When the Super Nintendo finally landed on Western shores in 1991, it brought with it three games. Super Mario World and F-Zero have gone on to be legends in their own rights, but the third game is a little more obscure. Pilotwings may seem like the less exciting choice when stood up next to a Mario game and a hyper-fast futuristic racing game, but it nonetheless helped show off what the SNES could do that nothing else really could at the time. Through extensive use of the SNES’ Mode-7 layer, it provided a flight simulator with a 3D environment more convincing than most of what was on the market at the time. And isn’t proving how much more awesome your console is than the competition’s the whole point of a launch title
IN THE PILOT’S SEAT
Pilotwings is a pretty straightforward concept. You’re placed in some sort of recreational flight school and have to clear various challenges by flying a plane, hang gliding, skydiving, and jetpacking. Your goal is to clear a certain point threshold for each combination of events. If you do great in a plane but royally screw up the landing on the hang glider, then you’re doing the whole level again.
That’s a lot of pressure, but Pilotwings actually manages to make a pretty relaxing affair of the whole thing. The graphics are colourful, the music is jazzy and features the soothing buzz of the SNES’ sound chip, and the gameplay is nice and slow. It’s not always so meditative, as a lot of the later missions will have you gripping the controller as you carefully guide your plane onto a slick runway in heavy wind, but there are certainly periods of tranquility as you soar gracefully in the air.
Then, suddenly, your flight instructor tells you that all your other instructors were captured by an evil organization, and only you have the flight qualifications to pilot a helicopter over enemy territory to rescue them. So there you are, dodging anti-aircraft fire from the ground, always one hit away from crashing to the ground and dying in a burning heap, all in an effort to save a bunch of people who were telling you how much you suck at sky diving five minutes ago. Screw that.
It’s an incredibly jarring change of pace. One moment you’re floating on an updraft like a leaf caught in the wind, and the next, you’re piloting a chopper through the lead filled skies of a warzone. Somehow, I don’t think this is what your affluent parents hand in mind when they signed you up for flight school.
The worst part of this scenario is that it’s precariously hard. The ground fire is stupid accurate, and if you’re not in an almost constant state of turning, you’ll easily be perforated. I ended up having to cheese my way through these missions. The first time, I flew my chopper below 20ft so that the chances of me passing over a turret and it having the time to fire a volley of death at me was reduced. The game didn’t really explain how I escaped after rescuing the instructors, since all the guns were left active.
Anyway, that strategy didn’t really work the second time.
YES, THE SECOND TIME
After you complete the first set of missions and somehow manage to avoid being turned into yet another war casualty, you’re given a set of harder variations of the original missions, and yeah, they’re pretty difficult. It’s kind of a cheap way to get more mileage out of the existing Mode-7 landscape layers, but they are effective enough at feeling different. The first variation has the stage cloaked in snow, while the others present their own expanded hazards. It really just squeezes every last drop out of the game’s resources, though it doesn’t add anything new.
Which I’d be find with, if you didn’t have to do a harder variation of the helicopter mission. This time, you have to save someone you’ve never even heard of, and the evil organization has ramped up their defenses to the point where my low-altitude infiltration wasn’t going to fly. Instead, I had to keep myself in a constant turn, arcing my reticle over whatever target I could hit until it was finally safe enough to land. I wound up flinging curse words at my television every time a turret would land a lucky shot on me, moments before my heroic rescue. Gosh, I hate those missions.
Aside from those helicopter missions, Pilotwings is a pretty swell time. There’s not really much to it, but with it’s somewhat convincing flight physics and fun, but simple challenges, there’s a lot to enjoy. There’s even bonus stages for when you pull off a certain maneuver in some of the stages. It can be relaxing, it can be tricky, and when there’s a helicopter involved, it can be infuriating.
It’s also basically a tech demo. With few stages and such a severe focus on presenting the 3D perspective achieved by Mode-7, it’s about as Super Nintendo as you can get. It’s very in-your-face on that front. This also means that there isn’t a whole lot of substance. The challenges never try anything beyond going through rings, and the game, as a whole, can be completed in pretty short order. Afterwards, I guess you can go back and try to improve your scores, but otherwise, you’re done.
For me, I think I’m ready to retire and move on to something else. Maybe I’ll stay in the flight business and play Aerobiz.
This review was conducted on an SNES using an original cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.