Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Whole Lotta Iwata: Fight of the Bumblebees

"Screw you, gravity!"
(image from Niconites)
A quick look at the bumblebee suggests that this bulbous bug shouldn't be capable of sustained flight, yet there it is, buzzing from flower to flower with little effort. Similarly, logic dictates that neither an ostrich nor a grown man holding two dime store balloons should be able to soar through the sky, but they too defy the laws of gravity... at least on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Balloon Fight, programmed by the late Satoru Iwata, is one of the more fondly remembered launch titles for the console, while Joust is an arcade classic, ported to the NES by HAL Laboratory, the publisher where Iwata spent much of his adult life. But which of these two games rules the sky in spite of the laws of aerodynamics? Let's find out...

We'll look at Balloon Fight first. It wasn't the first of the two games, but it was the first released on the NES, so it seems fair to start here. Balloon Fight was one of a handful of "black box" titles that was introduced along with the system when it made its American debut in late 1985. 

(Image from Racketboy)
It's worth taking a look at the box design before we proceed... with its simple, barely embellished pixel artwork set against a dark void, it was markedly different from the detailed science-fiction scenarios on the front of games for the Atari 2600. It also demonstrated confidence in the product inside that box. "This is what you're getting," it said. "We've got nothing to hide. We can use the artwork from the game on the cover, because it's that good." It was a bold statement in the 1980s, and these covers still hold up today as an early example of pixel art for art's sake.

Most of these black box games were simple action titles that didn't hold the player's attention for long. You're not going to find too many people who look back fondly on the time they spent with Pinball, Wrecking Crew, or Clu Clu Land. However, Balloon Fight is one of the rare NES launch titles with legs. It got an expanded sequel on the GameBoy, a spin-off for the Nintendo DS starring Legend of Zelda sidekick/nuisance Tingle, and still pops up from time to time as a Virtual Console release.

Uh oh.
Why do people keep coming back to Balloon Fight thirty years after its NES debut? It uses the addictive arcade game Joust as its foundation, but gives it the Nintendo treatment, changing the bleak fantasy setting into something gentler and sillier. Gone are the lance-wielding knights using massive birds as their steeds, replaced with men clutching desperately to pairs of shiny red balloons. Combatants aren't dragged to their deaths by a lava troll, but are instead gobbled up by a hungry fish. Even the gameplay seems friendlier; slightly slower and with lighter physics. Hammering the button was necessary to stay aloft in Joust, but here, you can stay airborne with just a few well-timed taps, making it easier to get the drop on your enemies. (You can even hold the button down if you'd like to spare your controller from all that unnecessary abuse. Thanks, Mr. Iwata.)

Your opinion of Balloon Fight's less threatening atmosphere is ultimately going to decide which game you prefer. As a teenager, I was offended that Nintendo would take one of my arcade favorites and pull out its fangs. Joust had an utterly brilliant setting, with pterodactyls gliding through the skies in search of prey and knights that emerge from eggs. Why mess with that? On the flip side, maybe some players just didn't appreciate the concept of knights locked in mortal combat, and needed a little sugar to make the gameplay go down more smoothly.

You're gonna die here.
Just accept it.
Balloon Fight is also more diverse than Joust. When you're tired of popping your opponents' balloons and plunging them into a watery grave, you can catch balloons that stream out of pipes in the bonus stage, or struggle to stay alive in a scrolling gauntlet filled with sparks of lightning. Joust pulls out a few platforms to make the game more challenging, and tweaks the rules a little in some stages (collect all the eggs before they hatch! Survive the round for bonus points!), but beyond that, things don't change that much. That would have to wait for Joust 2, a game that feels even more Nintendo-ized than Balloon Fight thanks to its use of bosses and an overabundance of new game elements. Nobody wants to turn into a heavy-ass pegasus or fight endless flocks of "crystal bats," Williams. Trust me on this one.

(Image from NESConsole)
That brings us to the NES version of Joust. Amusingly, it was ported to the system by HAL Laboratory, and may very well have been programmed by Satoru Iwata himself! Of the three Atari and Williams arcade games HAL converted to the NES, this is arguably the best of the lot. It's a good sight better than the thin port of Defender II, which looks almost as good as the arcade game Stargate but strips away half the rules, making it pointlessly dull and repetitive.

Less beatable than advertised!
But only slightly.
Joust for the NES gets some of the details that other conversions of the game miss, particularly the attract mode that explains how the game works and hints that the ferocious pterodactyl is not as invincible as it first appears. At the same time, the designers ignored a few of the arcade game's rules- do NOT stand on a regeneration pad if you value your life- and the dull color palette of the NES turns vivid blues into lifeless cyans and adds an unwelcome touch of yellow to the greens of the buzzards. The control is frustratingly slippery too, making it tough to bring your ostrich to a complete halt. When the screen is thick with hungry vultures and you need precise control of your character to survive the onslaught, this can be a problem.

If I were comparing the NES version of Balloon Fight to the arcade version of Joust, I'd declare Joust the victor in a heartbeat... but that wouldn't be fair. In a battle between the two games on the same system, by the same developers, Balloon Fight (grumble...) comes out on top. Obvious effort was put into the NES port of Joust, but compared to the arcade original and the acclaimed conversion for the Atari 7800, it can't quite leave the ground.


  1. Great write-up, Jess! Sadly, I've never played the NES port of Joust, so I can't chime in regarding how it compares to Balloon Fight. That said, I'm a long-time lover of Balloon Fight--its Balloon Trip mode, especially--so I'm tossing my vote in its direction regardless :)

    Oh, and you're wrong that no one fondly remembers their experiences with Pinball and Wrecking Crew. I loved both as a kid (Pinball, especially) and continue to love them today!

    1. I rented Wrecking Crew back in the 1990s (seriously, they were still renting out NES games in the 1990s!) and it didn't really satisfy me. I doubt it's improved since then, BUT it has admittedly been a while since I've played Pinball. Tell you what; I'll give it another chance. It's gonna be pretty hard to top Rollerball, though!

    2. Oh, don't get me wrong. Pinball, especially, isn't amazing in any particular way, but I still enjoyed it. Same with Wrecking Crew, which I think is the better game of the two (mainly because there's more to it). As for Rollerball, I don't believe I've ever played it!

    3. I just found out that Satoru Iwata helped make Pinball for the NES! Geez, what Nintendo games DIDN'T he help make? No wonder they hired him as the president of the company... he made like half of their products.

      Anyway! Rollerball is terrific. Give it a spin, you'll love it if you're into video pinball.

  2. Aha! I finally discovered this site! I'm glad to see the great Jess Ragan is still alive and well. I was just editing an essay on Balloon Fight for a book project (Virtual Console reviews), so it was good to hear someone else's opinion on the game. It's hard to find videogame reviewers/writers who really know the history of the medium, who could tell you why Joust on Atari 7800 is better than on NES, for example. That knowledge of the past is becoming "lost," which is one of the motivations for my book projects. We need to enshrine that history, as well as our own. Anyway, much thanks again, keep up the good fight.