Retro Review: Balloon Kid (Nintendo Game Boy)

Is it a sequel to Balloon Fight, a new game entirely, or something in the middle? Probably the third option. Let's see how Alice the Balloon Kid fares as she sets off on a balloon-themed adventure in this early Game Boy platformer.

 

Released in 1990 and developed by Pax Softnica, a sub-contractor who helped with a few Nintendo games including Mole Mania, GB Donkey Kong and the GBA ports of Mother 1 + 2, Balloon Kid takes the basic balloon mechanics of Balloon Fight, jazzes them up a bit, then turns it into an auto-scrolling platformer. As Alice, the Balloon Kid of the title, you must make your way across the land to save your brother Jim, who's been dragged away by a huge clump of balloons.

As the title and its origins suggest, you'll be getting around by using balloons. These mechanics are straight from Balloon Fight- with balloons to hand, tap the A Button to move upwards, or hold it to get the game to do it for you, get hit by obstacles like birds, bees and razor-sharp snowflakes and you'll lose a balloon. However, unlike Balloon Fight, the stages aren't limited to screens- they all auto-scroll from right to left, forcing Alice along until the end. This works fairly well, and keeps the action moving at a decent pace.

There's a few other changes from Balloon Fight too, as losing your balloons (a maximum of two) won't kill you- you'll just drop to the ground like a stone. Alice is perfectly capable of going about her business without balloons, but she'll need them to get around and avoid the things that'll really kill her, like fires, spikes and the unforgiving sea, so tapping Down on the ground pumps up a new balloon (keep at it to make a second one). More importantly, the B Button makes you let go of your balloons- doesn't sound like a useful move, but certain sections are too cramped for you to take your balloons with you, and you'll need to use it to divebomb bosses which appear every two stages. Technically you can just stay on the ground and jump on top of bosses... But come on, that's not nearly as much fun!

Balloon Trip

There's a couple of other wrinkles added to the mechanics, such as hidden bonus rounds (replicated from Balloon Fight), collectable balloons (grab 20 in a row to turn them into double balloons for more poitns) and Power Balloons that make Alice temporarily invincible and speed the scrolling up, but that's it, really. It's a fairly basic game, and not without its quirks, which is unsurprising given it came fairly early in the Game Boy's life. As an example, the physics are a bit weird initially, especially Alice when she's not tethered to balloons- her walk is fast, her jump has some nasty acceleration, and she'll bounce off walls like a pinball. That sounds bad, but a little playtime and you'll get adjusted to it, and you learn which areas are OK on foot and which you should avoid. The balloon physics are quicker to grasp, though, especially if you've played Balloon Fight, with the only additional thing to learn being that one balloon struggles to keep Alice in the air, so you need to tap that button faster. The other major quirk is that sometimes it's not clear visually which obstacles will just bump Alice about and which kill her outright, but it doesn't happen too often.

There's a lot to like about the game, though. Visually, the game is simple but quite charming, with nice background details here and there (like the smiling/frowning trees in the forest), interesting enemies (notice the return of the Balloon Fighter's rival!) and Alice herself is pretty expressive at certain points, like when she drops her balloons The music, too, has charm, although it's mostly the 'main theme' that adapts a tune from Balloon Fight that'll get stuck in your head. Balloon Kid's greatest strength, though, is that it strikes a good balance between being a nice, gentle game (aside from two specific levels the scrolling is at a leisurely pace, you can rack up a lot of extra lives, and there's enough space to negotiate obstacles pretty well) and being pretty tough (grabbing every balloon in a stages gets a Perfect and an extra life, but this isn't easy, and there's some very tricky bits that you'll need to practice later on). Given that there's limited continues (earned as you play, a maximum of two) you might not beat it in your first sitting (although I'm certain someone out there has done it) but even though the stages scroll automatically, it rarely feels stressful until the final couple of stages, where space becomes more limited and you have to go as Alice without her balloons and make tough jumps.

Furthermore, the game's short- eight stages of auto-scrolling action before it's over- but it only seems to run out of ideas once it reaches Stage 7, the cavern (the second cavern of the game... If the insides of a whale count as a 'cavern', that is). Most of the other stages- including the easy-going Pencilvania, the ocean stage with rainclouds that force you downwards and shoot lightning at you, and the final factory stage which surrounds poor Alice with flame-pillars, crushers and static shocks- have something a little different for you, and once you've mastered it and learned strategies for the tricky bits, it's quite a pleasant game to just breeze through. It helps that the balloon physics are a nice change from standard platform mechanics- they need a bit of precision, and your momentum is important, but they're fun to mess around with.  Additionally, the game comes with an adaptation of Balloon Fight's never-ending Balloon Trip mode- sadly, the game doesn't save your high-scores for it, but it's a neat little diversion once you're done with the main game. For those who have two copies of the game, there's also a versus mode where Alice is pitted against her rival Samm in a battle of survival, if that's your thing.

Gameplay Footage

In the end, Balloon Kid's a neat, charming little platformer- emphasis on little, perhaps- which, aside from some tricky bits here and there and the lack of infinite continues, won't serve much of a serious challenge for you. It is, however, a nice, relaxing, relatively stress-free game to blast through once you've memorised the nasty bits, and its satisfying balloon physics make it one for Game Boy collectors to definitely try. Don't overlook it just because it was one of the earliest titles for the system, OK?!

... And for those who have played Balloon Fight, the ending is a great little in-joke!

Please note: for this review, I played the game on a Game Boy Advance SP. Balloon Kid was never released in Japan initially. It was instead released over there on the Famicom in 1992 as Hello Kitty World, and given a colourized Game Boy Color version in 2000 retitled Balloon Fight GB, with a world map and progress/high-score saving,


Last Updated ( 23 June 2013 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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