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Old 08-23-2011, 02:40 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 1: Pilotwings

(The SNES turns 20 tomorrow, so I thought this would be a good time to start this. Check back throughout the week for the other four entries, and enjoy!)

When a new gaming platform is first released, the initial software selection is, naturally, fairly small - and, at times, not up to the standards that some consumers would expect. Granted, system launches have not always had the buzz surrounding them that they presently do, and there are exceptions to this rule (as many would argue in the case of the Dreamcast), but even so, the best titles aren't usually available from the start. After all, developers are just beginning to grapple with the capabilities of the new hardware, which is usually still in development as the first batch of games is being programmed.


When the Super NES first hit store shelves, only five games were immediately available - and one of those was a pack-in with the system. Despite the small selection, though, quality was not necessarily in short supply; Super Mario World is still regarded today as one of the finest 2D side-scrollers of all time, and F-Zero, although not as gracefully aged, was revolutionary as console racers went, offering a unique perspective and a sense of speed not possible on other home systems. Gradius was a solid 2D shooter for its time, and SimCity, which was all the hotness on PCs, received a very Nintendo-y adaptation that added a few perks not available in the original version. But then there was Pilotwings...



Pilotwings tends to get the short end of the stick as far as SNES launch titles go, and perhaps this is for good reason; the controls are fussy, the gameplay is slow-paced at times, and a single mistake can set the player back severely. When compared to many of Nintendo's other first-party titles - especially considering the design philosophy of their Wii-era games - Pilotwings seems very un-Nintendo-like, offering more in the way of frustration than fun. If nothing else, though, it serves as an excellent demonstration of what the SNES hardware is capable of doing...

One of the major innovations of the Super NES was its ability to handle sprite scaling and rotation at the hardware level, without any special programming trickery required. Granted, this was not entirely new - arcade machines had demonstrated this effect in years past - but for developers to have easy access to these capabilities on a major home console was unheard of. (Well, except on the Neo-Geo, perhaps, but then again, that was essentially arcade hardware anyway.) Specifically, one of the system's graphics modes - the well-known Mode 7 - could create the illusion of movement in a 3D space by scaling and rotating a background layer in accordance with the player's input, while leaving the actual player sprite in the same place.

This technology offered plenty of potential for developers, and Pilotwings was the perfect game to showcase it. The game takes place on the training grounds of a flight school, and guides you through ten levels as you learn the ins and outs of airplane piloting, skydiving, hang gliding, and flight by "rocket belt" (a jetpack, more or less). Movement is fully three-dimensional, which not only showed off the extent of Mode 7's capabilities, but created as close to a sense of flying as was possible on home consoles at the time.



In each level, you'll be given a set of training missions in two to four of the flight modes, and will be asked to complete them in succession. At the end of each mission, you will be given a score, and at the end of all of the missions, your scores will be tallied up. Meet the point requirements for the level, and you're given a password for the next; fall short, and you'll be asked to start over. If you're not satisfied with your score at the end of a mission, however, you can restart prematurely; this is especially helpful if a particular flight mode is giving you trouble, and you need some extra time to practice it.



Airplane piloting is, at least initially, the most straightforward mode, since your first mission merely requires you to land your plane, which is already pointing directly towards the runway. A accelerates and B decelerates, and the directional pad moves the plane. Up and down operate in the typical manner of most flight controls - in other words, up causes you to descend, and down causes you to ascend. Later missions are more complex, requiring you to fly through rings (remember, this was before this became a cliche) or go through takeoff. Getting the landing angle of your plane right on some of the later missions can be kind of irritating, and the runway only offers so much in the way of forgiveness.



Skydiving is a little weird at first, and takes some getting used to. A helicopter will take you several thousand feet above a landing pad, and you'll fly through a series of rings before being asked to open your parachute and land on a certain target. The directional pad changes your angle of descent as you fall, although tilting too much will cause you to lose control as you attempt to clear the rings. Once you've opened your parachute with A, you can press down to flare your parachute, slowing your rate of descent. If you hold down, though, you'll start to descend more quickly; doing this judiciously is one of the keys to ensuring an accurate landing.



