Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight (1984 Arcade Review)

Owwww. Ow ow ow ow ow. Owwie. My hands. My beautiful, bony hands. What the hell were they thinking with this one? Look, I’ve never been the biggest Balloon Fight fan in the world. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Joust, either. So here’s a warning to fans: maybe take this review with a grain of salt. Balloon Fight has never been for me. But, it could be with enough twists to the formula, which is why Vs. Balloon Fight got my attention. Of all the Nintendo Vs. System coin-ops, Balloon Fight has the most profound change to the NES counterpart. Well, besides Vs. Duck Hunt, where you can shoot the dog in bonus rounds (though you’re not supposed to). It’s the same concept: flap your arms to fly, and then come crashing down on top of enemies to pop their balloons. After that, you then can hit them a second time as they parachute down, or kick them off the ledge once they land, Mario Bros.-style. So, yea, in a nutshell, Balloon Fight is really just Joust with an extra hit-point and parachutes instead of eggs. The big difference over its NES counterpart, besides having a lot more levels, is that Vs. Balloon Fight is not a single-screen game. In the coin-op, the size of the playfield is doubled vertically and you have to scroll the screen upwards. It makes for a more exciting, intense experience. Enemies might come flying out of nowhere (especially when bumpers are added after six stages) creating a chaotic atmosphere that somehow never feels cheap because you ought to know better than to leave yourself wide open from the unseen menaces above. It should be great!

Sigh.

Here comes the “but..” Like the Starks say: nothing counts before the “but.”

Vs. Balloon Fight has absolutely brutal gravity. The amount of flapping it requires is completely unreasonable by any standard. The NES version allows you to maneuver with a steady pulse of tapping the button. But, for a game that you’re expected to pay two bits per session, that won’t do at all. You have to absolutely button-mash to maintain your flight, Track ‘n Field-style. I’m not having a pity-party for myself here, but I literally physically cannot button mash to this degree anymore. Thankfully, my family, including my 12-year-old sister, also couldn’t believe how furiously you had to tap the buttons to maintain your flight. Again, I’m not a fan of the NES version, but I think I’d remember if this was one of the reasons why. Just to make sure, I threw on the home version on Switch Online, and it took me only a few seconds to verify the gravity for the arcade version isn’t like the NES version at all. The worst part of this whole issue with Vs. Balloon Fight is, if you start to come down, the gravity seems to further intensify, requiring even faster flapping to regain your momentum. Maybe that’s more “realistic” but it’s a frick’n video game about a guy in a balloon dueling to the death with birds using balloons themselves. To hell with realism! And why the heck didn’t anyone care this much about realistic gravity when it was Pinball? The gravity especially affected me in the wide-open bonus stages, which require you to chase down balloons that rise out four chimneys. I would inevitably lose my strength, and any attempt at recovery was hopeless and I’d crash pathetically to the ground with balloons still rising.

In addition to the crushing gravity, the walls and ceilings seem to have a lot more bounce to them. This can be problematic near the water. The enemies tend to do what I call “ride the current” and drift across a straight line, going through one side of the screen and coming out the other, and this will likely include one that hovers just above the water line, where the big fish will jump up to snatch you. Since there’s often platforms right above you, I tended to bounce off them and make myself hover too close to the water. I lost more lives to falling in the drink than I did to the enemies, easily. Well, partial credit for the bumpers. Those things ought to have warning signs. And yes, the fish will eat the enemies too, and it’s ALWAYS hilarious when it happens!

On the NES, you can hold the B-Button to autoflap. Thankfully, Arcade Archives games almost always have an option on the button mapping menu to turn-on autofire. Even better is that you can set the speed, and this is one of those games where that matters greatly. In fact, I took advantage of it and set a different flap speed to each face button (kinky, right?). It works great! Hey, the game’s now completely playable, and you get to appreciate what is actually a massive improvement on the Joust formula. Fun characters. Lots of charm. The combat has weight and my beloved OOMPH and it feels impactful to crash a balloon, complete with satisfying POP sound! It always brought a smile to my face seeing the sad look of an enemy as it slowly drifted to its potential doom. Of course, they can turn the tables on you if you wait too long, pumping a new balloon and upgrading to a more aggressive level of AI. There were also moments I got sadistic glee out of. Like having a stage with lots of bumpers, and I’m at the top of the level and suddenly I hear the fish jumping up and down, and then a few seconds later a bonus bubble starts to rise onto the screen, meaning an enemy just got eaten off-screen. Side note: I’d like to think that the bubbles are the enemy souls going to Heaven and bursting them sends them straight to Hell. Or maybe it stops them from being resurrected. Either way is bliss!

