GameSpite Journal 10 | Pilotwings

Pilotwings | Dev.: Nintendo | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: Flight Simulator | Release: August 1991

Pilotwings agitates my fear of heights in a way that few other games have managed. Iíve never been comfortable with the feeling of being high in the air unless Iím well secured and seated. Put me next to a 10th-floor balcony, and vertigo takes over. Make me even think about parachuting and Iíll probably find a discrete exit from the conversation. While nausea and dizzyness arenít two of the side-effects brought on by Pilotwings (depending on oneís tolerance for Mode 7 graphics, at least), it still gets under my skin with nothing more than a bitmap rotating underneath sprites.

Pilotwings is split into five distinct flight simulators (as well as a few clever bonus levels if you manage to land on some tricky platforms during the course of the game) that use Super NES Mode 7 to rotate and scale an island underneath you to create the sensation of flying around above it in 3-D space. Controlling an airplane, flying through rings and under arches before adjusting your speed and angle to come in for a smooth landing on a runway. Taking on a jet-pack that allows you to thrust straight up, forward, or backward to maneuver around to your goals before returning to your starting point. Strapping on a parachute and free-falling through rings before pulling your cord to brake and hit a target down below. Taking the hang glider out involves you seeking jets of warm air to push your craft higher into the sky before circling in to the landing pad. After several flight tests, youíll also be given a secret mission in a helicopter, the only vehicle that is both armed and has external threats to worry about.

For the most part, the simulators donít change their goals extensively between flight tests. Youíre always trying to hit rings or bars or a certain altitude before coming in for as accurate a landing as youíre able, with the goal of passing a certain overall points threshold to move on to the next test. Halfway through the game, weather effects and inclement conditions are added to many of the tests while the in-flight goals are made trickier with smaller rings or tighter landings, and the flight test points required to move on are increased. Pilotwings is not an easy game, and failing at one simulator within a flight test can require you to start the entire test over. Again and again.

Itís this level of difficulty that makes the skydiving and hang glider simulators cause my spine to itch. Both simulators involve a maddening plunge toward the target where you are expected to land before a last-minute halt brings you to gradually begin circling the landing platform, closer and closer, speeding up and slowing down; and if youíre only a hair off, prepare to do it again. And again. The racing of the Mode 7 landscape as you fall combined with the stakes of re-doing the flight test manage to instills a tension and vertigo that, for myself at least, make a collection of simple tech demos more than the sum of their parts. When modern games canít come close to replicating that feeling with all the technology available now, thatís no small praise for a launch title on a 20-year-old system.

By Marc Host? | Nov. 7, 2011 | Previous: Mode 7 | Next: Gradius III