If you were told that a launch title for a brand new console was going to be a flight simulator, you’d probably laugh. Flight simulators have always had that niche placement in the gaming world. Sure, you could class them as a game, but their drive for accuracy separates them above and apart from what you would usually class as a game. So when Pilotwings made its Japanese debut in 1990 alongside Nintendo’s new Famicom system, gamers were left to wonder, why is this game a launch title?
Well this game wasn’t any other game. The legendary game-maker Shigeru Miyamoto was behind it. Miyamoto, the man responsible for other classics such as the Zelda and Mario series, would not be the obvious choice to make a flight simulator. But that would be selling Miyamoto-san short. Before we start there on Miyamoto’s contribution to the game we need to go back to the sunset days of the original Famicom, known across the rest of the world as the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES.
Nintendo had dominated the home console market for quite some time. The NES was the best-selling console of the Eighties, along with its flagship title Super Mario Bros., another product of Miyamoto, but there were new challengers beginning to emerge. Sega, Nintendo’s only real competition, had released the Mega Drive in 1988. The Mega Drive was a 16-Bit console, twice the power of Nintendo’s own Famicom System, and with a 7.6mhz processor and capable of displaying 512 colours on screen at once, the Mega Drive was unchallenged in its technical superiority. However, Nintendo have never been one to rush a product to market, so it was an astonishing two years before they launched their own 16-Bit system dubbed the Super Famicom in Japan, and Super Nintendo Entertainment System in other regions.
The Grateful Eight
So what could Nintendo do that would separate their new console from the competition? The one strength they had, they would always have, was a strong catalogue of intellectual properties. If people wanted to play a Zelda, Mario, or Kirby game, they would pick up a Nintendo. But a game is only as strong as the console it runs on, and for that, Nintendo would need to start thinking outside of the box. Most traditional games would be composed on a foreground and background layer. The Super NES went a step further and incorporated in this new little wonderbox were eight different graphical modes. The console was capable of displaying eight different kinds of backgrounds, but the most important and impressive one of these was Background Mode 7. So what’s so special about this background mode I hear you ask? It’s a fair question, how many background layers do you need? Well, what was so special about Mode 7 was its ability to rotate and scale. It was the layer of illusions. Capable of being manipulated to trick the player into thinking there was so much more beyond the sprites in the game, or rotating so it would give the appearance of movement for a sprite on the 2D plane. Not only this, this mode could also overlap the onscreen sprites. Creating a basic but effective form of visual illusion to give us the impression of 3D polygons. Many games would go onto use this mode, but one of the first among them was, you guessed it, Pilotwings.
Miyamoto once said ‘I’d like to be known as the person who saw things from a different point of view to others’, whether it was this philosophy that guided the development of the Super Nes hardware is unknown, but Nintendo had already given themselves a new box of tricks to wow the world with.
The Class of 1990
Nintendo had recently expanded its Research & Development 4 division and renamed it the Entertainment Analysis & Development division, and one of the first titles the new department got to work on was Pilotwings. Amongst the game’s peers to come out of the same department around the same time were Super Mario World and F-Zero, all within the space of eighteen months of each other. Imagine The Witcher 3, The Last of Us, and Skyrim all coming from the same developers in little over a year and you get the idea of the content this team were putting out.
Nintendo had already shown the press what the console was capable of when it was revealed in September 1988, showcasing a tech demo called Dragonfly that was very similar to Pilotwings in its inception.
The game was simple in its design. Through a series of various challenges, including skydiving, hang-gliding, light plane piloting, and a jetpack, the player would achieve licences for the various equipment they’re attempting to master. This was a game that had no antagonist. No enemies to kill, and it didn’t even have a real plot. It was a simple game that was designed to be challenging, and above all – fun.
That’s not to say Pilotwings wasn’t challenging. The first couple of licences were practice, but after that the difficulty scale was raised considerably. Landing targets would become smaller. Flight turns would become harder, and there were new elements like altitude and speed to take into account. A simple game that was remarkably difficult to play if you underestimated it. It soon became a classic.
Even the game’s soundtrack was heaped with praise. Unusual for a game of the time, but the game’s composer Soyo Oka found some of her tracks being rearranged and released on an album for the Nintendo Super Famicom Game Music album. All were re-recorded as piano-arranged versions and to this day if you play a fan of Pilotwings a sample of the music you can guarantee they’ll recognise those familiar tunes.
Reviews at the time were nothing but glowing. Mean Machines Magazine said ‘Pilotwings offers 3D graphics, unparalleled on any other games system outside of the arcades.’ Whilst Total! Magazine awarded it a 91% review.
The game would go on to spawn two sequels, Pilotwings 64 was released for the Nintendo 64, also produced by Miyamoto-san, and Pilotwings Resorts eventually landed for the Nintendo 3DS in 2011.
So how does the Pilotwings story end? Well, it doesn’t end as triumphant as one would hope for a Nintendo flagship series. Whilst the game has made appearances on both the Wii and the Wii U, this has been through Nintendo’s Virtual Console and not a new release, the game being the last released on the former’s Virtual Console service.. There have been nods to its legacy, a level based on Pilotwings made its way into Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
With the disappointment of Pilotwings Resorts, a game accused of lacking content and receiving only mildly lukewarm reviews, it’s about time that Nintendo resurrected an old classic of theirs for the Switch. Pilotwings was a gentle game, where it was more about concentration and dedication than anything else. A game where it would take no longer than a few minutes to finish any one level. A game that would be perfect in today’s society where people have little time to sit down and just play.
A game that long deserves to be parachuted back into the fray…