Return to the Skies
You know what I could go for? A new Pilotwings game. Pilotwings is great, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actively dislikes it. Have you ever asked someone if they like Pilotwings and had them respond “No! I hate those games!” I sure haven’t. So what’s the deal?
Eye-Popping MODE 7!!!
The original Pilotwings was a bit of a revelation for me. I had played some basic flight simulator stuff on PC before, but only briefly at school. For the most part, a game that wasn’t about any sort of conflict was pretty uncommon outside of sports games at the time, especially on consoles. It honestly didn’t even occur to me that there wasn’t a plot either. You’re at a flight school and you just have to complete your courses. It seems so dull on paper, but boy did it ever work here.
The graphics certainly didn’t hurt the experience. This game was made to be a showcase for Mode 7 and it worked wonderfully. The way the world spun around while skydiving, or the way you could switch camera angles with the Rocket Belt, it all just worked so well. Sure, it was painfully obvious that the ground was a completely flat surface, especially the closer you got to it, but it was still a strikingly effective effect. It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective though without the game’s incredible sound design. The sound of the wind blowing past you as you flew through the sky was so very convincing. The music too was an absolute treat with catchy tunes everywhere from the stages themselves to the menu screens. It’s just an incredibly well crafted game from top to bottom.
Of course, if you’ve played through Pilotwings before, you know that there was eventually a bit of a plot to work through which also happened to be completely insane. After you complete the first four stages, you are asked to pilot a helicopter to save a bunch of hostages. You haven’t trained on a helicopter, but apparently you’re the only person for the job! It’s even weirder the second time because your piloting instructors are the ones who were kidnapped by the EVIL Syndicate (for some reason) and you have to go rescue them. It’s nuts, but super fun.
Change the System
I never expected a second Pilotwings on Super NES, but I was hopeful that I hadn't seen the last of the series. Fortunately for me, Plotwings resurfaced exactly where I hoped it would, launching Nintendo’s next system, the Nintendo 64. Actually, I caught my first glimpses of the new Pilotwings in the delightfully insane VHS tape they sent out to Nintendo Power subscribers to promote pre-orders for the Nintendo 64.
Much like the original game on the SNES, standing next to the latest and greatest Mario game isn’t an easy thing to do, and Pilotwings pulled it off by again being a completely different kind of experience.
It’s hard to put into words just how exciting the game looked on that VHS tape at the time. 3D gaming was still pretty new, especially on the console front, and after seeing how Mario was about to revolutionize the concept, imagining what Pilotwings 64 was going to actually be like was nuts. Just look at this.
It was actually quite a while before I was able to put any real time into the game myself though, but even before I did I was somewhat let down because of how different it seemed to be tonally from the original Pilotwings. None of the original characters were anywhere to be found, and instead of being a nameless character at a flight school, this time you picked a character to play as, and those character designs were… weird.
The one kid was definitely supposed to be Nester from Nintendo Power, and the others were weirdly exaggerated in some very specific ways.
The game had a goofier tone to it overall. The original was rather straight-laced with occasional bits of comedy and weirdness thrown in. Pilotwings 64 was trying to be more whimsical from the start. As a stickler for continuity, this threw me off a bit.
But when I did get around to playing it properly, I had a ball. It’s the same kind of wonderful experience as the original was and it looked and sounded great. It’s still a Nintendo 64 game so it doesn’t exactly look “good” but it held its own in its day and it isn’t super unpleasant to look at. The music is a treat for sure though.
A Third Dimension, A Good Dimension
Much to my dismay, Pilotwings skipped a couple of platforms and I kind of figured it for dead when out of nowhere, it resurfaced once again. It was a launch title for the Nintendo 3DS, and it once again came with a massive visual shift. This time it was set on the fictional Wuhu Island of Wii Sports Resort fame. It was also stuffed to the brim with Miis, which while charming to a degree, sort of made it feel like this wouldn’t be a proper Pilotwings game. More like an air sports version of Wii Sports or something.
Thankfully, that assertion was unfounded because Pilotwings Resort is a heck of a game. It’s got just about everything that makes Pilotwings work, it looks better than any other entry thanks to the power of the 3DS, and the music is once again an absolute delight.
That was back in 2011 though, and aside from some Smash Bros. related content, Pilotwings has been pretty silent since. Granted, this is Nintendo we’re talking about and an 11 year gap doesn’t mean a game series is dead by a longshot. That said, while the original SNES game has been reissued numerous times, Pilotwings 64 hasn’t shown up on any Virtual Console services yet, nor has it shown up on the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack, and Pilotwings Resort never so much as saw a discount or physical reprint during the lifetime of the 3DS.
The point is, Pilotwings is great and I want more, darn it. All three of them have been integral to the launches of some of Nintendo’s most popular consoles, and all three of them are still fun to play today.
Of course, there’s always hope for the future. A proper modern Pilotwings without the technical limitations of the SNES, N64, or 3DS could be something truly special. I’m going to hold out hope that the series is still alive. It came out more recently than F-Zero, right? Maybe we’ll even get to see Big Al fly a rocketbelt!