Pilotwings 64 is still a brilliant chillout game

As promised a while back, Nintendo has added Pilotwings 64 to the Nintendo 64 app that is available to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack members. That means that three out of the five games we said that we’d love to see on the service are now available — here’s hoping Blast Corps and Tetrisphere will follow at some point!

Pilotwings 64, developed by Nintendo EAD, Nintendo R&D3 and Paradigm Simulation, was a launch title for the Nintendo 64 in Japan, North America and Europe, and is, as the name suggests, a follow-up to Pilotwings for the Super NES. Like its predecessor, it’s a non-violent game based on amateur aviation, with the focus being on a combination of demonstrating your skills with various vehicle types, and the simple joy of flying around various environments.

Pilotwings 64

Pilotwings 64 features three main vehicles: a hang-glider, a jetpack and a gyrocopter. As you might expect, each of these handle very differently from one another and have their own distinct control scheme.

The hang-glider, for example, has no form of propulsion, so it’s entirely dependent on a combination of the wind, thermal columns and simple physics to continue flying. In order to stay airborne, you’ll need to seek out visible thermals (which are thankfully also marked on a radar display) in order to gain height. Speed, meanwhile, is manipulated by raising and lowering the nose of the craft, as well as “flaring” by extending your legs, usually for landing. There are two views available when flying the hang-glider: a far-out chase plane view, and an almost-first person view from just behind the head and shoulders of your pilot.

The jetpack allows you to use the analogue stick to control the direction the jets are pointed, from straight down to fully forwards or backwards, then use one of two buttons to apply either strong or weak thrust. Like the hang-glider, there are two views available — this time, either a conventional third-person view from behind, or a top-down view to aid with accurate landing.

Pilotwings 64

Finally, the gyrocopter is the vehicle that operates most like a conventional aircraft in that you can increase or decrease the throttle — or, more accurately, increase it to full by holding a button, or reduce it to idle by holding another button — and it then continuously flies forwards under its own propulsion. The two views available to you in this one are the third-person chase plane view, or a first-person view.

Both the hang-glider and gyrocopter have additional mechanics available to them. While piloting the hang-glider, you can take photographs, while the gyrocopter is armed with missiles. This really is a non-violent game, however; the only thing you’ll be blasting with those missiles is target boards.

Pilotwings 64 is structured as a series of challenges for each vehicle, with each new tier of “license” for the craft in question challenging you to pass an increasing number of consecutive tests. These vary from simply flying through rings to tracking down hidden targets and demonstrating your mastery of the various vehicles’ flight models, and they all provide plenty of opportunity to get a good look at the four islands in the game.

Pilotwings 64

There’s plenty of replay value, too, as you’re scored for various things in the tests, including how well you completed the objective, the time it took you to do so, your landing accuracy and how gentle your landing was. And you’ll often find as you progress through the tests, unexpected things can happen!

Aside from the main tests, there are also some bonus games to play, including a human cannonball event, a skydiving event, a “jumble hopping” event with springy shoes, and a free flight “Birdman” mode that simply allows you to explore the islands as much as you want.

The islands are worth exploring, too, as each is packed with an impressive amount of detail. Most people cite the “Little States” island as the most fun to investigate, since it features miniaturised recreations of real-world landmarks, but the other islands have plenty to discover, too. It’s great fun trying to fly under bridges, through narrow canyons and even into caves — some of the tests will introduce these features to you, but it’s even more rewarding when you discover them yourself.

Pilotwings 64

The whole Pilotwings 64 experience is wrapped in a delightfully laid-back aesthetic, featuring some of the best music on the Nintendo 64 — a platform not known for high-quality music at the best of times, it must be said — and some well-designed environments. The only real weak point is the character design; Pilotwings 64 features some of the most hideous creations that Nintendo has ever shared with us, but thankfully you don’t have to spend too much time looking at them.

The Switch version runs very well indeed, upscaling the 3D graphics to high definition and running at a pleasingly smooth frame rate. Interface elements are still heavily pixelated due to them being based on bitmap art and the altimeter display displays some very minor visual artifacts, but it definitely looks like Nintendo has been taking criticism of its Nintendo 64 emulation on board. While Pilotwings 64 is never going to look like a modern game due to its low-poly models and low-resolution textures, the Switch version is probably the best it’s ever looked.

So if you’ve never played Pilotwings 64, now’s a great time to give it a go for yourself. And it’d be nice if Nintendo brought this series back one day, too. Perhaps they’ll be taking a close look at how many people are playing the Nintendo 64 version online to determine whether or not it would be worth their while? That seems like as good a reason as any to spend some time chilling out with this delightful game, doesn’t it?

The Nintendo 64 app for Nintendo Switch Online is available for free to subscribers of the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack service.

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Pete Davison
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