(Super Nintendo)

Pilotwings (Super Nintendo)

Game Review

Pilotwings Review

USA USA Version

Posted by Philip J Reed

Empty skies

Most readers here will remember the launch titles of the 3DS quite well, and as such they're probably familiar with the existence of Pilotwings Resort. While we certainly enjoyed the title there was a great deal of talk about it essentially feeling like a retail tech demo, more of a proof of concept for the new hardware than a game in its own right. Of course, the old timers among us know that this isn't the first time that this series has played that role; the original Pilotwings was a SNES launch title that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of flaunting the machine's Mode 7 capabilities.

There's nothing wrong with or disingenuous about the idea of designing a game with the intention of showcasing the latest advancement in hardware; dazzling consumers has been a great way of drumming up business as long as there has been business to drum up. Of course with more than two decades separating us from this game's original release — and Mode 7 long supplanted by more impressive 3D effects — it's easier to judge the game on its own merits, rather than for its intended flashiness and spectacle.

This works against Pilotwings, simply because there isn't much of a game here at all. We spend a lot of time learning how to control different vehicles, but that's it. Once we've mastered them — or the meagre number of exercises that go along with them, anyway — the game is over. Pilotwings is the equivalent of spending an entire summer being lectured on pool safety, with the weather changing just in time so that you're never actually allowed to swim. And that's disappointing, because it offers some genuinely brilliant glimpses into a game that we never quite get to play.

There are four main "lessons", each of which is broken into smaller segments that focus around one activity. You might be flying a plane, skydiving, hang-gliding or using a rocket belt, and you'll be asked to perform a very specific activity within those confines. You do that, the lesson ends, you're scored, and you either move on or repeat what you just did. It's a series of tutorials, but it never actually lets you play the game they're training you to play.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that all of the flying through rings and landing on targets and buzzing the ground are just clever ways of getting you to master these concepts for when you'll need them later on, but they aren't. They are a means to their own ends, and once you've done them you move on and do something else. For a game built around flight and offering clear blue temptation all around, you're actually locked into extremely rigid requirements, robbing you of the chance to explore the game world or experiment very much. Missions are timed, you have a limited amount of fuel, and if you don't perform precisely the action you're being asked to perform you'll score very low. Pilotwings is one of very few games that punishes you for having fun.

As we mentioned, though, so much about Pilotwings is fantastic. The Mode 7 graphics might feel a bit quaint nowadays, but that doesn't stop them from achieving their own sort of simplistic beauty. Blue skies and seas stretch out in every direction, promising a world of opportunity that the game never really delivers. The visuals do a great job of creating the illusion of actual distance, so that it won't take most players more than a couple of failures for things to click, making it surprisingly easy to measure distance in such a seemingly flat environment.

The soundtrack is also great, though its gentle, upbeat melodies also seem a bit misplaced, as they suggest a sort of serene playfulness that the game itself is far too rigid to sustain. Pilotwings might not be a game that comes up in many conversations about great video game music, and that's unfortunate because it's chock full of great tracks. In fact, the series even inspired this remix album, which we recommend strongly whether you actually like the game or not. One thing's for sure: Pilotwings was designed to impress, and in many respects it absolutely succeeds.

The controls are also worth spotlighting as being tremendously effective. While the game is by no means easy, failure will always rest squarely on your shoulders. Every vehicle controls simply and tightly, and the most remarkable thing is how far ahead of its time this feels; vehicles react to everything you do in a very realistic way. For instance, pulling left hard and then pulling right hard doesn't make you move right...at least, not immediately. The vehicle will always be reacting to the last thing you did as much as the next, which means jerking side to side or up and down is going to confuse you more than it confuses the game. Small movements, as in real life, are always best, and frantic, last-second adjustments will only end in failure. The balancing act Pilotwings pulls off between these simple controls and a very realistic response to what you do is remarkably effective, elevating itself easily above any other flight experience available on consoles at the time.

However the big problem, once again, is that you don't get to do anything with this great balance. Sure, you take off, fly through an arch, and then land again, but at no point do you really get to — ahem — spread your wings and fly.

This is used to some interesting effect after the fourth lesson, however, when the structure of the game is suddenly torn down around you to make room for a very memorable setpiece. We won't spoil it for you, but we will say that it's much closer to the sort of game we wish Pilotwings actually was. Yes, there's still a rigid mission to attend to, but how you go about doing it is up to you, and the freedom is a huge relief after the stuffy lessons that preceded it. Unfortunately once you finish that mission you're tossed right back into harder iterations of those lessons and the potential revealed by this format-breaking sequence proves to have been just a tease.

