Nintendo’s classic Pilotwings franchise has been lying dormant for several years at this point. That’s why the reveal of Bit Planet Games’ Ultrawings Flat coming to Switch made me quite excited. Now after putting plenty of time into it, I can say with confidence that this really does fill the void of Pilotwings‘ absence. But playing it reminded me why flying games aren’t so hot on consoles in the first place.
Ultrawings puts you in the cockpit of four aircraft that you gradually unlock: the Ultralight, Glidester, Blade 360 stunt plane, and Gee Racer. Each of these machines has its own unique characteristics. The Ultralight is incredibly slow, which makes climbing and turning feel heavy and difficult. The Glidester is much faster due to its rocket-powered engine, but this engine can only be fired up once at a time and it’s easy to run out of fuel if you’re not careful. This is by far my least favorite and least used aircraft. The Blade 360 is the most balanced aircraft of the bunch, being the most agile and also very speedy. The Gee Racer is the final plane to unlock, and while as fast as the Blade 360, it’s a bit harder to maneuver and is also the most difficult aircraft to land. Its large engine reduces cockpit visibility as well, which can be a pain for some activities.
Speaking of activities, there’s a variety to choose from as you fly around Ultrawings‘ open-world island archipelago. Basically all of them focusing on timing and accuracy.
Perfect pitch (and yaw)
Ring Rush has a set of rings that you must fly through, while also focusing on hitting the center of each ring in order to gain the most amount of points. Ring Course is a similar activity, though the rings are laid out in a set path and are a bit smaller. Not only do you have to get every ring, but your landing accuracy also affects your final score. Landing challenges are another activity where you need to land as close to the center as possible. The Photo activities focus on accuracy too, with the goal being to take pictures of landmarks by using the tablet that’s built into each aircraft. Balloon Pop challenges place several balloons in an area that you must shoot down with darts before time runs out. Balloon Course is a combination of Balloon Pop and Ring Course where you have to fly through rings and then shoot balloons that appear afterwards before time runs out. Finally, there are the Race activities, which are exclusive to the Gee Racer and have you flying through yet another course of giant rings against other race aircraft with the goal of coming in first place.
Playing through these activities is essential to earning enough money to purchase new planes and airports. While you can earn money by scoring a bronze, silver, or gold medal, the game isn’t shy about coaxing you to go for the gold as much as possible, as that offers the largest monetary reward.
Each activity can be played with all the aircraft (though the Gee Racer is limited to only Ring Course and Race activities). While I typically hated flying the Ultralight due to its low speed, it’s the perfect fit for the Photo and Balloon challenges because it effectively utilizes the Switch’s gyro controls. Using gyro controls to aim in these activities isn’t necessary but feels the most natural. With the other aircraft the gyro controls are fundamentally useless, because the dart gun for the Balloon activities and tablet for the Photo activities are actually mounted on the aircraft rather than being separate like with the Ultralight.
Ultrawings Flat is actually a new version of the original Ultrawings, which is a VR title. This conversion adapts the gameplay to be used exclusively with a controller, but you can see that this is still very much a game that was meant for VR; there aren’t even any regular menus. As a result, the camera system is a bit hit-and-miss. It certainly works, but I found the field of view to be limiting. Likewise, while holding down the button to activate the gyro camera does make it better, it’s clear that this camera system was designed for VR goggles first and foremost.
Teaching an old dog new tricks
The actual flying experience is nice despite the camera constraints. Though, as someone that’s literally grown up with PC flight simulators using a joystick, playing a flying game with a controller feels awkward to me. I would regularly keep restarting activities just because my aim was off. The larger analog sticks of the Pro Controller make maneuvering a tad easier than with the Joy-Con, but it still feels strange. That’s because Ultrawings is more simulator than arcade game. There is actually an option to switch the gameplay to a more arcadey style, but it felt even worse to me due to it keeping the plane so straight that turning became far more of a chore. If this instead played in a way similar to how The Crew 2‘s arcadey flight controls handle, it would feel far better; that’s a game that actually feels good to fly with a controller.
There is one notable flaw that really stands out, however—a severe glitch when playing around one of the islands, Bosenburg Farm. First, the music cuts out, and then the frame rate gradually drops lower and lower until it basically becomes unplayable. A restart fixes the issue, though only temporarily. The developers will certainly have to look into this.
New props on the block
Despite these issues, I still genuinely enjoyed Ultrawings. Its relaxing gameplay, wealth of activities, and beautiful visuals make it a competent replacement for Pilotwings.
A review code was provided by the publisher.