By the 1990s, two general approaches to personal electronics had developed: There were widespread consoles offering as much as possible to as many people as possible, and products that through marketing and design aimed for a more selective audience. In broad strokes, this can be seen through the lens of Microsoft and Apple, whose computers were aimed at different markets. While the battles between Gates and Jobs became part of Silicon Valley legend, theirs was not the only tech fight of the decade. In the ongoing console wars between Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, it was Nintendo that bravely launched the Nintendo 64 with only two games — and one of them is now available to play if you’re subscribed to the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
Nintendo’s official trailer for the Pilotwings 64 launch on Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
Video games were shedding the tricks of the past they had used to create worlds that felt like they had three dimensions. Gone was Mode 7, Super FX, and the limitations of 2.5D. The fifth generation of consoles presented fully three-dimensional environments, if extremely blocky. And what’s more, companies like Sony, Sega, and Nintendo had wildly different philosophies on how customers would want to view their games.
Sega quickly lost the plot through a series of panicked business moves which would confuse consumers, leaving Sony and Nintendo as the big competitors. Sony, famously spurned by Nintendo years earlier before creating its own system, was making as many disc-based games as possible thanks to the massive space developers could use with the technology. But Nintendo stuck with cartridges, convinced that they could offer a higher quality, almost boutique product.
Just before the Nintendo 64 launched, Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi summed up the philosophy for the New York Times: “Those who believe that ‘the more games the better’ are just ignorant of the actual market situation.” To prove its point, Nintendo launched the N64 with very few games.
One of them was Pilotwings 64.
The first Pilotwings has something of a profound legacy in this regard. The original game in the series helped launch the SNES in 1991 by showcasing stunning graphics which mimicked 3D. Now, Pilotwings 64 would do the same thing. What better way to see three dimensions than flying around a tropical island?
Pilotwings 64 expands on the idea a little by adding six different pilot choices for three different flying options: hangliding, a gyrocopter, and a rocket pack. The vehicles now have a couple of limited abilities, like shooting missiles and taking pictures. These are used for missions focused on hitting targets and snapping photos, which are required to get your next pilot’s license.
Playing Pilotwings is a relatively simple affair: You fly around and try to reach certain targets in hopes of getting enough points to move on to the next license. The controls can be a bit janky, especially on landing. I was docked points several times when my gyrocopter simply refused to stop moving, driving in. slow motion around the game’s various islands.
But assuming you are not playing Pilotwings 64 as a perfectionist, this is actually a delightful experience. It’s extremely funny to watch your gyrocopter putter around, for one thing. The game’s visuals, in all their blocky, polygonal, glory, have actually aged quite well. That’s in no small part due to the living environment, where players can watch a whale spurt at the ocean’s surface and take care to avoid hitting fellow flies. The game also applauds players when they make a particularly tricky maneuver, which is always nice.
Pilotwings is a charming game that’s easy to get better at — if your first runs don’t go smoothly, your second and third attempts will likely go better. And the game’s best feature comes later and is worth the wait: a bird suit that avoids any goals altogether and lets players fly across a Nintendo-inflected America, including a Mount Rushmore featuring Mario. The entire experience of Pilotwings is worth it for unlocking this mode alone. The game’s not perfect, but its quirks can be seen as charms for the gamer unconcerned with perfection.