Oh Good ol’ balloon fight. Where do I start with this classic NES title? It’s original Japanese release was for Nintendo’s classic console, the Famicom, before working getting released for it’s western counterpart, the NES, as one of the consoles’ famous Black Box games. Like several other early NES titles, it also had an arcade version appropriately titled “VS Balloon Fight, which actually came out before the NES/Famicom version. It’s since been ported to a handful of 80’s PCs, got a second arcade port via the NES Play Choice 10, has been released on each iteration of the Virtual Console and NES Online service, and was also available on the Game Boy Advance e-Reader, which is actually the first version of the game that I owned as a kid. Even though my first copy of the game was for the e-Reader, I had actually grown up playing the NES release at a family friend’s house. The teenage son of one of my mom’s friends used to baby sit me when I was little, and I remember being mesmerized by his NES collection, as I recognized the console due to my Mom owning one and a copy of Super Mario Bros. Playing his NES when I’d visit his house was actually how I was introduced to games like Balloon Fight, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and is probably one of the reasons why I’m a fan of retro gaming to begin with.
But back to Balloon Fight.
At it’s core, Balloon fight is an extremely simple game and owes a lot of it’s design to 1982’s Joust. Honestly, while one could easily put both games beside one another and quickly conclude that Balloon Fight is nothing more than a Joust clone, I like to think that they’d be wrong in that regard. While undeniably similar to Joust, I do think the tweaks and variations that Nintendo’s version made to the graphics and presentation of the game make it a more interesting and fun experience. However, this could also just be bias on my part, as I’ve been playing Balloon Fight for as long as I can remember.
I’ve always felt that, when it came to the early NES library, specifically the black box titles, games came in one of three flavors. There were your sports titles which mostly haven’t aged well, your arcade titles that have aged better but are also rooted in mid 80’s game design, for better or for worse, and your company defining Italian Plumber’s games. Oh, and fourth tier for the Donkey Kong games, which honestly fall into the second tier of early NES games but are more iconic due to featuring Donkey Kong. However, of all of the early NES’s arcade-style games, again excluding Donkey Kong, I actually think that Balloon Fight is the best of the console’s early offerings.
Upon bootup, Balloon Fight has three different modes. It has your standard single player mode, a cooperative mode that mirrors it, albeit with a second player and the inclusion of friendly fire, and a third mode named Balloon Trip, which I’ll get into later.
The main objective of Balloon Fight is to fly your character around the stage in order to pop the balloons of the other characters on screen. You can pop their balloons by crashing into them from above, which sends them parachuting to the ground. Once they’re on the ground, you’ll be able to — uh — kill them, I guess, by crashing into them a second time, though it can be from eye level now if you like to stare your victims in the eye before de-rezzing them. If you fail to finish them off once they’ve landed, they’ll eventually inflate new balloons and take to the skies again.
Like I said earlier, it’s a very simple game and fits in very well with other arcade titles from the early 80’s. While there are obstacles for you to avoid, such as a giant fish, flippers that would later become iconic thanks to their appearance in the Super Smash bros series and lightning sparks that can one shot you, Balloon Fight lays a lot of its cards on the table in it’s first stage, which only has three enemies and a single large platform. This first stage is incredibly easy and can be beaten in seconds, but it’s a low stakes enough arena for new players to acquaint themselves with the controls.
In order to fly, you’ll need to repeatedly tap the A-button or hold the B-button on your controller in order to make your character flap his arms as if they were wings. The controls are remarkably simple, and perfectly functional. They’re good, but not too good, and can best be described as the right mix of being floaty enough to be challenging, but responsive enough to feel intuitive, falling perfectly into the arcade design maxim of being “easy to learn and hard to master.” While your character is flapping his arms, you’re able to steer him to the left and right of the screen, either to chase or escape your enemies. Because you can only steer while you’re flapping your arms, there’s a layer of strategy to traveling around the game’s stages, and you’ll often find yourself needing to balance your ascent and descent in order to wiggle your way out of tricky situations and avoid taking a hit. Similarly, you’ll often find yourself rocking the d-pad to the left and right in order to stop yourself from overshooting your target. Your character comes stocked with two balloons and can get hit twice before losing a life. I love the fact that this is clearly telegraphed to the player by the number of balloons that your character has as, while it’s a small detail, it’s as quick and easy an idea to pick up as the rest of the game, which helps with it’s accessibility. If you lose a balloon and finish a stage, you aren’t automatically re-equipped with an additional balloon until you reach the games bonus stage, which has you chasing free floating balloons as they escape from pipes. Again, really simple stuff here, but a lot of fun nonetheless due to the controls, which keep things feeling just a little hectic.
