[GAME REVIEW] Pilotwings 64

Introduction

Having been released within a month of the Super Famicom’s domestic launch, Pilotwings went on to become one of the console’s most beloved titles. Very rarely did one ever see anyone make a serious attempt at three-dimensional gameplay in 1990. Although Pilotwings lacked a true sense of depth, that the team led by producer Shigeru Miyamoto was willing to experiment allowed it to have a rightful place in history. Because it was such a widespread, mainstream success, many developers began to see 3D as the way of the future.

Strangely, despite the fact that it proved successful, it didn’t inspire any sequels immediately. Because of its simplistic gameplay, Pilotwings is thought of as an elaborate technical demonstration for the Super NES. It wasn’t that the developers weren’t interested in creating a sequel – they simply explored what Pilotwings accomplished using different properties. Whether it was using the console’s Mode 7 feature to supplement their presentation or adding action elements to the general gameplay and calling it Star Fox, the influence Pilotwings had on the medium could be felt for the duration of the console generation despite not being as prolific as Nintendo’s other successes. Therefore, with Pilotwings having demonstrated what the Super NES was capable of, it seemed only natural that Nintendo would wait until they were ready to make another strong impression to finally create a sequel.

In the mid-1990s, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo 64. While the Super NES merely faked the perception of depth by creatively rotating and scaling scanlines, the Nintendo 64 was going to be the genuine article. With one of the most advanced graphics processers of its day, they would redefine the rules of the medium once more in the form of the launch title Super Mario 64. As Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi directed its creation, Nintendo turned their attention to a company based in Addison, Texas called Paradigm Entertainment.

Founded in 1990, the company primarily focused on creating products specifically for graphics developers. This included military training simulations for pilots and ship captains. Their diverse clientele included the United States Department of Defense, NASA, Lockheed Martin Boeing, and the Walt Disney Company. With their endorsement of 3D graphics and virtual reality, Nintendo couldn’t have picked a better company to help co-develop the Nintendo 64’s iteration of Pilotwings. Led by Genyo Takeda and Makoto Wada of Nintendo, the two companies began developing the game in earnest in 1995. As Mr. Miyamoto was co-directing Super Mario 64 at the time, his role ended up being far more removed than his production work for the original Pilotwings, though he still oversaw the project from Japan.

Paradigm had developed simulators for military vehicles and aircraft, yet never created a video game. As such, the first hurdle the company had to overcome involved combating old habits. From the beginning, they had to choose between creating what amounted to an arcade game on a home console or a simulation. Rather than placing an emphasis on physics during development, they opted to create something that had a balance between realism and fun. While Paradigm worked on its graphical presentation, Nintendo was in charge of the game design. Using a naming convention that would become typical for the platform, the game was entitled Pilotwings 64. It would be one of the thirteen Nintendo 64 games showcased during the Shoshinkai event in November of 1995 – during which time, the console was dubbed the Ultra 64. The game debuted domestically alongside the retitled Nintendo 64 in June of 1996. It would launch with the console as it made its international debut the following September and March as well. Was Pilotwings 64 able to truly demonstrate the Nintendo 64’s potential?

Analyzing the Experience

One immediate difference between Pilotwings 64 and its direct predecessor manifests as soon as the game begins. Pilotwings had a minimalistic framing device to justify why your character was made to go through a series of tests. He had enlisted in the Flight Club, and you got to play through the trials and tribulations that saw him achieve a pilot’s license. Although it is intended to provide an experience akin to an arcade game than realistically simulate piloting these vehicles, Pilotwings 64 lacks all narrative context outside of the events in which you are to partake – sometimes not even then.

From the onset, you have three vehicles to choose from: the hang glider, the rocketbelt, and the gyrocopter. Regardless of which vehicle you choose to pilot first, there is one commonality between them in how they’re controlled. The directional pad of the Super NES’s controller forced the team behind the game to work around the limitation. The skydiving and rocketbelt events weren’t affected because it made sense for player to hold down the directional pad in order to maneuver the character successfully. However, the developers realized they needed to compensate for the limitation when flying the light plane or hang glider. Therefore, when players let go of the directional pad, the vehicle remained facing that direction. This allowed the player to make precise adjustments in three-dimensional space with a two-dimensional apparatus.

The Nintendo 64, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem. Its own controller features an analog stick in the center. The implications of this new apparatus were explored in Super Mario 64. While classic 2D installments required players to hold down the “B” button to run, Super Mario 64 afforded a greater degree of freedom to the player via the control stick. Whether Mario ran or walked depended on how far away the control stick was from its neutral position.

