Format reviewed: Nintendo 64
Developer: Paradigm Entertainment
The N64 launched with only two games – Mario 64 and Pilotwings (plus a third, Saikyou Haniu Shogi, if you insist on being pedantic). It was of course Mario which captivated and encouraged people to buy the system; he was Nintendo’s all-jumping non-shaving star. Shamefully it overshadowed this equally excellent “flight-sim” from Paradigm Entertainment. Admittedly when receiving my N64 soon after launch, with both games, it was Mario 64 which I both played first and more intensely. But it was Pilotwings 64 which I continued to play even after attaining perfect scores of 100 on each every level; I continued to play years later, long after the N64’s death – thanks to its open-ended nature, ability to create personalised goals, and above all, because no other aerial game has ever tried to match it in terms of surreal styling and blithe pacing. To put it simply, a decade later and on reflection, I think Pilotwings 64 was the better launch title.
The N64 iteration has little to do with its SNES predecessor, which was far more serious in tone. Instead of being developed in-house, Nintendo farmed it out to Texas-based Paradigm Entertainment. The outsourcing of key games can be worrying, due to the possibility of the chosen company underperforming, but in this case Paradigm deserves to stand tall and proud for the amazing job they did.
There are three main vehicles to control (Hang Glider, Rocket Belt, and Gyrocopter), set over four different classes: Beginner, A, B and Pilot class – each corresponding to one of four locations. The first is Holiday Island, which is quite small, featuring a scenic castle and fairground. Then there’s Crescent Island (tropical rainforest, caves, whales, and a large waterfall) along with Ever-Frost Island (a mostly barren place of icy mountains and an oil refinery). The highlight though, and where most enjoyment comes from, is Little States – a detailed recreation of America (sans Alaska and Hawaii), complete with cities and prominent landmarks such as Mount Rushmore (including Mario’s head). This makes for 12 main “stages”, each consisting of up to three tasks which are scored out of 100; each stage has target scores for Bronze, Silver and Gold medals.
Each task, once completed, can be replayed at leisure, increasing the points and getting closer to those medals. This makes it perfect to dip in and out of. While it’s easy (maybe dangerously too easy when you’ve got live ducks basting in the oven on a tight time limit) to spend hours and hours simply relaxing in the skies, you can also nip in and notch your score up slightly on any given level. It proves to be perfectly balanced, with an open-ended structure that adapts itself to each person’s playing style. With such ingenious implementation, which is so perfect and more importantly so very fair it’s amazing other games don’t copy it, there is tremendous satisfaction from practicing and then finally achieving a perfect score.
Meanwhile, getting a silver medal in each class will unlock a series of bonus levels: Cannon, where you’re fired at distant targets; Skydiving, which includes points for maintaining formation; Jumble Hoppers, which involves bouncy shoes; and finally the Birdman suit, which has no set goal and is simply there to casually enjoy the sights. The biggest attraction beyond the standard tasks (which involve flying through rings, taking photos and shooting things), and also the reason why I still play it years later, is the open-ended nature of the gameplay and the fact you aren’t penalised for ignoring the given mission to go off to do your own thing. Bored of the rings? Then why not try barnstorming, driving on the road, landing on the dam, flying under an oil rig? The Little States area has countless things to distract you, while the game-engine encourages experimentation. Simply make up your own goal and go for it! Or add beer and friends to the mix for a great party game.
Everything is designed to encourage the player and be innately fun, a stark contrast to other overly complex flight-sims which have you wrestling with dials and controls rather than enjoying the actual flying. The 3D engine and physics, while not as astonishingly impressive anymore, are neat, functional, and despite their comparative simplicity today don’t detract from the overall experience. More importantly is that when coupled with the sublime analogue joystick, the controls are as smooth as Johnson’s Baby Oil on warm Teflon. And let’s not forget the music: high-twanging and super-cheesy guitar licks which sound like they come straight from a cheap porno, coupled with some laid back and very soothing music in the hang glider levels. After a gruelling day’s work (such as being a games journalist – Ed), the surreal and chilled-out atmosphere, along with the music, is a wonderful way to unwind.
Thinking about it, if we were to forsake the faux-intellectuality of magazines which state few if any games are actually flawless, and that all games in some way must have negatives, we’d have to say Pilotwings 64 is actually a perfect game.