Pilotwings has long been Nintendo’s go-to IP when it comes to demonstrating advances in 3D hardware. From the dreamy Mode 7 sky-scapes of the SNES original to establishing the raw polygon-pushing grunt of the N64, never has the burden of 3D weighed heavier on its jet pack-leaden shoulders than with this 3DS iteration.
Pilotwings Resort is in familiar launch line-up position for the first time in 15 years, and with the now uncomfortably familiar absence of a day-one Mario, its Nintendo’s premier launch title. Monster Games (responsible for the thoroughly playable Excite Truck) have cleverly bridged the gap between relatively niche back catalogue classic and accessible casual-friendly veneer by returning to the skies of Wuhu Island – Wii Sports Resort’s impossibly idyllic location.
Of the 3DS launch line-up, Pilotwings in the only title that can claim to use 3D for anything more than a superfluous gimmick. When crystal blue coasts blend into sky blue horizons, with little in the way of props to gauge distance, depth perception can be an issue. It’s one that the hardware answers perfectly, offering splendid views of crisp clean scenery that begs to be explored. The balance between detail, frame rate and strikingly effective use of 3D has been difficult to strike for many early 3DS developers, and Pilotwings takes the gold medal, demonstrating the machine’s capabilities beautifully.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the reappearance of Wuhu Island should not be mistaken for another mini-game collection. The Pilotwings series occupies a unique slot somewhere between flight sim and sightseeing relax ‘em up, avoiding that base video game temptation to kill things, instead focusing on popping balloons, flying through rings and safe landings.
Gameplay modes are divided into two categories – The meat of the game (with gameplay most closely resembling previous games in the series) can be found in Mission Mode. Here you tackle 42 missions across six classes from the impossible-not-to-perfect novice class to the cuttingly exacting diamond class. Most missions put you in one of three main vehicles; the plane, the jet pack and the hang glider.
Early plane missions seen you mastering rudimentary tasks like flying through rings, shooting targets and landing on the surface of the water but expand into far more inventive objectives like dousing campfire flames from the skies or chasing cars through twisting chicanes while popping balloons tied to the back. Later missions see your quaint seaplane upgraded to a turbo jet capable of ripping through the skies at speeds of 2000kph, shifting the pace of the game from Sunday afternoon wind-down to edge-of-your-seat arcade thrills. It’s a pity they don’t get given more air play.
The jet pack returns and offers a perfect counterpoint to the open-sky plane missions, often testing your tighter navigational skills in small coves or through busy town streets. Again missions are pleasingly varied, from delivering supply balloons into drop areas or finding and returning UFOs back to the mother ship. The jet pack’s alternate version is the super rocket belt, which offers nothing unique over the standard issue, save for the speed increase. More noteworthy is the flying squirrel suit (though it’s more of a sugar glider suit if we want to get zoological about it), a sky diving suit which seeing you hurtling towards terra firma, struggling to pass through rings as Wuhu Island blurs by.
The hang glider is the most demanding piece of equipment to master, relying on strict speed control and mastery of thermals, and perhaps due to its lack of maneuverability, glider missions are often the least varied. The hang glider variant’s pedal glider ups the difficulty even further. It’s a slow and cumbersome vehicle and the few missions that require it are struggles to maintain momentum, resulting in the least enjoyable vehicle on offer.
All vehicles respond with the accuracy essential for navigating tight aerial corridors thanks to the 3DS circle pad – a device that will hopefully see an end to constant misuse of touch screen controls that plagued many a DS game.
Free flight mode lets you take to the skies in any of the six vehicles to collect balloons (for extending your 2 minute flight time) stunt rings (for unlocking dioramas) and informative notes on points of interest (just as in Wii Sports Resort). This builds hugely on the N64 free flight mode with a myriad of collectibles encouraging you to visit every crag and cranny in the game, though I’d be lying if I said that Pilotwings 64’s birdman wasn’t missed.
While Wuhu Island’s beauty is never in question, you’re unlikely to earn a significant number of air miles covering its full breadth. Wuhu Island could fit comfortably into any one of Pilotwings 64’s four expansive environments and the sense of discovery in traversing a map the size of say, Little States Island, is nowhere to be found. What it lacks in scale it does make up for with densely packed collectibles, and experts will revel in the quest to nail those perfect triple red star scores, though the lack of online scoreboard to compare with friends in a conspicuous by its absence, particularly given the 3DS’s enhanced networking capabilities.
When viewed as a launch title Pilotwings Resort fulfills its remit perfectly. It offers that wow factor essential for showing off your new hardware to friends and loved ones and it provides an experience that even now, 20 years after the series debut, feels fresh and unique. As implied by the title, Pilotwings Resort offers a holiday from the tired list of overplayed genres with a serenely calming experience that has rightfully earned its place as the 3DS’s most refined launch title.