Just as Pilotwings Resort was a good demonstration of the glasses-free 3D visuals offered by the 3DS, the original Pilotwings showcased the impressive (for the time) Mode 7 capabilities of the SNES. This first game in the series is now available as a Virtual Console release for New Nintendo 3DS owners, offering a number of fun training exercises to play on the portable.
The bright, simple look of the graphics ensure the action is easy to follow and whilst scenery is flat (and a pixely mess up close) the Mode 7 scaling works well, giving you a good sense of altitude; it's particularly effective when starting a skydive thousands of feet up in the air. Your lessons start on sunny days but as you progress through the game different times of the day and icy conditions are introduced to add some variety to the tasks your instructors set you. There's also some decent music and there are good sound effects (the wind rushing past or a splash into the water) that help to immerse you in the action.
In addition to skydiving the game has exercises involving a light plane, a rocketbelt and a hang glider; instructors test you on two, three or all four of these. The controls are kept simple, typically using the d-pad/control stick and no more than two buttons, and they work wonderfully, ensuring any failure feels like a misjudgement on your part.
As well as earning points from not crashing, your score can be topped up by your accuracy, speed and passing through rings. Get enough points from the exercises and you earn a licence and proceed to the next instructor to engage in more aerial activities; there are eight levels in all. Your licence number doubles as a password to resume your progress, but as a Virtual Console release with the standard suspension and restore point functions this is not something you need to jot down.
Each training exercise is brief and whilst you can take a longer, more relaxed flight through the skies (bar skydiving where gravity does its thing) it's not recommended due to the points you'll lose from your lack of speed. This brevity means that (once mastered) progress through the game can be swift, but it does make Pilotwings a game that works well on a portable as you can fit in an instructor's lesson (or just a single activity) during a break in a hectic day.
The difficulty curve in the game is well judged, beginning simply enough before making things trickier and increasing the bodies of water around target areas. As you start to master each mode of aerial transport the points required to pass increase, ensuring you won't just breeze through. The back-half of the game can get very tough, with a slight mistake leading to disaster, and you having to attempt the lesson again.
After successfully completing the fourth lesson things take a turn for the bizarre and we'll just say you need to be a hero. Although it was not that long ago that you forgot to open your parachute and created a hole in the runway, you are deemed the most suitable person for a heroic act. This mission is a little tricky (one misstep and you're gone) but highly enjoyable and a second mission is available after success on the eighth lesson.
Although only a single player game, there is still the opportunity for fun with friends if you take turns tackling a lesson to see who can achieve the highest score. High scores are not recorded however, so whilst the game allows you to replay earlier lessons, there's not a great deal of incentive to do so when playing alone unless you just want a more relaxed gaming session.
Simple to pick up and play, Pilotwings is a lot of fun to work your way through. Activities are brief but the difficulty is well-judged, requiring you to master controlling the various modes of transport to proceed. Once cleared there's not much else to do, but the game provides good entertainment whenever you decide to return to it.