As I write, I’ve just played the Amiga version of International Truck Racing for the very first time! It’s a top-down truck racer that I’ve always had a soft spot for on Commodore 64 despite it being a bit crap! It’s even more crap on the Amiga, with accelerate on the up control which means a wrestling match every time you turn a corner. The size of the trucks compared to the road also makes overtaking a wrestling match, but for all of that, as well as the dreadful solid black boxes representing everyone’s trailer, I kind of like it! The C64 version came very late in its life, around 1992, but I’ve always considered it to be my great gaming guilty pleasure – a jerky, lumbering Micro Machines that somehow manages to take way longer to outstay its welcome than it ever deserves!
Far more recently, also on the Amiga, I discovered a new guilty pleasure to add to the list in case anyone ever asks. Which they sometimes do! And that’s MIG-29 Soviet Fighter by Codemasters in 1989 which, since coming across it in the Spring of 2022, for some reason I can’t leave alone! Okay, it’s way too difficult, and like International Truck Racing, it’s definitely not going to win any awards for how it looks, but there’s something about its more “tactical” take on Afterburner that’s properly hooked me. Even if I still can’t get off the first level… Even with a nuclear bomb!
While the question about guilty pleasures does quite often do the rounds, it did lead me to think about a question you don’t get asked so much in retro gaming circles, namely what’s your gaming heresy? It is a very strong and religious and not very fun word I suppose! But all the same, I think when applied to gaming, an opinion contrary to orthodox thinking is always an interesting one. Which I also suppose is a question that does get asked in less dramatic terms quite a lot, now I think about it! That said, it’s not one we’ve ever properly explored here, so let’s take a look at my top two heresies, or plain old unpopular gaming opinions, and then we’ll jump into the third in a bit more detail!
While there’s all kinds of sacred ground I don’t care for, like The Last of Us, Hades, Dead Space and Portal, there’s no excitement in indifference, so if we’re talking things I do care about one way or the other, then there’s no doubt about my biggest gaming heresy, and that’s the best Pac-Man! Now, if we also assume we’re excluding pioneering side-scrolling platformers, then my undisputed favourite version of Pac-Man isn’t Pac-Man at all, but Alien on Atari 2600. The character is responsive; the seemingly random nature of the alien AI is challenging and often panic-inducing; the mazes feel good and its Frogger bonus screen is a really nice incentive to keep going, though the concept is arguably just as addictive without it. And it’s got 2600-cool aliens from Alien chasing after you, which is loads better than crazy flickering ghosts! And as we discussed when we had a more detailed look at Alien, for me at least, that all combines with a clear love of the film that might not be able to transcend the technical limitations of the time and the system, but is just about enough to transcend all other versions of a similar game!
I will warn you I’ve just realised the next two are very much along similar lines, so please do manage your heretical expectations, but I’ve started so I’ll finish! I’ve been playing this way and that scrolling shooter Defender since the arcade game, but I’ll take either Andes Attack on the VIC-20 or Chopper Command on Atari 2600 over the original (or its sequel) every time! Like Pac-Man, I like the original well enough, but no matter how much I play, there will always come a time about three waves in when I’m simply on a suicide mission, looking for an area of maximum damage to get as many points as possible with whatever bombs are left prior to my imminent demise! Defender might be one of the great arcade games, but Andes Attack is one of the great VIC-20 games… No matter what Jeff Minter thinks! The timeless, endlessly compelling concept it’s built around might not be his, but the scrolling routines and all those other lines of code certainly are. Just like the llamas you’re looking out for! Continuing with the attack of the clones, getting this stuff right, rather than failing to make it spectacular, is what can elevate something like Chopper Command way above its official source material. It looks good, it sounds good and it moves good, with tight controls and a frantic but mostly predictable enemy AI, with enough random occurrences to keep things fresh and as addictive as hell. I do love a gaming sunset too!
