Review by Mariner

Reviewed: 03/23/04

Learning to fly

In 1982, Larry Walters fulfilled his lifelong dream. By attaching 45 helium balloons to a lawn chair and armed only with a pellet gun, a radio, a camera, and some soda, he set flight. Sailing over California at 16,000 ft, he got to enjoy an impressive view (yet still forgot to take pictures) and piss off a lot of pilots. By shooting some of the balloons, he made a semi controlled descent, with a remarkable landing right into some high voltage power lines. Once safely on the ground, he was greeted with a not so friendly message from the FAA, warning him that he would be charged ''as soon as we figure out which part [of the FAA code] he violated.'' Truly, Larry Walters is an inspiration to us all.

The hero of the NES classic Balloon Fight had a similar dream. This odd little man wearing a bright blue helmet decided to tie two balloons to his waist. But alas, that is not enough for liftoff, and our dear friend must flap his hands with all his might in order to fly like a bird. You can tap the A button profusely, or just hold down the B button in order to let this guy fly. But these are not the friendly skies United Airlines would like you to believe, but instead filled with evil birdmen intent on bursting your bubble, or at least your balloons. Lose one balloon, and your control over your character decreases. Lose both and, well, gravity takes over. Fortunately, these birdmen are also afloat by the power of helium, and you two can stomp on their balloons. Knock all of the birdmen out of the sky as well as kicking them while they're down (or just let a giant fish eat them), and you'll be rewarded by moving on to the next level. These levels are replete with three different types of birdmen (differing only in speed and points), clouds ready to shoot lightning, an evil fish, and those weird spinning platforms that made a return in Smash Bros Melee. And as the only balloon-laden hero in the skies, it's your job to clear the air.

One rather interesting aspect of the game is that, as surprising as it sounds, the game is actually rather complex. You must worry about the birdmen, about hitting them again after you pop their balloons, about the lightning and the fish, and bonus points and random obstacles in your way. In particular, I think the fact that the fallen birdmen will create a new, faster balloon if left alone too long is one of the best parts of the game. After bursting a balloon, will you leave the birdman alone, secure in the knowledge that he is temporarily out of your hair? Or should you go after him, potentially placing yourself in a more dangerous position, in order to insure that he will never bother you again? But on the other hand, if he does get a balloon, that means more points for you! Speaking of which, you have a bit of a head start over the birdmen, and so can wollop some of them before they even take flight, but unfortunately also means less points. There's a fair amount of stuff going on that you'll need to be aware of, and far more to take into account than what you might initially expect.

But wait, you say, can't you just win by staying at the top of the screen? I must admit, such a simple (and boring) strategy will serve you most of the time, but there are some curveballs in there to thankfully break up that monotony. The fact that you must smack the birdmen twice means you cannot just stay at the top for all eternity. Likewise, you will bounce off of any surface you hit, including the ceiling, which can make a mad dash for the top slightly dangerous. Some of the birdmen will do their best to block your ascent, and you must always be leery of being double teamed. So no, just hiding on the ceiling will not always work. But unfortunately, it often does, and kind of puts a damper on the whole thing.

Another element that might be disappointing to some are the controls. You will have to learn about inertia and gravity here, as your flight will not be as easy as you might think. Since gravity is such an issue, you must constantly be flapping your arms, and actually maintaining a steady altitude will be virtually impossible. What may seem stranger is that no horizontal force will be applied if you aren't also flapping. And since you're in air, there will be little friction, and simply letting go of a direction will do nothing to halt your momentum. All of this will take some getting used to, but I actually like it. After all, the game itself is rather easy and would have been a whole lot easier with more exact controls. However, it's not like these controls are bad - they're consistent, and will serve you well once you learn them. And they are more like what a real guy with two balloons tied to his waist and flapping his arms would have to deal with. It makes the game more of a challenge, a delicate dance in the heavens that requires more finesse than simpler controls can create. So give the controls a chance, and you'll find they suit the game well.

And once you get used to that, you'll find the game to be quite fun... for awhile. The aim to kill all the birdmen is fun, the different varieties of play and different strategies is nice, the strive for the high score is one that will keep you coming back... but not indefinitely. There are, after all, only 12 or so unique levels (after that the game starts to loop), and only so many different ways to swat those birds. Eventually, it will become a manner of how long can you go before boredom brings about sloppy mistakes rather than how far your skill will take you. But fortunately, that's when the two player mode steps in. Yes, two crazy balloon fighters can take flight, choosing either to work together to bring down the pests or duking it out themselves. Co-op always seems to make games more fun, especially with the sinister option of turning it into combat. Compete to see who gets the most points? ''Accidentally'' pop your partner's balloon? Ignore the birdmen and just go all out? Yes, the two player option greatly improves this game, and you owe it to yourself to find someone else crazy enough to play it.

But even that can only bring the game so far. It's a fun game; don't believe otherwise. Yes, it has some minor flaws, but the joy of floating gracefully through the heavens far outweighs these disadvantages. But what goes up must come down, and even a delightful game like this eventually palls. It's something you'll want to play, enjoy, and then put back on the shelf, picking it up again every once in a while to relive the memories. It's a 5-10 minute distraction, it's a fun little experience, but it is not something you can become obsessed over. But, like Larry Walters did with his one and only balloon flight, you can enjoy it while it lasts.

Final Score - 7.2

Rating: 7

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