Review by MTLH
"The pinnacle of the series!"
When Nintendo released the SNES they needed titles to showcase that console's power. Pilotwings' main function was to show of the machine's mode 7 capability, a task in which it succeeded. In 1996 the company wheeled out the SNES' successor, the Nintendo 64, and once again they called upon Pilotwings to demonstrate their new hardware's capabilities. What better way to show those off than with a flight simulator with it's accompanying wide open spaces.
To start on a positive note, even after all this time the game still looks quite impressive. The four islands are sizeable and filled with plenty of details, like other aircraft flying in the background for example or the various settlements. There is also a good amount of variation between them, with one island being a miniature version of the USA while another is a frozen landscape containing an oil refinery. There is furthermore remarkably little popup and the draw distance is more than decent avoiding the amount of distance fog that tends to plague other earlier Nintendo 64 titles. The different pilots and aircraft are modelled pleasantly enough, lending the game, in combination with the environments, the distinct personality that the SNES version lacked.
Despite what is mentioned above, Pilotwings 64 remains a Nintendo 64 game and a early on at that. That means that the visuals are a tad angular and the textures a bit muddy. The graphics simply aren't all that sharp, clean or refined, especially when compared to today's' standards. A good example is how forests are just large blocks with trees drawn at the sides or how waves crashing on the shores of the islands follow the same sharp and straight lines as the coastlines themselves. This luckily doesn't hinder the gameplay, you will get used to it and Pilotwings 64 honestly doesn't look all that bad in a retro kind of way.
Whatever the situation, just gliding through the air or blowing up targets, Pilotwings 64's soundtrack remains relatively calm and relaxed. It has a quirky quality that suits the game. If there is a flaw with the score, it's that it can sound somewhat harsh at times, a bit unrefined. Sound effects are quite good and varied. Especially the sound of a flying missile and the subsequent explosion is done very well.
Pilotwings 64 is a flight simulator involving three aerial disciplines: hang gliding, controlling a rocket belt and piloting a gyrocopter. These events are divided into four classes. The first class starts out with just one mission per discipline but subsequent classes contain more. The aim is to accumulate enough points to earn a medal, with a higher score leading to a more valuable piece of metal. Points are awarded based on certain criteria like time, the accuracy and impact of the landing and the amount of rings flown through. Unlike the first game, it isn't necessary to complete each discipline in a class before moving on to the next one, as each is scored on it's own. To unlock the bonus content however, it is necessary to accumulate enough gold and silver medals in a single class.
The gyrocopter missions plays a lot like the airplane segments of the first Pilotwings. Missions usually involve taking off, flying through a few rings and subsequently landing on a designated airstrip. One new element is that the gyrocopter can fire missiles which leads to missions involving shooting targets and even taking on a large robot.
The rocket belt missions also revolve mainly about flying through rings but there are some additional objectives. A couple of missions involve bumping into a balloon to guide it to a specific location. Others are based on hopping from one floating platform to another, replenishing the fuel supply along the way, while one event involves flying through a tunnel. In the original game, piloting a rocket belt could be a bit annoying at times. Because the 3D was just mimicry instead of the actual thing, it often happened that you'd miss a ring altogether when you should have gone through it. This wasn't helped by the rocket belts inability to hold still. Both problems are rectified by Pilotwings 64 by featuring true 3D visuals and a stationary mode for the rocket belt.
The hang gliding missions involve catching updrafts to gain height while trying to balance that with the glider's speed. Objectives mainly asks the player to, once again, fly through rings or to reach a certain height. Pilotwings 64 adds taking photographs into the mix, which is nice, although taking a perfect picture can be quite fiddly.
As was mentioned above, the aim of the game is to earn medals in order to advance to the next class. This can be achieved with bronze medals but getting those of the silver and gold variety unlocks certain extras. There is a free flight mode where the player can explore the different islands as birdman, a pilot who is wearing a pair of wings on his or her arms. The other extras are missions which involve sky diving, shooting pilots out of a cannon and crossing terrain with spring-loaded boots. These don't go as deep as the regular missions but are very enjoyable, providing a good reason to really invest in the game.
The controls are responsive and the control scheme is intuitive enough to make flying the different craft a smooth experience. I am personally not a great fan of the Nintendo 64 controller due to it's shape and the way it must be held but Pilotwings 64 gave me little trouble adapting. The only thing that doesn't work quite as fluidly as it could have are the camera controls. They feel a little stiff but seeing that the camera isn't used all that often it doesn't become problematic.
Progress is saved after each completed mission, automatically replacing a lower score with a higher one. Together with the game's structure, this lends Pilotwings 64 a great deal of flexibility. Players can choose to master a single discipline on all levels before moving on to another for example, or just plough through every class before returning to an earlier one to improve their score. Getting that more valuable medal can involve chipping away at a single mission, getting better with each attempt while scrapping together those last few points needed. Compare this with the all or nothing approach of Pilotwings 64's predecessor on the SNES and it becomes clear that this is a huge improvement.
Another aspect of that game that is fortunately left behind are it's difficulty spikes, or rather difficulty cliffs. The challenge could rise to unreasonable heights which, coupled with it's structure, could lead to a lot of frustration. Pilotwings 64 isn't a particularly easy game but it presents a more even challenge. Getting bronze medals isn't all that hard, only becoming somewhat tricky in the last class. Earning the better medals, and thus unlocking the extras, is more challenging but this is definitely a case of practice makes perfect. Every attempt will yield some form of progress, even if it is just a single extra point. And if frustration sets in with a particular mission or class, just switch to another and try to earn a few more points there. Expect to spend a good amount of time with this game to get the most out of it.
One thing that Pilotwings 64 possesses in spades is character. The SNES iteration, for all it's positive and negative aspects didn't have much of a personality. The islands looked alike and didn't have all that many features, seeing that all the landmarks where actually just flat textures. The different instructors, the sole human aspect, did their best but couldn't quite compensate. The four islands of Pilotwings 64 are fully fledged and quite different from each other. They're also lively with other pilots flying in the background and have little details like campfires and tents dotted around them. The six pilots, through their look, speech and slightly differing abilities, also help to personalise the game further.
Pilotwings 64 had a task to fulfil and did so with verve. Several large islands which could be freely explored without being hindered by too much popup or fog demonstrated what the Nintendo 64 was capable of. Nowadays it is clear that the visuals are dated even though they can still be quite pleasing to the eye at times.
Luckily the game has more to offer than just graphics. The gameplay still holds up very well. The different craft are a pleasure to control, the missions are varied and at times inventive and the challenge is pleasant. With twenty-seven missions, nine bonus missions and a free flight mode there is also no shortage of content. The way that extra content is reached furthermore encourages the player to really invest in the game. The shortcomings of the SNES version are remedied, ensuring that the concept introduced by the 16-bit iteration finally reaches maturity. It is also good to see that Pilotwings 64 adds some much needed personality into the mix.
Is there anything wrong with Pilotwings 64? The presentation may be too dated for those with a more modern taste but that is inherent for a fifteen year old game. The camera controls are a little clunky but they aren't used all that often anyway. There is also little on offer for adrenaline junkies, seeing that the action is rather sedate, but that would be their loss. A lot of the missions involve flying through rings but the variation is large enough to not make this a problem. So, overseeing the above I ask the question again. Is there anything wrong with Pilotwings 64? I guess not. And if that is the case there can be only one suitable score.
OVERALL: a perfect 10!
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 08/24/11
Game Release: Pilotwings 64 (EU, 03/01/97)
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