Review: Pilotwings 64 (N64)

In this review, we learn to fly in the Nintendo 64 game Pilotwings 64. We find out if this flight simulator is worth a play.

This game was released 1996. It is the second game in a, so far, three game series. It is also a launch title for the N64.

The game follows 6 characters as they each try and learn how to fly. While one character earning a badge will earn them for everyone, you do get the chance to play every character. The only real difference between characters is size and voice throughout the game.

The game features three vehicles to choose from. Each vehicle has its own ladder of challenges. Each vehicle features four classes: Beginner Class, Class A, Class B, and Pilot class. At the beginning, however, players will only have access to the beginner class of all three of the games main vehicles. Players need to get bronze or better in all three vehicles before the game opens up.

After this, players simply need to obtain a badge in a particular vehicle to open up the next class. Players can progress all the way to the Pilot Class in a particular vehicle if they so choose. The only thing to keep in mind is that players need to earn a silver badge or better in every class and main vehicle in order to beat the game.

Like other games, this game features a number of bonus features. For this game, players can obtain bonus levels in four bonus vehicles. The earliest accessible is the Birdman suit. If players earn badges in all three main vehicles in Class 1, players will unlock the cannon. Earning the badges in Class 2 will unlock skydiving. Finally, earning all the badges in the Pilot Class will unlock the most fun vehicle in the game, the Jumblehopper. Players do not need to play in these bonus levels, but it does add to the overall fun of the game.

So the next question is, what vehicles will players play in anyway? The first vehicle is the hang glider. Players can either start in the sky or start by running off of a cliff. Manoeuvring in the hang glider is probably the most simplistic. You must maintain a certain speed of at least 15MPH to stay in the sky. You can adjust your direction based on the momentum. If you catch an upward air current, you can increase your altitude. This is very much needed because you are constantly going in a downward trajectory. Z activates your camera. You have a maximum of six pictures you can take. A or B allows you to land.

The next vehicle is the rocketbelt. This is the single most precise flying equipment in the game. A fires the more powerful rocket propulsion while B fires the weaker one. You’ll likely use the more powerful rockets most of the time, but the weaker rocket blast is very useful for more precise flying. Z, meanwhile, activates the rockets in a way that stops you in the middle of the sky. This allows you to land with as little impact as possible. The big caveat with this is that you have to worry about fuel. Some tests give you little fuel and you have to complete objectives to constantly top up your supply. Run out of fuel and you’ll crash into the ground.

The third and final main vehicle is the gyrocopter. This vehicle is probably the fastest vehicle in the game. You need to take off from a runway. Once in the air, basic directional rules apply. You have to constantly worry about your velocity, so constantly fine tuning your acceleration is big with this vehicle. Otherwise, you find yourself missing rings and targets. The gyrocopter also features a rocket launcher system. This is the only weapon in the entire game, but you get unlimited ammo. The thing to keep in mind is that you can only fire two rockets at a time.

The game features many different challenges. Each challenge permits players to earn up to 100 points. There can be anywhere between 1 and three challenges in each class. The best score you earn in each challenge will be tallied and a cumulative score will appear at the end. You need to complete all three challenges to earn a badge.

The challenges themselves vary widely and depend largely on the vehicle. The constant goal in all of these challenges is safely landing your vehicle. If you are flying the hang glider or the rocket belt, your goal is the target. The gyrocopter, meanwhile, requires you to land on a runway. You will not only be judges based on landing accuracy, but also impact. The more accurate the landing, the more points you earn. The smaller the impact, the more points you earn.

Another constant is time. For a vast majority of the challenges, the quicker you complete the challenge, the higher the score you earn. There are exceptions to this such as the requirement to land the hang glider as close to 3 minutes as possible, but this ultimately proves to the the exception to the rule.

