and perhaps seeing what risks you can take by flying under bridges, performing stunts and suchlike.
One of the most surprising things about Pilotwings 64 is how realistic its flight model feels, particularly when flying the hang-glider. There’s a real feeling of “weight” to you and your aircraft — this isn’t a jet fighter, so don’t expect to be throwing it around the sky — and aspects such as finding thermals to gain altitude give the whole experience a feeling of authenticity.
That said, this authenticity doesn’t come at the expense of accessibility; this is a console game, after all, and on a Nintendo platform, at that. The aforementioned thermals are clearly visible rather than something you’d simply have to intuitively understand. Different viewpoints allow you to get a good view of the action and take aim at your targets. And the three different aircraft each challenge a slightly different set of skills throughout the various tasks you’re given to complete.
In true Nintendo game tradition, the game doesn’t sit still for long, and presents plenty of variety between its different stages. A particular highlight is a hang-glider mission that sees you hurling yourself off a cliff and plummeting vertically downwards to fly through as many rings as possible before pulling up and turning away to avoid careening into an inconveniently positioned mountain. Despite the game’s relatively primitive visuals (by modern standards), this remains a genuinely thrilling moment, particularly if you manage to pull off an especially death-defying manoeuvre.
The locales around which you’ll be flying are a delight just to explore, too. There are four distinct islands to fly over in total, with the most memorable one probably being “Little States”, a small island based on the United States that features landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore as well as small-scale takes on several US cities.
Best of all, there’s a special mode in the game specifically for exploring the islands without any pressure of mission objectives, time limits or suchlike. Placing the player in a “Birdman” suit rather than a realistic aircraft, this mode allows you to get into all the little nooks and crannies around the map — as well as discover the numerous Easter eggs that have been hidden in out-of-the-way locations, including cameo appearances from other Nintendo characters.
Pilotwings 64 remains a great game today, with solid presentation and performance considering its age, and a delightfully chilled out soundtrack that is the perfect complement to the game’s rather relaxing gameplay. The only aspect where it falls down a little is in the absolutely dreadful character design for the various pilots you are able to select to represent yourself; none of these freaks are the slightest bit appealing, and the game gives you no indication of what the pros and cons of each might be, so you’ll end up just having to pick whichever one is least offensive to you.
Ultimately, this is a fairly minor issue, mind you, because you don’t actually see your character all that often; they’re only really made particularly obvious in the rocket pack sequences, and even then their horrid appearance is easily ignored thanks to both the perspective and the fact you have more important things to concentrate on! Some of them don’t half have a blood-curdling scream when you slam their hang-glider into a cliff face, mind you…
So that’s Pilotwings, a largely forgotten series these days despite an attempt to resurrect it on the 3DS in 2011. It’d be nice to see a new one someday, and I feel like it’d be a ton of fun on the Switch with motion controls and suchlike.
Will that ever happen? Doubtful, but never say never. In the meantime, Pilotwings 64 remains well worth your time and attention today. It’s just the ticket to unwind after a long day at the office!
More about Pilotwings 64
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