These gameplay modifications apply to Pilotwings 64 as well – especially when you attempt to pilot the hang glider or gyrocopter. While turning in both cases is a matter of pushing the stick in the appropriate direction, you must keep it in that position to remain in such a state. If you let go of the stick, the vehicle will right itself. Similar to how players controlled Mario in Super Mario 64, the degree of one’s turns depends on your manipulations of the control stick. However, while the team behind Super Mario 64 felt obligated to change the gameplay to match the new environment, Paradigm and Nintendo merely allowed Pilotwings to grasp what it desperately needed all along.

The tests in Pilotwings were very straightforward. You had to fulfill certain conditions and then attempt to land the vehicle. Usually, this entailed flying through rings or a similar task. Although Pilotwings 64 retains the same basic idea, it often expects much more out of players than simply being able to fly the vehicle in patterns. You could be made to take photographs of certain objects before attempting to land as you’re hang gliding or use the rocketbelt to push a ball into a goal. Some tests don’t even require you to land the vehicle at all.

Indeed, I feel the controller being well-optimized for the kind of game Pilotwings 64 tried to be had subtle ramifications on the difficulty. Even in later stages of Pilotwings wherein the player character had to deal with strong winds, landing the rocketbelt was very easy. In Pilotwings 64, not only do the time limits tend to be far stricter, the landing points themselves eventually shrink in size. The rocketbelt is still the easiest to maneuver out of any of the three primary vehicles, but the tests are made trickier to make up for that. Conversely, the hang glider event in Pilotwings punished players the least for landing outside of the target. However, because of the responsive controls and general ease of landing the hang glider in Pilotwings 64, players are granted no such leeway in this game.

Another notable difference becomes apparent when you attempt to actually take a test. Instead of having a single, nameless character as a stand-in for the player, Pilotwings 64 lets you choose from one of six pilots. The characters, fittingly named after birds, are: Lark, Kiwi, Goose, Ibis, Hawk, and Robin. In a manner similar to Mario Kart, the primary distinction between these six characters concerns their weight. Lark and Kiwi are the lightest characters, Goose and Ibis are of average weight, and Hawk and Robin are the heaviest. This means you must take into consideration which character is appropriate for a given vehicle.

Lark and Kiwi’s small size makes them well-suited for hang-gliding due to having greater reactions to control stick inputs, and they are well-suited for the gyrocopter as well. However, when flying the rocketbelt, they run into some problems. They aren’t affected by inertia easily, which makes precise movements a little easier to perform, but they are highly susceptible to winds. Goose and Ibis’s medium weight allows them to fly the hang glider easily enough. Not only that, but they aren’t affected as much as Lark or Kiwi by the wind when flying the rocketbelt, though you have to be mindful of the inertia they build up while airborne. A similar principle applies to their ability to pilot the gyrocopter; they can turn easily, but are slow to start up or power down. Finally, Hawk and Robin’s large mass makes them ill-suited for hang gliding. They also have the opposite problem as Goose or Ibis when it comes to piloting the gyrocopter, starting and stopping easily enough, in exchange for less maneuverability.

What I feel to be the single most significant change to the core gameplay lies in how the tests are presented. For each area of the game, Pilotwings required the player character to partake in one test per vehicle. It didn’t matter if you performed terribly in one test as long as you got enough points to achieve certification. Pilotwings 64 divides tests based on the vehicles instead. The Beginner Class features one test for each vehicle, Class A features two per vehicle, and the remaining classes have three apiece. Each test is self-contained and can be retried as many times as you like. You still need to achieve a certain number of points in order to move on to the next class, but you’re no longer obligated to accumulate them in a single run. To put it another way, if you achieve a perfect score on the first test, but fail the second, you only need to retry the latter to obtain more points; you don’t have to repeat the former.

In order to advance one class, you need to obtain a medal. These come in three different colors: bronze, silver, and gold. In the Beginner Class, they are awarded for obtaining seventy, eighty, and ninety points respectively. Naturally, if you get the full one-hundred points, the game will consider it a perfect score. The point requirements scale for however many tests are in a given class. They are very similar to how tests are graded in an academic setting. For example, in the Beginner Class, the difference between a perfect score and the bare minimum required for a bronze medal is thirty points. For Class A, the difference is sixty and for Class B and the Pilot Class, it’s ninety.