Okay, before this gets too boring, let’s dive into retro-gaming heresy number three, or, as it’s turned out, clone I prefer over the original, and this time the victim is Joust! As I said when we looked at Midway Arcade Treasures on PS2 (where we also looked at the aforementioned Defender), what an incredibly simple mechanic that hides such strategy, and it comes all the way from 1982 where we’re on a flying ostrich in a lava arena with a load of vultures, trolls and a pterodactyl, but before you worry about any of that, first you’ve got your work cut out with taking down the knights of the armies of evil by landing on top of them! As long as you’re slightly higher than they are, your attack wins, they become an egg, and you collect it for points until they’re all gone and things get hairier on the next level. And it’s all genius, not least the flap and glide mechanic, which also translates surprisingly well to a balloon…
Balloon Fight, developed by Nintendo and HAL Laboratory, first appeared on the Nintendo VS. System in late 1984. This was a curious but seemingly successful (especially in America) take on the Famicom or NES console hardware, built into various configurations of arcade cabinet and mostly focussed on two-player action. I always had the feeling that the console game came first and then made the jump to VS. but in the case of Balloon Fight it wouldn’t appear on the Famicom in Japan until 1985, and then internationally for the NES in 1986. The Japan-centric NEC PC-8801 and Sharp X1 (along with several other of their even more obscure oddities) also got ports in 1985, and there were even some late Game & Watch releases in 1986 and a New Wide Screen version in 1988.
We’ll come back to Balloon Kid, the 1992 Game Boy sequel, later, but things then went quiet for the original until the Japan-only Balloon Fight GB for Game Boy Colour came along in 2000, which is more based on the Balloon Trip mode (we’ll come back to that too) from the original than the primary Balloon Fight modes, much like the Game & Watch ports from what I’ve seen of them. We’ll come back to that too, don’t worry! A couple of years later the full game would also make its way to Game Boy Advance, including a version on an e-Reader accessory game card; very curious thing that – a scanner plugged in to the cartridge slot and read data from the cards, which might contain NES games, extra levels, for example for Super Mario Advance 4, or add-ons for stuff like Pokemon and Animal Crossing via a link cable. All very Japanese, where it understandably got way more traction than anywhere else!
Apart from various guest appearances in other Nintendo properties, and the curious Club Nintendo DS exclusive Tingle’s Balloon Fight, a 2007 remake starring the Zelda character of the same name, that’s about it until the Wii Virtual Console came along, and then the 3DS and Wii U variants, until finally at the end of 2016 it was also packed-in with the NES Classic Mini console. Which is where I played it for the first time, and that I find interesting because I’ve now been playing Joust on and off both in the arcade and on various compilations on Game Boy, PS1, PS2, PS3, PSP and Xbox for just about exactly forty years as I write because I’ve always really liked it, but then this came out of the blue after most of that period and quickly embedded itself as an absolute all-time favourite… If we look at the other games I mentioned earlier, relatively speaking I’ve been playing Atari 2600 and VIC-20 versions of that stuff for almost as long as the originals so they’ve had time to ferment and gradually seep in to my favourites lists, but apart from Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, I’d barely ever touched a NES until the Mini! Before we move on to the game itself and why it made that kind of immediate impact, let’s conclude our history lesson by also mentioning we’ve since had Balloon Fight on Nintendo Switch Online’s NES collection, and for anyone who wants to go right back to source, there’s an Arcade Archives release of the VS. version on there too. And with that, we’re up to date!
There’s a refreshing lack of rhyme or reason to why the titular Balloon Fight is happening, but it’s done very eloquently all the same… “Take to the not so friendly skies in balloon fight. Flap furiously to stay out of the jaws of snapping fish and to propel yourself past needle nosed enemies as you try to pop their balloons before they can pop yours. Keep the enemy at bay long enough and you’ll win a balloon popping bonus round. The longer you hang in there, the tougher the challenge. Play with a friend or by yourself for high flying adventure in Balloon Fight.” It’s all very simple in motion too – you can fly or run (if you’re on a platform) left and right, and by pressing A your unidentified little protagonist with the balloons attached will flap his arms once, and some more taps on A will result in flying! You can also just press B for continuous flapping, albeit sacrificing the more precise control you’re going to need before long, although it is a nice way to give your finger a breather during prolonged play!
Before any of that though, you’ll want to decide what flavour you’re playing. Game A is for one player, and you’ll start on a single screen where each side wraps around, with a bunch of platforms upon which your enemies are frantically pumping at their balloons for lift off as soon as the game says go, and once they’re inflated they’ll be patrolling the skies and out for your blood, so it’s always a good idea to get at as many as can in those couple of seconds they’re trying to get off the ground as the level starts! Once you’re all in the air though, if you manage to collide with them from above their balloon goes pop and they’ll float down to either a platform or a watery grave on a parachute. Hit the parachute and they’ll fall into the water anyway, with a bonus bubble to pop floating up in his place, but if it successfully lands they’ll start pumping up a fresh balloon, and unless you take them out first, they’ll be flying around again. Later rounds will introduce more complex platform layouts, propellers that disrupt your flight and also thunderstorms that sporadically fire out lightning bolts which also float around the screen with their touch of instant death. Similar if you’re flying a bit to close to the water at the bottom of the screen too and get eaten by a fish! Of course, the main danger, though, is always the enemy getting at you from above, when one of your two balloons will pop, making it harder fly, but if both are popped then you’re in the water with one of your lives down. Clear the screen of enemies to move to the next, and do it three times and you’ll get a bonus round where you have to pop as many balloons as possible before they float off the top of the screen. And so on!
