Balloon Fight review
Take Flight and Pop Balloons
Throw on a blue jumpsuit, tie a pair of balloons to your waist and start flapping your arms wildly. While this may seem like a completely crazy idea for a starring character (who doesn't even get the pleasure of possessing an actual name) he does feature in an NES title that pits you against killer birds, mutant fish and lightning bolts.
The main game mode is pretty basic in concept. You must take to the night air and defeat the odd bird-like creatures by landing on them. These birds are strange in the fact that must use a balloon to stay in the air, much like our nameless hero. These birds come in a few different types, signified by their balloon colours, that determines their intelligence. While earlier stages are filled with the moronic masses that provide plenty of chances to crash down on their heads, later stages will start to mix in some tougher opponents that will do their best to stay as high as they can. While smashing onto them pops their balloon, the opposite also holds true. Allow a bird to land on you and you'll lose one of the two balloons. Lose both and Balloon Man plummets to his death below, in a style remarkably like how a certain plumber dies.
The birds don't instantly plummit though; rather, they descend slowly via parachutes. When they land they will try to reinflate their balloon to take to the skies again. This requires the player to bop them not once but at least twice. More times if they aren't fast enough. Each stage will also gladly fill the area with these enemies, so while you're dueling against one of the creatures you may have to keep watch on another four that are flying around the place.
Numerous birdies won't be the only thing to cause you hassle. As your progress you'll face more types of obstacles. Fly too close to the water for too long and watch as a large fish eats you for supper. Clouds will fire off lightning bolts that bounce off objects and will instantly fry your character if they hit. Spinner platforms will bounce anyone - friend or foe - away. While the spinner itself causes no damage, it is more than likely to fire you into dangerous situations.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle comes merely from the layout of the stages themselves. Each level is littered with free floating rocky platforms that the enemy takes off from. Navigating past these must also be a consideration of the player, and mindlessly trying to charge past can have consequences as hitting a platform at speed causes you to bounce away. Even better is that the stages change as you progress. Rather than eerily similar levels played out in succession, this game presents completely different layouts as you move through. The different positions of objects in each stage causes you to rethink the approach each time and keeps the gameplay fresh.
Each stage is generally locked to a single screen, but there is still a lot of freedom allowed. The left and right sides are joined, meaning that when a character dives off one side of the screen they will emerge on the other side. This can lead to some interesting escapes, or even unforeseen collisions, and works well to compliment the gameplay. The bottom of the screen is naturally home to a few platforms and that lethal water. The top screen has no visible barrier but is impassable, and is generally where players will be fighting the harder enemies for the higher advantage. Since it's possible to bounce off the top this can lead to some engaging conflicts against the birds.
Control in Balloon Fight is best described as slippery, and while that would normally be considered a bad thing it is actually part of the appeal of this game. In the air, the D-Pad is only used to point your character in the right direction. Actual movement is achieved by hammering the A or B buttons, which causes him to flap his arms and propel himself in a direction. The key issue though is how much importance is placed on momentum. Fly across the screen at full pelt and you'll find that turning isn't as responsive, since your momentum will carry you onward for a few seconds after turning around. This means mindless rushing will just send you everywhere. Careful approach to the action is better, although with the amount happening you are sometimes forced to fly away fast, which really helps to add to the fun.
Every so often a bonus stage presents itself. Here all obstacles are taken away and instead four background pipes are slotted in. Balloons slowly rise out of these pipes, with the aim to pop the balloons by flying into them to score points. A full clear results in a major point bonus, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Momentum once again plays a factor in reaching balloons in time.
Speaking of which, high scoring is pretty much the aim of the game. There is no dark overlord to vanquish, no ancient kingdom to save and no princess in another castle. It is that score counter at the top of the screen that is your goal. Simply surviving is difficult enough, but the score incentive adds another layer of challenge for gamers.
Balloon Fight's gameplay is unashamedly simple, but it's also a perfect example of how that can work when done right. You'll fly too fast and end up plummeting to your death. The title screen greets you and yet you cannot help but hit start to try it all again. It's got that 'just one more go' quality to it that will easily result in more than that one go. It's also varied enough to stay fresh even after so many play attempts.
A two player mode is also on offer for gamers wishing to take on the challenge together. The only difference between this and single player is that addition of an extra balloon fighter for player 2, and yet this already drastically changes up the gameplay, as it is very easy to smash into each other. You'll have a blast working to defeat the baddies together while competing for the points on offer, even if that 'accidental' collision causes a few lost lives.
Balloon Trip rounds out the game modes on offer. This single player mode has no floor other than the small platform you start on. The screen here scrolls to the side constantly and the sky is littered with lightning bolts and balloons. The goal is to fly along, avoiding the bolts and bagging the balloons. While certainly nowhere near as engaging as the main game this does serve some fun of its own. Beware though, as it is completely unforgiving, especially given its 'one hit and you're dead' attitude.
Visually the game does pretty well for an NES title. The character sprites could use with a little more detail to them but they do look fairly nice, and the terrain graphics look good. The background is pretty sparse though and since you keep seeing the same one regardless of what stage you play it can get a bit old quickly. The animation is done smoothly, and it's always interesting to see the Balloon Fighter madly flapping his arms.
Audio is something that is somewhat lacking though. For a start, the main game doesn't really play any music, and the track that loops in the Balloon Trip mode isn't really that interesting. Rather, the game more relies on its myriad of sound effects. Admittedly these are pretty good and distinctive enough to identify with the corresponding action quickly, but it's not really a suitable substitute for an actual background track.
Still, that doesn't mean all that much. What matters is that this is one heck of an addictive game, to the point it seems criminal that the plucky guy isn't featuring in more modern updates of this age old classic. Fortunately this little gem has been ported a few times, so either grab the original game or aim for one of those ports and enjoy a game that begs for another go and provides the level of challenge that will keep you entertained.