All of these changes make for an overall more sophisticated experience than what the original Pilotwings provided, but the facet that truly allows Pilotwings 64 to rise above its predecessor concerns its level design. In Pilotwings, the stage design had little bearing on the gameplay. Whether the player character performed his tests in a desert, meadow, or on an island, the land only served one purpose – a place for him to touch down upon for his big finish. Because the player character spent a majority of their time airborne, the design of these areas was largely interchangeable despite having numerous physical distinctions – a few gimmicks such as snow or rain notwithstanding. This was mostly brought on by technical limitations. A close examination of the land reveals that these stages do contain features such as buildings and forests, but because Mode 7 rendered everything completely flat, it was difficult to notice.

Absolutely none of those limitations were an issue for the Nintendo 64, which was capable of rendering polygons. This ability was demonstrated in Super Mario 64, but it is even more obvious when playing Pilotwings 64 because it allowed the developers to incorporate the stage design into the tests. While the stages in Pilotwings were completely flat despite having definable features, the islands in Pilotwings 64 have set pieces both natural and manmade. Because your distance from the ground has the potential to change depending on land elevation, there are now two altimeters – one measures the character’s position relative to sea level and the other pops ups whenever they are nearing the ground.

All three of the Beginner Class stages take place on Holiday Island. This was the perfect stage for the developers to not only showcase the Nintendo 64’s capabilities, but also ease players into what to expect moving forward. The island is small, yet contains hills, a lake, and a few lighthouses. Holiday Island is primarily a tourist destination and its amusement park is its claim to fame. If you fly within the vicinity of the amusement park you can hear music playing in the background. The next three classes take place on Ever-Frost Island, Crescent Island, and Little States. Ever-Frost Island and Crescent Island embody the exact opposite themes, being situated near the Arctic Circle and the South Seas respectively. Crescent Island is also a reference to StarTropics, being modeled after the first island its protagonist visits. Despite being fairly standard examples of their settings, the sheer amount of detail that went into designing them was truly remarkable in 1996.

Of course, the one stage that everyone who has played this game remembers is Little States. As the name implies, this island is a miniature version of the lower forty-eight United States. Many landmarks are lovingly recreated in this stage, including Seattle’s Space Needle, the Hollywood sign of Southern California, the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and Florida’s Cape Canaveral. There is even a depiction of Mt. Rushmore – albeit with Mario’s face in place of George Washington’s. If you crash into Mario’s visage, it changes to that of his rival, Wario.

I must also give Paradigm and Nintendo a lot of credit for vastly improving upon what was the greatest weakness of the original game. In Pilotwings, your character was made to fly an attack helicopter into enemy territory. The game was not optimized to handle action elements. As a result, dodging fire from anti-aircraft guns was a matter of swerving around randomly and hoping for the best. The gyrocopter in Pilotwings 64 also features a missile launcher, and it is easier to use than the helicopter’s bombs. By holding down the “Z” button on the back of the controller, a reticle appears onscreen. By letting go of the button, your vehicle will fire a missile in that direction. You will have to account for wind in later stages, but aiming the launcher is very simple.

The reason why this mechanic works far better in this game than it did in Pilotwings is straightforward enough – it is introduced far more organically. Pilotwings had zero action elements until the plot threw your character into the thick of things with no warning. It forced players to develop skills they had no reason or chance to develop beforehand. In Pilotwings 64, you have plenty of tests in which you must use the missile launcher. You start by shooting down targets before coming face to face with a robot known as Meca Hawk. The robot attacks by throwing rocks at the gyrocopter. Because the gyrocopter is far more maneuverable than the attack helicopter from Pilotwings, dodging his projectiles is easy enough. By implementing a naturalistic difficulty curve, the developers were able to turn a weakness into a strength.

More than anything, what I feel is the greatest strength of Pilotwings 64 is how much fun it is to simply forget the tests entirely and sightsee. It helps that because the tests are taken individually and not as a part of a series, there are no lasting consequences for failing them. In fact, the developers outright encourage you to do this, and many hidden items await the persistent. There is a small aperture in Holiday Island, and if you enter it with the rocketbelt, day will change to night. If you’re perceptive enough, you will discover a warp zone in Little States capable of transporting you to the other side of the island. There is no practical reason to ever discover any of these secrets, but they’re nice Easter eggs.

