Releasing alongside Super Mario 64 when the Nintendo 64 launched back in 1996 (1997 if you're European), it was somewhat inevitable that Pilotwings 64 was never going to see the same commercial or critical success. Simply put, Mario's first 64-bit adventure was a masterpiece and proved that Nintendo could recreate its flagship franchise for the next generation of gaming. While the portly plumber delivered a much-needed killer app to Nintendo's advanced system, its amateur flight simulator counterpart was considered little more than a glorified tech demo by many observers at the time.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Pilotwings 64 actually served a greater purpose than Super Mario 64. Co-developed by Paradigm Simulation and Nintendo, it was proof of the N64's graphical prowess and innovative design. Much like how its predecessor Pilotwings had successfully demonstrated the SNES' impressive Mode 7 feature, the game utilises the N64's power to render detailed, large-scale environments in real time. Even though it is now tremendously outdated compared to modern titles, it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by a sense of wonder when exploring the huge islands that the game has to offer.
Pilotwings 64 earns its classification as an amateur flight simulator because underneath all the pretty visuals and technical wizardry, there's actually a game (it's also worth noting that the controls are nowhere near as complex). Making the most of the environments on offer — something which, for all its beauty, the SNES version couldn't do — players are given a set of challenges to complete with a variety of different flying vehicles. These range from flying a gyrocopter through a series of rings and taking high-quality photos while flying a hang glider to firing your poor pilot out of a cannon at large targets. The latter may not be your traditional aviation fare, but it's still jolly good fun.
The game's difficulty is affected by in-game weather conditions, such as wind speed, as well as the varied nature of its detailed environments. For example, one particular mission tasks the player with flying down a meandering river and passing through a series of rings along the way. The rings are mostly located under a series of bridges, and only by flying with exceptional precision will success be achieved. It makes for a refreshing change from simply flying through objects high up in the sky, and presents you with quite a tough and risky challenge at times.
This is where Pilotwings 64 takes advantage of another of the N64's unique features: the joystick. At the time, it offered unparalleled accuracy and, therefore, married up nicely with the game's flight sim nature. However, this doesn't necessarily make it any easier to play. In fact, some mastery of the controls is required by the time you reach the later stages, as over-steering and misjudging the affect that speed and weather have on the control of your vehicle can quite easily lead to failure.
Even to this day, the accuracy provided by the game's controls is simply astonishing, and its success in this area is purely down to Paradigm Simulation. For the game's development, Nintendo wisely made the decision to seek out a specialist in the simulation industry that had already worked with advanced 3D graphics, hence its eventual collaboration with Paradigm Simulation. Interestingly, this company had never created a videogame prior to Pilotwings 64, yet the game's high-quality build would lead you to think otherwise. Nintendo limited its own input to game design, while still overseeing all other aspects. With this, Paradigm was able to create the perfect mash-up of serious simulation and wacky fun.
For example, the game's cast of characters all look a bit zany, which is at odds with the precise game mechanics, yet reminiscent of Nintendo's history of creating colourful, vibrant titles with tight gameplay mechanics. It is Pilotwings 64's subtle additions, however, that make it truly undeserving of the tech demo generalisations that many critics have assigned it in the past. The game is filled with a wealth of fun, little Easter eggs that appeal directly to most Nintendo fans' sensibilities. These range from the obvious like the now-infamous Mario Rock to obscure references such as the character Lark, who bears a strong resemblance to Nester from the Nintendo Power comic, Howard & Nester. Without a doubt, exploration is made all the more rewarding for it. All of this is complemented by the game's wonderful soundtrack; composed, arranged and integrated by Dan Hess (who also worked on F-1 World Grand Prix), the music and sounds add a funky, soul edge to the game's overall presentation.
With such large, detailed environments for the player to explore, you'd think that Pilotwings 64's frame rate would be catastrophically low, yet the game remains pretty smooth throughout. In terms of what it has to offer on the gameplay front, Pilotwings 64 really stands the test of time. Although the game isn't especially long, it is very challenging. There's very little repetition when it comes to the missions, and the terrain itself is often used to create some tricky scenarios. It's an unforgiving game, and one where learning the stages and performing every single manoeuvre perfectly is the only way to achieve the highest score; completionists will no doubt find great entertainment value in this.
The only real major issue that can be levelled at the game today is its low screen resolution, which can make seeing distant objects — such as rings and targets — a tad difficult. As with all N64 games, playing Pilotwings 64 on the smallest CRT screen possible will result in the best-viewing experience. Regardless, exploring each of the vibrant, colourful and large-scale environments is always an enjoyable event, especially when you consider that it’s all contained within a mere 8MB cartridge.
From its lush and detailed landscapes to the near professional level of control, Pilotwings 64 utilises virtually all of the N64’s most prominent features to provide a wholesome and adventurous gameplay experience. The game’s perfect blend of tense, challenge-based gameplay and simple, yet relaxing exploration modes gives it an almost universal appeal, and it’s a shame that more games don’t aspire to offer this rare and well-rounded gaming package. On the surface, Pilotwings 64 may seem as shallow as a paddling pool, but those that delve deeper will actually find a fun and rewarding game that draws them back in time and time again.