Skip to main content

Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Pilotwings Resort

Do not talk about flight club.

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seems sharper, the playfully-used 3D is transformed into the perfect tool for judging your descent, and the rings no longer represent a gentle muddle of objectives, but rather a micro-surgically precise arrangement of targets for you to lance through.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.