In Balloon Fight you manipulate a little fellow who can flutter through the skies thanks to a pair of balloons strapped to his back and vigorous arm flapping. The world is a dangerous place for the intrepid defier of gravity, particularly when it comes to jealous birds — also illogically equipped with balloons — who would rather see you become fish food than share their space in the clouds.
The result is a side-scrolling war between human and avian opponents in which height is the key advantage; think of Joust but ease up on the ostriches and emphasise the death by drowning. It’s a fun, frantic mix of arcade action and seat-of-the-pants strategy, but engagement can turn to sour distraction at the drop of a hat. This is a fine piece of entertainment from the mid-eighties, but a relatively high price kicks the utterly simple gameplay in the gut, resulting in a game short of breath and value.
When the action gets going, however, you may briefly forget about suspect price gouging as you struggle to take down your enemies one by one. Tapping the A button gives you a tiny spurt of upward momentum, allowing you delicate precision over your trajectory, while mashing it repeatedly yields far more dramatic results. Each abnormally aggressive bird can do the same, turning the single-screen conflict into a cage match to the death. Swooping into their balloons from above is the first step to success, which causes them to descend defencelessly via parachute. It’s best to leap on this opportunity and knock them out for good before they have a chance to pump a new balloon full of helium and rise to fight again — and all the better if you get the chance to bounce from bird to bird for a satisfying combo of destruction.
Despite having two balloons where enemies have to make do with one, your own reserve of inflatables can disappear in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful — and you don't get the chance to re-fill popped balloons, so once you go down, that’s a lost life. The environment itself can do a number on you, too. Storm clouds occasionally fire off bursts of electrical nuggets that bounce off walls and thoroughly fry targets on impact, but the cold waters below are the true threat. Plunging into those darkened depths is bad enough — albeit handy for a bird trap — but a giant piranha will snatch up anyone foolish enough to hover above its home for too long. Simply staying alive can be a challenge of its own, requiring a great deal of skill to survive the randomly selected levels that get throw at you one after another.
If you’re feeling lonely, or just want someone else to mess about with, the two-player mode is for you. Co-operating to take down those pesky balloon birds is often more rewarding than going it alone, particularly if the second player is in sync with your actions. The final extra to keep you coming back for more is Balloon Trip, an endless runner in the sky. Dodging a hailstorm of lightning to plant your flag at the top of the high score sheet is a twitchy good time, but seeing an update of this mini-game featured — and vastly improved — in Nintendo Land puts the barebones mode in perspective. The beautiful visuals of the Wii U are sharply contrasted with incredibly basic pixels forged in the arcade days of 1984, along with a very catchy soundtrack generally dominated by beeps and repetitive ditties that tend to cut each other off.
Is there something wrong with appreciating an old-fashioned video game from the age of yore? Certainly not. Is there something wrong with that game put on the same market as any number of better, fuller games? That’s a very different question and a very different answer. Balloon Fight is delightful in short bouts now and then, but it belongs in an affordable compilation of Nintendo classics and fails to stand up as a separate package. Better still, shell out a bit more cash and find a copy of the original Animal Crossing, which includes well over a dozen playable NES games and… well, Animal Crossing. In a world where hundreds of Flash games can offer tenfold the depth and extremely affordable titles dot the landscape like so many downed balloon birds, this kind of game doesn’t really fly any more.
Balloon Fight is fun. It’s been fun for 29 years. Whacking birds out of the sky is fun, dodging the deadly fish is fun, playing with a buddy is fun, and competing for the highest score is fun. The trick lies in finding that simple, one-note gameplay continuously enjoyable for more than an hour, especially with so many superior games just waiting to be picked up. The nostalgic and the curious will still find plenty of love here and newcomers may be converted to the addicting arm-swinging adventure, but watch the price tag before leaping in.