Storm on the horizon
While the N64 was still drinking backstage, preparing itself to stagger out and trip over the drummer, I was drooling over screenshots in various magazines. The game I was most excited about in the lead-up to launch was Pilotwings 64. Listen, I know that’s not everybody’s favorite game, but this was the first time I saw big, explorable worlds in a video game. I thought every game was one day going to be like that, before someone decided that the only way for a world to be worthwhile is if it was peppered with animals to skin every five feet.
I didn’t even know there was a Pilotwings on SNES until much later. Granted, it can be hard to miss one of the SNES launch titles, but I was four at the time of the SNES release, so cut me some slack. I only found out about it years later while perusing an old password guide from the era.
So maybe Pilotwings isn’t the most obscure game to ever hit the market, but while there’s often a lot of buzz around Nintendo’s other franchises, I only just remembered Pilotwings Resort was a game on 3DS this morning. In my books, that’s obscure enough.
Pilotwings is the story of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 sprite-scaling effect. It was an entire graphical layer that allowed sprites to be manipulated in all sorts of ways. It wasn’t as advanced as a lot of games showing up in arcades, but it was something that their competition couldn’t do as readily, so Nintendo put a lot of emphasis on it. Since 3D games were still a rarity in the market, clever use of Mode 7 sprite-scaling could create pseudo-3D environments that enabled styles of gameplay that were still novel. Of the SNES’ five launch titles in North America, both Pilotwings and F-Zero could reasonably have been titled “Mode 7: The Game.”
While F-Zero is rad as heck, Pilotwings took the effect and made a flight simulator using it. But not just any commercial jet simulator; Pilotwings is a recreational flight simulator. So long as you consider zooming around with a jet pack “recreation.” I and all my unimaginably wealthy friends do.
The premise has you attending school, which is the worst premise ever to enter the interactive world. However, as this is flight school, it barely gets a pass. You’re graded on a variety of activities: fixed-wing plane, jetpack, hang glider, and sky diving. In each area, you have to score enough combine points to pass a threshold. Succeed, and you get your license.
For me, Pilotwings is one of the most relaxing games ever. While the pacing is a big part of this, the sound design is the major factor. The soundtrack was done by Soyo Oka under the supervision of Koji Kondo. Even though she wasn’t credited under very many games before leaving Nintendo in 1995, her soundtracks are the ones that I think of first when I think of the sounds of the SNES. Super Mario Kart, Simcity, and Pilotwings are all games she provided the musical compositions for, and they’re all peerless.
Combine that with the droning sounds of the plane engine or the woosh of the jetpack, and I’m ready to start purring.
The gameplay isn’t all that demanding, either. While it’s certainly challenging, normally, any real focus you need to give it comes in short bursts. You zoom around, floating like cigarette ash in an updraft, right until you have to come to a landing. Pilotwings is hardly an easy game, but there are plenty of peaceful moments in between battling against the wind and controls. It’s a perfect, Zen-like mix of subtle trances interrupted by demands for concentration.
And then after you complete four levels, you’re fighting for your life. Yeah, all your flight instructors are kidnapped by an evil organization. Only you have the license qualifications to fly an attack helicopter into enemy territory to save them.
No. Surely there’s someone else. Why does our flight school even have an attack helicopter? Five minutes ago, these people were rubbing in how much I suck at landing a hang glider, and now I have to risk my neck for them?
I’m not even joking about any of this. The fifth level puts you in an attack helicopter, and you need to reach and land at a building in the center of the map while anti-aircraft guns try and down your papier-mâché helicopter. One hit and you’re done, and the guns don’t make a habit of missing. Pilotwings quickly changes from light-hearted, “try not to fail your test, but if you do, you can make up those points in another event,” to “you’re dead if you don’t fly perfectly.”
This mission is substantially more difficult than what came before, to the point where I think this is the spot a lot of people give up. In order to overcome it, I had to keep my helicopter at a slow pace and constantly turning. I’d try my best to arch my targeting reticule over the guns on the ground while staying in constant movement. It helps, but I still went earthward in a burning pile of steel more often than I’m willing to admit.
Then, after you finally manage to complete that, you’re put through harder versions of the stages you completed. While this may seem like a bit of a cop-out, the challenges are made more interesting by things like high winds and icy runways. It’s honestly a breath of fresh air after fighting for your life in the helicopter.
Speaking of which, once you finish those harder levels, it’s back in the helicopter with you. This time it’s even more challenging, so…
I love Pilotwings, but I think the only way you’re getting me back in the seat of that helicopter is if I’m demonstrating to someone what hogwash it is. I’m not even sure how combat missions got in here. Your flight training doesn’t even translate into the mechanics of the helicopter stages. One minute you’re gliding through the air to a neat landing; the next, you’re dodging gunfire. It’s so inconsistent you could get whiplash from the change. There are, thankfully, passwords so you can ignore those levels.
Everything around the sudden and violent combat is crackerjack. Again, Pilotwings is my game to relax to. If you haven’t tried it, it is available on the Switch’s Online SNES platform… thing. Just don’t say I never warned you.