Friday 28 March 2014

Snes Review : Pilotwings (Game 035)

Amongst the launch titles for any given console you will find a game which is used by the manufacturer to showcase all the new quirks of their machine. For the Wii it was ‘Wii Sports’, a glorified tech demo for the new fancy Wiimote that player’s had in their hands. A couple of generations earlier, ‘Mario 64’ oozed so many N64 features that it felt like the game was developed in conjunction with the console. In 1992 when Nintendo launched their new Super machine in Europe much was made of the graphical upgrade it had over their previous NES console and more importantly attention was drawn to the visual advantage it had over its competitor’s Mega Drive. The Super Nintendo was certainly no slouch when it came to graphics but despite the game’s huge palettes and copious number of colours on screen, the Snes’ real trump card was Mode 7. By scaling and rotating a large sprite on a background plain and trading its height for depth, Mode 7 offered a pseudo 3D effect the likes of which had not been seen before. Despite it being shoe horned into ‘Super Tennis’ and used subtly in ‘Super Mario World’, one launch game showed off this new graphical technique to such an extent it could almost have been called ‘Mode 7 The Game’, although we would come to know of it as ‘Pilotwings’.

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 recently. 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 premise for the game is simple. Taking control of a budding pilot, all the game required you to do is master licences for four different events: Skydiving, Jet Pack, Light Plane and Hang Glider. Points are awarded for passing through rings, safe landings and finishing a run on time. Land safely enough times and you’d hopefully pool together enough points to reach the next flight school. Even failing an event didn’t rule out success though, it just meant you had to do superbly on whatever challenges remained to be completed. The controls were tight, responsive and simple. You never feel like the crumpled man on the runway was at fault for his bad landing; you fail a challenge because of your own short comings rather than the game being unfair.
“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. 

But how much fun it all is, was not the reason people bought the game at the time. There’s no question that this game attracted people with its looks, “Good enough to convert just about anybody to Snes-dom” Super Play said optimistically. This was something Mean Machines certainly agreed with believing that “Nothing, absolutely nothing on any other home system even touches this for sheer jaw-dropping looks.”  
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.
Having said this, just when you think the flat landscapes have forced the game to become samey and predictable ‘Pilotwings’ does make a dramatic U-turn (not something you should do in a biplane incidentally!) Suddenly and unexpectedly it introduces an entirely new game mechanic just when you think you’ve seen it all.  Once you have completed the fourth level, the serenity of all the hand gliding and parachuting gets replaced by a dramatic level that seems you piloting an attack chopper, avoiding bullets fired by anti-aircraft emplacements and rescuing the very people who trained you. All the while you’re expected to be gunning down anything that stands in your way, with very limited fuel. 

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.

It’s odd that so few people actually talk about these ‘Airwolf’ action stages. Perhaps it’s because few know of their existence, as to reach this heart racing action (I’m over dramatising it slightly) does require you to get through the repetitive monotony of landing on differently painted flat landscapes dozens of times. They are stages that stand apart from all the others and feel almost like an afterthought; a result of a review meeting where developer Nintendo EAD quickly realised they need to bunch up this calm relaxing game as the majority of their audience were teenage males. Apart from one hit kills, I actually found them more exciting and enjoyable than the rest of the game though. I’m not sure what that says about me and my apparent lust for violence! Perhaps it’s because the repetition of the early stages reminded me that ‘Pilotwings’ is essentially the same tasks repeated and doing something different using the same attractive game engine is like playing a new game. If anything I would have loved for them to have siphoned off these stages developed the idea of the attack helicopter a bit further and marketed it as a separate Nintendo produced Mode 7 powered ‘Desert Strike’-esque game. 

It’s odd to think, that by enjoying an almost hidden section of a game more than the main body of it I perhaps didn’t enjoy the ‘Pilotwings’ as much as I thought I had. Focused concentrated play over a period of several days is not in line with what was intended, with a game that’s clearly designed with a pick-up and play mentality. What is most surprising though is that while the headline grabbing looks have aged, the gameplay has not. Not varied or deep, the basic mechanics and set up of ‘Pilotwings’ would I'm sure still prove popular today. It is once again proof, that while looks may fade the most important thing is always how a game plays, even if that doesn’t grab the attention of those in the market for a new console.

How did I get this?
Lots of hints before Christmas, an Amazon wish list and a generous family who know the value of a good quality box means I have ‘Pilotwings’ in my collection.  

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