[25 April 2011]
There’s a problem with trying to utilize 3D on a game like Pilotwings Resort: momentum.
It makes sense that Pilotwings, a franchise that’s always been as much about demonstrating the latest technology as about playing a game, has finally reappeared now that Nintendo has finally put out another console that acknowledges that graphics do matter. And the graphics here, well, they’re beautiful. Turn on the 3D and you get a sense of distance on this tiny little 3DS screen that you just can’t replicate in a 2D way, even on a huge HD screen. The graphics look like honest to goodness GameCube/Wii-quality graphics, with colors out of a box of Crayolas and little details that keep emerging play after play after play. It’s the perfect game to put in a big box store, a game that will make people take notice of the technology, and one that will distract us all from the dearth of actual games on the shelves.
The problem is that Pilotwings is a game of momentum, and the way that momentum works is against the technology at play. If you turn on the 3D visuals, you absolutely have to look straight on at the screen in order to see what’s going on. A little turn here, a little bump there, and you’re not going to be able to tell whether you’re flying the way you mean to be flying or dropping like a stone into the water. It may only be a split second before you get that visual back, but that’s all it takes—Pilotwings Resort is a precision game that makes great use of the fact that there is an analog input on a Nintendo portable for the first time. One blind twitch and you can kiss a high score goodbye.
The Pilotwings franchise has always been about careful planning. You need to know where you want to be long before you’re actually there, and getting there isn’t always as simple as moving the analog controller in that direction. You push the direction you want to go, and the plane (or the rocket pack, or the hang glider) starts to move in that direction. It moves slowly, because you’re already moving and you’re in the air. So what do you do? You unconsciously tilt the 3DS in the direction that you want to be going.
And then you can’t see.
It’s a frustrating byproduct of the gameplay, that the type of play that Pilotwings traffics is sure to get a certain type of gamer to lose the visual. I am that type of gamer, and as such, I have to turn off the 3D once I’m done admiring the scenery and actually want to get down to the business of playing.
This is not a new problem for Nintendo. When Mario Kart Wii came out and we were encouraged to house our Wiimotes in little plastic wheels to enhance the “realism”, the lack of precision that the Wiimote offers in its motion control became an issue. The technology that Nintendo was pushing at the time might have made for a simpler entry point or a more immersive experience, but the split second delay between the actual, physical turn of the Wiimote and the on-screen turning of a go-kart or motorcycle made all the difference to those looking to perfect their times in the game. Hardcore Mario Kart players, of which a surprising number exist, turned to the Wii Classic Controller and even GameCube controllers, for the sake of returning to the precision control necessary to truly excel at the game.
The casual Mario Kart Wii player looking for a little fun would almost certainly play with the Wiimote, while the hardcore would play with a more traditional controller. The casual Pilotwings Resort player will play with the 3D visuals on for the sake of getting the most out of the technology, while the hardcore will play in 2D for the sake of ensuring an unbroken visual in the most tense moments.
Once you accept this, Pilotwings Resort is good fun. The analog controls offer a perfect sense of “feel” for the various forms of air travel on display, and the game does a fantastic job of mixing familiar challenges with new little oddities. Just when you think you’re getting sick of the jetpack, the game throws the near-freefall of the squirrel suit at you; just when you start to tire of flying through rings and shooting at targets, the game has you put out fires or escort little aliens back to the mothership.
It’s not all challenges, either, though the various specific challenges do provide the most incentive to keep returning to the game. There is also a free flight mode, which encourages you to either simply see the sights that the “resort” setting has to offer, or fly through as many rings, balloons, or collectables as you can. However, the free flights seem painfully short, even when you up the time of the flights from two to five minutes, and an “unlimited” free flight mode seems as though it’s a missed opportunity for a “zen”-style Pilotwings experience. Still, between the specific missions and the challenges of free flight, there is a lot of “game” stuffed into what is, at heart, a fairly limited set of game mechanics and environments.
Essentially, Pilotwings Resort is the perfect sort of launch game for Nintendo’s new little machine. It is a display of potential much more than a defining statement; it offers beautiful 3D visuals while also exposing the limitations of the technology. It is a mere diversion, but one with more staying power than most. It is an acceptable distraction, something to help pass the time until we are offered another go at conquering Ocarina of Time.
More than anything, while the jury may still be out on the utility of Nintendo’s implementation of 3D technology, Pilotwings Resort is enough evidence to convince us that it just might work, while also serving as instant justification for the design choice to be able to switch between two and three dimensions on the fly.