Dusty Cartridges: Pilotwings for the SNES

Today’s technology makes it relatively easy to put together a convincing flight simulator. The wealth of code that we’ve built up over the years has given us thousands of libraries to draw from as we attempt to simulate the complex physics of aerodynamics and the complicated and varied internal structures of the aircraft themselves. This wasn’t the case in the day of the Super Nintendo, when neither code nor hardware was complex enough to reach such heights.

But that didn’t stop developers from trying to put together the most convincing flight games they could. The one that’s always stuck in my mind with a clear display of the ‘realism’ video game aesthetic of the day - blue skies, blue water, palm trees, and upbeat elevator music - was Nintendo’s Pilotwings (1990).

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Loading up the game for the first time in a long time, I was stunned at how well it had aged. Of course, graphically it can't compare to the latest AAA definitely-not-just-a-shallow-tech-demo-this-time, and true aircraft-buffs will laugh at the technical simplicity, but I was amazed at how sophisticated the game felt. In the realm of 2D sprite-based games, Pilotwings hasn’t aged much at all. The game's physics were impressively advanced for its day, too, and it’s the attention to detail in modelling real-world motion that gives the game a level of challenge that still holds my attention today. 

Pilotwings looks lovely. Released in an age where 3D graphics were extremely basic - often solely consisting of untextured primitive shapes - Pilotwings used a combination of clever design and built-in SNES magic to create a visually stunning experience. This magic came in the form of Mode 7, a graphics mode that allowed the game’s background layer to be rotated and scaled to simulate a perspective effect. You can see this in games like Mario Kart (1992), or when viewing the map in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991).

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Only a single, planar background layer can be manipulated in this way, however, which means that the remainder of the game’s content has to be displayed as sprites which cannot be rotated or scaled. The lack of sprite scaling means that when sprites move towards or away from the player’s view they must be redrawn several times by the artists to describe this apparent change in size. Given artist workload and system limitations, those games that relied heavily on Mode 7 tended to feature only a small number of distance variants for each sprite. The result was that sprites would pop between these sizes as they came closer or retreated instead of smoothly growing larger or smaller. This is most visible in games like Mario Kart, where the sudden resizing of other racers can be somewhat disorienting when trying to maneuver around them.

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Pilotwings avoided this by keeping the player's sprite at a fixed distance from the player’s view, and by placing almost all of the game world on the faux-3D ground plane. In my recent play-through, the only sprites I saw were the green rings that players fly through during challenges and the little rising clouds that represent thermal updrafts. When combined with the beautiful design work on those few extant sprites, we have a gorgeous game with few graphical anomalies to pull us out of it.

I was likewise impressed by the physics system used for the game, which seemed to contain relatively accurate simulations for velocity, acceleration, and mass. I first noticed this in the Rocket Belt (jetpack) levels, where our horizontal motion can be likened to moving on a flat, frictionless plane. Where similar games with less of a focus on realism tend to allow players to stop and start and turn on a time, there’s a significant amount of inertia here. It becomes clear that if we want to finish the challenge with a good time, we have to learn how to drift, turning and firing the Rocket Belt at an angle perpendicular to our motion to create a new vector without requiring a complete stop.

The skydiving challenge was similarly well modeled. In this challenge we view our character from above, and can turn them left and right as well as spin them backwards and forwards in a somersault. The precise angle of our character relative to the plane of the ground results in forward or backward movement, as it would in real life. Falling speed also seems to increase as our character approaches vertical alignment, as air resistance is reduced. While there may be other examples of this elsewhere, I can’t recall another title that allows players this level of realistic free-falling interactivity. Ultimately, this touch of detail gives us a feeling of far greater control, allows us to fall in whatever style we prefer (even on our backs), and helps us to understand the physics of skydiving as well.

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Not every aspect of the game has as much polish as the above sections. The airplane challenges, for instance, don’t model aerodynamics with very much sophistication: the vehicle simply loses altitude when speed decreases beyond a set limit. But where the simulations fail, the abstracted control systems tend to do an adequate job of letting players control the craft in a logical way that still feels very organic and fluid. Unlike many other titles of the time, success in Pilotwings is far less about working to understand and exploit an abstracted system that bears little resemblance to a real-world counterpart, and more about developing an understanding of how the physics of the various vehicles work - and I’d argue this makes for a very stimulating, challenging, and satisfying experience.