Pilotwings Resort: A Review

Green tea is good. It’s not the flashiest of drinks, nor the most exciting — when I first tried it I thought it tasted predominantly of soil — but gradually I’ve come to appreciate its soothing charms. In today’s cluttered, ultra-stimulatory world, I like that I can spend five minutes away from the noise and action, sipping some earthy water, relaxing, letting my breath come naturally and my mind unfurl.

Pilotwings Resort, for the 3DS, gives me a similar feeling. It’s a small, quiet game, and has recently taken hold of my heart, in a low-key kind of way.

It’s just lovely. It’s lovely because of its free-flight mode, which lets you putter about its island setting in a plane, a hang glider or a rocket belt (plus more that you unlock), taking in the sights and collecting little fancies. You get to pop balloons, and popping balloons rewards you with more flight time, so you can pop even more balloons.

And there are location markers to collect, and flying through each one tells you a little story — not a narrative, exactly, but some words to flesh out the character of the island. There’s a dead-end halfway up the mountain that you’re told is the point hikers have to decide whether to start climbing or turn back. Or a lighthouse that was built mistakenly at twice its intended size. Or a car in the wilderness with a flat battery (“Will they make it home before dark?”). The asides are breezy and cute, and come together to create a tone that puts me in mind of Miyazaki’s equally calming film Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Pilotwings is lovely for the contrast of its vehicles, which is perfectly judged. The rocket belt is good for exploring over short distances, because you can hover and land and make little jumps (to poke around castle grounds, or inside the town) but it’s quite slow and runs out of fuel. The plane can fly forever, and lands in water and does barrel rolls (!), but it turns slowly. The hang glider is my favourite of all, because you’re not in a machine but floating on the air, using thermals to gain height, and it’s very relaxing. You get taken by a gust, then swoop at speed down towards the cruise ship docked in the harbour, then pull up at the last minute and soar over fields and windmill farms.

The game is lovely because of the light at sunset, which is golden and peaceful. And because during the day the blue skies stretch endlessly. And at night there are firework displays going off.

And it’s lovely as well because of its challenge mode — how it’s not hard to pass the missions and move on, but you’ll always be compelled to return to try for three stars, to reach that elusive perfect score.

It’s lovely because in the hang glider you’ll be drifting lower and lower, and your speed will be dropping, and there’ll be a thermal away in front of you and you won’t know whether you’ll make it or crash into the sea, and you’ll really want to make it.

It’s lovely because I’ve come home from work at two in the morning, and instead of going to bed I’ve sat up and looked for hidden passages through the mountain (always with a balloon or other collectible inside) until the sun has come in through my window. It’s lovely because Monster Games and Nintendo have put a lot of thought into creating the coastal allure of the island, which is full of varied locations and much larger in content than you initially suspect. The more you explore, the more you find there is to explore, and the world is a rich, inviting one. It’s lovely because of the music, which doesn’t draw attention to itself but is nonetheless delightful. It’s lovely because sometimes out at sea you’ll notice a whale breaking the water’s surface before diving back below.

It’s lovely because playing it is like going on a little adventure.

Pilotwings Resort might not be particularly innovative or exciting — at times it feels atavistic in its reliance on N64-era tropes and conventions — and it’s a lean package in terms of game modes, with no multiplayer at all to speak of — but you know, sometimes that doesn’t matter. I don’t always want to be pushed into the future, bedazzled by some hip new genre mash-up with a punk/grimecore/patchwork aesthetic. Sometimes it’s just nice to take a step back, sip some green tea, and enjoy a videogame that’s solid and enjoyable and gets its basic sense of exploration spot on.

And did I mention? it’s really rather lovely.

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