Graveyard: Pilotwings

Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.

The Pilotwings series is one of Nintendo’s most unique franchises and also one of its most under-appreciated. Beginning with the launch of the Super Nintendo, it became a go-to launch title with another launch release on the N64 before lying dormant until Pilotwings Resort alongside the 3DS’s launch. Beyond homages to it in games like Wii Sports Resort, a full game hasn’t been released on a console in 20 years despite it always delivering high-quality gameplay. The original was one of the first flight simulation-style games on consoles, and dared to be different while also acting as a technical showcase for new hardware. Mode 7 allowed for 3D-style graphics and gave console gamers a new kind of gaming experience. Instead of an instant start or a lot of drama, you start off with serene music and a cloudy sky logo giving off a relaxed vibe.

This serenity leads to training courses where you’ll learn how to control a light plane and skydiving. Right away, you get a sense of freedom as you can pick whichever class type you prefer. Achieving a total point goal between both events will allow you to move on, and unlock more vents. The light plane lets you fly and hit target orbs and teaches you easily because you just need to control your altitude. The 3D effect lets you see how far you need to be vertically from the orbs and missing any will hurt your point total. The overall goal is easy though and the landing is the easiest one in the game as you only need to slow down, land smoothly and stop before the end of the runway to succeed. Skydiving is a bit tougher, but gives you a greater sense of height and descent than the light plane. You can see your ascent bit by bit, or skip it and go to the highest point. This skydiving section just requires you to go down straight without any movement and then you can hold back on the d-pad after deploying your parachute to finalize your descent and hit the target.

Moving on changes things up with greater challenges – you need to worry about aiming far more accurately and moving in the sky to fly through all of the rings. Descending still requires a target – but now you’ll have to land on a small island area that is surrounded by water. This adds to the challenge quite a bit because you can fail far more easily or up your challenge by trying to land on a moving platform. The light plane is much harder because you’re in mid-air to start and need to speed up to gain altitude and then slwo down gradually before getting the plane straight – which is easily seen by not having pixelation distort your plane. The hardest part here is hitting all of the rings and then aiming properly before hitting the landing strip perfectly and braking perfectly to avoid going off the landing strip.

The rocket belt is a personal favorite, and the only mode in the game that lets you adjust camera angles. A and B control your flame types, with the blue flame giving you more power and the red flame giving you less – but enabling for a more accurate landing. This mode gives you the greatest sense of control over your character and while it’s not quite as exciting as the plane levels, it’s the easiest one to control and excel in. The final type of mission in the core game is the hang glider, where you have to hit wind gusts to fly up and then land. This puts you at the mercy more of mother nature and the wind than anything else, but also offers up the greatest challenge. Each successive teacher tests your mettle with greater challenges and include things like wind playing a large factor in things, so you have to really master aiming to do well.

The core mechanics here are always refined and that leads to you, naturally, saving all of your instructors after they’ve been kidnapped in a helicopter mission where you shoot down tons of enemy turrets. It’s a completely different experience and furthers the feeling of diversity. It’s easy to rush in because it’s a shooting game and after a game like this it’s easy to get hyped about finally getting guns – but patience is a virtue. Rushing in is a surefire way to die quickly because you’ll focus on one turret and then not see another one firing away. Taking a single hit kills you, so flying around the outskirts of the island can be your best bet because it’s less densely-populated. Succeeding allows you to save your trainers and move onto expert mode. This brings in far more wind and adds in snow, while also putting in another turret mission to save the next batch of instructors.

The original Pilotwings is probably the most timeless of the bunch, which seems odd, but the graphical style has held up better here than the N64 outing — which mixed things up with different character types. The original doesn’t entirely feel like a product of its time either, while Pilotwings 64 features a few too many mid-’90s tropes in the character designs and feels more like a time capsule for better or worse. Pilotwings Resort was a nice return to form, but didn’t bring the series into a renaissance period, which is a shame given how well-crafted it was. Thankfully, the original has lived on for over 25 years and remains a fun game to play. Whether you have half an hour or a day to spare, Pilotwings offers up a fun time for players of all ages.