Before ‘Pilotwings’, flight sims were terribly dull affairs and were typically found only on home computers. They were bogged down by overcomplicated controls, stuttering frame-rates, and an obsession with realism at the expense of fun. Flight sims always reminded me of a very grown up serious show that my parents watched be on TV called ‘The Krypton Factor’. Amongst other challenges each week the contestants on this programme had to land a plane in a simulator. They always failed, ploughing their passenger jet into the ground while the increasingly desperate sound of a computer voice screaming “pull up, pull up” can be heard. That to me didn’t seem like fun at all and this was the reason when I saw ‘Pilotwings’ on the shelf I always ignored it. The game may have been breath of the fresh air and the first time when boring simulation games stretched their wings and took flight, but I had never played it till my darling wife bought it for me for Christmas. As a child I had ignored it, but as an adult researching Super Nintendo games I simply couldn’t overlook it. It features in so many ‘best of’ lists and was a franchise Nintendo still thought relevant considering they again used an iteration of it as a launch title for the 3DS.
“The mixture of styles of flying ensure you’ll never get bored and you’ll never get cross with it”, Super Play said at the time, “It isn’t the last word in flight simulators, but then it’s not trying to be.” Generally games are fun to play because they reward your successes and accomplishing a grand feat in ‘Pilotwings’ never seems too far away. The learning curve is so gradual it’s only when you go back and breeze through earlier levels that you realise how far you have progressed. That’s not to say the game is easy, some of the events in ‘Pilotwings’ prove very tricky to get to grips with, but the elation you feel when they are finally mastered more than makes up for it.
Each stage is short, so even failure means another attempt is never far away and if you’re struggling with a specific vehicle there’s always three other to choose from. The game seems determined to just ensure you’re having fun, and failure seems so quickly moved on from, that you often are already replaying a stage before you realise how badly you did in a previous attempt.
Thanks to the excellent Mode 7 effects, the sense of scale you encountered as you fly through the air is breath-taking. The visuals are colourful, the frame rate smooth but the environments are depressingly completely flat. Despite its scaling abilities, Mode 7 was still only rotating a 2 dimensional image in 3D space, meaning that the buildings and terrain end up looking painted on the ground rather than physical things that can be interacted with. When you consider this you realise that fun within ‘Pilotwings’ has very limited scope. The difficulty of the game is down to the speed it forces you to descend or fly and the size of targets you must pass through or land on.
They may have slight variations and different weather but the tasks you do are pretty much always the same. There will never be case of having to land the plane on a slope, or navigate the jet pack through a canyon. Yes it is fun, yes it looks very pretty, but it is also hampered by the very technology that it is a standard bearer for. In many ways, the Mode 7 wizardry masks the limits of the gameplay.
Completing this stage earns you the Pilotwings of the game’s title and its back to business as usual – back to the same challenges. Of course by now you realise that this mild mannered recreational flight school is actually a front for a military training camp aimed at creating airborne soldiers capable of opposing the ‘Evil Syndicate’. The whole nature of your lessons then takes on a slightly sinister tone and you no longer wonder how this tiny flight school has access to a secret government prototype Jetpack.
Then, upon completing an expert license you are again expected to jump into helicopter and save someone – only this mission takes place at night.