Playing it on the Wii U it's difficult to say whether or not the Restore Points make things easier. You can lay one down after you get a great score in one objective in the lesson, so that if you fail overall you won't have to redo it, so that certainly sounds nice...but by laying down Restore Points you're also pulling repetition out of the equation, which may actually make things harder on you as you probably won't have had enough practice to make it through the next lesson. As always, use them at your own peril...but due to the demanding nature of Pilotwings and the importance of failing time and again in order to master its quirks, know that using them may be more perilous in this game than they would be elsewhere.

Pilotwings may have served its purpose quite well as a larger-scale tech demo back in 1991, but today it's just a game...and not much of one at that. There's very little content on offer here, and the game errs vastly toward stern difficulty as a way of making itself feel larger than it really is.

This is disappointing, because if it just backed off a bit and let us have fun, we'd be happy to return to it time and time again to enjoy its scenery, its soundtrack, and its satisfying controls. Instead it wants to fence us in so we can't leave...and that's not nearly as rewarding an experience.

Conclusion

Pilotwings is far from a poor experience. Its control scheme in particular has aged quite well, with a nice balance between simplicity and immersion. However there simply isn't much to do, with a very small number of lessons to complete and almost no room within those lessons to experiment and enjoy the trip. It plays like an extended tutorial without the actual game to follow it up, which is disappointing because there's a lot of potential here that remains untapped.

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User Comments (31)

MegaWattsAdmin

#1

MegaWatts said:

Great review, Phil! It's nice that looked at this game not through rose-tinted glasses, and rather reviewed it for what it actually is. I absolutely love this game, and think it really does showcase what the SNES was capable of. With that said, I also recall it being an incredibly frustrating experience, as it was extremely hard later on in the game. Still debating whether to get the VC or cartridge version - your point about restore points is a very valid one, and I fear I might be taking away from the experience if I use them.

MrGawain

#2

MrGawain said:

Everyone knows Pilotwings hit it's high point with Pilotwings 64's cannonball game. The sadistic joy of firing the little people into the landscape with their bloodcurdling screams clashing with the twee music.

Who said Nintendo was wholesome family entertainment?

Shiryu

#3

Shiryu said:

Yeahy, you guys used my video for the review. It was my third SNES cartridge and I played it to completion. I wonder If I can still land on the secret bonus pads as easily as I did 20 years ago...

Spoony_Tech

#7

Spoony_Tech said:

Which is why Pilot Wings 64 remains the best of the series! Now bring on Blast Corps!

KingH3nrry

#8

KingH3nrry said:

@ScorpionMG Yeah I'll admit it was fun for a couple of hours. But with no way to check your high score and no sense of any type of progression, there's really no reason for anyone to go back and play it after the first play through.

JJtheTexan

#10

JJtheTexan said:

I'm glad I am not alone in not liking this game very much. Too steep a learning curve and too repetitive. I LOVED Pilotwings 64 and desperately wish Nintendo would bring it back on Virtual Console.

I like Pilotwings Resort well enough, but for some reason the N64 iteration always stood out to me. Maybe it's just nostalgia.

Tasuki

#11

Tasuki said:

Great review Phil.

I have to admit I have never played this game even during the SNES era or now. I might have to remedy that some day.

LEGEND_MARIOID

#12

LEGEND_MARIOID said:

I did like this SNES game quite a bit but never downloaded it on the Wii VC as I waited in vain for Piltowings 64.

Dpishere

#14

Dpishere said:

I considered Pilotwings Resort, but after hearing about it being pretty short as well I decided against it. Though if it ever goes down in price to being dirt cheap I will likely get it.

ted-k

#16

ted-k said:

I think 6 is a bit harsh. I always had fun playing this game, the controls feel great, but it's just too short. Trying to get to the bonus stages does give it some replay value. In the later lessons landing on those moving platforms seems almost impossible!

