When the N64 launched, it didn’t have a pack-in game leaving it up to retailers to supply titles for fans. Super Mario 64 launched alongside the N64 and the other game that came along was Pilotwings 64, the follow up to Pilotwings on the SNES.
Pilotwings 64 was a whimsical, fun arcadey flight sim that wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously. It was a stunt spectacular featuring hang gliding, a rocket pack, and a gyrocopter set amidst an assorted selection of challenges pushing the player’s skills amidst a 3D landscape of polygons. Unlockable activities also included getting fired from a cannon later on, or donning a bird suit and taking a tour of each of the four islands that the game takes place on.
The game wasn’t exclusively designed by Nintendo — it had help from Paradigm Simulation, a specialist in 3D graphics and flight simulation tech based in Texas that also happened to be very familiar with Silicon Graphics workstations. That last part was significant because Silicon Graphics had also designed the N64 making Paradigm part of Nintendo’s dream team of developers. They had worked with Nintendo in 1994 for nine months to build development software for the N64 and then in 1995, aided Nintendo in creating a demo of the system for a private showing at E3 that year. After that, they started to work in earnest on what would become Pilotwings 64.
Although their specialty lay in hardcore flight sim tech for real world applications, Paradigm took a very different approach with Pilotwings 64, stepping away from what they knew best to take an arcade angle with the game. After all, players want to have fun — not necessarily sign on for flight lessons as complex as Microsoft Flight Simulator on PCs. At the same time, like its SNES namesake, it was also meant to show off what the N64’s beefy new specs could do.
Pilotwings 64 made great use of Nintendo’s new controller scheme with its centrally located analog stick and a slew of new buttons (like the Z-button). Each scenario, whether it was hang gliding, using the rocket pack, the gyrocopter, or using spring shoes to hop into the air made excellent use of the controller’s capabilities.
What was even better was that the controls were intuitive to anyone that might have been blowing away furballs in Wing Commander or TIEs in TIE Fighter — or may never have gotten into the virtual cockpit of anything in their life until now. To players whose first experience with a flight sim might be something like this, it did its best to take them into this new world which was something of stylized trademark when it came to Nintendo games.
Pilotwings 64 sold over a million copies and while those numbers pale in comparison to Super Mario 64’s 11 million, it enabled Paradigm to separate a division from its simulations and hit the gaming industry as Paradigm Entertainment focused on gaming. It went on to be later acquired by Atari in 2000, sold to THQ in 2006, and ultimately closed its doors in 2008.
Pilotwings 64 spoke to a generation of players that grew up with Nintendo, Sega, NEC, or were just getting started with the Sony PlayStation and may never have touched the skies on the PC or may have only experienced it from the perspective of Sega’s After Burner. Or to veterans that loved taking to the skies in Falcon 3.0 but occasionally wanted something simple and fun to pop some time into like in the arcades of yore. For some, though, it could be pretty meh as a series of challenges with little else, but for the Nintendo 64, it was a potential passport to greater possibilities that its hardware promised the world.