PilotWings exudes a nice retro charm that the short length and tedious difficulty can't fully detract from.
There's very little plot to speak of in PilotWings. You are simply signing up for a flight school in an attempt to earn your pilot's license and certification. There are four distinct modes offered in the lessons you take: Light Plane, in which you fly a plane through rings and attempt to land on a runway; Skydiving, where you must maneuver through some more rings and safely land on a target; Rocketbelt, where you fly a jetpack around the course; and Hang Gliding, the toughest mode where you control a hang glider and fly through some more rings while attempting to land safely. The goal is to make enough points in each of the exercises offered in order to pass the lesson and earn your certification. Eventually, in one of the game's toughest challenges, you'll have to rescue your kidnapped instructors by flying a helicopter over an island filled with anti-aircraft guns that will bring your chopper down with just one hit.
Although PilotWings could be considered a flight simulator, it's far more accessible than other games of the genre. The controls are simple enough to pick up relatively quickly, and although every mode of flight has its own learning curve, it's not steep enough to make learning them into a grind. The objective for most of the lessons remains the same: Fly through rings and then land as best as you can, but the game throws enough conditions like high winds or snowy terrain into the mix that it helps each lesson feel different.
Despite being a launch title for the SNES, PilotWings' presentation has still aged relatively well. Although the Mode 7 form of creating 3D is heavily dated, the graphics are still colorful and distinguishable, making it easy to spot the landing pads and rings. The music, one of Nintendo's first forays into an updated MIDI format, still sounds decent, if not up there with the composer's greatest. The presentation helps give off a nice retro appeal to PilotWings, as it's quite dated but not so dated that it detracts from the gameplay.
Unfortunately, some sections of PilotWings are dated in a bad way, the most notable of which is the setup for the lessons. In order to pass a lesson, you have to reach a certain number of total points from each of the individual lessons. If you come up short, you have to redo the entire lesson. This gets a lot more frustrating in the later lessons when you have to do an exercise in all four modes and the margin of error in each of them is very slim. This could have been a method of drawing out the game's length, as the overall experience is short. There are only eight lessons total with two helicopter missions meaning skilled pilots can fly through the whole game in one afternoon.
The saving grace of PilotWings is its cheap price point. If not for the reasonable price of $8 on the Virtual Console, it would've been hard to recommend the game. Those not into the appeal of older titles won't see what made this game so important or why people found it fun. However, retro enthusiasts and fans of flight simulators can still get a good kick out of PilotWings, both for the historical value and the fun that can still be had within the game itself.