Balloon Fight (バルーンファイト) / Vs. Balloon Fight / Tingle's Balloon Fight DS (バルーンファイト, チンクルのバルーンファイトDS) - Arcade, NES, PC-8801, X1, Zaurus, GameCube, Game Boy Advance, Wii Virtual Console, DS, 3DS Virtual Console, Wii U Virtual Console (1984)
Nintendo is well-regarded as an innovator within the industry. Almost every franchise they made has prompted plenty of imitators. Occasionally, however, the company creates something derivative of another's work. But only rarely would the results lack their Disney-grade charm (like the early Radar Scope), so even titles like Devil World can break away from their roots enough to shine on their own.
Williams' Joust was released in 1982 with the simple but challenging goal of jousting waves of enemies while riding upon an avian steed. The mechanic was easy to grasp: whoever lances the higher is the victor. The key was in the execution, as the sole button controlled the flapping of your ostrich mount, requiring to cope with the hover physics to survive attacks. In many ways, Nintendo's variant of this game, Balloon Fight, performs almost exactly like its earlier Western counterpart, only with a more cartoonish twist on the matter.
As a balloon fighter, you have nothing to ride on. It's just you wearing a helmet and strapping two balloons on your back to float. Without a bird under you wing, you simply flap your arms to gain lift. Your fellow fighters only have one solo balloon keeping them aloft, but they wear menacing woodpecker masks with sharp beaks ready to pop your sole means of flight. Each balloon serves as a larger, more easily recognizable weak point to strike from above. Your double balloon harness gives you two strikes before your fall, but movement gets more difficult when you lose the first, and the you only recover your baloons after defeat or through a bonus game.
Much like Joust, the game takes place in an enclosed arena with plenty of open air to dogfight your foes. Both buttons function to flap and fly while you move around in the air with the joystick or pad, with the arena wrapping around at the left and right. Inertia plays a major role, as you need to build up lift and account for your momentum as you try to change altitude and direction. You bounce off when colliding with floating mounds of solid ground or your opponents' bodies, which can send you hurdling into danger if you're unlucky. The stage layout changes after every round (12 unique sets on the NES before looping) to make for a suitable change of pace to the static repeating arena in Joust. After completing three stages, you get a breather in form of a bonus round where you try to collect 20 balloons that drift from four pipes for added points. Two players can play at once, but they collide with each other, so without proper care "friendly fire" can make this more difficult than the single player mode.
The normal balloon-flying opponents come in three palette-swapped forms, but unlike Joust they don't turn into bonus point-garnering eggs to collect once bested. Instead, they float down via parachutes and can be finished off for extra points after they reach solid ground. While downed enemies are not a threat for the time, leaving them to their devices gives them ample time to inflate a fresh balloon and rejoin the battle. As a fair gesture, each stage starts with the beaked opponents on the ground inflating their balloons, making them sitting ducks for the speedy player to even the odds. Piling on the threat is a giant fish that lurks in the water at the bottom, ready to gobble up any combatant that flies by close enough.
In contrast to Joust, further variables come into play from two added hazards: Sparks bolt from the clouds in the background if you take too long to clear the stage, and flippers launch anyone who flies into them out of control. There are no powerups whatsoever, but bubbles float from the bottom of the screen periodically for added points per pop.
The first release of Balloon Fight was on the dual-screen arcade Vs. System late 1984. While visually similar to the more recognized NES version, there are several differences that make things more difficult. For one, the stage is more than twice as tall vertically, leading to vertical scrolling and the chance for blind hits from foes that are buzzing around off-camera. Enemies are more aggressive and simpler in their AI as they only seek to pop your balloons and don't try to evade. Their parachutes drop later than on the NES, making them fall faster out of immediate harm's way. The giant fish and sparks are quicker to appear, too. A few added PSG diddys are played for more extended periods, but the game still is rather silent, aside from constant bleeping of the enemies' flapping. The largest issue is the stiffness your flight controls, further stacking the odds against you.