From there, the challenges start to vary substantially. The most common objective is to fly through as many rings as possible. While there is a logical pattern in some challenges, you can fly through rings in any order you choose. Some rings, however, initiate a timer for the next ring. If you go through all timer rings on time, you’ll be able to maximize your score. Another type of ring is the bonus rings. These rings can show up as either red or white. If you are gunning for a perfect score, these rings are essential to fly through. They can show up depending on which ring you pass through as well.

If you are flying the hang glider, you’ll also come across challenges that require you to go as high as possible. This basically requires you to fly through air currents to achieve the required altitude. Other challenges require you to use your camera to take a picture of various targets. The more accurate the picture, the better. You won’t know your score on the pictures until you land unfortunately. The only message you get is that the picture is “OK”.

The rocketbelt often features players hitting or popping balloons. For some challenges, popping the balloons merely require players to fly right through the balloons. In some challenges, however, the balloon splits and the player must pop every balloon that pops out. A few challenges require players to push a balloon towards a goal. This is probably the most finicky challenge as it requires a certain degree of ball control. This is because the balloon will constantly slow down. Ideally, players will never allow the balloon to hit the ground because the balloon is affected by whatever it hits on the ground. You don’t want that because you can easily lose a bunch of time trying to retrieve it after.

Finally, the gyrocopter features its own unique challenges. Often, it is just target practice where you need to destroy certain targets. Most of the time, they are just regular white and blue targets. However, you will encounter challenges that force you to square off against a giant robot. 5 shots will take him down, but the robot has no problem lobbing boulders at you. In one challenge, players get to pop balloons. Players can pop the balloons either by firing rockets at them or simply flying through them. This, of course, opens up a whole lot of strategies when tackling this challenge.

You’ll encounter many consistencies while in the sky. One important consistency is the radar. The radar will show a lot of interesting information while in the sky. It can show air currents with the blue arrow. The longer the arrow, the more powerful the current is. In the hang glider, upward air currents show up as brown circles. Targets also appear on the radar as squares. If the square is green, then the target is below the player. If the square is yellow, however, then the target is above the player. One final feature is the red object. This shows the location of the landing zone. In the gyrocopter, this shows up as a red rectangle to show runway orientation.

One interesting note about the radar is that it also shows distance. If the square becomes an arrow, it means that the target is a long distance away from the player. Otherwise, it can show players generally where it is in relation to the player (the centre point of the radar).

There are other features throughout the levels. If you are flying the rocket belt, landing next to a gas station will actually completely refill the fuel. This only comes into play when just freely flying around. There is a mountain that changes from Mario to Wario when struck. Additionally, there are well hidden stars floating around. Ideally, you get these with the rocketbelt. Collect the level star and you’ll be transformed into a Birdman. Not only will you be able to fly the level, but you’ll unlock that level in the Birdman menu.

In total, there are four locations. There is Crescent Island (featured in the intro), Holiday Island (Beginner Class level), Little States which is a giant miniaturized version of the US, and Everfrost Island which is a Winter location featuring dangerous terrain. Each level has its own set of features that give them their distinctiveness. You can light yourself on fire at the oil refinery in Everfrost Island. It’s possible to hear traffic in the cities of Little States. All of the other characters can be seen flying around Holiday Island. Crescent Island features whales and boats moving about in the bay area. Each level has a number of features, but that is just a sample.

The one thing to keep in mind is the fact that there are dangers while flying anywhere. Crashing into walls or the roof of a cavern is a hazard that, at best, deducts points from your score and, at worst, causes you to crash. Trees and buildings can also ruin a perfectly good run as well. Even worse is splashing into the water which will end your run completely in most cases (Jumblehopper is an exception to this).

When you are done beating the game or just want a break from the three main vehicles, you can play around with the four bonus vehicles.

The first vehicle is Birdman. This outfit is pretty much exactly what you think it is. You don a pair of wings and go flying around. There’s nowhere to go and no objective to complete. You just select an unlocked level and go flying around. Birdman can also land on various ledges. The round ends when you crash or quit.

