Review: Pilotwings (Wii U eShop / SNES)

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.