In late 1991, Nintendo brought its 16-bit system, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, to the US. And they were keen on showing off the things the new hardware could do. One of its hardware modes, Mode 7, became a major marketing point. In short, Mode 7 was a way to more easily do scaling and rotation effects by using the hardware instead of having to program these effects in software. One of the launch titles for the system, Pilotwings, was an advertisement for Mode 7 disguised as a game.
Developed by Nintendo and released in 1991, Pilotwings revolves around your attempt to become a member of the Flight Club. No, that’s not a euphemism–the game involves you taking lessons in learning to operate various aviation-related devices. More specifically, you’ll learn how to pilot three vehicles and a parachute throughout the course of the game. Your first lesson consists of two simple exercises. The first is landing a Light Plane, which looks like a World War I-era biplane. The second involves Skydiving, as you jump out of a plane at 3800 feet, fall through rings, open your chute at 1000 feet or below, and try to land on a target. Each exercise is graded on a 100-point scale, and scoring a high enough total (In this case, 120 points) across all the exercises moves you onto the next lesson. Future lessons introduce new disciplines, including Hang Gliding and a Rocketbelt (Basically a jet pack, and my favorite of the apparatuses).
For most of the game, there isn’t a plot as such–you just go through the lessons, trying to acquire enough points to move on to the next one. That changes in the mission in which you fly a helicopter. The mission is fun, but don’t think about it too much from a story perspective, as it will only break your brain. Once you’ve done that, you’ll unlock a second set of lessons. These are harder than the first, as you’ll have to contend with weather, night, and a higher qualifying threshold in order to earn your certifications.
One of my pet peeves is people roughly my age saying how games today are all about graphics and making money and games back in their day were about fun and innovation and so on. Pilotwings is an excellent argument to the contrary. As I mentioned at the top, this is less a game than a demo of the Super Nintendo’s amazing-at-the-time Mode 7. The skydiving exercises, in particular, are meant to show how the ground can rotate in real-time, and how it scales smoothly as you plummet toward it. In that respect, it reminds me of Wii Sports. Both games are fun, but both were expressly created for the purpose of showing off Nintendo’s shiny new technology of their day, and there are parts where the new toy doesn’t work quite right (Watch the scaling of certain areas as you go up in the second Skydiving exercise).
Pilotwings is simultaneously challenging and generous. I managed to get through it all in one sitting, which took about two and a half hours. However, prior to that session (Many years back), I had beaten most, if not all, of the individual lessons, thanks to the password system which lets you restart at the last lesson you made it to. Failing to earn certification on a lesson also lets you retry that lesson, and if you do badly in an exercise and see certification is beyond reach, you can restart the lesson without having to do the other exercises. Still, in later lessons, the best strategy tends to be “Try to land in a bonus area for massive points, then pray you scrape together the rest of the points from the other disciplines”
The game also has a certain charm in the instructors. Truth be told, they’re more examiners than instructors, and they get less encouraging and more blunt as the game goes on–land the Rocketbelt in the water, and Big Al tells you to “Be more careful. The equipment is expensive” in addition to giving you a poor grade.
Pilotwings is equal parts Mode 7 showcase and fun game. While I don’t think it’s a realistic depiction of flight even if you remove the Rocketbelt from the equation, it is a good time, and worth playing. In the gaming world, flight school “simulators” are pretty rare, so the vehicle for Nintendo’s showing off the SNES technology is original if nothing else. If you want to try and join the Flight Club, the game is available on both the Wii and WiiU Virtual Consoles, in addition to the SNES original.