A Glance at the Past: Balloon Kid (Game Boy)

Balloon Fight for the NES wasn’t exactly begging for a sequel. Its game design is simple and focused on the basic goal of staying in the air with the balloons on your character’s back. There was definitely room for improvement and advancement, but it feels like an odd series to choose to continue, especially with a relatively small Game Boy follow-up. Balloon Kid at least demonstrates that the basic controls and premise had room to grow, even if it is still rather short and straightforward.

 

Balloon Kid’s controls are easy to learn, but the whole game is essentially a test of how well you can use them. The main character, Alice, can have up to two balloons on her back and begins every level with them. By pressing A, Alice will flap her arms to either take off from the ground or keep herself floating in the air, with the focus of most of the game’s obstacles and levels being on managing your flight properly. Keeping track of momentum is key to keeping those balloons around and avoiding lethal hazards, but if your balloons are popped in areas with safe ground below, you can land and start inflating them again to get back up into the air. Alice isn’t completely helpless without her balloons though, as long as there’s something to stand on you can have her run around and jump as if she was in any old platform game, although the game definitely has a greater focus towards flight. If you like, you can deliberately ditch your balloons as well, this action being important for hurting enemies. Dropping on them from above or jumping onto them while you’re walking about is the only way to hurt them, helping to keep Balloon Kid from being a unilateral obstacle course experience. A rather nifty feature about ditching your balloons though is, if you’re swift about it, you can leap up and grab them before they leave the screen. This is especially helpful during boss fights, where creative timing can lead to a quick battle where your balloons are always ready to pull you away from damage.

Balloon Kid’s three modes draw on the controls in slightly different ways. The core mode and the one that sets it apart from Balloon Fight is the 1-player adventure. Alice and her little brother Jim are a bit too into playing with balloons, and one day Jim ties a bunch of them together and is carried away by the wind, Alice chasing after him with her own set of balloons to help her fly. Jim is leaving a trail of balloons behind him to help guide his sister, and throughout your adventure you’ll be collecting these to rack up points and earn extra lives. Alice’s journey to track down her brother will take her through a few environments, and despite the Game Boy’s limited visuals, the levels do have unique enemies, obstacles, and there are some nice background details that sell the quirky locales Jim is blown through.  From a town with pencil-shaped buildings to the interior of a whale, Balloon Kid has some odd choices for its small selection of levels, but despite the gameplay never shifting drastically, you at least get some new things to look at and are- specific foes to avoid.

 

Flying from right to left, Balloon Kid moves at a relaxed pace, but the screen is always moving, meaning you have to be anticipating what’s ahead so you don’t lose your balloons or worse. Balloon Kid is not very hard, and if you stick to the far right of the screen most of the time you’ll be able to avoid a lot of trouble. Some things will force you out of that safe zone, and there are definitely some deadly and tricky obstacles like thunderclouds that shoot out sparks and maze-like areas where the ceiling and floor are both dangerous, but the checkpoints are generous and the chances to earn lives numerous. For a break in play you can enter special Game Boy systems found in the levels to pop balloons for a fairly easy extra life in addition to the ones you’ll find in regular play. With a handful of levels total it wouldn’t even be hard to have to restart, but things do amp up in later levels, especially when the game wants you to abandon your balloons more often to squeeze through tight spots. The bosses never quite evolve though, your strategy always identical but the boss having less moments of vulnerability to ensure the fight lasts a while. The end of the adventure certainly feels abrupt, but at least it didn’t overstay its welcome, using its limited set of elements fairly competently but not doing anything particularly inspired.

The multiplayer mode pretty much ports over the levels from 1-player and makes it a competition to see who can collect more balloons before the stage’s end or can get the other player killed. It’s more of a curiosity rather than something to hook you, but the last mode is at least a unique approach, serving as a sort of survival mode. Balloon Trip has no ground for you to stand on, no real enemies, and no interesting backdrops. It’s all focused on the singular goal of lasting as long as possible as the screen scrolls to the left. You can collect balloons for points if you like and there are the rare power-up to help with the task, but mostly it’s all about avoiding a random arrangement of sparks in the sky. Some will move about and if you get to near to the water, a fish can pop out to eat you, but otherwise it’s all about mastering the flight mechanics to slip through safe gaps and avoid the instant death touching one of the hazards will cause. The game starts you off at Rank 50 and will count down the further you get along, but hitting Rank 1 will just leave the Rank on that from then on. Balloon Trip is endless until you lose, so the Rank is just a way to track how well you are surviving, and while the adventure mode has curated levels meant to challenge how you use your limited skills, Balloon Trip is the place best visited to learn the controls and hone them. It is just feeling out how much lift you get and how fast you fall, but it’s a decent enough mechanic that it’s neither too easy nor too hard to pop in from time to time to play Balloon Kid for a bit.

THE VERDICT: Balloon Kid’s modes are all about setting up obstacle courses for a very specific form of balloon-based flight, and that’s a goal it definitely met. Almost everything in Balloon Kid is a test of your ability to predict the momentum of Alice’s flight, but a lack of mechanical creativity means that’s all you’ll really be doing. It’s shortness prevents it from getting stale at least, but it won’t really excite with its slow difficulty escalation and limited variety. It’s a decent showcase for what it does have and it offers both structured and freeform single-player modes to stretch that out a bit more, but saying it’s just a slightly meatier Balloon Fight without a combat mode is not totally inaccurate.

 

And so, I give Balloon Kid for the Game Boy…

An AVERAGE rating. While it has a somewhat quirky charm, Balloon Kid doesn’t do much to stand out or thrill the player. After you’ve fought your first boss you’ll understand the basic flavor of the rest of the game even as it adds a few shifts to its usual elements. That’s not to say it really fails at much, the balloon flight is reliable and predictable without being so simple you can breeze through the game, and having to go on foot every now and then breaks up the experience some. An extra gameplay style, perhaps one similar to Balloon Fight’s fights, could help up the variety to potentially push it over into something more varied and interesting, but Balloon Kid does about as much as it can with the room it has and doesn’t try to overcomplicate anything or shake the boat too much.

 

Your time with Balloon Kid won’t be long, even if you do try to master the Balloon Trip mode, but the game does make sure your brief visit won’t be too objectionable. It’s a fine detour into a platformer with a quirky twist, but it will come and go without leaving a strong impression. Balloon flight just isn’t a compelling enough challenge to impress with, and the few bells and whistles here don’t help it become anything more than average.

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