Review: Bloons (WiiWare)

Floats like a lead bloon

Balloons have a proud history on game consoles, stretching all the way back to Circus Atari on the venerable Atari VCS and Nintendo's Joust clone Balloon Fight. There's just something about popping balloons that tickles a part of our inner children it seems and it's an activity that generally translates well to video games. Enter Bloons — which you may already have discovered via flash games on the web or on the iPhone — a simple puzzle game about popping balloons. Now we don't have a problem with porting flash games to the Wii, but it is nice if the people doing the port appear to have put a little effort into it and it's even better if the source game is worth investing that effort into in the first place; sadly neither of these is true in this case.

The first sign that there's a problem is just after purchasing the game when you check out the Operations Guide. At first we thought possibly something was wrong with the table of contents because outside of the standard cut-and-paste Nintendo WiiWare boilerplate there was only a single page. Then you read that page and find that this is indeed the entirety of the Ops Guide which interestingly doesn't even tell you how the game is played and reads more like a press release — albeit without the courtesy of even a single screenshot.

The reason for this becomes clear when you look at the in-game tutorial, which consists of a bunch of text that might well be regarded as an Ops Guide, though a text-based tutorial combined with the lack of Ops Guide just screams out COULDN'T BE BOTHERED. This apparent lack of effort extends to the entire presentation of the menu interface: at no point is there a clue as to what buttons to use to even select options. There are six save profile slots; you use (A) to select one after using (DPAD) to highlight it. Your name entry screen marks the only time the pointer is used, though now bizarrely you click (B) to choose the letters, and there's no apparent method of deleting them once selected. The rest of the menus use (A) to select and (DPAD) to highlight options, but after that first introduction you're never quite sure what's going to be required.

Okay, so you've navigated through the menus, now to the game! Bloons is a simple, but challenging game with simplicity on the wrong side of "simple" and challenge on the wrong end of "difficult." There's a monkey holding a dart on one side of the screen and a bunch of balloons arranged in a pattern on the other. You use (DPAD) to adjust the power and arc of the monkey's dart throw, which is then executed with a remote wave. Your goal is to hit a minimum number of balloons with a limited number of darts in order to progress to the next level. It sounds simple and it is, but that's all there is to the game. You go through screen after screen of balloons, just chucking darts. Eventually you'll encounter special balloons that act like bombs and obstacles which get in the way — providing you manage to get that far because unfortunately popping balloons is literally a hit-or-miss affair.

We cannot tell you how many times we tried popping the target number on the third level, only to miss by one balloon. This was followed by much tweaking of throw strength and arc in the hopes of getting a better result, only to have a worse outcome or yet another "missed by one" result. It's incredibly frustrating because there's no clue as to where your dart will end up and you have just enough darts to make the target score so you cannot afford to fumble a throw. Since the three-score-and-ten levels are presented in a linear fashion not being able to get past one level is pretty much the end of the game unless you opt for the "unlimited darts" option. Naturally, doing that removes any sense of challenge completely, but it also doesn't unlock levels for replay or record your score; and in a sign of the attention to detail seen elsewhere, offers no means of quitting back to the main menu that we could see.

There's an editor included for creating your own levels, but the interface is quite poor, consisting of (DPAD) to move a cursor to determine object placement, (+) to position the monkey and then (A) and (B) to place and remove balloons. You cannot choose your balloon colour (they just come up randomly) and placing obstacles or special balloons — no descriptions are given of what they are here or anywhere else — consists of cycling through them by pressing a single button over and over again rather than something more clever like, say, using the pointer and a menu! Even if you do create some levels you cannot share your creations except with others of your household who are welcome to create their own profiles, but cannot participate in any kind of head-to-head play or even compare rankings via leaderboard.

The paper cut-out art style of Bloons is nice enough and the balloon popping sound effects are pleasing in the same way that popping bubble wrap is nice, but it takes a lot more than that to stand out on a platform with as many quality puzzle games as the Wii has. As a way to waste time at work or on some kind of long-distance commute we figure it might be an okay distraction, but as something to play in your lounge it just doesn't have the chops to warrant purchase.

Conclusion

Ninja Kiwi have made Bloons and its numerous sequels the foundation of their company, but it's simply not a game you can translate for a console as sloppily as developer Bloober Team and publisher Hands-On Games have done. Delivering a linear, overly simplistic puzzle game with poor presentation and no multiplayer doesn't cut it on the Wii — especially given the ridiculous difficulty curve in the level design. If you've got a balloon popping fetish you'll probably love it, but fans of quality puzzle games have a large selection of far better games at the same price point to choose from.