The home port was published shortly after the Vs. edition hit arcades. This was developed in part by HAL Labs, and programming the NES version was one of the late Satoru Iwata's earliest cooperations with Nintendo. With the playing field limited to the size of the screen, there aren't any potential blind spots to contend with. It also has more precise controls compared to Vs. Balloon Fight, thanks to a very simple programming change. As Iwata explained, the calculations for player movement is moved a decimal point and based on the tenths rather than the arcade's interger-rounded computation, leading to a far smoother play experience. The NES port also puts the two buttons to better use, with the A button serving as the standard flap-per-press and the B button changed to a continually flapping motion. This leads to more strategy and less thumb wear, as you can switch between quick lift and delicate floating with little strain.
Another programming trick makes for smarter foes that like to play keep-away, strike from behind, and make use of the screen wraparound, rather than swarm you in a group. The fish acts more intelligently too, following your movement rather than being just a startling random snapping set of jaws.
Added to the package on NES is a Balloon Trip mode, where a single balloon fighter flies over an endless fish-ladden sea, with the skies packed with a gauntlet of sparks. There are bonus balloons to collect for score and a catchy Hip Tanaka music tune to groove to. Collecting enough balloons in a row upgrades the color to a larger point amount. Periodically appearing floating bubbles stop the right-to-left scrolling for a brief moment for some welcome relief.
As the familiar variant of the game, the NES port is also the easiest to play in later iterations, and even available as one of the playable NES titles in Animal Crossing. Balloon Fight was also the first Virtual Console release on the Wii U with the 30 cent anniversary price, with an announcement coming directly from Iwata with a mention of his personal involvement. One important significance of the NES version is the hidden legacy of its code: Iwata's floating physics would later be retooled for the swimming movements in Super Mario Bros.
Months after being released on the NES, Hudson chose Balloon Fight as the handful of Nintendo titles to convert onto Japanese home computers. These PC-88 and X1 ports are nearly identical to the NES version, save for some technical compromises. The sprites a more flickery and the scrolling for the Balloon Trip mode chugs as well, but they are okay conversions - certainly more playable than the overly ambitious Super Mario Bros. Special. Oddly, a downloadable port was made available for Sharp's Zaurus PDA, being the first portable means of playing the original Balloon Fight prior to flashing it onto the Game Boy Advance via GameCube link cable with Animal Crossing or though e-Reader cards.
In 2007, a special revamped port of the game was given away as a reward exclusively on the Japanese Club Nintendo program. Tingle's Balloon Fight DS starred the bizarre Tingle from later The Legend of Zelda installments as the balloon fighter, thanks to the self-declared fairy's perchance to float on a balloon himself. While it's based heavily on the NES version, the port uses the DS's dual screens to expand the playing field much like the arcade original. The visuals are a step up with more variety in the background shifting from day to dusk to night, and rupees are tied to the balloons Tingle collects. The DS game also offers the original NES score along with new rearrangements, up to 4-player Download Play co-op, and a gallery of Tingle art to unlock from various achievements. The movement feels gentler with better auto lift, making for a breezier experience for veterans and newcomers alike. While it never saw retail or print whatsoever outside of Japan, the game is fairly common on the secondhand market.
The Game & Watch version of Balloon Fight is an odd bird, released late into the line of Nintendo's LCD standalone games. You control the sky patrol officer Balloon Man on a quest to recapture the finned and fishy sky pirate Oiram Repus (read it backwards), who broke out of prison. The sneaky flying fishman tore the map leading to his whereabouts and tied the scraps onto balloons to keep his pursuiter busy.
The game plays like the Balloon Trip mode on the NES, using the D-pad and button to jettison. You collect the scattered pieces of the map tethered to the balloons, all while avoiding the occasional spark. Collecting these map pieces is required to proceed to the next stage, where a warp panel can send you to a bonus phase for points for a limited time. After every eigth stage, Oiram rears his ugly head and tosses a slew of sparks for you to avoid. Success nabs the pirate and the game begins again.
