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Of all of the games Nintendo could resurrect from its legendary back-catalogue for the launch of the 3DS, Pilotwings was always a much more exciting and welcome proposition than the lesser-known Kid Icarus. The original was a technical show-piece of the Super Nintendo’s famous Mode 7 scaling technology and lived long in the memories of gamers of a certain age for being, like so many games of its ilk, easy to play but difficult to master. The opening sky-diving mission in particular, remains unforgetable, though a word to the wise, don't revisit it now as your memories of it will be shattered.The N64 version, meanwhile, was also released at that console’s launch and was probably best remembered for its wacky characters, realistic physics and its alternative and unusual missions that saw the player piloting a gyrocopter, using spring-loaded boots and taking part in a human cannonball event, among other things.
And so here we are a considerable number of years later with the release of Nintendo’s latest hand-held and yet again the franchise has been wheeled out of retirement in order to introduce a whole new generation of gamers to its veritable delights.
The action takes place on the beautifully realised island of Wuhu – the very same one from Wii Sports Resort – and the similarities don’t end there. You’ll play as your custom-designed Mii, which adds a nice personalised touch to proceedings, and actually turns out to be a great fit for what’s a bright and shining example of blue-sky gaming. The vehicles available to you to are limited to the plane, the turbo jet, the rocket belt, the super rocket belt, the squirrel suit, the glider and the pedal glider. Missions take on various forms, from the simplistic and easy: fly through a number of rings and land on a target, through to the more advanced and increasingly difficult: glide up to an altitude of 500m before landing after as close to 3 minutes as you can.
In the main it’s a delightful and charming experience if not entirely predictable. But what’s particularly puzzling is that some of the more unique and engaging vehicles feature far too infrequently. The squirrel-suit is genuinely spectacular and opens the game up to so many possibilities - particularly with the inclusion of the island’s central volcano and other suitable landmarks - but Pilotwings Resort seems to be a victim of Nintendo rushing the game out of the door for launch, as its appearance is all too brief. It, like the turbo-jet and pedal glider, is limited to one solitary mission. The only saving grace, and I'll freely admit to clutching at straws here, is that Nintendo might be able to release some after-market DLC thanks to the console’s ability to receive updates over the internet, but even then, that’s not really a valid excuse for what’s quite a poor showing.
Another criticism that many have levelled at Pilotwings Resort is the relative brevity of the overall experience. And while 39 missions across 5 difficulty levels initially feels substantial and meaty, it won’t take you long before you’ve seen most of what the game has to offer. Thankfully free flight mode and the unlockable dioramas provide some additional longevity, but at around 5-6 hours to 1 or 2-star each level, it’s not a game you’ll be playing long into the winter months. Of course, earning 3 stars or indeed perfecting each and every level will take you a hell of a lot longer, but you’ll need the patience of a saint and the precision of a brain surgeon.
Even at this early stage in the 3DS’s lifecycle, describing the visuals as literally popping out of the screen seem rather clichéd, but in the case of Pilotwings Resort, it’s easily the most apt description. Your Mii, and whatever contraption you’re piloting genuinely appear to sit in the foreground with the game environments rendered almost tangibly in the distance. And of all of the 3DS games I’ve played so far, it’s easily the most subtle use of the extra dimension while simultaneously being the most effective. And to again use what’s soon to become an over-used sentiment, you can almost reach out and touch your Mii. It’s properly magical and at times serenely beautiful, particularly when you discover some of the more out-of-reach hidden areas on the island.
Pilotwings Resort is more Wii Sports Resort than it is the hardcore Pilotwings you might know and love, but then that’s not necessarily a bad thing as while it lasts, it's undeniably great fun. It’s accessible enough for newcomers to the series while still having a reasonable amount of depth and secrets to cater for the more experienced gamer. As a show-case for the 3DS’s inherent capabilities it’s up there among the best of the early releases with a colourful, detailed and vibrant world, but ultimately it falls quite short of greatness thanks to its curtness and lack of sky-diving missions. A great first effort then but there's so much more that can be done with this franchise and here's hoping it's not another 15 years before the next sequel.