Version tested: 3DS
Squirrel suits: definitely not what I thought they were.
I was picturing a kind of handicraft football mascot set-up: poster paint, feathered material, felt ears – squirrels have ears, right? And feathers? – with a clump of old dusters for a tail. Not so: it seems that a squirrel suit is actually a piece of sky-diving equipment. It's an extreme-sports onesie with flaps under the arms and legs to slow your descent as you plummet from the clouds. Good to know. That could have been really embarrassing.
The moment you get to play with the squirrel suit in Pilotwings Resort is magical. For a handful of early challenges, Nintendo's latest will have lulled you with pleasant, untaxing familiarity. The skies are blue, Wuhu Island is a pallet of neatly-mown greens and rugged browns, and all the 3DS' inaugural star seems to really want you to do is practise landing, thread yourself unhurriedly into spinning hoops, and mess around with lazy, lofting thermals. The usual stuff.
Then the suit comes out, and suddenly you're diving straight towards the centre of Wuhu's volcano while the game snaps into keen focus around you. The scenery suddenly seems sharper, the playfully-used 3D is transformed into the perfect tool for judging your descent, and the rings no longer represent a gentle muddle of objectives, but rather a micro-surgically precise arrangement of targets for you to lance through. Within seconds, the series' dreamy disposition blows away as bizarre techno fizzes up over the soundtrack and – what's this? – a racing line seems to emerge.
Pilotwings has the room to be both a pretty knockabout timewaster for a lazy Sunday afternoon and a surprisingly demanding arcade game: a launch title built from simple pieces that plays out in dozens of satisfying little moments. And guess what? Even when the squirrel suit is gone and you're back to the standard aircraft, that invisible racing line remains.
So Pilotwings Resort is a comfortable mix of old and new. You've got the same kind of challenges featured in the Super Nintendo and N64 games as you work your way through Nintendo's Sky Club, but this time they're set against an island backdrop more recently seen playing host to Wii Fit and Wii Sports. Even this is familiar territory, of course, but it feels more like a warm home-coming than a nifty spot of recycling. (Ask Greenpeace – Nintendo doesn't like recycling.) And now it's all in 3D too. It looks wonderful.
In fact, the 3D effect is really excellent. Your head-up display stands out from the screen, the mountains disappear towards the horizon, and your craft feels like a little die-cast toy suspended in the foreground. The illusion of depth is surprisingly useful when it comes to judging distance in some of the more precise challenges, and sitting down with the console held steadily in front of you, the image doesn't separate very often either.
I tend to be happiest with the 3D slider set around the halfway mark, although I suspect it's different for everyone, and the game remains entirely playable – and bright and attractive – if you view it in standard 2D. In case you're worried about your own eyes, it's worth noting that I have trouble with 3D stuff at the cinema (often because it's in crap like Avatar LOL) and I could see Pilotwings' tricks and tweaks perfectly.
The circle pad is great too, offering a lovely resistance under your thumb that makes it ideal for either smooth sweeps across the sky or smaller positioning shunts. Pilotwings' hangar is fairly snug – there are just three main aircraft used for most of the game – but everything you fly is built around the controller very carefully, and each offering emerges with a distinct sense of weight and character.
The plane is the easiest to get to grips with. With the shoulder buttons allowing you to pull off simple stunts, and a responsive handling model that still conveys a pleasant sense of speeding heft, flying Nintendo's jaunty Cessna-alike is mainly a process of boosting and braking.
Next comes the rocket belt, and it's as tricky to master as it's always been. Equipped with both a strong and weak thrust and an option to hover (the wiggling engine animation that accompanies this is completely endearing), the belt's best for short hops, and the ability to position the camera directly overhead is invaluable for judging descents.
Finally, the hang glider is a gentle drifter compared to the other two, great for lazy turns and catching thermals when you want to go higher. Occasionally, as with the squirrel suit, Nintendo will throw a special craft your way – a pedal-glider with a speed cool-down or a dangerously zippy jet-plane, perhaps – but the central trio remain enticing enough on their own, each of them shifting the nature of the game somewhat.
The rocket belt is all about precision and fuel conservation, planes are about managing boosts on the straights as you race between objectives, and the hang-gliders have you balancing the desire to stay aloft against the need to slow down for the inevitable landing target. It's great risk-reward design, even before you take into account Pilotwings' challenges themselves.
And these, similarly, juggle a handful of variables in a smart manner. With the main campaign once again organising your missions into vehicle types and then splitting them across a range of skill tiers, basic elements like shooting at stuff, landing on platforms and moving through hoops are constantly being reconfigured to create new scenarios.
Early offerings might task you with simply snapping a few photos, or popping balloons that trail from a moving car. But later events see you escorting UFOs, putting out fires and nudging airborne crates back and forth. After the novice round, you'll be penalised for every bump and crash – just like in the real air corps! – and, while it's generally pretty easy to achieve each objective, three-starring everything will require real attention and timing as you swoop through bonuses, break down special gates that require you to hit them while travelling at a specific speed, and pull off perfect stunts.
Unlocking the later levels requires plenty of stars, but each challenge also comes with a handy post-mortem breakdown showing you the aspects you need to improve on to pass. (I'm great at bumping into things, for example, but you don't want to be there when I try to land.) It all makes the road to mastery a little more alluring.
Elsewhere, the free flight mode gives you something to do after the campaign's finished. Wuhu Island – tweaked from its earlier appearances – is filled with secrets to explore, from the Roman ruins tucked into a quiet canyon to the secluded bay with its own cabana. You can also collect information rings, burst balloons to extend your free flight timer, and suck up the vehicle-specific baubles that allow you to access dioramas.
Everything's delivered with a railway-model prettiness, and from the orange bloom of sunset to the little animated details – like the way the your Miis bob their heads when they're piloting the Rocket Belt – the game's familiar setting manages to provide you with plenty of nice things to look at.
You could wish for more aircraft or a greater range of environments, perhaps, but Pilotwings ultimately hits an enjoyable sweet spot. It's intricate enough to encourage mastery, and roomy enough to tempt you back after the main event, while the skilfully simple presentation makes it perfect for demonstrating your latest gadget's 3D capabilities.
And, for more elderly players, it's nice to see that the spirit of the SNES survives. As an updating of an old favourite, this is a lovely piece of work; as a friendly shoving-off for a strange new handheld, it's wonderfully judged.
8 / 10