Pilotwings 64 Review (Nintendo 64)

This week, we fly through rings, land on things and survive collisions that sting. It’s the Nintendo 64 version of Pilotwings.

Name: Pilotwings 64
Developer: Nintendo R&D3, Paradigm Entertainment Inc.
Publisher: Nintendo
Released on: Nintendo 64
Original Release Date: March 1st, 1997

For the years leading up to the launch of the Nintendo 64, Nintendo was preparing for their 64-bit system by gathering a team of developers into what they called their Dream Team, and these developers would work in partnership with Nintendo to bring exclusive experiences to the console.

The first game to be released from a Dream Team partner was Pilotwings 64 – A launch game co-developed by Nintendo and Paradigm Entertainment, an expert in creating interactive simulations for the military and commercial partners, and the perfect team for taking Pilotwings from 2D to 3D.

The original Pilotwings for the SNES was an excellent attempt at fudging 3D space within 2D visuals, thanks to the excellent use of Mode 7. Pilotwings 64 takes the basics of the original game and brings it to a fully realised 3D world. Four isolated islands are the perfect setting for would-be pilots looking to master three different types of craft – The Hang Glider, Rocket Pack and Gyrocopter. This is not a serious flight simulator, and the focus on fun yet challenging missions, as well as the variety of those missions, is what makes Pilotwings 64 so enjoyable.

Sometimes you’ll navigate through a challenging aerial obstacle course, flying through rings suspended in the air. Missions will see you popping balloons by ramming them at top speed, while you’ll even be called on to obliterate a gigantic metal version of one of the game’s selectable avatars. Yet, the common thread between all of these unusual diversions is that each craft feels great to pilot. Simple controls ensure that the mechanics of flying are easily picked up and are fun at the same time, while the way each craft works is so different that it adds that little extra depth.

Each of the game’s Island-based environments has their own depth as well. It’s easy to be too focused on the task at hand to realise that most of the time it’s possible to explore these areas and see the sights, and if you’re lucky – Find an elusive Birdman star that grants you wings as well as the true freedom of exploration.

Compared to the SNES original, this 64-bit edition features a little more character, thanks to the cast of playable pilots in different weight classes that really do make a difference when flying, especially with crafts like the Hang Glider. They’re all unique in terms of looks, and also changes the skin of your craft as well, but it feels like there should have been a little more interaction with them in some way. Outside of the character select screen and screams of horror when you crash, you’d barely know you were playing as a character.

Even in the tensest of scenarios that Pilotwings 64 has to offer, it’s hard not to just feel relaxed throughout the whole experience. It could be the music, which flips between calm elevator music, and the sort of funky tracks that would not feel entirely out of place in the sort of movies your Dad watches when mummy’s not around. Or, it could just be that the sensation and freedom of flight that Pilotwings 64 delivers is just so…pleasant.

That’s not to say there isn’t a sense of challenge because this is a game that’s all about getting as perfect a score as possible – Which is most of the fun. Completing missions quickly, landing accurately and performing the mission objectives almost immaculately is easier said than done for some aircraft, but being that missions are usually just a few minutes long, there is definitely an element of wanting just one more go to see if you can do better.

High or perfect scores mean bragging rights, but it also unlocks some of the more outlandish of Pilotwings 64’s missions. If you ever wanted to fire out of a cannon straight into a target on the side of Mount Rushmore, then you’re catered for. Same goes for if you ever wanted to safely skydive, or strap on spring-loaded boots. These bonus stages are all very similar but also contain the ability to get a perfect score in order to unlock Pilotwings 64’s ultimate reward – On-demand Birdman mode for each of the game’s islands, without having to find those stars.

However, achieving that reward is not the most challenging of tasks, and it does highlight issues with the game’s length. While 20+ missions sound like a lot, it doesn’t take too long to see them all, and when all of those are done with it definitely feels like there should have been more.