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.

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