Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.
Today’s review is based upon both the NES Balloon Fight as presented on Nintendo Switch Online/NES Classic Edition and the arcade iteration (Vs. Balloon Fight) available on Nintendo Switch.
“However, what I love about Balloon Fight is that it has this one simple idea, and from that one idea so many different gameplay possibilities emerge. That is a feeling I don’t want to see disappear from games.” -Satoru Iwata, 1999
Let’s get this out of the way: I positively adore Balloon Fight. It is, without question, the one stone-cold NES masterpiece without the words “Mario” or “Zelda” in the title — an enduring model of Nintendo’s burgeoning design ethos in compact accessibility. Be it my NES Classic, the Ambassador download stored in my OG 3DS, or Switch’s online NES catalog, I can set aside ten minutes, indulge an hour, or cap off a night and never once endure an ounce of tedium, popping enemy balloons as I flutter my pudgy little avatar out and about. It’s my little slice of retro Nirvana — a joyous bout of life or death operating to the rhythm of cartoon antics and chiptune whimsy. Balloon Fight requests little-to-no time investment, welcoming anyone and everyone with only one appeal: Shoot for that high-score if you must, but above all else — get out there.
And yet, the studious game scholar could certainly cite Balloon Fight‘s success not to Nintendo; indeed, whereas most players are familiar with the NES classic, the original arcade iteration in Vs. Balloon Fight not only released two months earlier (November 1984 to January 1985’s Famicom release), but its vertical-based level structure alone functions as a different beast than its cousin’s fixed, horizontal-based screen. Likely meant to capitalize upon the separate screens for co-op play, this version still adheres to the same balloon-busting goals, wherein a lone soldier, buoyed by two balloons, flaps around to down an army of bird-masked men. (Interestingly, this Japanese flyer reveals an abandoned hazard: a mysterious blue missile that’d rocket across the skies. What would its purpose have been?)
With the likes of Donkey Kong, Ice Climber, and Mario Bros. functionally identical (more or less) to their NES counterparts, had this design shift not already turned off curious Switch owners itching for a slice of Nintendo history, the evident differences in physics and controls may very well do so — the precise flapping physics are dulled to clumsy swagger, and players who depended on NES’s auto-flap button may find themselves grounded by its arcade absence. Such a rare inverse of quality in arcade-to-home console ports shocked no one more than Nintendo — while their own SRD team developed the arcade game, the home console port was handled by their up-and-upcoming contractor in HAL Laboratory, who discovered the likes of gravity and acceleration were better calculated by decimal points rather than integers. (An impressed Nintendo would later borrow this formula for Super Mario Bros.‘s swimming controls.)
To that end, one could very well say Balloon Fight‘s legacy is owed to the dedication of one man: a certain Satoru Iwata — a genius programming prodigy who’d later bear the mantle of Nintendo presidency. While not the only man responsible for Balloon Fight — Game Boy architect Gunpei Yokoi spring-boarded the concept and supervised its progress, while Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto illustrated the pixel art — the game’s synonymous with Iwata’s famed wizardry in game design. This comes as no surprise to those familiar with Iwata’s resume; as it happens, he worked on the Famicom/NES port of 1982’s Joust: a Western sci-fi/fantasy venture which Balloon Fight features more than a passing resemblance. Don’t worry, this isn’t the set-up for a Balloon Fight vs. Joust article; as Hardcore Gaming 101‘s analysis reminds us, such iterative variants were especially common in the deluge of 80’s arcade games, and we can hardly fault Nintendo for embarking on that same path. (If anything, recently-unearthed comments from former president Hiroshi Yamauchi shouldn’t shock long-time Nintendo fans; if not stubborn to a fault, the man was known for his pragmatism.)
And yet, were I forced to blip one out of existence, I’d sacrifice Joust in a heartbeat. In my past Nintendo-themed 8-Bit Chronicles pieces, I keep referencing what I call “the Nintendo Cartoon.” This isn’t something I mean to disseminate among the broader gamer lexicon; nay, it’s just my personal observation of the innate cartoon antics engineering our favorite 80’s Nintendo arcade titles, well-meaning misfires (Ice Climber) or beloved classics (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros.) alike. A quality persistently beating throughout their family-friendly library, it is perfectly reasonable, say, to remain ambivalent about 2003’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker for the evident consequences of a rushed product or 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey for getting a little too experimental in revisiting the Super Mario 64 formula; it is much less reasonable, however, to shrug off their dedication to ageless colorful shenanigans, be it the foibles of Wind Waker‘s enemy AI or Odyssey‘s camera-prime scenarios. (And to quell any notions of Nintendo fanboyism seeping through, let’s not forget I illustrated a similar parallel in my Pac-Land article.)