Each island also hides a floating, golden star that, once flown into, will transport your character outside wearing a birdman suit. This vehicle takes the exploratory ethos the developers subtly enforced to its logical conclusion. The only goal when wearing the birdman suit is to fly around and see what you can find. You don’t have to worry about running out of fuel or concern yourself with any other time limit – just enjoy the sights. It’s even possible to jump directly into this mode from the main menu if you meet the right conditions. By getting at least a silver medal for every vehicle in Beginner Class, you can use the birdman suit in Holiday Island. Unlocking the other islands is a little more complicated, however. Getting a silver medal for each vehicle in the remaining three classes is a good start, but it’s not quite enough.

What such a feat accomplishes is a reward in of itself, though. On the right side of the vehicle select screen is a column labeled “Extra Games”. Should you prove tenacious enough to get silver medals in Class A, Class B, and the Pilot Class, you will unlock three new events: Cannonball, Skydiving, and Jumble Hopper. These events are divided into three levels with a single test apiece. Although it sounds a little disappointing, I give the developers credit for having a firm grasp as to how much mileage they could get out of these ideas.

As its name suggests, the first extra game, which is unlocked after obtaining silver medals in Class A, involves firing a cannon. You must aim the cannon carefully and use it to fire a projectile at a target. The closer you are to center, the more points you will obtain. You are allowed to fire the cannon three times before moving onto the next target – of which there are four. This means you can obtain as many as twenty-five points per target. There is one slight caveat that sets this challenge apart from what you would expect; the ammunition for this cannon happens to be the pilot of your choice. Logically, this is a challenge best suited for Hawk and Robin, as their weight ensures fast travel time in addition to providing good wind resistance. Conversely, Lark and Kiwi have significant difficulties with this challenge due to being at the mercy of the wind.

If a fan of the original Pilotwings was disappointed that the sequel doesn’t contain skydiving, they would have been pleased the exact second they cleared all of the Class B events with silver medals. Doing so allows the event to make a return for this game. While the original game made your character fall through rings during his descent, Pilotwings 64 expects a little bit more. On the way down, three of the other pilots will be falling in a formation. There is one more space for your character, which is indicated by a yellow, person-shaped marker. By holding the formation for three seconds, you will obtain more points. You must be quick, for once you fall below a certain altitude, the other pilots will disappear. This is indicated by the island in which the test takes place coming into view. Owing to their average weight, Goose and Ibis have the easiest time with this event due to being able to descend slowly and turn easily.

Those skilled enough to obtain silver medals for all three vehicles in Pilot Class can take the bizarrely named Jumble Hopper out for a spin. The Jumble Hopper event effectively places your character in a pair of boots that greatly enhances their ability to jump. Your goal is to simply jump your way to the goal. While the other tests often involve a litany of factors that affect your score, the Jumble Hopper event merely requires you to complete it as fast as possible. It is the only event in the game that is impossible to fail – discounting the acquisition of an embarrassingly low score. Colliding with a wall will merely causes your character to dust themselves off while landing on water deducts two points from your score. The Jumble Hopper is arguably the most balanced event in the game with each pilot having traits that allow them to shine.

Although Pilotwings 64 is, by and large, an improvement over its predecessor, it isn’t without its weaknesses. I give Paradigm and Nintendo a lot of credit for avoiding the biggest problem plaguing the original game, but there are a few gimmicks that don’t exactly work. When hang gliding, you’re occasionally made to take photographs of certain objects. Needless to say, attempting to take photographs when you have no direct control over altitude is extremely annoying. Arguably, this task would have been better suited for the rocketbelt, which allows you to make precise movements. It was likely delegated to hang gliding to make it more challenging. If that was the case, it makes me wonder why it couldn’t be done while flying the gyrocopter instead.

It’s not so bad in the first test wherein you only need to photograph one object at a high altitude. However, in later stages, you need to photograph a whale, a creature resembling the Loch Ness Monster, and a passenger boat. As all three of these things are close to the water, you run the risk of failing the test whenever you try to get close to them. To make matters worse, you can only take six photographs per attempt. This isn’t debilitating at first, but by the end, you can only afford one extra shot per subject. It’s even worse when you consider the sheer amount of time it takes to complete a hang gliding test compared to the other vehicles.

Ultimately, the biggest problem I have with Pilotwings 64 is that one map is doomed to be underutilized by each vehicle. Admittedly, a lot of these cuts make sense. Crescent Island only has one runway, making it the ideal Class A stage for the gyrocopter, Holiday Island is ill-suited for the Cannonball event, the islands are interchangeable when you’re only attempting to skydive onto a target, and Ever-Frost Island, which is actually an archipelago, would be a nightmare to navigate with the Jumble Hopper.