I did NOT die from this. When you take too much time to finish a stage, the clouds tap three mountains and cast Ball Lightning at you. It bounces around the stage and is an instakill even if you have two balloons. But, right here, more than half of it hit my body and I survived. That might be the most generous collision box I’ve seen in an arcade game.

Now, here’s why the gravity should be a deal breaker: because in the two modes designed specifically to compete for online high scores, you can’t turn on autofire. Yes, there’s online leaderboards in the main mode too, but you can cheat like you’ve been made an honorary Houston Astro in those. In addition to all scores counting no matter what adjustments you make to the game’s default settings (including giving yourself extra lives), you can use the interrupt save state feature. Until you game over, you can keep returning to the main menu and restarting from where you last saved. I used this to put myself 4th on the all-time leaderboard, because screw it, why not? Meanwhile, if you so much as pause the game in Hi-Score or the five minute Caravan mode, the game is over. You can’t just continue and must restart the game. While future releases of Arcade Archives would allow autofire in Hi-Score/Caravan, since it makes no sense to ban them when everyone has the option to turn them on and thus it’s a level playfield, they’re disabled here. So, 66% of the game requires you to mash buttons more than any game not based around the Olympics should, and those are that have protection from cheating. I figured this was an easy NO! Well, no, because it’s not 66% of the package where autofire is disabled. It’s 50% of it.

Let’s talk about co-op.

My promise to my readers in 2023: I will make a good faith effort to take the multiplayer for a test drive in games more often.

Being a Nintendo Vs. System release, a real Vs. Balloon Fight has two screens, which allows for two separate games to be played at once OR for a two-screened co-op experience. On a single Nintendo Switch, this is represented by two side-by-side mini-screens. Or, if you each own a separate copy of Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight, each player can have their own screen with one of the players hosting a game. I wasn’t willing to spend $16 on this, so Angela and me played on one screen “cooperatively” in quotation marks that feel ashamed to be associated with such an obvious lie. The only cooperation we showed was our mutual understanding that the two of us would be spending the next hour trying to assassinate each-other. Oh sure, we were bound to kill a few enemies would die along the way too. You know, in the crossfire. But really, once the game started with me immediately making a beeline for her and popping one of her balloons, sh*t was on. And guess what? It was a lot of fun, but it also further exposed some obvious weaknesses in Vs. Balloon Fight.

YOU MURDERER!

If a player runs out of lives, they can’t just re-up without issue. When either player has a game over, the action pauses and goes to the continue screen. If a player continues, the level restarts from the beginning. Since the other player was likely to be on their last life, we took to just feeding ourselves to the fish as soon as the game restarted so that we’d both have full lives to continue the fratricide. I get that it was 1984 and jump-in continues weren’t the commonplace practice yet, but it really hurts the flow of the multiplayer mode, especially when you’re having a blast killing each-other. It also sort of renders competing for points completely pointless. If you’re losing, pull a Tonya Harding and whack the other player. Your score resets to zero if you die. If you got a high score, too bad. That’s fine though. We had a jolly good time playing aggressively against each-other while also dealing with the enemies. We came to appreciate a comically well-timed betrayal when one of us was actually dealing with the baddies.

We’d actually work together best during bonus stages. I credit the cheerful music. Also, just so we’re clear: there’s no Balloon Trip mode in this. With the gravity it has, it’d basically be impossible anyway.

Even my parents got in on the action, and watching my Mom avenge me by taking out Angela about three seconds after Angela respawned from the previous murder will go down as an early highlight of 2023 for me. So, was this multiplayer mode enough to save Vs. Balloon Fight? Surprisingly.. yea! Barely, but barely counts. While I’m still pretty peeved that the modes I cared most about going into this are basically unplayable by me, fun is fun, and with autofire and a second player, Vs. Balloon Fight is a lot of fun. It could be more fun with some adjustments, like letting players reload without the level restarting. Especially since you’ll be draining each-other’s lives. Or, if you want to legitimately cooperate, that’s also fun. Of course it is! Trying to make homicide look like an accident is always fun.

