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