Float up, up, and away in this exciting balloon busting Black Box game!
To Beat: Pass Phase 12 in the main game and get Rank 1 in Balloon Trip
To Complete: Roll the score (1,000,000 points) in the main game and get Rank 1 in Balloon Trip
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Completed the game with scores of 1,194,750 and 28,260
Played: 3/29/16 – 3/30/16
My Difficulty: 2/10
Arcade style games such as Balloon Fight pose some interesting questions around what it means to beat the game. On a game that has no ending, how do you determine when you’ve played enough of the game to consider it done? Similar to my dilemma with Tetris, the answer is not always clean cut but I believe a line can be drawn. In this blog I will outline my thoughts as well as cover a very fun black box NES title.
Balloon Fight was originally developed as the arcade title Vs. Balloon Fight released in 1984. It was developed by Nintendo’s SRD division. Later in January 1985 it was released on the Famicom and that port was developed by HAL Laboratories. Balloon Fight came out in the US in August 1986 and in Europe in 1987. All versions of the game were published by Nintendo.
There was a sequel called Balloon Kid that was released on Game Boy in the US in October 1990 and Europe in January 1991. It is a side scrolling platformer game instead of a single screen arcade style game. It was later released on Famicom in March 1992 rebranded as Hello Kitty World. The game is more or less identical to the Game Boy game but with Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters in place of the original characters. Japan would later receive Balloon Kid in the form of Balloon Fight GB for the Game Boy Color in 2000.
Balloon Fight is a single-screen platform action game. You control a balloon fighter who takes flight by flapping his arms and using balloons above his head to take flight. The object of the game is to eliminate all the other balloon fighters on the screen by popping their balloons and subsequently knocking them out. The game plays very similar to the arcade classic Joust by Williams Electronics released in 1982. By ramming into the other enemies’ balloons they will float down and you can bop their parachute to remove them from play. If the enemy lands on solid ground you can still ram into them to take them out, but wait too long and they will reinflate their balloons and attack you more aggressively. The enemies can knock out your balloons as well but you are able to take an extra hit. You start with two balloons and the enemy can knock out one of them leaving you with just one. Flying with only one balloon is more difficult because you need to flap longer to gain momentum. One more hit and you will lose the other balloon and go falling to your death.
There are three different versions of the enemy balloon fighter that you can distinguish by the color of the balloons they carry. The pink balloon fighter is the weakest, the green balloon fighter is stronger, and the white balloon fighter is the most difficult one. More points are awarded for defeating the stronger enemies. There are other obstacles to contend with too. Each stage has water at the bottom that contains a big fish. Swim too closely to the water and the fish will pop up and eat you up. This can also play to your advantage with the enemies can be eaten too. When you knock out an enemy a bubble will emerge and float up from the water that you can pop for bonus points. Some of the later levels contain stationary spinning bumpers that will launch one of the fighters away upon contact. There are also clouds in the background that will periodically generate a lightning bolt that launches a spark. These sparks are tiny but deadly to the touch for the player and they bounce off the platforms and the sides of the screen until they hit either the player or the water at the bottom. The sparks act as a “hurry up” mechanic that appear continuously when playing the same level for a little while, and they appear quite early in later stages.
There are 12 unique level layouts in Balloon Fight. Once Level 12 has been completed the game continues on to Level 13 but it loops back to the Level 4 layout. You can keep playing for as long as you can handle and the game will keep looping through Levels 4-12. You start the game with three lives and that is all you get for the entire game. There are no continues and no way to earn extra lives. Getting a high score in this game is a test of endurance and careful control.
After every three stages there is a bonus round. Here there are no enemies and balloons float up out of four background pipes. You pop the balloons for points and if you can pop all 20 balloons in the stage you are rewarded with a large point bonus. The bonus stage layout is the same but there are three different difficulties each with a different color balloon that floats at increasing speeds. If you play for a long time you will see the fastest balloons every round. The order in which the balloons emerge from the pipes is completely random so you will be on your toes trying to pop them all. Another benefit to the bonus stage is that it will set you back to having both balloons if one was lost earlier.
The controls for Balloon Fight are simple but they take time to master. You press A to flap your arms and you can repeatedly press A to fly higher and higher. Alternately, hold B to auto flap. Balloon Fight is very momentum based and each flap will slightly adjust your velocity. Turning around is challenging because each flap also lifts you up as well as nudging you horizontally. Especially when the sparks are bouncing around with multiple enemies on screen it is really important to be in control of your fighter or you won’t last long.
Balloon Fight can be played in two-player simultaneous mode. Work together with a partner to clear the screen of enemies, or you can attack each other if you want. I believe in the bonus room it is safe to attack each other without losing a life. I’m sure it’s a blast to play this way but I’ve never had the chance to play two-player mode.
