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The Making Of Pilotwings 64

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There weren’t many games launched alongside the N64, but many of them are absolute gems. One must own title was the utterly superb Pilotwings 64, which built massively (both graphically and gameplay) upon the already great Super Nintendo game. Join us as we go behind the scenes of this still brilliant arcade flight sim.

In recent years, Nintendo has made a habit of aligning itself with external studios in order to complete notable projects. We’ve seen fruitful unions with the likes of Sega (F-Zero GX), Capcom (The Legend Of Zelda: Minish Cap) and more recently Team Ninja (Metroid: Other M), illustrating that despite its lofty reputation within the industry, the modern Nintendo isn’t afraid to look outside its own internal resources to get the job done.

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The sense if freedom remains as strong as ever.

However, back in the mid-Nineties this kind of policy was far less common, a fact which is evidenced by the intense sceptism that surrounded the development of Pilotwings 64. The 3D flight simulator – which followed on from the much-loved SNES original – was to be coded in collaboration with American ‘visual technology’ studio Paradigm Simulation, a company with no prior experience of producing videogames. It’s little wonder that dedicated Nintendo fanboys were practically quaking in their boots.

A member of Nintendo’s fabled ‘Dream Team’, Texas-based Paradigm wasn’t created with interactive entertainment explicitly in mind. “The company was founded in 1990 by Ron Toupal, Mike Engeldinger and Wes Hoffman,” explains Dave Gatchel – who acted as Paradigm’s Project Manager on Pilotwings 64. “We focused on providing commercial products to assist graphics developers in creating simulation and training applications. We also produced and delivered ‘turn-key’ applications, such as flight simulators, human factors analysis simulations and 3D visualisation applications.” The studio’s work brought it to Nintendo’s attention, although this interest manifested itself long before Pilotwings 64 was on the drawing board.

“In 1994 we were approached by Nintendo regarding its new 64-bit console system,” continues Gatchel. “At that time, Paradigm developed products based on the Silicon Graphics (SGI) line of workstations. Nintendo was looking for select companies with 3D graphics experience, and discovered us through their relationship with SGI. We were first approached by one of our close contacts at SGI to gauge our interest. Once we confirmed that we were interested in the opportunity, SGI set up a meeting with Mr Genyo Takeda, who was our primary contact at Nintendo. Following that meeting, we started meeting regularly with SGI to study the architecture and work within a software emulator.”

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There’s a motley selection of characters to choose from.

The two companies certainly made for an unusual pairing, but just as had been the case when Nintendo approached UK-based Argonaut Software to produce the Super FX chip for the SNES, it was clear that the Japanese giant was interested primarily in Paradigm’s expertise in the realm of 3D – a world where Nintendo was still not 100 per cent confident. “At the time, it was clear that Nintendo’s interest in us was due to our experience in 3D graphics,” admits Gatchel. “We had very little experience developing games and no experience developing console games. Nintendo approached us knowing that we already understood most of the issues related to the 3D technology, and that they would need to help us understand the issues surrounding game design. Also, several of us had previous experience working with CGI during the integration of new hardware, which might have been perceived as an advantage.”

However, before a single polygon was rendered in Pilotwings 64, Paradigm had to endure months of labour without even knowing for sure that it would be selected to continue working on Nintendo’s latest machine. “Prior to starting on Pilotwings 64, the team was very small and focused on creating an engine within the N64 emulation system,” says Gatchel. “This continued for approximately nine months, at which time we were notified that Nintendo had selected Paradigm as the developer that it would like to work with SGI to integrate the N64 hardware. We sent a team out to SGI for six weeks, consisting initially of four people: Mike Engeldinger (lead software), Wes Hoffman (lead art and visual effects), Mike Panoff (software), and me (project management), and later we brought out Aaron Hightower (audio).”

The next big task was to get some kind of tech demo running to display at the forthcoming 1995 E3 show, in order to demonstrate the clout of the upcoming console. “We decided to implement a helicopter application for the demo, so the team initially worked on getting this running on the software emulator,” says Gatchel. “The custom graphics chips arrived later than expected, leaving ten days to get the application running on the actual hardware, so the final couple of weeks was particularly intense.”

This phase of development was characterised by testing, pushing the new hardware and finding out what it was capable of. “Following the integration effort at SGI and E3 1995, Nintendo started giving us a series of experiments to work on,” reveals Gatchel. This research would eventually evolve into the game we know and love today. “We were actually quite a way into development before we knew it was going to be Pilotwings 64,” comments Mike Engeldinger. “Nintendo suggested that we think of flying concepts without any mention of Pilotwings. We did prototypes of flying reptiles, island hopper helicopters, biplanes and the like.” As these experiments dovetailed into something more and more grandiose, the truth was finally revealed to the team. “After several months of this it let us know that we would be developing Pilotwings 64, with the goal of it being a launch title,” says Gatchel.

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Explore and experiment and you’ll find nice touches like this.

During development the duties were evenly split between the two firms; Nintendo handled the game design while Paradigm was responsible for the technology. Gatchel explains that they had little reason to complain with the balance of this relationship. “Since it was our first game, we had limited experience as game developers,” he says. “Prior to Pilotwings 64 our strength had been high-end 3D graphics, developing tools and applications for the simulation and training industry. As a result, we worked with the design staff from Nintendo. Our initial contact was Mr Takeda, who at the time managed Nintendo’s R&D3 group and was in charge of the overall N64 development. On the design side, the lead designer was Makoto Wada, who was a member of Miyamoto’s design group. During the production, we learned a great deal from working with Nintendo, not just about game design specifically, but also about producing games in general. The schedule was intense and the stakes were quite high for us, but overall it was a lot of fun.”

One of the N64’s biggest selling points was its analogue controller, which was incredibly innovative at the time. For Paradigm the pad was perfect for what it had in mind for Pilotwings 64. “Our background in visual simulation and vehicle modelling always involved using control sticks, and at the outset we simply designed our vehicles to fly using them,” explains Engeldinger. “I don’t think we even considered doing it any other way because there simply is no substitute for accurate control without one.”

As the schedule became ever more demanding, Gatchel and his team were able to inject more influence into the creative side of the project. “Nintendo was leading the design effort; however, [it was] willing to consider suggestions from the team,” explains Gatchel. “In some respects, since the schedule was so tight, it really became necessary for the design and production team to work collaboratively. What sticks out for me was the schedule; our goal was to be a launch title, and to achieve that it took an incredible effort from the entire team, really the entire company. During the last four to five months, it wasn’t unusual for the majority of the team to work through most of the night. Everyone really extended themselves to the limit.”

You can read the rest of our Making Of Pilotwings 64 in issue 82. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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