Most video games are about something. It's why we love them, after all: save the princess from Bowser (each game); save the different princess from Gannon (each game); get back home; rule the city; and so forth. Indeed, in those glorious years of youth, it is the story that makes us love those games: we become Mario, Link, and every other hero.
Yet there is one game of my youth that I loved, one that carried with it such a sense of freedom--of wind whistling by, of cool air all around, of ultimate control--that it was no matter that it was intentionally designed to have little story at all.
Pilotwings, a launch title for the SNES, where players find the joys of flight and the greatest challenge of all: gravity.
As a side note, I had fought, and fought hard, to get SNES the Christmas it came out. Mom, as opposed to video games as she was MTV, cable television, and too many friends, was my main nemesis for a battle that lasted from the summer until--shockingly--my brother and I were given SNES two days before Christmas because my tightwad parents were also taking us to Disney World for Christmas. (Ever drive from New Jersey to Florida at 55 mph in a tiny car with parents whose in-drive meals were grapefruit juice and granola? Joy.) It was a pretty amazing holiday; never again have I invited friends over before Christmas to play with the single hottest toy on the market that year.
Obviously Pilotwings is secondary to Super Mario World (still amazing) and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (still huge). But neither game, and few others ever, treated the player so maturely. Here you go, whispered the game, have a plane. Fly it. Crash it if you want--you'll start again. Go faster, go slower. Get the points, ignore the points. Land on the left runway, land on the right runway. Do what YOU want.
Sure, to be fair, you couldn't move on without hitting a baseline of cumulative point totals. And moving on was oftentimes worth it. The level that best suits this topic, that trance-like was the rocketbelt. (Why they called it that and not a jetpack, I don't know.) Those levels, particularly the first, were the closest thing that an 11 year old boy in the waning years of Bush 41's presidency could come to the tagline "you'll believe that a man can fly." Controlling the man, you could shoot straight up, or vector your rockets to move horizontally. Throw in a few well-timed blasts, and it was easy to fly all around the board. There even were "bubble pockets," (at least, that's what we called them) which allowed you to land and bounce up again.
I imagine the game has held up relatively well, but I cannot imagine how many countless hours I had friends over playing Pilotwings. It was during a certain sweet spot in life, and in video games. Would an 11 year old play a plot-less, no-shooting, no-collecting, no-story game now? I doubt it.
I feel privileged, then, to have gotten that SNES for its first Christmas, to have gotten Pilotwings at our local Toys-R-US, and to have spent so much time mesmerized by flying.