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Nate Nickels

Retro Review - Pilotwings 64 - Nintendo 64

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Ever since the Wright brothers first took flight man has continued to explore the skies above. The dream of flight has been the dream of many and thanks to Paradigm Entertainment you can taste this experience without all that witty pilot banter!

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Pilotwings 64 crash landed on the Nintendo 64 in 1996 as a launch title for their new 64 bit system. The game was developed by the much praised Paradigm Entertainment developer, which unfortunately closed its doors in 2008. A real pioneer in early 90’s graphics technology they got on board with Nintendo to re-create one of the most loved games from the Super Nintendo era. After creating Pilotwings 64, Paradigm went on to make some other great simulation games on the system such as F-1 World Grand Prix and Beetle Adventure Racing.

By most means this game is a lite arcade flight simulator in which you can control some really fun vehicles such as a nimble gyrocopter, a speedy jet pack and for the slower cruises around town, and a hang glider. There are a number of challenges and medals to achieve which keeps you busy for a long time in this single player only game. Numerous extras can be unlocked including a canon-ball mode where you hurl you character speeding towards targets or crashing into the mountains below depending on your aim. In the game you can choose from six different characters either male or female, which is a great touch. Each character is also better at certain events so it provides more replay ability figuring out who is the best character to use for each mission.


No flight sim would be complete without pages and pages of manuals but not in Pilotwings 64. The controls are simple feeling more like an arcade game than something that only Air Force pilots could use. The basics of each craft are easy to figure out and before you know it you will be doing stunts that would make Wilbur Wright proud.

The missions are all ranked according to a number of different criteria. For example, they are almost all timed and the faster you do them the more points you get out of a possible 100. Landing impact and accuracy plays a big role especially in the frustrating hang glider missions. What feels like steering a crashing plane the hang glider stages will test your patience. You will often breeze through the mission only to mess it up on the landing. The old saying any landing is a good landing if you can walk away from it does not apply here. The judges want supreme accuracy and nothing but the best will satisfy them.

Another cool feature is that you can take pictures when flying as the hang glider. This is even incorporated into some of the missions in which you must photograph a whale and a hotel fountain before landing on a sunny beach resort. The amount of cool features in this game keeps going and going. The challenges do get harder so there is a lot of gameplay whether you are playing the game straight or decided to do your own adventuring.

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Before you can begin your aerobatic career you must first master the basics. Thankfully there is a nice help system in the game and the controls are simple to learn. Each craft has their own set of controls but you will soon be doing stunts without even thinking about it. The gyrocopter often is the easiest to use along with having the easiest mission goals. The thrill of cranking up the power of these helicopter inspired contraptions is awesome. Just starting your chopper and seeing the blades move in a realistic manner is a great start to your experience.

Most levels in the game are only limited by your amount of fuel, but don’t worry there are some hidden secrets you can find to refuel you Gyrocopter. While gyrocopters might not get more than 10 mpg they sure are a blast to fly. The physics are a bit simple but simple is good in this case. A lot of the challenges are time based and require some pretty precise control. Depending on who you choose you will either have an easy time of this or be cranking on the stick so hard you think it will break. It might be just giving you that realistic feeling of a flight stick but it feels too stiff for such a fluid looking craft. The same control problem goes along unfortunately with the hang glider and jet pack.

The hang glider while easy to fly is hard to land correctly. You will often crash hard into the muddy ground much like the amateur pilot you are. The trick to using the hang glider is maintaining a fast enough speed that you can control the craft while not going too fast so you can achieve a correct landing. The landings are certainly the hardest part of controlling the beautiful looking device. The missions for the hang gliders are often very exciting or very boring. There is not much of a middle ground. In one of the first missions you are given the task of photographing a flaming chimney of a factory then softly landing in the snowy filled plains on Ever Frost Island. The photography aspect is a nice feature although in practice it is a bit clumsy to use. You can’t get smooth moves with the C buttons so you need to do your aiming with your hang glider. This can be tricky as some objects that you are required to shoot are moving, such as the killer whale. Not all of the challenges involve photography but you always have the option and you can save up to 6 shots on the cartridge per save file. It is a nice feature and you have to be really selective on which shots you save. Taking a quick succession of shots right before you crash into a building is a fun film strip to watch.