Blue-Thunder

#17

Blue-Thunder said:

I agree with the guy above 6 is harsh. When I played this game on my SNES back in the day it was amazing, it's a 3D playground and it's unique and the controls are tight, it is one finely tuned game. Its not a tech demo, Wii sports is a tech demo this is a proper game. Maybe modern gamers wouldn't appreciate it but it's a classic. My score 8/10

WWammy

#18

WWammy said:

Pilotwings is one of the SNES's best games when I played it there was nothing else out there like it and I disagree with the reviewers comments about the music I absolutely loved it and felt it suited the game extremely well.
I guess newer games like Pilotwings 64 and Pilotwings 3DS have surpassed it by building on the concept of the flight sim I haven't played those yet.
But this was the first it's like saying Zelda one is rubbish because Zelda 3 is better.
6 out of 10 is an extremely harsh mark.
I personally still recommend this game at 8 out of 10 and a must play for anyone into the SNES.

Super_Gravy

#20

Super_Gravy said:

I don't think giving 6/10 is harsh since he is comparing it to today standard. I mean I love to play some old crappy games compared to today reviews. I love them because I used to play them when I was younger. I never play Pilotwings before and now I am glad I get to play it on the Wii U.

I found the game a bit hard at first since I figured out how to play. After you figured out how to play then you start to have a lot of fun. After a couple of lessons then it got boring. I thought the jetpack is pretty sweet in this game.

fluggy

#22

fluggy said:

Pretty miserable score. Still play this occasionally. Tranquil and soothing r words that spring to mind.

sleepinglion

#23

sleepinglion said:

A very well-done review. I tend to look at a lot of these oldies through my rose-colored glasses =) It's a shame we never got Pilotwings 64 on the Wii's VC. Maybe this time.

RetrogamerFan

#24

RetrogamerFan said:

Check the scoring policy, 6/10 still indicates a good game, but there are flaws which may put some people off.
Pilotwings is one of the most memorable experiences in the whole of the SNES library and was visually stunning at the time of release, and as the review points out there are many good points to the game, superb controls, great music, etc. However, It's also true that the amount of content in the game is very limited. There's not that much to do outside of the lessons, except finding the bonus rounds and the helicopter missions, which i didn't particulalry enjoy.
@fluggy Tranquil and soothing - early on yes, but not the expert lessons!

RetrogamerFan

#25

RetrogamerFan said:

@Dpishere PW Resort is quite short, but will last a while if you want to get all top ratings in the game, there's also some cool little 3d models and extra vehicles as unlockables. i had a great time with it and got (i think) around 15 - 20 hours out of the game.

gsmaciel

#26

gsmaciel said:

"This works against Pilotwings, simply because there isn't much of a game here at all. We spend a lot of time learning how to control different vehicles, but that's it. Once we've mastered them — or the meagre number of exercises that go along with them, anyway — the game is over."

No way! After you finish it for the first time, I remember it becoming very hard. Did this feel like a training for you too? I must suck, then :)

Also, the great thing about Pilotwings is that you can almost always do a little better. The replayability is very good, I feel like replaying it every year or two.
I don't know, maybe it's not the kind game the reviewer is into?

GiftedGimp

#27

GiftedGimp said:

Accurate Review, Although I am still enjoying replaying Pilotwings. I guess those of us old enough to remember the original release will get more enjoyment from Pilotwings than those younger but mostly as its a reminder of how the Mode7 really made this game work and WoW us, back in the day.
Getting Pilotwings64, or even better PilotwingsU released on WiiU would be great and really hope to see one or better still both come to WiiU at some point.

fluggy

#28

fluggy said:

@RetrogamerFan
Pilotwings Resort received an 8/10 score here. The SNES Pilotwings, although released almost 20 years prior, is far more substantial/rewarding than the dull 3ds game ... And the later, expert levels are cracking!

RetrogamerFan

#29

RetrogamerFan said:

@fluggy I wasn't really comparing the two, although they share the Pilotwings branding and same basic concept, they are hugely different in execution. Resort has a kind of casual feel to it and only really starts to provide any sort of challenge in the last couple of events. I liked the free flight mode and thought that was a nice alternative to doing the lessons. Piltowings can get very tough once you start on the expert lessons so it is more rewarding for finishing lessons. I happen to like both games and the series as a whole.

SwerdMurd

#30

SwerdMurd said:

this is my review of Pilotwings, completely and totally.

"You can fly around for a little while, then turn it off."

Cool enough tech demo, but I could never figure out how anyone spent more than 15 minutes with this game. There's no game.

epicdude12302

#31

epicdude12302 said:

How did this get a 6/10 when the virtual console version, which is literally exactly the same, get an 8/10? Oh. I just realized who reviewed this.

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