The launch line-up of the 3DS leaves its buyers in a bit of a quandary: what game or games should you actually buy with the thing? Sure, there are some promising options, such as Streetfighter IV 3D Edition or Ridge Racer 3D, while Nintendogs + Cats has the younger player’s market pretty much sewn up. But where’s the Mario game or the Zelda game, or the Metroid 3D title that will establish what the 3DS is and what’s it about? Where’s the 3DS equivalent of Wii Sports, that will help define the console going on? Nowhere. The nearest thing we have is Pilot Wings Resort, the resurrection of another classic Nintendo franchise, tied in to the island resort settings of Wii Fit, Wii Sports Resort and Wii Fit Plus.
In theory, this could have been a good thing. The original Pilot Wings was a key early title for the Super NES, showcasing what you could do with its pseudo-3D Mode 7 graphics, and cropping up regularly on TV’s much-missed GamesMaster, as two greasy oiks competed in the rocket-belt or skydriving challenges while Dominik Diamond spewed playground innuendo in the background. Pilot Wings 64 did a similar job on the N64, showing how the console’s at-the-time advanced 3D graphics could be pushed to make console-friendly simulation games with a distinct Nintendo touch.
Up to a point, Pilot Wings Resort does a similar job for the 3DS. Pilot Wings always demanded a bit of finesse with the controller, so it’s a great way to show off the new analogue pad. It’s a game where height and distance matter, which makes it a bit of a showcase for 3D gaming too. It’s also a game that adopts a visual style and a familiar location from the Wii, proving how close the handheld and home consoles are in terms of graphics capabilities (though this says as much about the Wii as it does about the 3DS). And while Pilot Wings isn’t a name that gamers treat with reverence in the way they do Mario, Metroid or Zelda, it is an old one with an established reputation. Nintendo knows that these things matter.
Up to a point, it gets things right. Pilot Wings Resort has the same clean look and cute graphical style as Wii Fit and Wii Sports Resort, and the draw distances are long enough and the lighting and surface effects nice enough to make you feel like you’ve moved a generation on from the old DS series, and towards something more comparable with a home console format. It’s not the best technical showcase on the 3DS - that’s where Capcom seems to be leading the way - but it doesn’t look dated either. You can even play as your new 3DS Mii.
The 3D effects are also very convincing. Objects in the distance look noticeably further away than those nearer to the player’s viewpoint and - to some extent - the perception of depth makes it easier to manoeuvre through hoops or slalom through trees and city buildings. Meanwhile, the analogue controls work perfectly, enabling you to soar, bank and turn with a practiced grace. Pilot Wings Resort looks and feels exactly like a 3DS Pilot Wings should.
The problem is, however, that there’s just not enough game underneath. Essentially, Pilot Wings Resort has two modes. In the first, you fly the plane, the glider and the rocket-belt (a kind of jetpack with two nozzles you can angle to move forwards, backwards or up) in a series of challenges, popping balloons, flying through rings, shooting targets and taking pictures as instructed, before landing with as much skill as you can muster. The missions are organised into five classes, unlocked by collecting stars, and stars are awarded depending on your performance in each mission. With time, you’ll encounter new challenges and three new flying machines - faster rocket belts and jetplanes, plus an especially peculiar gliding bicycle - and you’ll be forced to master the more advanced controls before moving on.
It’s fun, and the later missions in the Gold and Platinum classes are tough enough that you won’t cruise through the lot in an hour or two. However, with the exception of a few standout adventures, the mission designs are all a bit samey. There are only so many hoops you want to fly through or pads you want to land on, and the game could badly do with more in the vein of the one where you chase a fleeing car in the plane, copy the moves of an expert stunt pilot or put out burning campfires.
The free flight mode, meanwhile, encourages you to explore the island at different times of day, collecting different items depending on the time and the flying machine you choose. It’s fun, and the urge to find new places before the 2-minute timer ticks down is strong, but you can’t help wishing for more time to fly in, and a larger, more exciting location to do it in. True, you get several islands with a range of towns, castles, ruins and tunnels, but it really won’t be long before you’ve seen most of what there is to see. Nor are there enough people and vehicles around to give you a feeling that this is a living, breathing Wii-fit style resort.
And this question of long-term appeal is one that might affect the 3DS as a whole. Had Pilot Wings cost £2.99, £5.99 or even £9.99, we’d happily recommend it. There’s enough to do, and it still has the series’ gentle, relaxing vibe. It’s the sort of game you’d cheerfully download from an app store and feel that you’d had great value. But at £30 from a shop, you can’t help feeling a little short changed.
What’s more, it’s also notable what Pilot Wings doesn’t give you. There’s no local or online multiplayer or leaderboards and no use of the motion sensors for flying or gliding (which surely must be a no-brainer). Finally, it has to be said that it’s the worst 3DS game we’ve tried yet for tiring out your poor little peepers. Your 3DS will remind you every half hour to take a break, but for once it’s unnecessary. That’s the most we could cope with staring at the 3D screen in one sitting.
There really is a lot to love about the new Pilot Wings - particularly for fans of the previous titles - and anyone with an urge to play a more chilled-out, fun-loving game will find this a good first title for their new machine. All the same, there’s no question that Pilot Wings Resort could have done with more resorts, more vehicles and more interesting missions just to keep long-term interest up. It looks like we’ll have to wait for a Mario, Metroid or Zelda before Nintendo’s ideal 3DS showcase game turns up.