Pilotwings 64 (N64, 1996)

pilotwings64box

Continuing the celebration of the N64’s 20th anniversary I decided it would make sense to look back on the entire launch lineup of the console.  Fortunately for me, the game system only debuted with two games: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64.  Already a trend was developing.  Not only was the console itself adorned with the number “64” after the company name, but the two launch games also included the number in the title.  This would be the case for the majority of the games released throughout the system’s lifespan just as the word “Super” was tacked on to several game titles for the system’s predecessor the SNES.  Super Mario 64 was a milestone in gaming history which changed the way games were developed and played.  So was Pilotwings 64 equally as groundbreaking?  Let’s find out.

Pilotwings 64 is a sequel to the Super Nintendo game simply titled “Pilotwings” which itself was a launch title for the SNES.  Pilotwings was a fun little game that was primarily used as a tech demo to show off the Super Nintendo’s impressive Mode 7 graphics and sprite scaling effects.  The gist of the game is that you are trying to earn your pilot’s license and to do so must engage in a series of obstacle courses followed by a landing.  Craft include the light plane, rocket belt, hang glider, and a helicopter.  In addition to the aircraft there are also skydiving stages and some other easter eggs to uncover.  Although the missions could be challenging there wasn’t much depth.  Pilotwings did succeed as a graphical presentation but as a game it was just ok.  I felt that F-Zero did a better job of showing off the SNES’s Mode 7 graphics while also being an excellent game to boot.

When the Nintendo 64 was released in 1996 the sell to consumers was the upgrade from 2D to 3D graphics.  The Super Nintendo accomplished pretty much everything possible for a 16 bit 2D console and gamers were antsy for the next big thing.  The Nintendo 64 was developed as a 3D powerhouse capable of producing smoother graphics than it’s competition and launch software needed to show off the leap from Super NES to Nintendo 64.  Therefore Nintendo again went to the well and released an update to Pilotwings for the 3D era.

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I missed out on Pilotwings 64 when it was released but I did play it in the spring of 1998 as a rental.  I had heard mixed reviews of the game but always enjoyed flying and flight simulators and at that time in my life I wanted to be a pilot.  Therefore I decided to give this one a try without putting my precious allowance on the line with a full blown purchase.  It was less of a simulation than I was looking for, but it didn’t make up for it with the action of an arcade style flying game.  My initial conclusion was that it was simply mediocre.  I wouldn’t have minded the slow pace if the game were based on realism, but I don’t see a lot of people zooming around the skies in rocket packs zipping through floating rings.  After the N64 was pushed aside by the 6th generation of gaming consoles and prices plummeted I did pick this one up on eBay.  In fact, this was the first N64 game I purchased as a “collector” rather than as a “gamer” back in 2004 so it must have at least made an impression on me.

Just like it’s predecessor the concept is to earn your pilot’s license for three different aircraft: the hang glider, rocket belt, and gyrocopter.  Each craft has several different tests per class; the beginner class, class A, class B, and Pilot class.  If you finish with at least a silver medal in each class the player unlocks a special extra game.  These include sky diving, cannonball, and jumble hopper.  There are plenty of quirks and hidden secrets within the game to discover as well.

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Each stage begins with character selection of which there are six pilots to choose from.  All of the pilots handle differently in their crafts although I’ve never noticed a huge difference.  All of the pilots are named after birds; Lark, Kiwi, Goose, Ibis, Hawk, and Robin.  Robin is the blonde chick they gave huge triangular boobies to and when you pick her on the selection screen she says “oooooh yeah”.  Apparently in Japan her name was “Hooter”.  She became such a well known character in the orient that they released a regional exclusive N64 game starring her called “Hooter’s Bath House”.  In fact, while writing this article and looking for some pictures of Robin to include for reference I stumbled upon several CG and hand drawn images of Robin nude or getting taken to pound town by Mario.  Some of this paragraph is truth and some is fiction.  Do you dare to do a Yahoo search to find out which is which?

Most of the tests are pretty bland.  Fly through some rings, land on some platforms, take a picture, and then finish by landing on a landing pad.  One memorable gyrocopter mission involves shooting a psychotic robot with missiles before it can wreak too much havoc on the countryside.  More missions like this would have made the game infinitely more entertaining but unfortunately the action is kept to a minimum for the most part.  That’s not to say that the gameplay is bad.  It simply isn’t for everyone.

pilotwingsrushmore

What the game may lack in diversity of missions it makes up for in detailed scenery.  There are four different courses in the game: Holiday Island, Ever-Frost Island, Crescent Island, and Little States.  Each locale is unique in it’s presentation but Little States is the largest with the most activity and hidden secrets.  As the name suggests its a small scale United States with major cities dotted on the map: Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Washington DC are all memorable locales with several landmarks roughly where they should appear as well.  Head down to Florida and watch a rocket ship take off toward space.  Go to South Dakota and you’ll find Mount Rushmore.  There is plenty to discover and enjoy just free flying around.

Honestly free flying and ignoring the missions are part of the appeal of this game.  As a result the developers included a “Birdman” mode with no objectives just for that purpose. The character has wings for arms and the player can just travel the map at their leisure while listening to some laid back music.  Unfortunately if “Birdman” tries to go into more of the cramped spots on the map he wigs out and crashes and the game ends.  For that reason I’ve always found the Jetpack better for exploring the nooks and crannies throughout the game but the biggest limitation is the fact that you have to continue to fill up with fuel.  The reality is that this could have been avoided if the developers had simply allowed the characters to walk freely.  Yes that’s right, the only way you can move about is to fly.  So whether you are in the jetpack or taking control of a Birdman, once you land you are stuck there until you take off again.  I’ve always hated this because there would be so much to see up close if they simply allowed your character to walk about the map.  Bummer.

birdman

The cannonball game was also pretty fun.  The objective was to launch your chosen character out of a cannon and onto a target placed in increasingly difficult to bullseye locations on one of the islands.  You have to take the wind and power into account.  Once launched the character screams in terror as they are sent soaring through the air until they hit the landscape at which point they stick like a dart.  Skydiving was just ok.  Same goes for the bouncy shoes thing.  Crashes are also very entertaining although they can get irritating when you witness them at an inopportune time.

At the end of the day there isn’t a lot of replay factor or longevity to this game.  As a tech demo it did an amazing job of showing off the capabilities of the Nintendo 64, but as a piece of software it pales in comparison to the masterpiece that was Super Mario 64.  There is a pretty steep learning curve but once acclimated to the controls the game is quite short as well.  Today that isn’t much of a problem but when this game was new I’d be pretty pissed to fork down seventy bucks for a few hours of gameplay which means this was more of a rental game on release.  Today the game is at least unique as it isn’t a typical N64 platformer or racing game and is quite affordable on the secondary market which makes it worth purchasing.

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