Game B is for two players, and while the concept is exactly like we just described, we’ve now got either cooperative team play or competitive play. In co-op, one player is taking out the balloons while the other is on parachute duty. In competitive play you can interfere with the other player’s flight, block them, pop their balloons and even use the spinning propellers against them. And then there’s Game C, Balloon Trip, which we mentioned earlier on the Game Boy versions. In this one, the scene is drifting slowly from left to right, and as it scrolls you’re tapping and moving to collect as many balloons as possible while avoiding lighting. Remember Flappy Bird? It’s that! And this is the mode that would also inspire the sequel, Balloon Kid, that we’ll have a quick look at later too. It’s nice that it’s there, and it’s fun enough, but I’ve always thought it a bit surplus to requirements when you’re also sitting on the best version of Joust ever!
Which is where we’re heading back to now, although honestly there’s not a great deal more to say. Like Joust, it’s all about mastering the flapping and the gliding, which is as simple as it is quirky, but becomes second nature enough in no time, which is exactly what it needs to be because the equally simple gameplay loop is going to demand eyes everywhere and constant adjustment of your height and trajectory as you patiently lurk and wait for an opening to get above an unwary enemy, or more likely try to stay out of their reach. There’s a wonderful moment of expectant panic every time a level begins and the enemies fill the sky, as you wonder quite where on the screen you’re going to go first, especially as you try to keep track of them going off one side of the screen to emerge of the other, but once you’ve removed a couple from the playfield it’s a proper game of fast reaction cat and mouse. Enemy movement seems pretty random too, which, together with the platforms moving around on each level and things getting progressively harder, is going to keep you coming back for more. The bonus level is a lot of fun too – something compelling about getting a perfect every time because it’s always just about achievable but never guaranteed, just like the skeet shooting event in Hyper Sports!
Presentation is as simple as the gameplay, and is very much early-NES, with colourful and fairly detailed sprites flapping about without much fuss on a simple, starry night sky propping up a few earthy platforms. It’s all bold and perfectly effective though, as are the shrill, strangely sci-fi sound effects set off against a pleasant-enough chip-tune melody. Same goes for the Balloon Trip mode too, with even less on the screen smoothly scrolling past the pin-pricked black background, and just the strobing shimmer of the lightning bolts adding a touch of lethal glitz! In all cases that really is all it needs though, and if you don’t like it then there’s always the Hello Kitty reskin of the sequel…
Quick note on the Game Boy sequel, Balloon Kid, which I actually first picked up on the 3DS, where I also eventually completed it! Wonder if there’s an ending on the original too? Anyway, it arrived in 1990 (or 1991 in Europe), with the aforementioned officially licensed Hello Kitty version then coming to NES (i.e. Famicom) in Japan a couple of years later. It’s another take on the Balloon Trip mode from the original, but this time there’s a proper plot, and Balloon Kid even has a name… Alice! Her brother, Jim, got blown away making a balloon rainbow in the sky, so she needs to follow the trail of balloons he left behind and rescue him, traversing the pencil-shaped skyscrapers of Pencilvania before an even more hazardous forest, whale-infested ocean, mountains and an, erm, industrial estate! All of that does get a bit repetitive, but it’s a fantastic game all the same, with loads of character and a really nice feel to the flight, which has been refined a bit from the original mode it’s based on.
I can certainly recommend playing it, but I can’t recommend it over Balloon Fight! It’s not an original concept by any means, but it takes an original concept, adds a bit of Nintendo flourish, and ends up being more than the sum of its parts. I always think it’s a shame that I came to games like this so late, but better that than never, and I reckon I’ve more than made up for lost time since! Balloon Fight is a top three NES game for me, probably sitting just behind Mega Man 2 and The Legend of Zelda, but always ahead of original Joust… And with that, all that’s left is to do is burn the heretic! Burn him! Burn him!