RELEASE DATE: 01/22/85 (JP), 06/1986 (US), 03/12/87 (EU)
ALSO ON: Arcade (as Vs Balloon Fight), e-Reader, Game Boy Advance, NEC PC88, Sharp X1, Switch (Vs Balloon Fight), Nintendo Switch Online, Virtual Console (Wii, Wii U)
Balloon Fight ushers in 1985 with a thunderous pop. You are the Balloon Fighter, a creature of unknown origin with two balloons strapped to his back. Did he put the balloons there? Is he fighting other ballooned creatures of his own accord? Is some other larger ballooned creature making him fight? Who can say. Balloon Fight is a simple arcade title with no story, as was the style at the time. Make up your own sordid tale and enjoy!
The journey begins…
The Balloon Fighter might have a mysterious past, but his objective is clear: pop the balloons of the other creatures before they pop his balloons. Whereas the Balloon Fighter’s two balloons are supple and bright red, his opponents get around with one languid balloon of various colors. The pink ballooned creatures are slow and meandering, which makes their balloons easy to pop. The green ballooners have a bit more pep in their step and are slightly more difficult to pop. Finally, the yellow balloonies are vicious, aggressive, and fight with reckless abandon. Pop them first, lest ye be popped.
He probably deserved it.
The stages (or “phases” as Balloon Fight likes to call them) are simple, one-screen affairs and consist of: small platforms, a pool of water at the bottom, clouds, bubbles, and stars that pepper the sky, and the occasional propeller that, once touched, flips the balloon fighters all around the stage. Most of that is self-explanatory: ground good, water bad, propeller terrible. The clouds intermittently release flashes of lightning that buzz around the screen and, if ingested, kill your fighter and his balloons in one strike. Bubbles provide a cheery, happy noise and some extra points.
You all need to die, and yet, I ask why.
When you hit an opponent’s balloon, they don’t die right away. Rather, a parachute opens and they drift slowly towards either a platform, the ground, or impending death in the water below. Pop their chute to finish the job. If they land on a platform and you fail to hit them, they’ll pump their balloons back up again. The dastards! The water drowns them just fine, but adding insult to injury is a giant fish who emerges from the water to eat them (or you, depending on how low you fly).
Every third stage is a bonus stage comprised of pipes that release balloons at various intervals. Pop all the balloons to get extra bonus points and bragging rights for at least three minutes. Strangely, unlike nearly all arcade titles, no amount of points will gain your Balloon Fighter an extra life. Sure, six figure numbers look good at the top of the screen and in my bank account, but if they don’t do anything, what’s the point?
Bet they taste like pistachio.
Option A is a one-player romp through twelve unique stages, followed by repeating stages that presumably have no end. Fun? You bet. Balloon Fight‘s off-kilter physics may have their roots in Joust, but Balloon Fight‘s protagonist controls appropriately and is considerably more enjoyable to play than its inspiration. Option B throws you and a second player into the same stage at the same time. You can choose to play nice with one another and go after the other fighters together, or you can play every fighter for himself and slaughter anyone – including your friend – who gets in your way. The latter will end quickly and hilariously, but who knows how far you’ll get if you work together.
Quite the sordid, remorseless sight.
Then there’s Option C, “Balloon Trip,” an absolutely brilliant one-of-a-kind journey through the galaxy. You control your Balloon Fighter through an automatically scrolling screen, filled with moving lightning and some green balloons. There is no ground below, only water and imminent death (the fish is back, waiting to gobble you whole). Also, you start your trip at Rank 47. Who’s ranking you and why? Just another of Balloon Fight‘s devious mysteries.
This is Balloon Fighter’s punishment and reward.
Your mission in Balloon Trip: pop as many balloons as you can, lower your rank, don’t absorb lightning. Each balloon you pop lowers your rank by 1 until you reach Rank 01. The Trip then continues until you make a mistake or turn off the console. This is easier said than done. Only true Balloon Fighters with nerves of steel and fingers of might will achieve the coveted Rank 01. But what a thrill to try and try again! Weaving around the constantly moving lightning while narrowly grabbing a balloon still feels so right nearly forty years later.
All good trips come to an end.
Balloon Fight remains one of Nintendo’s premiere early titles for the Famicom/NES. Its simple arcade gameplay is enhanced through clever visual comedy and wise decisions like two-player simultaneous gameplay, enjoyable bonus stages, and the flawless Balloon Trip. Truly a classic title and a perfect way to kick off Famicom’s 1985.