Exploring Freedom In Pilotwings

by Jeff Cork on Jul 04, 2014 at 11:00 AM

Today, we're taking a look at games that made us feel free. For my pick, I'm going back to the Super Nintendo era. Pilotwings wasn’t the first flight simulator I’d played. It wasn’t even the first flight simulator I played on a console. The SNES launch game was, however, the first one I played that provided a real sense of freedom – even considering its many limitations.

In the months leading up to the Super Nintendo’s release, there was a significant amount of hype about the console’s hardware. One feature stuck out in particular: Mode 7. If you’re a young rascal who thinks that sounds more like a Captcha phrase than something people would rhapsodize over in magazines, well, think again. Mode 7 allowed the SNES to zoom in and rotate graphics objects, which was a pretty big deal in an era where polygonal graphics were still a bit out of the reach of console hardware. It’s what made games like Super Mario Kart, ActRaiser, and Pilotwings possible.

I’d been reading as much as I could about the SNES in 1991, but I hadn’t seen it in action until it was put on display in my local electronics store. Whoever put the system on display decided to put Pilotwings in the demo unit instead of Super Mario World, which might have been a more obvious pick. At any rate, Nintendo’s arcade-style take on a flight sim was the first game I saw on the console. I was immediately sold.

Growing up, I loved flight sims. I spent hours swooping through the skies in F/A-18 Interceptor and A-10 Tank Killer on my Amiga, and I played around with Microsoft Flight Simulator 4.0 whenever I got the chance. Sure, the graphical fidelity was incredibly low and I could count each individual frame of animation as it blinked on my monitor, but they were a lot of fun. 

Pilotwings was different. Nintendo’s game looked amazing in its day, even though the world was absolutely flat. For the first time, it looked like there was something on the ground’s surface – and colors, too! Okay, the approach to a runway was dominated by a largely blank field of green, but I was used to that. Skydiving was a particular highlight, and I loved waiting until the last second to pull my chute to hit the bullseye. I spent dozens of hours playing the game, working to ensure that I left each of my virtual flight instructors in wide-eyed wonder.

I’ve continued to play flight games over the years, but my interest in them has mostly cooled off. I’d love to see Nintendo return to the franchise in a fully HD Wii U version, but that seems unlikely. Even if it did, I doubt it could recapture the exhilaration I felt more than two decades ago.