Remembering the Classics: Pilotwings

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Ever since its highly celebrated release on the Nintendo 64 in 1999, the Super Smash Bros. series has been the premiere franchise to celebrate the long and diverse history of Nintendo. The first game was made with very little budget and promotion but still featured twelve characters and nine stages from some of the most recognizable franchises. It made the impossible dream of having the likes of Mario, Link, and Pikachu fight it out in an insane frenzy. The game provided an immense amount of nostalgia for Nintendo fans but there’s no denying that it was primarily focused on extremely popular franchises. As the series became more popular and Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out on their respective systems, Nintendo starting digging into their much lesser known properties for content. The long forgotten R.O.B. was even a featured character. This wasn’t because they ran out of ideas, far from it. It’s because the game became so huge, Nintendo was able to spend time and money honoring even the most unknown titles.

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The recently unveiled Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U is no exception to the trend. Super Smash Bros. is easily one of the most popular franchises of all-time. This is why I was particularly excited on August 6th when news broke that a stage based on the much overlooked Pilotwings series will make an appearance on the Wii U version of this crossover fighter. No news yet on if it will appear on the 3DS. All we have is a screenshot of the stage and no actual footage of how it is played, but the sheer fact that it exists makes me happy. Why is that? Read on to find out!

Pilotwings first came out on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Famicom in Japan, on December 21, 1990. It didn’t come to North America and countries beyond until late 1991 (August 23rd will actually be the 22nd anniversary of its North American release). The game doesn’t really have any narrative to back up what you do. You simply play as an unnamed trainee in a Flight Club to develop a mastery of the air. The game starts off with challenges based on a light plane and skydiving, and you’re judged on how well you can perform each challenge from start to finish. In regards to the plane challenge, you’re judged on your take off, skills flying through rings, and your landing. The more precise you are, the higher your score. If you successfully complete both challenges with a high enough score, you move onto the next course. There are four certification courses total and the future courses bring in challenges where you control a hang glider and a rocket belt (jet pack). The final level only appears after you are successfully certified and it’s focused on you controlling an attack helicopter to rescue your captured instructors.

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Two of the biggest sources of praise for Pilotwings were how great the game looked and how immensely challenging it quickly became. It regards to the appearance, Pilotwings looked absolutely beautiful. Even the smallest amount of movement in the game was surprisingly fluid for a fourth generation 16-bit system. You could go through an entire challenge completely uninterrupted from start to finish. Once you start a level, the only way to finish it is either by successfully completing it or crashing and burning (seriously, the plane is a mess when you don’t make it).

Then you have the difficulty. Pilotwings is easily one of the most difficult games I have ever played despite looking deceptively simple in the beginning. It really goes from beginner to super expert really fast. When you start the game out, the parachuting and light plane challenges are extremely easy. You could get a perfect score with almost no effort. As you progress to more levels, the challenges get exponentially more difficult. It gets to the point where you could spend more than hour trying to finish a single challenge and get absolutely nowhere. The final level where you pilot an attack helicopter is easily the hardest of the entire game. You have to successfully take off, survive an onslaught of anti-aircraft fire, safely land to rescue your instructors, and then escape. A single shot destroys you as well. It’s a challenge unlike any you experience in the game and is astoundingly difficult.

My own history with Pilotwings was started completely by chance. I didn’t receive an SNES until several years after it first came out and only had a few titles at my disposal. It wasn’t until I received a literal sack of games, for free I might add, that I came across this amateur flight simulator. I knew the game was different from the rest the moment I saw it so my interest was immediately peaked. The moment I popped it in and started my first challenge, I was hooked. The game is so simple in concept but incredibly fun. It became unforgivably challenging as time went on but that simply added to the appeal. No matter how angry I got at the game and myself for failing so much, I repeatedly went back for more. It’s a game that you know you can finish with the right amount of focus. The game really appealed to me on a personal level too because my brothers and I bonded in our desire to finish every challenge. Pilotwings ended up becoming one of those golden titles for us. Really anyone could play this game and have a great time, but it takes a true master to actually complete it and to this day I have never reached that status. The final helicopter challenge was simply too difficult for young me to ever beat.

Many might look at the inclusion of a Pilotwings stage as nothing special, but fans of the series couldn’t be happier to see it. It really is one of the biggest throwbacks Nintendo has ever done. The Pilotwings series has received critical acclaim, especially the original title, but it never became a hugely popular franchise. Only three titles exist and there is a 15 year gap between Pilotwings Resort on the Nintendo 3DS in 2011 and Pilotwings 64 on the Nintendo 64 in 1996. The series just never really took off like it should have which is a shame. At least Nintendo hasn’t forgotten this classic title by putting it into one of their most anticipated games. I don’t expect this to revitalize the franchise by any means, but at least this can hopefully spur some to check out this SNES gem on the Virtual Console.