King & Balloon (1980 Arcade Review)

Yesterday, I looked at one of the two Golden Age gallery shooters that I actually liked. Here’s the other, though it’s nowhere near as complicated. Weirdly, King & Balloon also came out in 1980. It isn’t all that different than Space Invaders, only with a tiny hint of Galaxian thrown-in. Rows of marching enemies with limited attack patterns to shoot (in this case, murderous hot air balloons instead of aliens, which don’t scoff, because people have fought hilarious duels to the death in them), with the same formations restarting after you clear every screen. Besides having enemies dive down at you like in Galaxian, this could have been SO bland and boring. It almost was, but two wonderful twists in the formula turn this into one of the most satisfying and intense gallery shooters to follow in Space Invaders’ footsteps.

It looks like it’s going to be old and dull. Never judge a book by its cover. Except Twilight. Judge that like you’ve never judged before.

Twist #1: If your cannon gets shot, or an enemy lands on it, you don’t lose a life. Your cannon is destroyed but a new one will spawn after a couple seconds. Twist #2: That’s because the object of the game is to protect the King. He’s positioned underneath you and mindlessly walks back and forth, and while the balloons are shooting at you, they’re really trying to kidnap him. They’ll dive down and perch on the platform he’s walking on, and if he crosses paths with one, they’ll start to fly away, with the King literally screaming “HELP!” in one of the first uses of voice synthesis in a game. If you can shoot the balloon that’s got him, he’ll float safely back down to the platform. It’s a formula that makes for a genuinely exciting experience that, to the best of my knowledge, really hasn’t ever been replicated since.

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One thing I’m big on with classic coin-ops is games that allow players to come up with their own strategies. That’s certainly the case with King & Balloon. When the balloons perch to kidnap the king, whether they snatch him or not, they don’t kill you if they touch you as they return to the playfield. So, it’s actually a totally valid strategy to focus on the balloons that remain in their formation while ignoring those who swoop down to take position to snatch the King. Then, you can just pick them off once they grab the King or return to their position, which they eventually will whether they grab the King or not. I found my best games took an offensive minded approach until the enemies become more aggressive, at which point I just focus on dodging bullets and letting the balloons try to grab the king. Since the balloons are harmless when they leave their perch, with or without the King, your best chance at picking them off is during their return. It’s like getting free shots at them. There’s also moments where you can allow yourself to be shot or have a balloon crash into you if you’re confident that you’ll have enough time to respawn and get a shot off to save the King as he’s being carried away. For a shooter with such limited gameplay, King & Balloon is deceptively layered.

Sometimes the enemies Voltronize themselves and make a bigger balloon that takes more shots to kill. If you miss it, it turns into three small balloons to attempt to kidnap the King

Does it get old? Sure. I wouldn’t want to play it for hours and hours on end. But, for a limited burst session when I have a few minutes to kill? I actually have busted this out just for fun, and I have a lot options for King & Balloon to compete with, so that really says something. If there’s a problem with it, I think the lack of variety in enemies, along with their tactics and formations, hurts to some degree. Really, King & Balloon does one thing, and while it does it really well, it is still just a one trick pony, and one that can get old quickly. That’s why I suggest this for people like me who like to have games on standby to kill small amounts of time with. I also think King & Balloon escalates too quickly. The odds become pretty overwhelming after two screens, and by the fourth, you’ll remember that the point of this was to earn quarters and it’s high time you move off the machine and let the next player have a turn.

save

When you successfully make the save, it might be the most satisfying shot in gallery shooter history.

Still, this is a very fun game.. and yet, King & Balloon got NO home adaptions except on the MSX of all things. Even Carnival was on every major early-80s platform and was a modest hit on the Atari 2600 and Colecovision, at least enough to make copies of it not remotely rare or valuable. Meanwhile, not a single console got King & Balloon. As far as my research could find, nobody even considered it. Remember Sky Skipper? The cancelled Nintendo arcade game? EVEN THAT got an Atari 2600 port that actually released (it’ll be part of Atari 50: The Games They Couldn’t Include – Part Two). What the hell happened?

Atari owned the rights to King & Balloon through the same deal that scored them Pac-Man for pennies on the dollar, but they did nothing with it. Not even a prototype or anything. And don’t tell me it was the Zilog Z80 processor, because Atari took a crack at adapting-for-home many games based around that. Pac-Man and Galaxian used it, and they’re on the Atari 2600. This genre was smoking hot during this time frame and I think King & Balloon would have found an audience in 1981 or 1982 on the 2600. So, what gives? After pondering this for a while, the only theory I could come up with that made any sense is that they didn’t want to cannibalize Space Invader’s earnings potential. Either that or Taito had a deal that prevented Atari from porting King & Balloon because it was too close to Space Invaders. Or, if not Space Invaders they wanted to shore-up, perhaps it was Galaxian, which Atari did port in 1983. What a shame that is, because Galaxian was fated to be swallowed up by the test of time. King & Balloon meanwhile is one of two arcade gallery shooters from 1981 or earlier to successfully pass that test. At least from what I’ve played. It’s a very good game in 2023 all on its own, without a single “for its time” asterisk. And nobody cares, because it’s been completely shut-out historically.

Of course, when you miss a wide open shot and the king escapes, it’s the stubbed-toe of gaming. Nothing feels worse.

Hell, it didn’t even make any of the original five PS1 Namco Museum releases, being relegated to the Japanese-only Encore before becoming a plus-one to the weird Namco Museums on PSP and Wii. Damn, that’s cold. Maybe because they felt the only worthy aspect was the synthesized voices. No, actually King & Balloon is another contender for most underrated game of its time. I’d even say it’s worthy of a remake. It won’t get one. This is the unloved child of Namco’s lineup. How in the hell is Galaxian in so many of these sets.. even sets that have Galaga.. but this can’t get any love? That they keep bringing back Galaixan anyway is like one of those families that has two kids: one incredible and the other a sleezy ne’er-do-well, and the parents still love the sleeze more just because they’re the first born. My sister is eyeing me with contempt right now. She knows what’s up.

King & Balloon was developed by Namco

King & Balloon is Chick-Approved

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