The second bonus vehicle, unlocked by beating all of the Class 1 levels, is cannonball. You have a limited number of attempts to hit the bullseye in a massive target. A bullseye nets you an impressive 25 points. Get the highest score out of four targets to earn a badge. Do note that wind and positioning plays a big roll in your shots. Timing is everything here because the charge is hard to get right.

The third vehicle is skydiving. You jump out of a plane and try and nail your formations in the sky. Complete as many of them as possible before flying through the clouds below. Open your parachute and then guide yourself safely onto the target landing zone. Parachutes operate similarly to the hang glider.

The final, and my personal favourite, is the Jumblehopper. You start on one location and must work towards the goal in the shortest time possible. Landing in the water will deduct 2 points, but if you are going to go for a perfect score, you cannot touch the water once. This is the only time crashing into a wall is mostly harmless. It only soaks up some time.

I’m going to start this off by saying that I’ve played my share of flight simulator games. There are a lot of bad flight simulators out there. This game, however, impresses me a lot.

For one, the levels are huge. You can easily get lost in portions of the levels. This is especially true for Little States. Not only are the levels massive, but there is so much to explore too. The massive number of level features contained in these levels is a sight to behold. It’s especially true for a launch title like this. This is the earliest true 3D console game for Nintendo and Nintendo came out swinging with this one.

The controls are very spot on. I found that the controls are very nicely realistic for a flight simulator like this. Plus, you fly around in a jet pack for a third of the time. How cool is that?

Another thing that impresses me is the variety of levels and objectives in this game. This game could have easily just got you to fly through rings and that’s all. This game features a tonne of different concepts. This extends from fighting robots with missiles to touching on miniature platforms to even photography. While you could spend hours just going through the main objectives, the variety found in this game easily allows me to go back and play this again.

In addition to this, the difficulty is nicely set. It’s not so hard that it scares off new players by any means. At the same time, it’s next to impossible to nail those perfect scores. So, the game has a way of challenging the more hardcore players at the same time. This is always something I like to see in a game and this game manages to accomplish this to practically perfection.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the game is that the game is somehow braindead and boring. The only thing I can think of is that people like this pick the hang glider and hope for a highly intense action game. You’re not going to get that with that vehicle in this game. This game is much more nuanced in that it is all about smooth movements and strategy rather than quick thinking and reaction. It’s a very nice change of pace if you ask me.

Bottom line here is that this is an incredible play for a flight simulator. I enjoyed it from beginning to end and have played it multiple times since playing it for the first time. The levels are impressive and huge, the objectives are nicely varied, the vehicles are creative, and the difficulty is spot on. I can’t even think of anything to complain about in this game.

The graphics are absolutely stunning for a game of its time. The objects are clear. There is a huge variety of things you can find in this game. The textures are impressively crisp and the models are nicely done.

Meanwhile, the audio is very nicely done. The music is nicely done. You have the highly intense music for the gyrocopter and the dreamlike music of the Birdman. You even get a borderline comical track for the Jumblehopper. I never got bored with any of the music at all. The sound effects are impressive. While it’s easy to dismiss wind sound effects, in this game, I thought that really added a sense of realism. The faster you went, the more wind you hear. The other sounds in the game like the weird sound from the Loch Ness Monster, the tower bell, the revving motors of planes and motorboats. There is even cheering and sounds of water everywhere there is a river. I am certainly a fan of the audio.

Overall, this is an excellent game to play. This is coming from someone who has had a lot of bad experiences with flight simulators. The objectives are nicely varied. I like the difficulty curve and the level design. In fact, it’s hard for me to really come up with anything to criticize this game over. The graphics are stunning especially considering how big the levels are. The audio work is also a real treat. An overall excellent play.

Furthest point in game: 9 perfect scores. The rest all gold. Gold medals and perfect scores on the bonus vehicles, but can’t remember the exact numbers.

General gameplay: 23/25
Replay value: 9/10
Graphics: 10/10
Audio: 4/5

Overall rating: 92%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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