Posted by Mat Allen
Does it soar like an eagle, or crash and burn into the ground?
Sometimes games deserve second chances. Let me tell you a story...
A long time ago in a television studio far, far away, yours truly took part in an episode of Games World, Hewland's Gamesmaster clone shown on Sky 1. Everything was going great until the semi-final, when the skydiving stage from Pilotwings came up as the challenge. At that point one person of the three remaining contestants had never played the game before. No prizes for guessing who failed to qualify. And so Pilotwings was consigned to a list of those titles never to darken his console. Things change of course. Cue a decade later and forgiveness.
So, second chances: much in the same way that people will now be able to relive the game via the Virtual Console on their Wii. Pilotwings sees you as an aspiring flight wannabe who has to pass a series of lessons comprising two or more of the following disciplines: light plane, skydiving, rocket belt and hang-glider. Successful completion allows an upgrade to your pilot's license and progression to the next lesson, although it will be several upgrades before they will let you anywhere near the missile-loaded helicopter.
Missile-loaded helicopter? It would appear that your flight instructors got themselves in a spot of hostage-related bother and need rescuing, so it's time to put all that training into practice and go get them. This mission, rather like the embassy storming at the end of Combat School, sits so incongruously with the rest of the game it's strangely bizarre and yet, for all the destruction unleashed, seems so perfectly apt at the same time. Completing this section unlocks expert mode which, as suspected, really is for the experts.
But back to the training at hand. All four vehicle types play out fairly similarly, in that there are usually targets to reach and pass through before landing the vehicle on the ground; it is how they all control and respond that changes the strategy and tactics required. For example, the plane is fairly responsive whereas the rocket belt has a degree of inertia to compensate for. In standard Nintendo tradition the controls themselves are pretty simple to pick up, for the most part being turn, climb, dive and change speed, while they allow for subtle complexity and precision. The basic conclusion there is if you screw up then you've only got yourself to blame.
Each test is scored out of hundred points, broken down into various categories involving how fast the challenge was completed, how many targets or rings were passed, and the accuracy of landing, be it at the correct speed and angle for the plane, or the points zone for the skydiving. Accruing more than the minimum total for each lesson results in passage to the next, although help is also at hand by landing on the moving platforms and triggering the hidden bonus games.
Assisting you in the task the HUD is both practical and clear, providing a radar output, elevation and bearing information as well as height and speed readouts. Back in 1990 however, that isn't what players were gawping at; Pilotwings was part of the second wave of releases in Japan and like F-Zero before, it was a perfect demonstration of how Mode 7 graphics could make producing explorable environments seem effortless and easy. Today they may seem simple and functional but there is a fluidity, smoothness and uncluttered air to them, something that many modern titles struggle to equal.
Another similar note would be balance of difficulty within the game, which Nintendo unerringly seem to precariously position right between challenging and frustrating. Once the controls and game mechanics are sussed then the first couple of lessons are reasonably simple to pass, but the hang-glider can be occasionally teeth-grinding and one mistake in the helicopter mission can send you right back to the start. This would be for nothing if the game was torpidly dour but for the most part it is fun as well as tricky. Nailing a perfect hundred (or greater) score on a particular discipline is guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone's face in satisfaction.
The game however, for all its brilliance, is not actually that long: a mere four lessons plus the helicopter mission (which is then duplicated in expert mode) and would probably fill a couple of weeks of dedicated play before it is vanquished, while a password system allows play to continue from the lesson last attempted. What is in its favour is the sheer freedom of experimentation and ability to tackle the task at hand in a multitude of fashions, coupled with the ubiquitous internal smugness when a new high score is achieved for a particular vehicle. Getting perfect scores everywhere will not be easy.
This in part is what makes the game so refreshing and open: it tells you what you need to accomplish and then lets you get on with it. No hand-holding, no giant arrows pointing the way, just take to the skies and complete the objectives as best as you possibly can. There is sufficient leeway in the total points required for each lesson to allow for minor weaknesses in certain disciplines to prevent the need for complete perfection, although with practice you will get better at every segment of the game. All it takes is a little thinking about how to approach certain aspects of each level.
Pilotwings was always an odd title, sitting outside of the usual genres that gamers at the time would play and yet heralded to high heaven by those who chose to delve into its almost bottomless depths. Likewise it could appear to be calm and relaxing to those observing on the outside, while sometimes generating annoyance and pad-throwing frustration to those who took on the challenge. In a good way of course. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle of all of these points. If you haven't played the game before, now is a fine time to pick up the baton.