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Climbing high in a hang glider is an exciting feat to achieve. It takes time to build up height through the many vents scattered across each world. You can cruise around the islands at very low speeds so all you sight-seeing freaks this is your dream come true. On later missions controlling the hang glider takes a bit of preparation. You will have to bring out the old tried and true method of trial and error to complete a lot of the challenges. You have one mission in which you must speed down a mountain face going through countless rings only to pull out at the very last moment and land at a nearby platform. Controlling the craft at this speed is like driving a car with two wheels, it only likes to go straight.

The last vehicle is the technological wonder, the jet pack. By all practical means it would easily kill you, but nonetheless you can take to the air in one. The challenges are somewhat basic as most thrust you through floating rings or jumping from platform to platform as fast as you can. You can hover, which is a big life saver for impatient players, but burns fuel faster than a certain 43rd president might. The controls feel fine but seeing where you are landing is another matter. There are meters along the right side of the screen telling your height from sea level, but you wish you had a 3D map to plot your location. The jetpack has no bonuses like the gyro with its missile or the hang glider with its portable Ansel Adams. As if ran out of ideas for all the challenges in the game, and the jet pack however cool it is feels like the last picked kid of the group. You will take this scientific wonder through the best of Mother Nature’s creations including small caves and under beautiful water falls, it truly is breathtaking.

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Enjoying those breathtaking sights and sounds of the 3D polygonal worlds is half the fun in Pilotwings 64. The developer did something really interesting in that they recreated the United States of America as a miniature level. This level is scaled down a bit and feels more abstract and stereotypical than it does factual. Some famous cities litter the landscape such as Los Angeles, New York, DC and even a Kennedy Space Center complete with launching shuttle. The Midwest is filled with nothing but corn fields and barns. You have beautiful landscapes to explore including a large Grand Canyon section as well. Even though this map is small and unrealistic, finding all the landmarks of the states is a fun challenge. You can even fly by a replica of Mt. Rushmore which has president Washington replaced with Mario. Shoot a missile from your gyrocopter at Mario’s face and it will turn into a mad Wario, a fun hidden Easter egg you will want to find. Blistering snow storms and thunder storms are an amazing sight as you try to maneuver though these obstacles. The game is filled with little graphical bits that really create a fulfilling world even down to Nintendo 64’s logo on the golf course’s flags. Paradigm created a truly beautiful game.

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This is as much a successor to the SNES version, as was Zelda to its SNES brother, this game had it all. The freedom is the best part of this game. Soon after trying a few missions you start to wander off course and before you know it you forget all about the missions. The mission layouts work well too in that you can pick and choose which ones you want to play. You have to get a certain amount of points to achieve a bronze, but if you are good in a certain event you can try to get more points there than the ones you are not so hot in. If you have the attention span of a five year old you will quickly tire of the missions and move on to more practical matters such as blowing everything up with your built in missile on the gyrocopter.


In the dawn of the first person shooter genre many games lack true exploration and fun of games like Pilotwings 64. You have many different things you can try that are just as fun as the main missions. You could try flying around the United States before you run out of fuel, or you can try to find all little details, chase down casual hang gliders and fire missiles at them…the choices are yours. Depending on how you pick apart this game will determine your experience with it. If you are expecting and action flight game similar to Ace Combat look elsewhere. Pilotwings 64 is an arcade flight game something that anybody can enjoy. It has created a lasting legacy and shows the power and performance of the Nintendo 64. If you enjoy such movies as The Great Race and The Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, then Pliotwings 64 will feel right at home in your hanger known as your gaming collection.

Nate Nickels

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