One thing I’ve always been curious about when it comes to game development is, when faced with a new console with new technology and new power, how does a team of developers go about utilizing these new capabilities for the first time? What kind of game should they make? Do they come up with a brand new concept or do they try to improve on something they attempted before that they couldn’t quite pull off for one reason or another?
Y’see kids, a long time ago (1991), there was a game released for the Super Nintendo called Pilotwings, where players got the opportunity to try their hand at several aviation activities like hang gliding, skydiving, and jetpacking. It was a really good game, but you could also tell the creators were a little hamstrung by the lack of technology available. However, five years later, out came the Nintendo 64, which was wholly capable of cranking out the true 3D environs and sense of freedom the creators were trying for.
Veteran pilots from the first game should feel pretty much at home here, as the hang glider, rocketbelt, and skydives all return for the sequel, and the light plane has been replaced by the gyrocopter (a weird plane/helicopter hybrid that was in a Bond movie once) that handles roughly the same. Anyone new to the series will have no problem getting the hang of things, as the first set of tests are basically light training stages to get familiar with the controls, and if you’re still having problems, these stages even have demo videos available to show you what a perfect run should look like. Each test is graded on a number of different elements, such as landing accuracy and impact, how quickly you finished the course or completed your task, and points can be deducted for whacking into things or missing rings.
Most of the tasks are fairly cut-and-dry, but during the course of the hang glider tests, you will be asked to take pictures of certain objects, and given a sample photo to give you an idea of what they want. Odds are, unless you get extremely lucky, you will never be given full credit for your pictures, if for no other reason than the mechanics of the hang glider don’t exactly lend themselves to taking a nice level picture. Instead, you’ll swoop in, snap all your pictures in quick succession and hope one of them met the unspoken criteria.
Aside from that hitch, though, most of your tests are fairly simple, and some are even fairly creative. You’ll use your gyrocopter skills to battle a giant robot that looks like one of the available characters and hurls giant boulders at you while rampaging across a miniature version of America. You’ll pilot a jetpack through a cave. You’ll even use that same jetpack to push a giant rubber ball into a goal on the other side of the level.
Also, along the way, if you’re doing well enough to rack up gold medals in each class, you’ll unlock a series of bonus games, like the ultra-relaxing Birdman (not Harvey), where you strap on an actual pair of wings and flap around the levels for your own amusement, to the potentially hilarious human cannonball where you launch yourself headfirst into a giant target with no regard for your personal safety…and, you might just decide to blast yourself into a brick wall at warp speed. The skydiving stages are also amongst this group, and they require you to join formation with other divers before deploying your chute and trying to land on the huge bullseye.
Play control is no problem here. In fact, it’ll probably feel like the N64 controller had WAY more buttons than this game required, in fact. A, B, and Z basically handle the majority of what you’ll need to do, R changes your perspective depending on what you’re piloting, and the control stick is subtle enough for the manuevers you’ll frequently be pulling. Also, each of the characters is supposed to have different characteristics in flight, usually a Mario Kart-esque “acceleration versus handling” type of tradeoff, but, quite frankly, I just picked Goose for everything. I liked his Evel Knievel colors. So be it. Also, there’s no need to fear getting bogged down in the details of a regular flight sim; you have a radar that also shows wind speed/direction, a speedometer, and a pair of altimeters that tell you how high above sea level you are and how close you are to scraping a mountaintop, and that’s about it…basically, it plays like an arcade flight sim.
As for presentation, well, it’s a Nintendo project, so you know care was taken. All the different locales have a different motif, and definitely do a good job of getting across what they’re supposed to be. Big points have to be given to Little States for nailing the depressing flatness of the Midwest (sorry, Kansas, just be glad you’re being portrayed at all) and Holiday Island for coming off as the resort paradise it’s well, named to be. Character sprites are more in a cartoony, caricature style, with exaggerated body types and their own color schemes for each vehicle. Also, any avid readers of Nintendo Power should recognize a certain pilot.
Sound here is fantastic. Each vehicle has its own theme music as opposed to each level, so a nice serene tune plays while you’re hang gliding and a more action-oriented song plays for the gyrocopter. And yes, the human cannonball plays a rather circus-esque theme that starts slow as you’re aiming and speeds up as you blast off and plays over the horrified scream of your character hurtling towards certain death. It’s delightful, really. Hell, right now, I have the menu music stuck in my head. The MENU music.
Perhaps the biggest reason that Pilotwings 64 was and is so memorable is the amount of Easter eggs and other quirks you could discover. It’s not terribly uncommon for players to screw around and explore games outside of their intended goals, but PW64 actually made an effort to reward a bit of accidental discovery. It might sound lame now, but the first time you blasted yourself into the Mario head in the Little States Mt. Rushmore statue and saw it turn into Wario’s face, you knew you had something cool to tell your friends about on the bus the next day. Just watch the James and Mike Play video of this game some time and see them marvel at happening upon a cave on Crescent Island and REALLY mark out when they see a star inside the cave. What does the star do? Is it there for a reason? Am I even supposed to see this cave at all? I don’t know, but I HAVE to find out now.
When you can create a sense of discovery in a game like that that still holds up over 15 years later, you definitely did something right. On the other hand, if you’re not the kind of gamer that tends to veer off the beaten path, this game’s going to feel a bit on the short side, which, to be fair, it is, as none of the actual tests or bonus games are terribly long or involved, so you kinda have to create your own replay value here, but, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably already intrigued enough for this not to be a problem. All in all, if you like a little light-hearted flying fun, something to spice up a boring weekend, Pilotwings 64 is a pretty solid choice. There’s enough to keep you entertained without turning into a mammoth time sink, and with a little bit of imagination, it can be whatever kind of experience you want, and it’s hard to ask much more than that from a game.
Fun, simple to learn, chock full of little rewards for those who take the time to look.
If you’re not one of those people, it’s rather short, photo missions can be frustrating.