Of the games that launched with the 3DS, Nintendo’s new portable gaming system, Pilotwings Resort won’t be remembered as the must-have title that ushered in the generation of no-glasses 3D gaming. That honor will probably go to Capcom’s Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition, already a high seller and critics’ darling. No, Pilotwings Resort will be given a thoughtful nod and not much else, as Nintendo has bestowed upon it the unofficial role of “proof of concept” and non-threatening mouthpiece for the 3DS’s capabilities.
This is actually kind of a shame, as I found Pilotwings 64, the last game in the series (itself a launch title for the Nintendo 64 in 1996), to be very enjoyable and, most importantly, vast and robust with the vehicles and missions it offered while serving as a tech demo. Pilotwings Resort is not a complete write-off, either; this is a Pilotwings game through and through, and those familiar with the series will be pleasantly surprised at how the game manages to mix the old with the new—even if the overall experience is a bit lacking and actually feels smaller than Pilotwings 64, somehow.
The formula for Pilotwings games is straightforward enough: Players select from a selection of flight vehicles and are tasked with completing specific aerial objectives ranging in difficulty from very easy to relatively hard. The challenge, however, doesn’t arise from just completing these certain tasks, but rather in executing them quickly, efficiently, and without error, whether it’s navigating through stunt rings, coaxing crates attached to balloons into designated areas, or riding air thermals to reach a certain elevation within a time limit. The desire for players to retry missions and improve their skill for a better score is what quietly drives Pilotwings, and this embrace of arcade-style repetition, while seemingly archaic, is a hidden draw that I was glad to see still intact in Pilotwings Resort.
The rocket belt and hang glider return, along with their tight and satisfying controls, and the new barrel-roll performing prop plane is a welcome replacement for the outdated Gyrocopter. Your personally designed Miis step in for the original characters from Pilotwings 64, but trust me, nobody really wants to revisit such “memorable” avatars as Goose, Lark, and Robin—or as I used to affectionately call her, “Lady with Big Triangle Boobs.” Pilotwings Resort also tries to continue the Pilotwings tradition of not taking itself too seriously, as a later mission involves gathering up baby UFOs to return to their mother ship. The irreverence seems a little too checked, though, and the majority of missions, while plentiful, are of a more sterile variety. Exhilarating moments such as weaving a pedal glider through a highway tunnel and skydiving in a “squirrel suit” are simply that—brief and fleeting.
Aside from the game’s mission-based gameplay, there is also a Free Flight mode that allows the player, under a strict clock, to explore the game’s stock Pilotwings Resort setting of Wuhu Island, collecting trinkets scattered about which extend free flight time and unlock small model dioramas of the modes of transportation used in the game. While Wuhu Island is impressively vibrant and detailed on the 3DS, it doesn’t properly showcase its own expanse in quite the same way as Pilotwings 64’s tacky yet spacious environments, perhaps an unintentional result of overdesign. As a result, Free Flight didn’t hold that much appeal for me.
I have yet to mention the 3D itself, which is effective and, at times, glorious. Being able to adjust the “depth” of the effect instantly while in-game is actually a crucial tool for playing the 3DS. I found myself fine-tuning the 3D depending on my surroundings and position of the system (and due to the reflective surface of the screen, direct sunlight and shifting sources were constant enemies of mine), and more than once my eyes felt fatigued and I had to take a break, something the game helpfully reminds you of. When everything locks in, however, the sense of height, space, and speed achieved while zipping around and through Pilotwings Resort’s areas gives the game a thrilling edge that transcends even its own guarded, tropical-soaked comfort zone.
Pilotwings Resort seems to do everything right as a launch title: It’s beautiful to look at, smooth to control, and successfully represents the new features of its system with an exuberant amount of charm. Long-time fans of the series will also be pleased about the wise editorial decisions concerning what was kept and needed to be tweaked. Yet the game can’t seem to shake the notion that it’s a product of the 3DS, not for the 3DS—a lack of variety and the now clinical setting of Wuhu Island brand Pilotwings Resort a “demonstration.” This is an unfair self-assessment, as that’s not what Pilotwings Resort actually is: a fun, entirely competent video game. If only there were more to it.