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History Lesson: Pilotwings, the game that helped the SNES take off

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 1st Jun 2014 at 8:00 AM UTC

For those of us who didn't have time to read a 2,000-page manual, or have the cash to buy two button-smothered joysticks, Pilotwings was our first taste of the joys of flight.

Sure, in its SNES incarnation we had to make do with sorta-3D Mode 7, although if you squint while staring at its blocky screenshots you can imagine how amazing it must have looked at the time.

But what made Nintendo - more famous at that point for stuffing plumbers down pipes - develop a game where technology was the star?

It began life as a 1988 tech demo, used by Nintendo's frighteningly titled Entertainment, Analysis & Development division to demonstrate the awesome power of their new Mode 7 tech.

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Mode 7 - which you might remember from Super Mario Kart, F-Zero or certain Super Star Wars levels - was years ahead of the curve, creating the illusion of a 3D world on a console that, at the time, simply couldn't handle it. And what better game to showcase it than a flight sim - one genre that, perhaps more than any other, relies on 3D movement?

Although its origins were rooted in showoffiness (that is a word, okay?), Shigeru Miyamoto was on board to turn the concept into a game. Released in Japan in 1990, it was essentially a training programme - even if, as we've learned from bitter experience, Ryanair tend to disapprove when you put Pilotwings on your CV.

A bunch of people with names like Tony and Shirley taught you how to land a plane, how to hang glide, how to fly and jump out of a helicopter and how to rocket belt your way across the sky. Although not wholly realistic or accurate, it's probably the closest Nintendo has ever come to taking an activity even remotely seriously.

But that doesn't mean it's not packed with trademark Nintendo weirdness - see the box below for further proof.

Pilotwings was a launch title for the SNES (in the US at least), while belated sequel Pilotwings 64 coincided with the release of... yes, you guessed it, the Virtual Boy. Wait, that's not right.

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Nintendo's EAD and IRD divisions collaborated on the project with US-based Paradigm Simulation in order to make the game as technologically impressive and authentic as its predecessor.

You can see why Nintendo wanted to work with Paradigm: while it had no prior game experience, it did have a number of military flight sims under its (rocket) belt. With Pilotwings 64, Nintendo was encroaching even closer on territory normally reserved for proper flight simulations.

While its initial plan was to make a physics-led flying game, Paradigm eventually settled on a more arcadey approach, ensuring that fans of 'realistic handling' and 'not crashing' would both be catered for.

And it worked: while a bit overshadowed by Super Mario 64, Pilotwings 64 was the perfect game to conveniently leave running when your jealous friends stopped by for a quick snoop at your chunky machine. The vistas were incredible, and once your chums got their heads around the N64's alien tripod controller, they probably didn't steer into the sea all that much.

However, after the success of 64, Pilotwings started on a downward spiral of its own. Sequels for the N64, GameCube and Wii were announced, rumoured and eventually canned, and to all intents and purposes the series was dead.

But as Gandalf, Jesus and Dracula will attest, sometimes death isn't the end. When the 3DS ascended from a magic podium at Nintendo's E3 presentation in 2010, Pilotwings Resort was trailing in its thermal current.

Once again, a Pilotwings game was featured as a launch title, and once again it was used as a graphical showcase for envelope-pushing Nintendo technology. This time it was 3D, and while gamers were slightly worried about it being lumped in with the Wii Sports brand, those fears were ultimately unfounded when it was released. That old Pilotwings magic had returned.

A Wii U version next please, Nintendo.


Blue sky thinking

Pilotwings may have been one of Nintendo's more serious games but that doesn't mean it didn't have its fair share of quirky bonuses and easter eggs.

Here's just a selection of our favourite hidden features in the Pilotwings series.

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