It's a servicable take on the Trip mode considering the limitations of the technology. Nintendo released the LCD game originally as part of the see-through screen Crystal line before furbishing new models under the New Wide Screen line, which are more plentiful to find second-hand. Nevertheless, Balloon Fight is a rare title in the lineup and was never revisited in any of the Game & Watch Gallery titles. It's only represented with a tiny unlockable museum image in the third game.
Balloon Kid / Hello Kitty World / Balloon Fight GB (ハローキティワールド, バルーンファイトGB) - Game Boy, Famicom, Game Boy Color, 3DS Virtual Console (1990)
A simple port of Balloon Fight would've sufficed for Nintendo's dot matrix portable. Its arcadey roots serves well for on-the-go action, just like the Game & Watch version. The Balloon Trip is also available, but the main mode on Game Boy is a much more full-fledged adventure; a childish one at that, but with a lot more plot than "Pop other baddies' balloons and don't die".
Balloon Kid stars a young girl named Alice who takes to the skies to save her little brother Jim. Both siblings lived in the quaint town of Pencilvania and have a fondness for balloons. Jim decided to tie all of his rainbow-colored balloons to bring color to the sky (It was made for the original monochrome brick Game Boy, after all). However, in a cartoonish folly, all of those balloons lifted Jim too high and he got snatched away in a strong gust and flew to the heavens, leaving his big sister to chase after him. Only a colorful balloon trail left by Jim leads Alice to follow and find him.
The gameplay is an expanded take on the Balloon Trip mode from the NES. The automatic right-to-left scrolling is still rare in the platforming genre, but the first levels take it slow, giving you time to adjust to the physics and controls. The A button does the usual airlift, but the B button makes Alice release her balloons and drop to the ground. Losing your only means of flight might fly in the face of the series' central element, but there are times where Alice needs to fit through narrow corridors to proceed or nab a power up. On foot, Alice can leap high on her own, but solid footing doesn't stick around forever. Taking a cue from the Balloon Bird enemies, Alice can blow up a fresh pair of balloons by tapping Down on the D-pad repeatedly. This trick can also replenish any popped balloons in a relative jiffy, but as the scrolling speed amps up in later stages, touchdowns for inflations grow thinner. While balloon collecting is not essential it adds to your score, which racks up extra lives. Collecting enough in a row doubles the balloon count per pickup, along with launching a flashing invincibility powerup balloon to nab. With a link cable, Alice can partner up with her friend/rival Samm, allowing two players to try and beat each other's score.
Alice must travel through eight levels to find her lost baby brother. Flights soar over her sharp graphite-infused town through a forest, beaches, inside a whale's belly, an ice-covered landscape, a perilous cave littered with pointy stalagtites and stalagmites, and a factory. The giant fish still lurks in the seas to gobble you up, but the bird-like Balloon Fighters are few in number throughout the game. Instead, several other foes take head as obstacles to avoid, such as walking flames, spiders, penguins, and crocodiles. Sparks also return, alongside instant fry fire hazards. Giant Game Boys appear in many stages to send you into the bonus game from the NES, albeit in a crampier form without the horizontal wraparound shortcut. Every other stage ends with a cartoonish boss blocking the path, who must be defeated with three bops on the head.
Balloon Kid is a rather breezy experience. Much of its design and theme is skewed for a young demographic, which makes the bump in difficulty in the last quarter daunting for its intended audience. The amount of lives easily racked up in the early levels serves well as a bumper when the game speed up and requires tightening precision. Most of the deaths will be in the final stretch of the game, with danger bouncing everywhere and tunnels zigzagging to reach a spark-spewing tin robot. Despite the ratcheting difficulty curve, the length of a decent playthough tops around half an hour. For a game early in the Game Boy's life cycle, this wasn't too terrible.
Balloon Kid was developed in Japan, yet never saw release there in its original form. Developer Pax Softnica would later port the game to the Famicom in 1992 and use the license of Hello Kitty and her pals. Hello Kitty World follows the exact same layouts of its portable predecessor, only with the graphics reskinned in pastel hues with plenty of colorful blocks adorning the landscape. Alice, Samm, and Jim were replaced with Hello Kitty and her twin sister Mimmy, who have to rescue Tippy Bear. The enemies were also Sanrio-ized to match, and the Game Boy minigame icons changed to strawberry cards. While the move to the home console makes for a plus in screen size, the level layouts were not changed, leading to a large vertical chunk of the screen being blocked off at all times.