Angela: “I KNEW IT!” Oh, like you weren’t doing it too!

Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight is Chick-Approved

Arcade Archives: Vs. Balloon Fight was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 burst your bubble in the making of this review.

Arcade Archives: Golf (1984 Nintendo Arcade Review)

I used to golf quite a lot. I grew up literally right next to a country club that we were members of, but we never went next door to do anything but eat. Then my father had a mild heart attack and the doctor suggested he needed to take better care of himself and take-up a nice, relaxing physical hobby. Guess what he chose? Heh. Yea, because golf has NEVER been known to cause stress, right? I was 11-years old and, content that my father was on the mend and not, you know.. dead.. I went back to my normal routine of staring blankly at the screen while playing video games. I was on my brand-spanking-new PlayStation 2 when my Dad said I was coming with him to take-up golfing too. I refused, and he threatened to repurpose all my disc-based games as drink coasters. I said “you wouldn’t do that” and turned around to find my copy of Eternal Ring sitting under his mug. So, bitching and complaining the entire walk over to the clubhouse, I took-up the sport with my old man. Like most middle aged men suffering a midlife crisis, Dad overdid it with all the best equipment money could buy and lessons from the club pro, and whatever he bought for himself, he bought for me too out of guilt. It didn’t help him at all. His swing is such a disaster that I wanted to learn to play the violin and strum out Nearer, My God, to Thee after every tee-off. “It’s been a pleasure playing with you, Pops.”

Like Satan himself, this goes under many names. It could be called just Golf. It could be Vs. Golf. It could be Stroke & Match Golf. Hell, there’s even a re-sprited version with women called Vs. Ladies Golf that has different holes. Why wasn’t that included in this set? Because it’ll be an extra $7.99 when it inevitably lands on Nintendo Switch. Duh!

Meanwhile, given my size, strength, and complete lack of coordination and athletic ability, I wasn’t too bad a golfer. At my best, I was a 14 handicap. Which, for you non-duffers out there, that means if I were to play a full eighteen hole round of golf with a score of -14 to start, you would expect that I’d finish the round at 0, or even par. In essence, I got good enough where you wouldn’t expect me to bogey every hole. Dad was a 29 handicap. He couldn’t even get halfway to me, and if you don’t think I didn’t take a moment to rub that in his face every single time we hit the links, you don’t know me. None of that has anything to do with golf video games, but what do you want? They’re usually games about stopping a meter on time. YOU try to make it interesting! Really, the only reason to put all this here is to make it clear: I know my golf, and even though I consider myself a mediocre-at-best video game player, I usually annihilate golf games. I played Mario Golf on Switch Online a few months ago, a game I played a lot as a kid, and it was like putting on a comfy pair of old shoes. After a brief warm-up period, I was draining eagles and holes in one like there was no tomorrow. I even had an elusive albatross! It was like no time had passed at all. Mario Golf for the Nintendo 64 shockingly holds up very well to the test of time. I wish the same could be said about the one that started it all.

If some of these holes seem eerily familiar, they should. If you played golf on Wii Sports, you played these holes too. They just took the NES/Arcade Golf course and made it 3D. Yep, really.

Golf was one of the most successful of Nintendo’s Vs. System arcade games, so much so that they had one in the country club before I was born. I’ve heard from people who bought an NES just to have it. So, this is a little more historically big than I thought about. And man, talk about a pedigree! Golf was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, directed by Kenji Miki (who also directed NES Open Golf and Wario Woods before going on to be a very prolific producer at Nintendo), and programmed solely by Satoru Iwata. Apparently, Miki got deeply into golf during the Japanese golf boom of the 80s. You wouldn’t know it from this. I know a lot of my readers get annoyed when I talk about the dribblty-ball or other assorted sportsballs, but this is where I have to let the sports nerd in me come out. Because this is a golf game that basically does one thing right, and everything else horribly wrong. And, by the way, if you don’t know anything about golf, you’re going to need time to read the manual and memorize the max shot length. There’s no computer assistance with choosing your club, nor anything on-screen that tells you how much yardage you get out of each. If you don’t know the difference between a 3 Wood and a 6 Iron, you’re on your own to figure it out. There IS a chart in the instruction manual but you have to pause the game for it (which will automatically end your game if you’re playing Caravan or Hi-Score mode), but still, it’s not the most user-friendly golf game. You also always default to the driver at the start of every new hole, even if it’s not a hole where you’d want to bring the thunder. This is golf played exactly like everyone who steps onto the links for the first time: hammer always in hand.

