In Nintendo’s cavernous hangar of recognizable video game franchises, some names get more flight time than others. While Mario tours the systems perpetually like a Cold War-era Air Force One, others languish in development like commercial airliners with ashtrays at every seat. Ever since its Super Nintendo debut and Nintendo 64 follow-up, the Pilotwings series has been often tinkered with but never properly launched. Well, come March 27, the whimsical flight training game will take flight on the Nintendo 3DS and introduce a whole new generation of gamers to the joys of rocket belts, hang gliders, and airplanes. We played a demo of Pilotwings Resort at Nintendo's 3DS press event in NYC and spent time with the three main methods for soaring around Wuhu Island.
At the beginning of the demo, we were prompted to choose from one of four member cards, indicating that Pilotwings Resort will feature four separate save slots to allow multiple players to track their progress individually. From the menu screen, we were offered two main choices: Mission Flight mode and Free Flight mode. An option titled "Dioramas" was grayed out, though we speculate this might involve taking three-dimensional in-game screenshots that you can later view and share. We were told that you could take in-game screenshots, but how they will manifest and whether or not you can share them online was unclear.
Mission Flight mode challenges players to fly a variety of missions using the rocket belt, the glider, and the plane. Doing well in mission criteria earns you points, higher point totals earn you a better rating on a three-star scale, and more stars earn you progress toward a medal rank. That may sound like a lengthy waterfall of earning too many different things, but it all comes down to how well you fly. The ranks we saw were training, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum, and each tier featured six missions, two for each vehicle. Keep in mind, though, that this was merely a demo build of the game and the final structure could be different from what we experienced.
All of the missions take place on Wuhu Island, a location that should be familiar to Wii Fit and Wii Sports Resort players. Yet the environment is substantially bigger than a single island. You can fly out over the water where you'll see ships, rocky island outcroppings, and (if you're lucky), a breaching whale. During daytime missions, the water is a dazzling blue, while in the evening, it turns a smoldering orange in the light of the sunset. The visual clarity and vibrancy of the 3DS was on full display in Pilotwings Resort, creating an environment that was very enticing to fly around. But if you are tempted to hotdog a little bit and dip your wing in the azure seas (like we were), you'd better be ready to deploy your parachute. Crashing comes with the territory in Pilotwings Resort, whether from being a bit too daring or from botching the ever-tricky glider landing.
Missions start out fairly easy and give you simple tasks to help acquaint you with the controls. Those who remember previous Pilotwings games will find the controls very familiar, and newcomers will find them easily accessible. Locomotion doesn't involve very many inputs, no matter what you are flying, and all the vehicles use the analog circle pad for steering. The rocket belt has strong jets, weak jets, and a hover ability. The plane has a brake and speed boost, but it constantly flies at a steady rate so you never need to worry about falling out of the sky. This leaves you free to use the shoulder buttons to bank left and right, perform barrel rolls, or invert your plane completely (should you feel the need to experiment in foreign relations, Top Gun style). You can also change the view to behind the plane, directly above the plane, or first person. The glider has the simplest controls, but it is also one of the trickiest vehicles to fly, given your reliance on thermal updrafts to give you lift. You can also use the flare button to air brake or land.
While each vehicle's missions are slightly different from each other, they center around similar themes. Precision flying in the rocket belt means landing on pads; in the plane and the glider, it means flying through rings. Target practice in the plane involves missiles, while in the glider it involves photography. To keep you on track of your goals, Pilotwings Resort often includes floating balls that serve as an indicator of the optimal flight path. Tracing these paths is key to achieving perfect scores because some of the balls can be collected for points. Striving for a perfect score can be pretty exciting, but with so many things tracked (guide balls, rings, fuel, overall time, and the like), it can be tough to nail a mission on the first try.
If you prefer to roam around without the pressure of specific goals, then Free Flight mode is the place to go. Here, you can choose your vehicle and your time of day (daytime, evening, or a mystery third option that wasn't revealed in our demo) and head out over Wuhu with the wind at your back and a song in your heart. Pilotwings Resort follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by giving you plenty of appealing places to fly. From stunt runs through narrow canyons and under bridges to terrorizing the locals by flying too low over their boats and places of residence, there's a lot of fun to be had just soaring around. Many places on and around the island have large target circles with a small cursive letter "I" inside them, indicating that they are points of interest. If you fly near them, you'll be treated to a tidbit about Wuhu Island. If you fly through them, they will be checked off as a location visited and contribute to your total tally. There were 75 locations available for tallying in our demo, and two other categories listed under "locations" that could potentially record other feats of free flight. We just hope that we can tweak the time limit of two minutes once we actually get our hands on the full game because we wanted to keep flying longer after our time was up.
Pilotwings Resort made good use of the 3DS's unique capabilities to create a nice sense of depth as we flew around the island. It seemed to make it a bit easier to line up rings and landing pads, though as our numerous crash landings can attest, it's not a terribly easy game. But it is a very welcoming one, and the large and vibrantly detailed Wuhu Island looks to be a great place for exploration. Pilotwings Resort will be available in Nintendo's designated launch window, which runs from the system's launch on March 27 to the start of the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo on June 7, for an unannounced price.