The rocket belt is a little more forgiving, although it's not as intuitive as one might expect. The A and B buttons activate high- and low- powered jets, respectively, and left and right steer your character; you can also use the up and down arrows to change the direction of your thrusters, and the L or R buttonsn to toggle between overhead and behind-the-character viewpoints. Your goal in each level is to touch a set number of targets and land in a specified zone... which seems straightforward enough, until you start realizing how easy it is to overshoot your targets. If you find yourself steering as you approach a target, you may need to oversteer, as there's a bit of a delay between activating your thrusters and adjusting your angle of movement. Once you get used to this, though, it's probably the easiest of the four modes, since the more advanced targets in later stages aren't that much more difficult than the starting ones.



Hang gliding starts out easy enough, even though landings are a pain to finesse. Controls are somewhat similar to the plane, but without the ability to change speed; you can also press the A button to flare and catch a bit more altitude, as with the parachute in skydiving. You'll be required to ride thermal currents and/or fly through rings before landing, which isn't particularly difficult; the only issue here is that the air puffs that represent the thermal currents don't use the same scaling techniques that the level as a whole does - possibly because they simply can't - which makes gauging your distance from a thermal current a little tricky. Landing requires the same sort of precision that it does in skydiving, but since you'll be traveling more horizontally than you will vertically, it's trickier to pull off.

In any of these modes, a single mistake can have disastrous consequences - either a sharp reduction in score or a complete failing of the mission. Start your landing a bit too early? Open your parachute a few seconds too late? Pull back on your hang glider a hair too long? Too bad! If you're fortunate enough to still pass the mission, you'll still have to make it up in the others, and an even smaller mistake in one of those could mean starting the entire mission set from scratch.



It is, possible, though, to gain a bit of extra leeway in some missions. In the rocket belt and skydiving levels, there's a moving platform out in the middle of the water that's rather tricky to land on. If you manage to touch down, though, you'll automatically receive a perfect score on the mission - 100 points - and be transported to a bonus stage, which gives you a chance to add more points to the 100 you already picked up. Depending on the type of mission you were playing, the nature of the bonus stage will be different. The skydiving bonus stage transforms you into a penguin and has you dive towards a series of concentric circles in the water, each of them marked with different point values. The rocket belt bonus stage - which is probably the easiest to access - sets you on a small island with a pair of wings, and sends you bouncing across of series of islands, each with a handful of "P" icons that grant bonus points. If you make it to the end without falling into the water, there's a target similar to the one in the skydiving area that grants one final bonus, depending on which section you hit. There's also a bonus stage for hang gliding, for which you can simply land on stationary platform used in the rocket belt and skydiving stages; this one, which also gives you a pair of wings, is somewhat easier, since all you have to do is repeatedly press the A button to get through. Actually getting any bonus points on the other two, though, is easier said than done, and your early attempts at this stages will likely be met with derisive comments from your flight instructors.



Incidentally, I found that to be kind of a neat touch - the fact that your flight instructors will give specific commentary based on how well you did. Each level puts you with a different flight instructor, and after each mission, they'll make their own unique remarks based on how high your score was. Some of the "advice" you're given isn't always particularly useful, but sometimes they'll tell you what you did wrong and what you should do to fix it on your next attempt. Between missions, your instructor will comment on your chances of passing the level, sometimes being so blunt as to tell you to restart entirely. Your final flight instructor is particularly notable for his frankness; if you do reasonably well but fall short of a perfect score, he'll lament that he still has to pass you anyway, and after hitting the water in a rocket belt mission, he'll remind you of how expensive the equipment is, not caring about the fact that you just went careening into the ocean and nearly drowned.



If you manage to pass the first four missions, you'll be sent on a [spoiler alert!] secret helicopter mission in which you have to rescue your first three flight instructors from some evil organization. (Or at least pick them up from behind enemy lines, anyway - an agent apparently already inflitrated the base before you were briefed, and everyone's waiting at the landing pad for you.) What's weird is that you've never had training in helicopter flight, which, in real life, would require a much different skill set to master; not only that, but if you try to pass the buck to the fourth-level instructor - the guy who briefs you for your mission - he explains that he's only licensed for motorcycles, and not for flying. Your *flight instructor*... only has a *motorcycle* license. And somehow you're supposed to put your life on the line despite having *never flown a helicopter before*...