One of the golden rules of golf is it’s better to undershoot than overshoot. A wise man once said you’re not likely to hit a parked car by undershooting.

So, here’s the thing about golf that matters most: any idiot can do a tee shot with a solid 80% accuracy if they practice it enough. It’s not even that much practice you need to learn to drive well enough to not embarrass yourself. In golf, real or video, it’s the short game that makes or breaks you, and Match & Stroke Golf has a pretty abysmal short game. Especially troublesome is chipping. In real life, if you ask any professional golfer what’s the most important club in their bag besides the putter, they’ll almost all agree it’s the pitching wedge. In Vs. Golf, the club is just not calculated right and it makes it unsuitable for chipping and other assorted short-distance shots. In fact, they seem to have designed it to play like a lob wedge, which is not the same thing. A lob wedge is designed to make high-arcing drop-shots that have less bounce and roll. They also allow for more control over the spin if you want to angle it. In Vs. Golf, the wedgie launches the ball high into the air with a tall arc, even if you chip. In a game where there’s no topography outside of the green and you can’t put English on the ball, that kind of shot is totally unnecessary.

The bunkers might as well be repainted fairways for all the challenge they pose in this game.

Yet, if you’re right by the green, you don’t want to use the wedgie. Even with a very light powered chipping stroke, the ball gets too much distance. I found myself using the sand wedge, which I suppose was a satisfactory enough chipper for the purposes of this game. Yes, many people, including pros (famously Phil Mickelson) use the sand wedge on the fairway because of its large-angled face which is great for a variety of different spins. You know what? I honestly found it was a lot safer and accurate to just putt from the fairway if I was 30 yards away. The game at least tells you how far you are from the hole, and anything less than 30, screw it, I putted. Sometimes it would even go in the hole, though this felt entirely like it was luck-based. This doesn’t seem like that big a deal, right? But, it sort of is.

Putting is annoying at first, but you can get SOMEWHAT used to it. The arrows on the green clue you into the slope, and it’s just a matter of figuring out the power to use. But, it’s not a good system. There’s no adjustable power and judging the speed and roll and distance is completely guesswork. Also, sometimes you’ll get a lie that I’m almost entirely certain isn’t possible to make in a single stroke. That happens in situations where you’re putting directly against the slope from a long distance. I had full-powered strokes come to a stop before they reached the hole. Golf doesn’t do any of the short game in a way that feels good, but putting is the worst. It never feels comfortable. Annoying you can learn to deal with it just enough to not be a deal breaker, but you’ll NEVER like it. Okay, maybe this really IS accurate to the sport.

See, you’re not going to be shooting holes-in-one or ironing-out eagles from 150 yards out as anything but dumb luck in Vs. Golf. It’s just not a precise enough game. BUT, you also can’t just chip-in either, and that’s where it crosses the line for me. Putting from a pixel or two off the green isn’t the same as knocking-in a forty-yard chip, and you can’t do that here. 99% of the best moments in golf, real or digital, are not shots off the tee. The most exciting and satisfying shots almost always come after that, and that can’t happen here. Not with these mechanics. Thus, you’re left with a game of video golf that lacks the potential for the most exciting shots. It’d be like a basketball game without dunking or a three point line. That’s the fun stuff! Remember, Golf is the one sport where “close enough” can be exhilarating. One of the single most incredible moments of my life was the first time I shot a ball from a bad lie in the rough and put it about five feet from the hole. Mind you, the putt was for a double-bogey, but I didn’t care. I was 12 years old and it was the first time I’d ever done anything that resembled good golf.

I had to re-write a few parts of this review because I didn’t even think to pause the game to check and see if there was a shot chart to help newbies. I hate that I keep picking games I ultimately don’t like. I can see why Hamster wouldn’t want me to get review copies. They have a bad winning percentage with me. BUT, I will always give them props for their instruction manuals. They’re never half-assed and I really do appreciate the effort for clear instructions.