Strictly within the confines of Nintendo’s arcade pantheon, can we say there is anything more animated than Balloon Fight: a non-contextual war between one diminutive, stout little man and avian-masked soldiers as they vigorously wiggle their stumpy arms, suspended by balloons as they furiously bop each other above a lake home to a ferocious man-eating fish. Merely just observing it is a delight — like a mischievous youth cracking under anticipation for their latest prank, Balloon Fight gleefully succumbs to pandemonium not even five seconds into any one match, with helplessly-dangling parachutes and desperate air pumps preyed upon by intrusive agents of chaos. (Sure, being devoured by a fish may damper your day, but how about getting electrocuted by a stray lightening bolt?)
Through navigating wraparound screens and dodge enemy dive-bombs, a Balloon Fight newcomer may grow overconfident with their lone avatar’s two balloons — their zeal blinding them to the lessened precision and flaky flotation delivered a popped lifeline. Meanwhile, the more observant player may note the three brands of enemy soldiers — Pink, Green, and Yellow — aren’t mere palette swaps: the Pink ones are clumsy, unconfident foot-soldiers awkwardly shuffling across the lake, whereas the Yellow fighters are hardened, predatory assassins calculatedly stalking your character. Point-gathering methods are gradually deciphered: for instance, each enemy color’s worth varies in the points offered. Popping their parachutes — a last-ditch effort upon being popped — reaps greater rewards than simply kicking them aside. Bubbles — the death signature of their watery grave — float amid the aerial warfare, but while they may offer a tantalizing 500 points, is the risk worth a potentially fatal end?
Throughout the game’s twelve unique stages — all giving way to an endless loop — battlefield hazards frequently seek to down your fighter. With numerous bloodthirsty soldiers after your hide, it’s all too easy for ricocheting lightening bolts to weave through their ranks and zap you; meanwhile, airborne Flippers transform certain arenas into veritable pinball, batter friend and foe alike. But no matter what battle you’re waging, the man-eating fish lurks just beneath the depths, ready to snap up any airborne fighter carelessly drifting above its nest. As explained in Iwata’s guest Game Center CX appearance (seen above) when he demonstrates his masterpiece, he purposely designed the gluttonous beast’s movement pattern to patrol back and forth in the water — all for the sake of startling player and computer alike! As it’s entirely possible to escape his massive jaws, might the daredevil Balloon Fighter might calculate his movement as they lure in enemy troops?
Grim, sure. Hysterical? Absolutely — in its penchant for visual comedy, Balloon Fight operates as a test of willpower as much as it’s a timeless frivolity, wherein the player often succumbs to personal temptation for the sake of laughter and thrills. Bubbles and the fish are two obvious death-prone examples, but more harmless gaffes present a healthy equilibrium; take, say, the parachute-deployed enemy soldier: his slow descent leaves him prime for an incoming swoop to finish the job…that is, until we realize his flight path lands him directly into the giant fish’s hungry mandibles. Do we lose potential points? Yes, but the thought of letting nature take its course is simply too much to pass up. And even then, who am I to say that’s a “gaffe” when that still wins the match? Balloon Fight‘s natural inertia ensures any one playstyle isn’t easy to maintain, but it never compromises fun for meticulous skill — I may earn less points by kicking away grounded troops, but why resist plowing through them like bowling pins?
If cynicism must seep through Balloon Fight, than one must look no further than the game’s raucous multiplayer — while following the same rules as solo-play, there is but one caveat: you can pop each other’s balloons. This co-op competition instantly turns dastardly, as even a gentleman’s agreement of cooperation can instantly shatter in the face of accidental collisions; an inevitable occurrence, what with the game’s floaty controls. And that’s not even factoring the devious possibility of aerial troopers purposely popping their partner’s balloons — I can assure you, dear reader, that as a devout adherent to the Balloon Fight code, yours truly never partook in such a heinous act. Nope, not at all.
All in all, an impressive conversion — one even generous enough to include an additional third mode in Balloon Trip. Apparently born out of Yokoi’s desire for more content, this side-scrolling affair frames itself as a survival challenge, tasking us to navigate deadly mazes of suspended weather phenomena as we pop balloons all the while. Never straying far from the original game’s DNA, tantalizing bubbles distract us from our objective as they nonchalantly float about, and the ever-ominous fish may rear his ugly head — a cautious reminder not to dip too low, we may find that an impossible endeavor depending on our flight-path. Some, like Sakamoto, may even end preferring Balloon Trip for the challenge it presents; myself, it’s a much-appreciated side-venture, but the innate stress involved renders Game A’s endless pandemonium a more attractive choice. (Regardless of wherever your opinion lies, can you believe Iwata whipped this mode up in three days?)
And yet, I’d be remiss to hand-wave Balloon Trip if not for its secret weapon: its theme, one of the finest all of NES earworms. An unbridled parade of glee, it supersedes the doubts we may’ve held prior by largely suppressing frustration, its infectious exuberance inspiring us to try again and again. And this isn’t even getting into the main game itself — to cite any one video game as being Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s magnum opus is next-to-impossible (Dr. Mario‘s also famously catchy, Metroid‘s a haunting piece of atmosphere, and the EarthBound games, well, exist), yet I suspect Balloon Fight‘s 8-bit orchestra may very well be a top contender. Masterfully responding to its environmental going-ons, the ubiquitous chatter of aerial warfare’s punctuated by a whimsical carnival ditty accompanying a parachute-suspended trooper to a classic horror sting whenever the fish eats a combatant. (Now there’s an attention-grabbing warning if I ever heard one.)