Finally there is another game mode called Balloon Trip. This is an endless scrolling level scattered with sparks that send you to your doom. You only get one life in this mode. The game scrolls to the left starting with a short pre-defined level layout. Past that the level consists of random sparks that slowly move around. This is purely about surviving the obstacles and lasting as long as you can. You slowly but continuously rack up points just by staying alive, but there are also random balloons to collect for points. Occasionally a bubble will rise out of the water below and popping it freezes the screen for a short time so you can get yourself in good position to survive. The big fish is hiding in the water as well so it’s important to stay high. If you can collect a bunch of balloons in a row without losing any off the screen scroll, then you get a nice point bonus as well as advancing all balloons to the next level of balloon that awards more points. There are three different balloon colors just the same as the bonus round in the main game. There is also a ranking system that compares your score against the top 50 scores so you can see how you stack up. There’s no way to see the top scores and they reset when the game does, but it is there to kind of track your progress when you play.
Balloon Fight is a game that I have always found interest in but took me a long time to find a way to play. My first experience with the game may have been on an emulator back in the 90’s. I know I unlocked it as one of the NES games you can play within Animal Crossing on GameCube and that was one of my most played games there. Later I would buy it on Wii Virtual Console. However I didn’t own an actual cartridge of it even though I had collected many NES games early on. My local store got a copy for $10 and I bought it the first time I saw it. The only other copy I’ve seen was a really beat up, filthy copy for about the same price and I passed on it.
I have played the main game before most recently in 2014 as part of the NA weekly contest. I scored 1,239,250 which was good for 4th place that week. I’ve sunk a bit of time into Balloon Trip but I can’t remember if I have ever gotten Rank #1 in that mode. The score to achieve isn’t all that high so it’s very possible that I’ve met that before as well.
Even though there are only 12 unique levels in the game, I much prefer to keep going until I reach the point of highest difficulty. Unfortunately for Balloon Fight there isn’t any information I could find on how the game ramps up in difficulty. From my experience, it seems that the enemies themselves do not get more aggressive or faster, and the level layouts seem to maintain the same mix of enemies every time. What I did notice is that in later loops, the enemies initially inflate their balloons quicker so that they are airborne sooner. It did seem that I reached a point where that timeframe didn’t go any faster but I can’t be 100% sure. So, in lieu of playing to the unknown point of max difficulty, I decided to aim for maxing out the score. The counter is only six digits and after 999,950 it rolls over back to zero and starts over. I felt a little bit bad about not finishing all the difficulties of Operation Wolf last time so I decided to go a little deeper with Balloon Fight than I would normally.
I was able to max out the score in my 7th attempt over two nights of play. The first night I played three attempts maxing out around 700K. I then tried Balloon Trip and I beat the high score with Rank #1 on my very first attempt. However, I missed my shot at taking the picture so I had to try again. I don’t remember how many more tries I needed but it wasn’t very many. The next night on the main game I nearly rolled the score on my fourth overall attempt but I ended just short at 970K. I had missed a perfect on a couple of the bonus levels and one of those would have bumped my score over the million mark. The next two attempts were not nearly as good but on the seventh and final attempt I surpassed a million points on my last life. I finished with a score of 1,194,750 on Phase 54 and I didn’t miss a single balloon in any of the bonus rounds. Here was when I went back to check my personal best score and I saw that I was just short of surpassing that mark. However, for the purposes of this blog, Balloon Fight is now checked off the list!
I base my difficulty rankings on what it takes to simply beat the game, and in this case it makes sense to say it’s beaten whenever the levels start looping again. Since Balloon Trip is never ending, beating the top score is the most logical landmark. Considering all that, this is a pretty easy game once you get used to the controls. Balloon Trip seems harder than the regular game but since each run can be so short it’s just a matter of time before an attempt is good enough to take top honors. I beat both modes on my first try and I only kept playing to max out the score on the main mode.
I mentioned before that the NES version of Balloon Fight was developed by HAL Laboratories, but it was specifically programmed by the late Satoru Iwata. He was developing Balloon Fight alongside the team creating the arcade version, and when they compared versions they noticed that the NES game controlled better than the arcade game. Mr. Iwata explained to the other team he accomplished this by saving the tenth’s place of the character position instead of rounding it off to the nearest integer. To actually locate the character on screen requires ignoring the decimal places, but by keeping that data in the movement calculations it leads to much smoother looking movement of the characters on screen.
Balloon Fight is a simple but well executed and fun early NES title. I think it is one of the better black box titles as it is fun to pick up and play while providing long play for more experienced players. The control is very well done and the graphics are simple but clear. The only negative graphically I find is that it is tough to distinguish between the pink balloon enemies and the white balloon enemies. The sound is very basic as well since it is limited mostly to the sound effects driven by events in the game play. There is a nice tune in the Balloon Trip mode which I find pretty catchy. This game is enjoyable to play and that’s what really matters.