While I’m not the best Balloon Fight player in the world, I never feel particularly cheated out of a life when I’m playing the game. Yes, there are moments where I feel out of control of my character, but I always am reminded of the fact that this is by design and, as such, don’t feel that frustrated. The only real complaint I have is that you don’t get any sort of invincibility frame after you take a hit, which means that it’s easy for enemies to trap you on the top of the map and quickly pop both of your balloons, causing you to lose a life. This probably has more to do with the game being from the mid 80s than anything though, and while I’m not thrilled about it, does lead to more tense and thoughtful gameplay for you, the player.
Presentation wise, Balloon Fight also keeps things simple. Your character has a couple of animations that he cycles through, and is a fairly small and undetailed sprite. Despite this, it’s a little hard not to get a feel for the sort of character that he is, given his primary color scheme and the fact that he’s flying around on balloons. He comes across as a bit whimsical and playful and certainly represents that Nintendo wholesomeness that the company has tried to sell us since the 80s. In fact, I vaguely remember thinking that he was Mario as a kid, likely due to him and the unpowered up Mario sprite from the original Super Mario Bros being similar sizes. The graphics surrounding him are also somewhat playful — though it’s interesting that Balloon Fight takes place at night against a black background when the games playful theme and premise are almost begging for a sunshiney backdrop, which is even reflected in the games Famicon artwork. I’m assuming this had something to do with hardware and color palette limitations from the time, but I could be wrong. Either way, I actually like how sparse the background is in this game as it keeps the focus squarely on your character and his opponents, who are colored to contrast against you.
There’s even a lack of music in the typical Balloon Fight stage, which also points towards trying to focus on popping your enemies bubbles. That’s not to say that there isn’t accompaniment to the gameplay though. In addition to the sorts of bleeps and bloops that you’d expect from an NES title, there’s also what could best be described as “free-form sine-waves” that follow you through the gameplay. It’s a little hard to listen to at first, sounding a bit like but I’ve even kind of come to be amused by it and like to imagine Bugs Bunny conducting a high-pitched Moog synth or something whenever I hear it start playing. I honestly don’t miss listening to chiptune-y music while I’m playing this game, which might be due to it’s arcadey design. It reminds me of being in high school and playing Atari 2600 or early arcade game on an emulator in the middle of the night, with my only accompaniment being the bleeps and bloops of the gameplay.
However, that’s not to say that Balloon Fight doesn’t have traditional music in it. In fact, Balloon Fight has what might be one of my favorite NES tunes of all time. In the games bonus stages, as well as in it’s third game mode, Balloon Trip, the game hits you with an absolute bop of a song. It’s an extremely playful song that has the kind of bassline that gets stuck in your head, as well as a melody that’s equally catchy. Balloon Fight also has a great game over jingle that, in my opinion, is equally catchy Both tunes capture the sort of whimsical presentation that I believe elevates this game over Joust. There’s a breeziness to this game that feels incredibly inviting to newcomers, and the music, despite how it isn’t even played during levels, is a great companion to that.
Speaking of Balloon Trip, it’s crazy to think that this is only a secondary game mode, as it’s extremely addictive. Instead of floating around a static screen and trying to ruthlessly murder other air travelers, the objective of this mode is to navigate a autoscrolling obstacle course, which is filled with sparks for you to avoid, balloons for you to collect, and bubbles that can stop the screen from moving for a couple seconds. That’s seriously all there is to it; it’s an extremely quaint romp that repackages the flight mechanics of the main game and turns them into an endurance test. While it’s the part of the game that a lot of us remember most fondly, it’s also really only designed to be secondary to the main game mode. That said, I’d honestly love to see Nintendo revisit Balloon Fight and give this mode a treatment similar to Super Mario Bos 35 or Tetris 99. I think the idea of racing through an obstacle course with maybe a dozen or so other players would be a lot of fun, and it would be cool to see Nintendo revisit another one of it’s classic games outside of giving his trademark flying abilities to Animal Crossing characters in Super Smash Bros.
And there you have it. Like I’ve said multiple times throughout this review, Balloon Fight is an extremely simple game. While it doesn’t have that much going for it in terms of variety or complex objectives, it gets a lot of mileage out of what is there and honestly has some pretty incredible physics for an early NES game. Thanks to being such a common early NES title, as well as one that’s not necessarily in that high of demand, it doesn’t seem to command that high of a price online either, at least once you factor in the fact that NES games seem to be rising in price, That’s mostly anecdotal to what I’ve seen though, but the point I’m trying to make is that Balloon Fight is a great addition to any NES newcomers collection. It provides tons of fun, bite-sized, gameplay through it’s main game mode, as well as a ton of fun to be had via the Balloon Trip mode. If you’re new to collecting for the NES and are looking for something easy to pick up and play, perhaps with family or a younger sibling, you really can’t go wrong with Balloon fight. And for Nintendo Switch owners, you can actually play the game for free right now through Nintendo Switch Online. If you’re like me and like to mindlessly play video games while you rewatch a TV show for the millionth time, this game will be right up your alley!