(As it happens, immediately following Iwata’s death, Tanaka released a chiptune tribute to his former co-worker — doesn’t Iwata’s earnest legacy lay itself bare? I’d like to see Mr. Tanaka play it live just once.)
Courtesy of Hudson Soft, there existed Japan-only ports for Sharp X1 (seen above) and NEC PC-8801, each released one month apart in 1985. While the latter’s something of a choppy, molasses-laden mess, the Sharp X1 conversion’s a decent conversion of the original game — while the palette limitations and sound downgrades are evident, the trademark floaty gameplay’s still sharp enough to keep us on our toes. (Okay, sorry…) This wouldn’t be the end of Sharp’s relationship with Balloon Fight — not only did the Zaurus PDA feature a direct NES port of Balloon Fight (handled by Sonic Powered) in 2001, but an extremely rare port for Sharp MZ-1500 has apparently only ever been documented with this footage.
(Alas, the only comprehensive breakdowns I could find regarding gameplay/performance differences hail from ever-meticulous fan–wikis; granted, said wiki’s put in some diligent work, but more cautious readers may simply desire to judge for themselves with the provided videos.)
With Balloon Fight‘s early success cementing it as a bona fide NES classic, you’d think its entourage of sequels and spin-offs — Balloon Kid (Game Boy — never released in Japan), Balloon Fight GB (A GBC remaster of Balloon Kid — Japan-only), a Balloon Trip-themed Game & Watch game, and yes, a Nintendo-licensed venture in Hello Kitty World (again, using Balloon Kid as a basis) — would’ve helped kick off an enduring IP; alas, all quickly faded into obscurity — a fate undoubtedly owed to their region-exclusive availability. Aside from DS’s Tingle’s Balloon Fight — a Japan-only Club Nintendo reward featuring Zelda‘s maligned man-child — Nintendo’s since stuck to in-game tributes rather than full-fledged sequels. Even so, that hasn’t stopped fans from crafting modern tributes, not the least in 2004’s Balloon Duel — a popular flash game emphasizing customization and in-game rankings. (And if you’re in the mood for a good cry, let’s not forget how one Balloon Fight mod implanted an Iwata sprite following his death.)
Not to be outmatched, Nintendo certainly hasn’t slacked in expressing their own fondness for their ancient classic, be it visual callbacks (an abandoned copy in Hey! Pikmin, Pushmo and Picross puzzles, and one of Super Mario Maker‘s many Mystery Mushroom costumes) to re-imagined deviations (A Nintendo Land attraction in Balloon Trip Breeze and WarioWare: Smooth Moves’s 3D take on Balloon Trip) and a veritable gallery within the Smash Bros. museum (a stage with wraparound mechanics, numerous remixes — not the least in one arranged by Hip Tanaka himself, whose chiptune magic naturally made our Best 25 Smash 3DS/Wii U Remixes list — a Melee-exclusive item in the Flipper, and even Animal Crossing‘s Villager donning the Balloon Fighter’s helmet and balloons to recover). Much as I’m tempted to cite the Smash Bros. stage as my favorite tribute (if only for the absurdity of Ultimate‘s “Other” My Music catalog; hey, where else can I witness Undertale music accompanying a Balloon Fight backdrop?), I know in my heart that Balloon Trip Breeze is the correct answer: it’s no surprise it’s the closest ever had to a direct follow-up given how it was the last time Iwata stepped back into programming. (His only design venture as CEO, I believe.)
Could a modern sequel to Balloon Fight ever take flight? Maybe Balloon Duel had the right idea, but I instead think back to huddling around the virtual cartridge resting deep within my Animal Crossing basement — waging an eternal war underneath those nostalgic Lite-Brite stars. As Balloon Fight‘s legacy endured in everything from Virtual Console to e-Reader cards, we aren’t merely partaking in Nintendo’s formative dawn or the work ethic of one man, but an idea: that the simplest of concepts can give birth to innumerable methods of approach, realizing unpredictable developments that lure us ever deeper into a game’s depths. Balloon Fight beats deep within the cause-and-effect chaos of Smash Bros., soars with the intrinsic creativity of Minecraft, and echoes with our latest Tetris solution — all games malleable to the curious invention of the human mind.
So long as gaming commits to that philosophy, Balloon Fight lives on, and that alone may very well render it Nintendo’s true NES masterwork. Wherever he is, Mr. Iwata has nothing to fear.
— Alagunder (@MrSaturn99) June 10, 2020
(By the way, this is the arcade game, but I’m quite proud of this footage; boy, was that a close call or what?)