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Pilotwings 64: Whimsical, rich, and difficult 3D flight simulation

Pilotwings 64 was the N64's only launch title other than Super Mario 64. As a flight simulator, it was perfect for Nintendo's first 3D-capable system. It easily surpassed the original Pilotwings.

Pilotwings 64 boasts seven vehicles in total. The rocket belt and hang glider return from the original, though surprisingly there's no plane! It's been replaced with a new vehicle: the gyrocopter, which is like a primitive helicopter. All of the vehicles are controlled with the control stick. You can switch between first- and third-person perspectives with the R button and pan the camera by holding a C button.

The A button speeds up the gyrocopter, while the B button slows it down. The hang glider can't be sped up except by diving. Instead, pushing A or B causes you to "flare," which slows you down. To land the hang glider, you have to hold down A, which neither the game nor manual explains. I repeatedly crashed because I thought I was supposed to tap the button!

As for the rocket belt, A activates a strong jet and B a weaker jet. Pushing the stick up points rockets forward, so that you can move backwards. Pushing the stick down turns them backwards, allowing you to propel forward. The rocket belt is fun to maneuver, though inertia makes precise control tricky.

While flying, an on-screen displays shows several pieces of useful information. At the top is your time. The top-right shows a circular map (you can also press START to pause the game and then access a full 3D map). Goal targets appear as yellow squares, while the landing strip is red. In the bottom-left is your speed, which is important when landing because you need to keep it below 50 kph. The bottom-center shows your fuel meter (for the gyrocopter and rocket belt), and the bottom-right shows your altitude relative to whatever is beneath you, such as a building or hill. When this distance drops below 50 meters, the font size increases to catch your attention. 

Pilotwings 64 has 25 stages: 12 normal stages and 13 bonus stages. They are sorted by vehicle type. When you start the game (which has two save files), you can only choose the beginner course of any of the three main vehicles. Successfully completing a beginner stage opens up the A stage. Beating that unlocks B, which is followed by P (for pilot).

At the beginner level, a stage involves a single mission. For example, in the beginning hang glider level, you must fly through some rings, then safely land on a giant red-and-white target. For the A difficulty, a stage consists of two missions; for B and P, there are three. When you successfully land on the landing pad without crashing, the mission ends and you receive a score.

Scoring is based on categories: mission goals, time, landing accuracy, and landing impact. Bumping into things penalizes points. Goals include tasks like flying through rings, landing on targets, taking a well framed photograph (press Z) or even shooting missiles (hold Z to aim, then release)! If you average at least 70 points per mission (e.g., 210 across the three missions of the B and P levels), you receive a bronze medal. An average of 80 points earns the silver, and 90 the gold. Happily, the game always records your best score for a mission, so you don't have to redo it over and over just because you messed up another mission. For example, if you have 86 points on one mission and 50 on another, you can keep re-doing the 50 until you get it up to 54 to earn the bronze. There's also a replay option, which shows you the last few seconds of your flight from another perspective.

Whenever you choose a level, you also choose one of six player characters: Lark, Kiwi, Goose, Ibis, Hawk, and Robin. Like in Mario Kart, two of each (a male and female) are lightweight, medium, or heavy. A chart on p. 25 of the manual shows how the pairs handle each vehicle type. Lark and Kiwi, for example (the lightweights), are good at the hang glider but make poor human cannonballs. Hawk and Robin, being heavy, are good at skydiving and aren't much affected by wind. Incidentally, the reason Robin is heavy is because she is, well, voluptuous. The manual calls her "one of the prettiest pilots." When you select her, she says, "Oh, yeah!" in a suggestive cadence.

There are four unlockable bonus vehicles: birdman, being shot out of a cannon, skydiving (which was a normal activity in the original Pilotwings), and rocket shoes called Jumble Hopper. If you get a silver medal in all three A courses, the first birdman stage as well as the first human-cannonball stage appear. Birdman is a bonus stage in which you soar freely (like a bird) around a cathedral. There's no goal, but it's pretty fun. I assume getting silver medals in all the B and P courses will unlock the other three birdman stages, though I haven't done so yet.

There are three cannon stages. Each has four missions with the same goal: to aim a huge cannon at a gigantic target. If you hit the center of the bullseye, you get 25 points, and it goes down from there. Sometimes you can't see the target from the cannon and need to check the map to aim. You get three attempts, so you can adjust your aim using trial and error. A power meter for the cannon moves up and down like in a golf game. It moves slowly, so it's easy to choose the power you want.

The skydiving and Jumble Hopper levels require getting the silver medal in all the B and P courses, respectively. Pilotwings 64 isn't an easy game, so I have not yet managed to do this. It can be difficult to complete all the goals without taking too long. A good landing requires precision. It can be frustrating when you complete all the goals quickly, only to have your score spoiled by a poor landing.

The visuals on Pilotwings are good by the standards of the late 90's. It's fun to fly around in fully-rendered 3D environments. They are full of little details on the ground, such as houses, umbrellas, trees, streets, etc. One stage has skyscrapers and the Hollywood sign. Another has Mt. Rushmore, with Mario's head in place of a president. (The game looks even better on the Switch because it runs at a higher frame rate and in higher resolution.) The background music is like that in Pilotwings: a kind of "adult contemporary" easy listening. It doesn't stand out to me, but it complements the gameplay well.

Pilotwings 64 is a good, fun flight-simulation game. With seven vehicles and 25 stages encompassing well over 50 missions, there's plenty to do. Initially the steep learning curve discouraged me, but the game started to grow on me after a while. With hundreds of other games I want to play, I don't think I'll stick with Pilotwings 64, but I enjoyed the time I had with it.

Grade: B

Linked Reviews
"Its perfect blend of tense, challenge-based gameplay and simple, yet relaxing exploration gives it an almost universal appeal."
— Martin Watts, Nintendo Life, 9/10

"In 1996 it was a lovely way to unwind between high-pressure attempts to capture some of Mario 64's more vexing stars."
— Jeremy Parish, N64 Works


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