Pilotwings – Super Nintendo
Platform: Super Nintendo
Release Date: August 23, 1991
Genre: Flight Sims
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
Reviewed by: theWatchman
Once upon a time, before I became a tired, bitter old man, a young theWatchman had a dream of one day earning his wings and soaring through the skies as a hot shot jet fighter pilot.
That love of flying mixed in with my love of videogames, which meant that any game that involved leaving the ground automatically had my attention.
Most flight simulators at the time were being produced for the PC, which in the early ‘90’s, were still pretty cost prohibitive and well out of reach for an economically challenged lad such as myself.
So imagine my delight when among the Super NES’s release entourage of typical racing, sports, and Super Mario World, was the quirky flight sim, Pilotwings. Here was my chance to finally and affordably stand atop the virtual clouds!
Pilotwings was a surprising and pleasant diversion from the typical save the world, blow something up action games of that early to mid 90’s era; although oddly enough, the game does deviate from its more relaxing pace to place you into two combat missions; one at the mid-point, and one to cap off the experience.
You play the part of a nameless trainee as he attempts to earn his wings through the completion of numerous flight trials, which are spread across four distinct disciplines:
- Biplane – To me, piloting the biplane is the most fun of the different flying experiences offered in Pilotwings. Most biplane missions have you flying through a specific course, which is marked by waypoint rings suspended in mid-air. Later missions will will require a full take-off, flight, and landings. Don’t mess up on that landing! A crash will blow the entire run.
- Hang gliding – Hang gliding missions will start with you already in the air and can require multiple passes through mid-air waypoint rings. Thermal currents will help you gain more altitude for those passes, and keep you afloat until you’re ready to make your landing on a targeted landing pad.
- Parachute – Free-fall from an impossibly high altitude, aiming your rapidly descending body through a number of waypoint markers. Make sure you say a prayer that your ‘chute opens, otherwise, someone will have to clean off what’s left of you.
- Rocket belt – As you’d expect, the rocket belt is the most unwieldy of Pilotwings’ quartet of disciplines. Players will have to alternate between high and low-powered thrust settings in order to navigate their way to increasingly difficult to reach waypoint markers. You’ll then have to rocket yourself onto the landing pad and make a graceful landing.
Pilotwings immerses players by drawing them into a flight school experience. The various missions of the game
are presented as lessons, which fall under the tutelage of four different flight instructors, each with their own personalities, which gave the game a sense of charm and helped make the experience more relatable to the player.
Each lesson has players participating in increasingly difficult flight challenges in order to earn points to try and pass and make it to the subsequent lesson. Spreading the point quota across the multiple flight modes was a genius move on Nintendo’s part, because it allowed a player who was weak in one area, to excel in another and still be able to progress through the game.
The age of analogue controls were still a generation away in 1991, so going back to play Pilotwings on the SNES’ digital pad can feel antiquated, however, that added degree of difficulty actually adds to the Pilotwings experience in a good way. A biplane, or a rocket belt should feel slightly unwieldy, compared to today’s technological marvels. Despite the less-than-elegant (at least compared to today’s standards) controls, the game still manages to make each flight mode feel distinct from each other.
Pilotwings was also intended to be a showcase title for the “Mode 7” hardware-enabled scaling and rotation capabilities of Nintendo’s then new 16-bit machine. The landscapes below twist and turn, doing an adequate job of creating a convincing sensation of flight.
The flight school motif, along with the quest to perfect your skills and earn your wings set Pilotwings apart from
most other console games at the time; creating a more relaxing experience than what we were used to. Then for some reason, the game throws in two combat helicopter missions; one at the half-way point, and a second mission to close the game.
I can only surmise that these missions were an attempt on the part of the designers to add a story element to Pilotwings.
Both helicopter flights are laid out very similarly to each other.
The first has you flying to the remote Izuna Island to rescue three of your instructors, who have been kidnapped by a shadowy group known only as “The Syndicate”. You’ll have to pilot your helicopter from a top-down perspective, avoid fire from anti-aircraft batteries, and make a landing on a helipad in order to save the trio.
The second mission has you doing the same thing; only it’s a government VIP that you’re rescuing, the flight takes place at night, and there are more anti-aircraft guns that you’ll have to take out before you can safely land.
While the helicopter missions are okay in-and-of-themselves, the whole premise behind them feels completely out of place. It’s almost as if a manager at Nintendo was reviewing progress on the game and forced them to add those missions out of fear that the market wouldn’t accept something free from explosions of some sort. Either that, or they’re indicative of a free-spirited development team that was willing to incorporate offbeat suggestions.
While we may never know the reasons why we suddenly were thrown into a secret agent sim in the middle of the game, it’s hard to argue that Pilotwings isn’t better because of it. That’s because the sheer randomness of springing combat missions on the player, along with the personalities of the different flight instructors, helped add spice to the game, giving Pilotwings a personality that later entries in the series sorely lacked.
Perhaps those missions are sort of an analogy to Pilotwings’ relationship to the Nintendo library itself: A bold, quirky, highly experimental foray into a new territory that was a unique product of its’ time that was able to incorporate a number of disparate elements into something exceptional.
Pilotwings’ originality and overall fresh approach to the flight genre help the game stand out, even among its’ owns successors, as a true classic. While some may be thrown off by the sudden shift into combat missions, they still manage to fit into the game
While this old Watchman never made the real-life journey to obtain his wings, I’ll always have my virtual exploits in Pilotwings.
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