Pilotwings has always been a tech demo series, but it’s also managed to be an incredibly fun tech demo series. The original helped launch the Super NES in 1991, introducing fancy new scaling and rotation effects not possible on earlier systems. This was followed by Pilotwings 64 in 1996, which saw vast new 3D realms the Super NES could only dream of. Now, after skipping both GameCube and Wii, the flight-school series returns with a whole new set of airplane, rocket pack and hang glider challenges to kick off the 3DS.
The tasks start off quite simple, then escalate to minutes-long tests of skill and endurance as you progress through each class. For example, the Bronze class introduces basic controls for the plane, jet pack and hang glider; as you near Platinum you’re asked to shoot targets, fly through rings and nail a perfect landing, all within a set time limit. Honestly, that’s it – just you against the clock, competing against yourself for better times and scores on each course.
But for a handheld game, that’s totally OK. There’s no shoehorned story mode, or tacked-on multiplayer to consider, just ranks, times and scores. Each challenge is perfectly suited for on-the-go gaming, yet entire classes fit together nicely for extended sessions at home. Of all the 3DS launch games, this has been in my system the most.
Each aircraft handles completely unique, and presents its own difficulties and benefits. The hang glider, for instance, constantly loses altitude and requires air currents to stay aloft. The tradeoff is a great sensation of slowly soaring over Wuhu Island, soaking up a sunset as some of the most relaxing Weather Channel-esque music I’ve ever heard softly plays underneath. It’s a struggle to keep the glider going, but persistence pays off with immensely trimmed finish times and 100mph dives through offshore rock formations. It’s the hardest device to control and keep in the air, yet the most rewarding.
The rocket pack handles as realistically as you can expect; get going too fast in one direction and your momentum keeps propelling you forward. It’s probably the easiest thing to pilot, as landings (usually the hardest part of any flight game) can be micro-managed with slight bursts from your jets until the last second. Finally, the plane is… well it’s a plane, though it’s always moving forward. You can brake and boost, but you can’t minutely adjust your speed. I don’t see the benefit of this setup, other than simplifying controls for newcomers. I understood how to speed up and slow down in 1991 – surely kids could figure it out today?
As I mentioned before, Pilotwings has ushered in two new Nintendo machines as a cleverly disguised tech demo. Makes sense – as new hardware is introduced, developers can create more realistic terrain and vehicles that handle closer to the real thing. This time, the tech on display is obviously the 3DS’ depth of field, but in a sense, every launch game is a tech demo.
Pilotwings Resort visuals do indeed stretch into the horizon, but the 3D effect doesn’t make it any easier to judge distances between your plane and the next floating ring, or your hovering rocket pack and the landing pad up ahead. If anything, the placement of your craft (nestled right in the middle), is distracting in 3D, appearing as a floating object in the foreground, almost artificially dangling over a 3D world underneath. After a few minutes of 3D play each session, I switched it back to 2D and enjoyed the experience just as much, if not more. Even when flat, Pilotwings Resort looks presentable and clean.
If you’re particularly good at flight games, you can breeze through most of the games primary challenges within two hours. However, the game encourages you to nail perfect scores in each mission for a final bonus; I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it’s a rather cool surprise and worth the effort. If securing perfect scores sounds like a huge pain in the ass, know that it’s surprisingly easy to chip away until you get there - it’s certainly not a grueling experience where you’re replaying the same mission for hours trying to shave off one second. If you don’t like harsh grading or the prospect of replaying areas more than a few times, you should probably avoid the game altogether.
Beyond the main game, there’s a Free Flight mode that lets you explore WuHu Island (the same one from Wii Sports Resort) at your leisure. At first this sounds like a throwaway mode, because the entire main game takes place on WuHu Island, so there’s no immediate reason to dick around even more in free flight. Thankfully, Nintendo’s tossed in all manner of collectibles, and finding these myriad objects unlocks several Smash Bros-style statues you can observe in another viewing mode.
The statues of vehicles and various Wuhu landmarks are good for a quick glance (it’s not like they’re new 3D renders of Mario and Link, after all), so the reward for all that searching isn’t necessarily worth the effort. However, the actual quest to find all of those Mii Trophies, White Balloons, Stunt Rings and so on is a lot of fun, and I relished each new discovery towards the end. Scanning the horizon for one last object, seeing it 500 feet below in between two seaside rocks and then pulling up at the last second to avoid a watery grave is a great feeling.
All that said, a few more areas would have been nice, as both the original game and Pilotwings 64 moved you through all kinds of new terrain. WuHu Island, even with its satellite islands, high cliffs and towering volcano, is still the same place day, evening and night.
I’m already a fan of both Pilotwings and flight games in general, so this semi-bare-bones approach really appeals to me. Some may see a game light on content, whereas I see a game that sticks to its guns and gets things done right. It make take just two hours to blow through the main game (again, if you’re really good), but perfecting those scores and finding all the goodies in Free Flight can rack up another 4-5 easily. System seller? Not quite. Fun, simple flight game that handles great and conveys a fantastic sense of speed and height? Absolutely.
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