Japan wouldn't see the original version of Balloon Kid until 2000, when the game was colorized and mildly expanded for a release under the Nintendo Power RAM system. This program sold rewritable carts for Super Famicom and Game Boy that could store up to 7 titles apiece and could be written at stores with a catalog of games to choose from at stores with the hardware and data. This new colored edition of the game, named Balloon Fight GB, was also written onto many of the in-store cartridges for the service. Aside from the splash of vibrant color, the game also added a simple map and a save system, so you could easily pick up where you left off and return to previous stages.
Balloon Fight GB also worked with the Super Game Boy, where it had not just one unique frame but also a hidden extra, selectable with a simple code; a far cry from the paltry pickings of the older Balloon Kid, the only Nintendo developed Game Boy title that didn't have a built-in chosen palette. Sadly, only Japan has the color release on the 3DS' Virtual Console while the rest of the world is left with the black & white one, but at least the latter is sold for much cheaper on the eShop. Naturally, both versions lose their two-player modes.
After the series had fallen off the map for over a decade, appearances related to Balloon Kid began exploding after the turn of the 21st century. The Balloon Fighter was a potential candidate for becoming a Smash contender as the retro brawler in Super Smash Bros. Melee, but that slot was given to the Ice Climber duo. As consolation, the fighter was a trophy, the flipper the pinball bumper replacement for the game, and the Balloon Trip music became the B-side track for Ice Climber's stage. While the fighter himself would never be seen in his full glory in the fighting series, the giant fish popped up as a dangerous stage hazard in Brawl's Icicle Mountain level. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS has a recreation of the NES levels of Balloon Fight as a selectable stage, complete with 2 different regular layouts, sparks, flippers, the fish, walk-off teleporting, and the tourney-safe Omega mode. The fourth game also snuck in a nod to the franchise with Animal Crossing's Villager fighter donning a helmet and two balloons to float as an Up-Special, complete with the old sound effects, movement, and falling animations recreated. The later titles in the Smash series also included remixes and medleys, focusing most of the arrangements on "Balloon Trip".
WarioWare served as a nice venture for cameos, thanks to the retro-centric 9-Volt microgame sets. Nearly every release had a visit from the fighter with brief seconds of the usual gameplay, like popping or collecting balloons, or dodging obstacles. The biggest deviations are found in Twisted!'s tilting mechanic to lead a balloon to a stranded Balloon Fighter and Smooth Move's 3D third-person viewpoint of the standard Balloon Trip mode, where the Wii remote must be flapped up and down to fly - even an endless variant of this microgame is unlockable. The Balloon Fighter also serves are the icon for playing created music in D.I.Y. and is the microgame's mascot in Game & Wario's Gamer portion.
Plenty of other tiny tidbits from the series arrived in various Nintendo products. Sprites cropped up in many puzzle titles such as Tetris DS, Picross DS, and Art Style: PiCTOBiTS. Game Boy Camera has Balloon Kid's BGM reused for certain menus, such as "Hot Spot". NES Remix and its 3DS port would add in an entire roster of challenges in Balloon Fight, along with a few simple remixed stages with the screen zooming in or out, or all the enemy fighters as mirrored copies of the player. The biggest appearance yet from the series would arrive as an attraction in 2012's Nintendo Land. "Balloon Trip Breeze" is a graphically enchanced take on Balloon Trip mode, but you can only control the flight of your floating Mii by moving gusts of wind over the Gamepad with the stylus. Iwata himself tweaked the physics of this minigame to match the NES original.
After disappearing from the minds throughout the 90s, Balloon Fight's resurgence brought a new audience a taste of the simple but addicting arcade challenge. Joust might've made a more significant historical mark on the annals of classic gaming, but the Nintendo's take of its gameplay can be seen as a remarkable improvement, along with being an example of what a programmer's knowledge and skills can bring, and that's not just a lot of hot air.