Pilotwings 64 triumphs by balancing a realistic physics system, all the while not taking itself too seriously.
Strap on a jetpack or grab a spare hang-glider, as you prepare to sit down and take on the intriguing simulation-based missions. Each scenario will give you a certain task to do, be it moving a gigantic one hundred foot wide balloon across the ocean, or landing on all twenty moving air targets without fail. Carefulness and time management are all essential as you progress, because after each mission you are graded on your performance. Time completed, accuracy in landing on certain targets, tasks completed, landing precision and landing impact, will all add up to total your score. Based on your score you will be able to take home a gold, silver, or bronze medal, and advance to the next class. Being as flight inefficient as I am, it definitely takes a lot of skill to get perfect in some of the later missions. That said, there is plenty of challenge here and it is as smooth as the sailing itself.
Vehicles...are the name of the game and you have quite a selection to choose from. The Gyrocopter will be your vehicle of choice for targeting missions, as it is equipped with a missile launcher and a landing tracker system. Though it is essential to take out all the targets and land as quickly as possible, it is a lot of fun to just go around blowing stuff up. I also like how some of the environments were alterable, Mount Rushmore is something that comes to mind here -- don’t worry you will see why later on. The Rocket Pack is the smoothest to control and has missions that revolve around going through rings or landing on air targets. Though it is the easiest to control, learning to correlate your technique with the camera for that 100% landing score will be difficult. Lastly, you have the hang-glider which is definitely a pain in the ass to control, because of the sluggish turns and a width that makes it incredibly easy to wreck. Though it is frustrating at first, the vehicles are very fun to play around with, and the learning curve is steady throughout.
Another thing that pulled me into the game was just the light-hearted nature and silliness of the game. It truly is something you do not see in a lot of simulation based games out there, which usually are devoid of any emotion. The characters are all goofy from the young Lark to the scrawny Goose, and each has their own tones and personalities. I found it hilarious when I accidentally (or purposely) drove my character into a lake or mountainside, only to hear a high-pitched squeal, followed by a crash or splat. However, each character does more than just give you some Sunday evening laughs; they also provide a weight class that goes hand in hand with the vehicles. Some missions may require a thin person to get through tight crevices to reach the end, or perhaps a large and accelerative one to get through all those rings in time. The diversity of the characters and learning to know when to use each one, is essential, and is half the fun.
There are some rough edges beneath that glossy finish, and that is the repetition of mission styles in later levels. For instance, the ring and target destruction missions show up several times in the game, and with little variety thrown into them. Elements such as wind current and building-orient obstacles will be in the way to slow you down, but with timing they are not really an outstanding obstruction. There also seems to be some problems now and then with the grading system towards landing precision and accuracy. At times I half-assed a landing and scored a 100/100, while other times I nearly broke the controller in concentration and landed a 90/100. As your skill increases that understanding of the system will improve, but a little more control over certain mechanics, such as the camera, would have been nice. Now, speaking of cameras, that thought brings me back to that all too familiar element I talked about earlier…
It is more than something you would only hear and feel on a drunken night out to a bar lounge with friends. Surprisingly it can be found right at home, and Pilotwings 64 does a great job with surrounding you in that environment; that being the extremely entertaining “Birdman” mode, which is accessible only a little ways into the game. Being an explorative sight-seer myself, I found this portion of the game to be as satisfying as the missions themselves. Taking on an easy to control set of wings, you can glide your character through levels similar to grade based ones. However, you are armed with just a camera and your simple objective is to just glide around, exploring hidden sections of the area, and just have a good time. Bringing it all together is the dated but colorful visuals, the day and night feature, and the relaxing soundtrack. After a twelve hour day at work, I could not think of a game I would want to play more, which only makes it sound more intriguing doesn’t it?
A great atmosphere is always vital to a game that encompasses the elements of nature and exploration. Though standard by today’s views, I still find the game as amazing looking as it was back in 1996. The look of the ever changing skies going from night, to day, to sunsets looks amazing, as does the detail of the cities and landmarks. The perception of levels from a distance is very clear and the wind effects are done well, in a sense of letting you know it is there but not obstructing your view. Character models are a little out of texture and blocky, but it is forgivable thanks to the hilarious expressions each of them give. Only thing that could have really been perfected was the explosions. Watching what looks like paper shredding after landing a missile atop a mountainside is kind of unimpressive. I can only think what a nuclear blast would look like under these circumstances.
However, above and beyond the veil lies a portion of the game that proceeds to give me the most satisfaction, the sound. Pilotwings 64 sports one of the most calm and jazzy soundtracks I have ever heard. It was, in fact, hearing a remix of one of the songs in this game that made me excited to give this game a go. Dan Hess did a fantastic job, giving the game that unique relaxing setting, so few simulations have. From the upbeat techno like sound of the day time levels, to the jazz-trance flavor of the starry night, it by all means pulls you in. So, much so that it will help to let you ignore some minor game-play quibbles talked about earlier. Heck, just turn down the lights and turn up the sound, and chill into that calming fade.
Though there is no multi-player to speak of, there is plenty to keep you coming back. Secret modes, a stable difficulty, fun missions, and a tremendously addictive musical score all bring the world of Pilotwings 64 together. It is a shame that many passed this one over from the hype of other early Nintendo titles. Another thing some people may miss is that this is, in fact, a sequel of the one from the Super Nintendo. Giving this one a shot will, no doubt, make sure you do not miss this one again. Even if you are not a fan of Simulation games, Nintendo has done something with this genre that makes it unlike anything I have played before.