Well, the Nintendo Golf doesn’t really capture that spirit well because the short game just isn’t exact enough, and while “close enough” is a staple of golf, it’s also a game of precision. The strongest aspect about Vs. Golf is easily the shots off the tee. This was a pioneer of the standard triple-click swing mechanic that’s so ingrained into the video golf genre that the recent EA PGA game brought it back. It works here, and thank god for that. You can only shoot in sixteen exact directions and have to learn to utilize the slice (curving the ball right) and the hook (curving it left), which is simple to remember: left is right, and right is left. On the final click, if your meter is left of the white target, the ball will slice right mid-flight. If you’re right of the target, the ball will hook left in the air. You have to learn to use this, because sometimes you absolutely just can’t aim at the green the way you want to and have to sort of guestimate the hook or slice. There’s no flight trajectory or any method of helping you. I suppose, once again, it’s true to real life golf: you have to practice to get a feel for it.

Stupid as it is, I did enjoy the standard Arcade Archives five minute Caravan Mode. Yes, it’s even part of Golf. My best was shooting -4 after five minutes. I only barely finished the 6th hole when time expired. My best in the standard mode was shooting -10 for 18 holes. Not too shabby. In my recent Mario Golf session, I shot a 51, or -21 under par for the second-to-last course. My best as a kid wasn’t far off that. I think I did -25 under once. In real golf, one time at a par-3, nine-hole pitch & putt, I shot +1. At the course I played most on, my best ever for a day was +7 scratch. Sounds not too bad, but I was only +1 after nine holes. I gagged away the best nine holes I ever shot in my life, and Dad was calling me “Shark” after famous choker Greg Norman.

Another problem with Vs. Golf is every single shot is essentially a clean lie on the fairway. If the ball lands on a tree, it’s out of bounds and a penalty. Otherwise, even if you’re facing a tree, you don’t have to do anything different. It’s as if the trees aren’t there. There’s not even a rough in this golf game. Rough, aka the tall annoying stuff which is the thing that you’re desperately trying not to hit in real golf. No worries about that here. Instead, you’re playing all-or-nothing golf. It’s feast or famine: you’re either on the fairway, bunker, or green, or you’re out of bounds (or in the water, but at least there you get to take a drop). There’s wind, which barely manipulates the ball at all unless it’s over 10mph. Even sand traps don’t really factor in all that much. I never once hit one that wasn’t right by the green, which would be the only time that would actually hurt. The ball doesn’t get buried in sand, and you don’t have to do anything special besides switching to the sand wedge, which makes them kind of toothless, which defeats the point of having them in the first place. If anything, they’re just a brown-colored fairway that’s easier to chip off of. They’re the one element where it IS safe to chip and not worry about overshooting.

The little fist-pump Mario does when you sink a birdie managed to bring a smile to my face. Sadly, I never shot an eagle this entire review process. Not one. Came close only once, and yea, that was cool. It’s golf! Those moments would be cool no matter how antiquated the actual game is.

So, what do I make of this? Because golf should be frustrating, right? It’s golf, named as such because all the other four letter words were taken (yes, I stole that from Leslie Nielsen). It’d be weird if there wasn’t a steep learning curve. But, I think that this does little more than serve as a good first step towards making video golf a legitimately fun and viable genre. I’m totally certain this was groundbreaking and probably very fun in the mid-80s, like Golden Tee was in the 90s. Nintendo’s Golf is ultimately a very stripped-down game of golf, and while it isn’t totally crap by today’s standards, it’s just not that fun anymore. Vs. Golf is hurt badly by what it doesn’t do. Despite the lack of complex terrain, it lacks for assisted club selection, thus making it not so newbie friendly. But, veterans of video golf will find it too basic. What is Match & Stroke Golf? It’s a really good proof of concept for where video golf would go over the coming decade, and that’s awesome and admirable. But, now it really only has value as a historical curio. Then again, there’s people buying this because this version has music and the NES version doesn’t. Do I recommend it? Well.. no. But, with handicap, it could be a yes.

Golf is not Chick-Approved.

Golf was developed by Hamster Corp.
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 triple-bogeyed in the making of this review.

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