Pilotwings Resort review: Flight of fancy

Nintendo has traditionally used the Pilotwings series as a showpiece for new 3D technology. When the SNES came out, Pilotwings was there to demonstrate its Mode 7 scaling. Then the game was used to show off the N64's new Silicon Graphics-designed polygon processing power.

Now the 3DS is out with ... you know, 3D, and Nintendo has returned to its high-flying series. No idea why there wasn't one on Virtual Boy, if you're thinking that. Pilotwings Resort is a very familiar implementation of the Pilotwings gameplay, offering little that's too different, and even removing some things from previous games. And for the most part, that's okay. Streamlining has its advantages in flight.

The presentation clearly diverges from series tradition, opting for a totally Wii-like look. That entails putting your Mii in the cockpit, shoulder straps, or ... that bar thing that hang gliders have. Thanks to that change, I have now definitely fatally injured my Mii dozens of times, which is strangely satisfying. The use of Miis means you no longer have a choice of pilots (unless you make more Miis), and there's no variation in pilot abilities.

The "Wii" style also means setting the game in the same "Wuhu Island" location that was home to the Wii Fit games and Wii Sports Resort. And while Nintendo's continued use of Wuhu Island as a setting might seem hokey, this actually works out in Pilotwings' favor. The island is loaded with interesting terrain to fly over, around, and through, like a big bridge, a town, a mountain, and even surrounding islands. It's almost as if the whole island was designed for a flight game (which it kind of was, since Wii Sports Resort included "Air Sports").

The "Mission Mode" puts you through a series of specific challenges in each of the six vehicles (plus one tease of a stage featuring the Squirrel Suit). At the beginning of the game, it's tourism, as you take big, sweeping paths around the island on a rocket belt, hang glider, or small plane. Over the course of the mission mode, the difficulty goes from "placid" to "painful" -- you'll have flown both into and out of an active volcano, and rocketed through a cave at 100 miles per hour. (By the way, the camera freaks out a bit when you're in these interior environments, because even it knows that's not supposed to happen.)

Those missions mostly involve flying along a prescripted line, either through a series of rings, or (on the rocket belt) landing on a series of targets. Other tasks include shooting balloons off of a plane just in front of you, shooting at targets from a plane, or hang-gliding around to get pictures. More advanced missions will have you sailing downward in the hang glider to crash through targets at a set speed, or taking part in weird one-offs like corraling lost UFOs or bumping giant balloons into a target area on the rocket belt.

You also have the option of taking your vehicle of choice through "Free Mode," in which you fly around Wuhu Island, looking for hidden items and info bubbles to unlock information about the tourist spots ... and incidental things like additional flying time.

You can get through all of the missions with at least enough points to unlock them all in a few hours, and you can unlock plenty of stuff in Free Mode within 2-3 more. However, you wouldn't be doing yourself any favors if you did. Taken in "shotgun" form, Pilotwings Resort's difficulty curve seems harsh, and the game stressful. But if you enjoy a few missions at a time, perhaps going back through them to refine your score and your abilities, you'll get a better sense of the relaxation and freedom that comes from taking to the skies. Even if most of that "freedom" puts you within a strict racing line.

This review is based on a retail copy of Pilotwings Resort provided by Nintendo.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.