Pilotwings: Super Nintendo à la Mode 7

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Back in 1990, Nintendo released three first-party titles for the launch of its fledgling SNES console. The first two were Super Mario World and F-Zero, two Nintendo classics that would go on to become iconic entries in Nintendo’s line of flagship games. The third game was Pilotwings.

These days it’s hard to imagine many would pick the third title given the now-universal acclaim of the first two, but Pilotwings was still an fascinating launch title to a kid back in the 90s. Like Pilotwings 64 and Pilot Wings Resort that would follow it, the game was meant to demonstrate the technical prowess of the new platform. The Super NES’s new Mode 7 allowed backgrounds to be scaled and rotated on a scanline-by-scanline basis, and Pilotwings was able to use this to project the illusion of flying in three dimensions in an age before true 3D graphics were even a remote possibility.

Pilotwings also played with a concept of what a console game could be. Gamers had seen platformers and racing games, but there were few flight simulators to speak of. There are no enemies to defeat in Pilotwings (actually, there are, but more on that later), only challenges that must be overcome by completing various objectives. The game has you compete in four different events: Light Plane, Skydiving, Jetpack, and Hanglider. Each level requires you to perform two, three, or all four of these activities. You’re scored in each event based on your performance in various areas, such as timing and the accuracy of your landing. Each level requires you to pass a cumulative score threshold, and you only get to try each event once, so if you mess one up too badly, you’ll need to do all of the events all over again.

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For a launch title, Pilotwings honestly looks and sound good. They really nailed showing off the system’s graphical capabilities. Even though the ground is essentially painted on and there’s not a single 3D building in the entire game, the illusion of flying in three dimensions is surprisingly convincing. The environment also looks wonderful with its rich colors and superb artwork. Like Nintendo’s other SNES titles, the soundtrack is also phenomenal. In fact, some of the songs were so catchy I got some of them stuck in my head while at work.

Likewise, a lot of a detail is put into the mechanics of each vehicle. Each vehicle or event maneuvers in its own unique way, and a majority of the challenge comes from mastering the controls of each one. For example, landing the plane on a runway requires a delicate balance of speed and altitude. Come in too hot or at too high a pitch and you’ll skid straight into a fiery wreck. But come in too slow or too soon and you may find yourself struggling to maintain altitude before you’re even over top the runway.

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It’s these types skills that you’ll ultimately be practicing over and over again before you finally get them just right. That’s really the joy of PilotWings – its frustrating at first, but gets much easier as you go along. There’s a lot of satisfaction in practicing your technique and eventually beating a level you were hopelessly stuck on.

The downside to this, however, is that there’s a big difficulty gap between some of the events. Skydiving and hangliding were far more frustrating than either flying or jetpacking. In skydiving you are dropped from a high altitude and required to fall through a series of rings, which is difficult even if you’ve mastered the controls for it. It’s nowhere near as difficult as landing with a parachute however, which requires a combination of good timing, superb control, and little bit of luck. Hangliding suffers from the same issue – flying through rings was easy enough, but landing with the hanglider was a downright chore.

On the other hand, it was relatively simple to control and perform tasks with the plane, whose speed and altitude you could adjust manually, compared to the hang glider, in which you’re a slave to both wind and gravity. The only relative challenge came from landing, which only became difficult in the last few levels. The jetpack event was an absolute joke – perfect scores are guaranteed almost every time unless you take too long to finish the challenge. Early on this score imbalance meant I could get away with a mediocre performance on either the hangglider or skydiving, and make up for it with a strong score in either flying or jetpacking. Later on, though, things got incredibly challenging, and I actually found myself needing to repetitively practice both skydiving and hang gliding in order to pass levels.

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Oddly, there was a unique event included in the game that really threw me for a loop. After a few levels, you’re suddenly asked to get inside an attack helicopter and go rescue your instructors from an enemy base guarded by lots of anti-aircraft guns. Wait, WHAT!? I had not expected this at all! Here was a squeaky-clean flight simulator for children now asking them to risk their lives over hostile territory. I’m not even ashamed to admit that I was a bit giddy when I first discovered this. I mean, they gave me missiles and everything. I could blow stuff up.

The event has you controlling a helicopter from directly overhead. The A and B buttons allow you to climb and descend, the D-pad tilts you in various directions, and L and R control the missiles. Altitude could roughly be determined by eye-balling your distance from the ground, or more accurately using and the altitude meter on your HUD. The event actually seems easy at first – the helicopter is easy to control, and the missile are easy to aim and fire. However, one hit from the flak cannons and you go down. And there are lot’s of flak cannons. Simply flying my helicopter was not enough – dodging and weaving were eventually necessary. Overall, the event was fun though. One wonders why they didn’t just take a concept like this and spin it off into it’s own game entirely – I could have totally seen it selling copies.

Man, Nintendo really wanted to bury this game's violent content deep within the game play, didn't they?

Man, Nintendo really wanted to bury this game’s violent content deep within the game play, didn’t they?

Altogether it only took me about 4 hours or so to finish Pilotwings, a far cry from the 9 hours reported on How Long to Beat. Even though the game starts off very frustrating, once I got a decent groove going I found myself flying through levels (no pun intended) up until about the last two, which required some serious repetition before I finally nailed them.The game is a bit shorter than I expected – 10 levels total. Frankly, I can imagine someone might have been a little disappointed by Pilotwings compared to the SNES’s other two launch titles. In fact, if I were forced to pay full price for a SNES title on launch day, I would still pick Super Mario World based on that game’s length, challenge, and depth alone.

These days though, Pilotwings can be found on Nintendo’s Virtual Console for $8. If you’re the type of person that enjoys a challenge and the thrill of overcoming them with practice, then Pilotwings is an fascinating foray into the rich history of Nintendo’s consoles.

Final Verdict: Challenging but still oddly satisfying.

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