However, this proposition doesn’t work out as well for the rocketbelt. Many islands feature landing points that go completely unused and there are entire regions with little point to them. This could be read as a critique on the hang gliding event, but the reason the rocketbelt suffers the most is because its Class A tests happen to be set in Little States. The largest island in the game – a place begging to be explored using the most maneuverable vehicle – only has two tests associated with it. Worst of all, the two tests it does receive cover only a small portion of the island. One can get a better appreciation for how much work went into designing Little States with the other vehicles, but the lack of rocketbelt tests set there is a waste of potential.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Improved gameplay
  • Wide variety of events
  • Great music
  • Improved level design
  • Good controls
  • Six playable pilots
Cons:

  • Somewhat short
  • Taking pictures while hang gliding is annoying
  • One map is underutilized for each event

While Pilotwings certainly was an admirable effort for its time, there is no question that the 3D revolution started by Super Mario 64 greatly benefited its sequel. This is because it was, from the beginning, a game that begged to be in full 3D. Mr. Miyamoto and his team certainly did the best they could with the severe technical limitations of the Super NES, but they were a little too ahead of the curve. By 1996, the technology finally caught up, resulting in the largely improved Pilotwings 64. Even if it was a beneficiary of the circumstances surrounding its inception, this is the kind of standard artists should strive for when making a sequel. The developers took the promise the original title had and truly grasped it this time around.

Admittedly, Pilotwings 64 itself has a number of problems. While it had little trouble getting gamers’ attention at the time, it’s difficult to grasp what an achievement it was in 1996 in light of how far the medium has come since then. There is a strange disconnect in how many early 3D games, despite being more technically advanced than efforts from the preceding generation, have aged worse from a visual standpoint. Despite this, I would say the actual gameplay of Pilotwings 64 has aged better due to presenting itself in true 3D as opposed to using Mode 7 to project the illusion of depth in a 2D experience. If you’re seeking out a simple, straightforward flight simulation game, Pilotwings 64 could prove a worthy investment.

Final Score: 6/10

19 thoughts on “[GAME REVIEW] Pilotwings 64

  1. I own both of these and just couldn’t get into them. But then I couldn’t get into the technical flight sims on computers either. Still, for what it is I can recognize it is a fantastic line for those who want to dip their toes into flight sims. After all, the hardcore computer sims have encyclopedias of things to memorize and that’s just on the keyboard. Then you need to invest in a flight stick, rudder pedals, and more for the full experience. Though I suppose if they can ever translate that to a consumer-level VR experience stuff like Occulus Rift would be more exciting as you’d feel more like you’re actually flying the plane. But I’ve begun to ramble.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I can definitely see these games as perfectly serviceable if someone wanted a flight simulator game without needing to deal with the complicated aspects. I can imagine the ones for the PC would make use of the entire keyboard whereas Pilotwings 64 is very much an arcade game experience. I’ve never played those super-realistic simulators, but I did indeed hear the mechanics are indeed very complex. I kind of wonder if, in the event Nintendo comes up with a VR system of their own, they will make another Pilotwings entry for it?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “While Pilotwings certainly was an admirable effort for its time” – That’s it, really. At the time it looked amazing, it wasn’t really about the gameplay. Although that mentality seems more prevalent than ever. I’m glad to leave Pilotwings 64 as a happy memory circa 1997. Fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was actually referring to the original Pilotwings when I wrote that, but I do think the same criticism applies to a lesser extent to Pilotwings 64. There was a lot more going for it, but the presentation clearly carried a lot of the experience, and a straight recommendation would therefore be a little tricky. I know some out there tend to favor the games of old, but a fair chunk of beloved titles from the medium’s supposed golden age haven’t held up so well, so I feel it’s just as well that more people are recognizing that and forming their own opinions rather than blindly accepting what the previous generation thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember playing a fair bit of it back in the day. All my friends either had Pilotwings, or it was a common rental. I was never really much into it myself, though. Never really got the nuances of the controls, and it just didn’t fit what I tended to look for out of games at the time.

    Even then, though, it was great to explore. It had little secrets everywhere, and it was fun hunting them down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was lucky enough to get this when it launched alongside Super Mario 64. Admittedly, it’s not as much fun to mess around in this game due to no instructors commenting on your poor performance, but it is much better at delivering the kind of experience the original sought to provide. The controls, though not completely polished, were better than they had any right to be given that it was an early 3D game.

      And you’re right; it was a lot of fun forgetting about the tests and just flying around, seeing what you could find.

      Liked by 1 person

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