This review originally went live in 2013, and we're updating and republishing it to mark the game's arrival in Switch's N64 library via the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack.
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, Pilotwings 64 actually served a similar purpose to Super Mario 64 and it deserves far better than being forever upstaged by The Best Launch Game Ever™. 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 utilised the N64's power to render detailed, large-scale environments in real-time. Even though it is now tremendously outdated compared to modern titles, you still feel a sense of wonder when exploring the huge islands that the game has to offer.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 as other flight sims). Making the most of the huge 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 rings along the way. The rings are mostly located under a series of bridges, and only with exceptionally precise piloting will success be achieved. It makes for a refreshing change from simply flying through objects high up in the sky, and presents quite a tough and risky challenge at times.
This is where Pilotwings 64 showcases another of the N64's unique features: the analogue stick. At the time, it offered unparalleled accuracy and, therefore, married nicely with the game's flight sim nature. 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 effect that speed and weather have on your vehicle can quite easily lead to failure.
Even to this day, the accuracy provided by the game's controls is 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 the collaboration. Interestingly, this company had never created a video game prior to Pilotwings 64, although you wouldn't know it. Nintendo limited its own input to general 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 recalls 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 positively filled with fun, little Easter eggs that appeal directly to most Nintendo fans' sensibilities. These range from the obvious — the now-infamous Mario Rock — to obscure references such as the character Lark, who bears a strong resemblance to Nester from the Howard & Nester Nintendo Power comic. Without a doubt, exploration is made all the more rewarding for these nods and winks.
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), with the music and sounds adding a funky, soul edge to the game's overall presentation.
With such large, detailed environments to explore, you'd think that Pilotwings 64's frame rate would be catastrophically low, yet the game remains pretty smooth throughout (and is smoother than ever if you're playing via Nintendo Switch Online). In terms of what it has to offer on the gameplay front, Pilotwings 64 really stands the test of time. Although it isn't especially long, it is very challenging. There is very little repetition when it comes to the missions, and the terrain itself is often used to create 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 find great entertainment value in this.
The only real issue that can be levelled at the game today is its low resolution, which can make seeing distant objects — such as rings and targets — a tad difficult. Playing via the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack (with its much higher resolution) alleviates this problem, of course, but if you're playing on original hardware, a smaller CRT screen will offer the best viewing experience. Regardless, exploring each of the vibrant, large-scale environments is always enjoyable, especially when you consider the tiny 8MB cartridge it came on.
From its lush and detailed landscapes to its awesome level of control, Pilotwings 64 utilises virtually all of the N64’s most prominent features to provide a wholesome and adventurous gameplay experience. Its perfect blend of tense, challenge-based gameplay and simple, yet relaxing exploration gives it an almost universal appeal, and it’s a shame that more games don’t aspire to offer this level of depth in a relaxing, well-rounded package that's also delightfully silly. On the surface, Pilotwings 64 may seem as shallow as a paddling pool, but those that delve deeper will discover a fun and rewarding game that draws them back in time and time again.