Anyway, the controls are actually pretty easy: A ascends, B descends, and the D-pad moves you around. To fire at anti-air turrets, press L or R; you'll be doing this a lot as you make your way to the landing pad, and although you don't have to destroy every last ground installation, it doesn't hurt to take out as many as possible. Those things have pretty good aim, though, and it takes some careful twisting and turning to fake them out sufficiently; obviously, it's best to stay out of range of too many of them, although there are a few that are invisible to the naked eye, and it's possible to get yourself trapped if you don't know the level that one. Your chopper can't take that much punishment, either - or *any* punishment, for that matter; one shot will send you crashing to the ground, and you'll be kicked back to the title screen before you can try again. At least you don't have to re-enter your password every time you restart, though...



Should you pass that mission, you'll be asked to do everything again on a harder difficulty; the last five levels, although marginally different from the first five, act as a "second quest" of sorts, with trickier mission requirements and higher wind speeds. You won't get the credits roll until you finish all of these stages, though, and given how frustrating the early ones can be, it might take awhile to get through them. The final mission, while entirely doable, is particularly tricky; if you thought the landing pad was well-guarded the first time, you should see how many turrets there are the second time around...

The music is nothing particularly earth-shattering, but serves its purpose well enough. Koji Kondo's work for the Mario and Zelda titles is obviously better-known, but the same sense of mood-establishing is still present here. The Mario games - particularly the first one - demonstrated a close connection between the pacing of the action and the music, and The Legend of Zelda captures the ever-present spirit of adventure from the very first notes. Pilotwings has a much more laid-back soundtrack, which is appropriate given that the action isn't driven by conflict or violence - and given how difficult it can be to pull off some of those missions, the aesthetic is certainly welcome. When you're trying to land that plane for the 20th time, it helps to have something more passive in the background - and it's certainly less harsh and metallic than anything the Genesis was capable of, in any case.



Of the SNES's launch titles, Pilotwings is perhaps the least friendly, and the most difficult to return to twenty years after its inital release. Granted, it does nearly everything a console launch title should do - it shows off the capabilities of its platform well, and would have provided a suitable experience to tide SNES owners over until the first wave of third-party awesomeness hit store shelves. The gameplay, however, can be frustrating and unfulfilling at times - which is uncharacteristic of the best first-party Nintendo games - and no amount of Mode-7 trickery can make up for that.

Of course, Pilotwings wasn't the only Mode-7-heavy launch title in town...



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  This is a great tribute to the SNES!
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Old 08-23-2011, 08:29 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 1: Pilotwings

Pilotwings Super Nintendo
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Old 08-24-2011, 02:55 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 1: Pilotwings

Great article, Robot!

I love my SNES, and even though I only have a few games left for it I have no plans of giving it up yet.
Unfortunately, I never did have Pilotwings although I really did want to get it.
Instead I got the usual:

Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, The Super Nintendo
Street Fighter 2: Turbo Hyper Fighting Super Nintendo
Wolf Child Super Nintendo { ... one seriously difficult game}
Breath Of Fire Super Nintendo
Super R Type Super Nintendo
Super Mario World Super Nintendo

and I think that's all I have left .. I traded a lot in when I got my N64
Sim City Super Nintendo
Super Mario Kart Super Nintendo
Super Star Wars Super Nintendo
Star Fox Super Nintendo
Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse, The Super Nintendo

Anyhow, great work, and thanks for sharing with us the fact that it's SNES's 20th Anniversary - I had the feeling it was about 20 years ago that I went and bought it, and I was right!
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Old 08-24-2011, 03:04 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 1: Pilotwings

Huh I only skimmed this and I missed that little fact. Pretty cool. Btw the Japanese release was Nov 21 1990(wikipedia!).

I love Pilot Wings. We had tons of fun with this game and it's still pretty fun now.
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