A chilled-out masterpiece or just plain boring? That’s the big question that has long plagued the PilotWings franchise; while most open-minded gamers can appreciate the serene charm of taking to the skies, others need more immediate and prescribed thrills to keep them occupied. But in electing to revive the series after a fifteen-year hiatus on a format that demands such focused attention and a very specific viewing angle to get the most (read: anything except a migraine) out of its 3D effects, PilotWings Resort is anything but relaxing. And as such, it can almost be seen to veer from the flight path set out by its predecessors altogether.
Nintendo’s newly plotted course takes the franchise to Wuhu Island and Wuhu Island only, the Wii Sports Resort setting standing as the only place you’ll get to fly around for the entire game. Well, unless you count three different times of day as separate maps as Nintendo certainly seems to, proudly announcing them as they are unlocked as though the firm has officially licensed ‘Evening’ or something. It’s not even as though this is a new location to explore, either – the layout is basically unchanged since we last visited to play a hit-and-miss bunch of sports, and anyone that took a plane for a spin over the island back then or since will already have a decent idea of the simple geography. But perhaps worse than the flagrant repurposing of content is the fact that the island seems lifeless compared to its Wii Sports counterpart. The activity of the world below made exploration a constant reward, but here it’s more like flying over the end of the world looking for survivors. Depressing stuff.
So while the lack of variety in scenery might be a disappointment, the selection of vehicles isn’t exactly much better. Starting out with just three – the plane, the rocket belt and the hang glider, each offering a slightly different style of play – the hangar eventually fills to accommodate double that number, though enhanced versions of the jetpack and plane mean only the pedal glider delivers anything new. Over the course of Mission mode, these additional craft are only seen once or twice each (as is the flying squirrel suit, a definite highlight but one that you only get to use once), but there still manages to be a fair amount of variety between tasks, even if many are inane or overly simplistic.
Adding a modicum of depth is the scoring system, though this too works against the notion of freedom by laying out a ‘right’ way to do each task. To score big, trails of guide balloons need to be followed almost perfectly – speed gates and obstacles introduced over time further accentuating the ideal line – and deviation from this path will only ever result in missing timed collectibles or speed bonuses. Once you tireof these tasks (or finish the lot, which you can do in two hours), there’s still the free flight option to let you explore Wuhu at your leisure, though this will hardly be a draw for anyone that already did just that in Wii Sports Resort. Different pickups for each vehicle type mean there’s //almost// a reason to put some time in here, though, given that the rewards for rounding up these trinkets tend to be 3D models to shower with indifference, few are likely to feel driven to hunt down the lot.
Even the 3D effect proves to be a mixed blessing, at times beautifully adding scale to Wuhu and making each daring nosedive under a bridge or reckless tunnel run that much more exciting, but at others succeeding only in recreating the nausea of flying. Trying to focus on both your vehicle and a target at once often seems to make the eyes work against the magical depth trickery and it’s easy to lose focus altogether as a result, just as happens when you get too comfortable or too involved and accidentally adjust the angle of the screen – with such clear focal points, it can take a few moments for your brain to realise that it’s in pain, and reassuming the correct position jarringly reintroduces the illusion of depth. It’s a common trait across all 3DS titles, sure, but one that’s particularly evident here, especially since it means that a PilotWings game ends up punishing you (physically, in fact) for relaxing.
Amid all this criticism, it might be easy to lose sight of the fact that Resort is still a pretty sound game for what meagre time it lasts. Yes, it shamelessly rehashes old content. No, there isn’t enough to it. But at the same time, it’d be criminal to entirely write off a flight game that gets so much of the core mechanics side so right. 3D or no, there’s a definite thrill to perfectly diving into the volcano’s mouth or scraping your wings as you scream through a narrow road tunnel and it’s moments like these that really make PilotWings sing. In under-using so many great ideas and throwing away interesting vehicles and modes in one-shot challenges, Resort is perfectly able to prove that it has a host of great ideas – it’s just that none of them have been recognised as such and been offered a little more time in the spotlight.
After such a long wait, and with thick clouds of fond memories surrounding the franchise, it’s a real shame to see of PilotWings return in such an unfurnished release. Picking up stars you missed first time around adds longevity for those willing to chase the perfect run. Others can look forward to burning a few hours above an island which is starting to feel like that same Butlins your family used to drag you to every year – only this time, it’s closed. But for everyone else, Resort offers a briefly satisfying jaunt, which only fleetingly manages to recapture the magic of its predecessors.