It’s funny that Pilotwings, a relaxing, sedately beautiful series which really isn’t about where you end up, but how you get there, is also the one franchise in Nintendo’s arsenal which only comes out when the company has a serious technological point to prove. The SNES original was the first title to show off Mode 7 scaling to its fullest potential; Pilotwings 64’s expansive vistas were a technical showcase for the console it helped launch. And now, 15 years later, the breezy, carefree Pilotwings Resort is perhaps the game in 3DS’s launch line-up with the greatest challenge – proving that as well as being an eye-catching novelty, 3D can be gently alluring too.
As with previous entries, Resort is all about taking to the skies and taking in the sights, and even Wuhu Island – the bland Mii colony previously seen in Wii Fit and Wii Sports Resort – can only go so far toward diminishing this appeal. The real problem is the lack of locations – while exploring every tucked-away cave and hidden inlet will take a little time, there’s nowhere else to visit once you’re done. It’s a miserly approach to content, and it comes close to spoiling the view. A view which, with 3D cranked even halfway up, is usually lovely: Wuhu’s clear blue skies and rolling green plains are perfect stereoscopic fodder, and the sense of distance and depth certainly enhances them.
Players interested in something more than sightseeing will turn to the game’s mission mode – five small batches of challenges which put Resort’s three vehicle types through their paces. Glider levels will teach you how to stay aloft and maintain speed in what is arguably the game’s trickiest vehicle, while rocket belt levels focus on precise aerial manoeuvring and maintaining fuel supplies. The infinitely fuelled plane provides some of the most reliably entertaining missions – flying after a car popping balloons with your mounted gun, for instance – but it’s the gimmicky one-shots which stand out: snapping photos of a lighthouse in the glider, or returning mini-UFOs to their mothership. But just as there’s not enough to see, nor is there enough to do. Getting passing grades on every challenge can be done in an hour or two – and it’s hard not to start wondering why the alternate vehicle types (see ‘Hangar bay’) get a paltry one mission each.
Free Flight mode is the alternative, though it frustrates by failing to live up to its name. To begin with, it gives you two minutes to explore, extending the time limit when you’ve collected enough white balloons. Access to the island at different times of day must be similarly earned. It’s a transparent attempt to ration the limited content on offer, and a barrier to simply playing for the pleasure of flight.
Pilotwings, along with Capcom’s port of Super Street Fighter IV, is one of the 3DS launch line-up’s visual standouts: colourful, crisp and with horizons that have never looked so distant. It’s disappointing, then, that you’ll discover its limits so quickly.