The ambitious charming sequel to NES classic Balloon Fight, before the Hello Kitty makeover.
Metroid and Metroid II are the best known member of the rare club known as “NES games that received their proper sequels on Game Boy.” But it wasn’t the first. No, the first was Balloon Fight, whose follow-up Balloon Kid improved on it in practically every way imaginable.
The NES took Nintendo from being a notable name in gaming to a permanent household fixture. The NES, then, had its clear and direct line of succession with the Super NES. But just before Super NES arrived on-scene, so too did Game Boy. And just as Nintendo’s game console line had branches and divisions, so did the company’s internal structure. The distinct development groups within Nintendo tended to gravitate toward different consoles.
Shigeru Miyamoto’s Entertainment Analysis Division focused its efforts wholly on Super NES as the ’80s wound down, putting their full resources into four impressive launch titles for the system: Super Mario World, Pilotwings, F-Zero, and SimCity. Meanwhile, Gunpei Yokoi’s R&D1 division had masterminded the Game Boy, so, unsurprisingly, that group applied a laser focus on developing handheld games rather than dwelling much on home console development during the portable system’s early days.
Their first few Game Boy releases had been a bit hit-or-miss. Almost a year and a half into the Game Boy’s life, though, and we begin to see some refinement at work as R&D1’s programmers and contractors find their footing within the handheld’s limitations. We’re also seeing a new phenomenon unfold, beginning here with Balloon Kid: The Game Boy as host platform for the true sequels to R&D1’s NES hits.
Now, we already saw R&D1 put together an NES follow-up back at launch with Super Mario Land. That was an unusual case, though; Super Mario Land’s team had worked on several early Mario games, but not on Super Mario Bros. Nevertheless, Super Mario Land followed directly on from Super Mario Bros. in terms of its design. But no one on the planet looked at Super Mario Land and said, “Ah, yes, this is the next in the succession of Mario games, the true sequel.” It was clearly a side story meant to slot in between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, featuring a never-before-seen princess, villain, and kingdom.
Balloon Kid, on the other hand, absolutely feels like the true sequel to NES classic Balloon Fight. It takes that simple game and expands on it with a more rigid structure, a wider array of play mechanics, and even something akin to a story. R&D1 would famously take this approach with a number of their NES projects through the early ’90s, most famously with the aforementioned Metroid II,as well as Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters. Balloon Kid tends to go overlooked and unregarded in the annals of Nintendo history… and yet, it very much represents a continuation of a beloved NES creation.
The original Balloon Fight saw Nintendo somewhat uncharacteristically working in “shameless clone” mode, lifting the design and mechanics of Williams’ arcade smash Joust almost wholesale. Putting aside its derivative nature, Balloon Fight’s two-player cooperative arena action was every bit as fun as the game that inspired it. On top of that, the NES version featured an addictive bonus mode called Balloon Trip, which was accompanied by an upbeat Hip Tanaka-composed melody that’s impossible for any real human being to hate.
Here on Game Boy, Balloon Kid retains Balloon Fight’s primary arena combat action in the form of the head-to-head Vs. Mode. It also includes Balloon Trip as well, with the same great music. But while those represented the entirety of the NES game, Balloon Kid demotes them to mere secondary modes.
Instead, the focus here rests primarily on the all–new story mode, an eight-stage variant on Balloon Trip in which a girl named Alice wings her way right to left in an effort to rescue her idiot brother. Balloon Kid reverses the usual direction of platforming action, it reverses 8-bit video game gender roles, and it reverse the myth of Icarus—Alice’s brother carried too many balloons at once and vanished into the sky, like a herald of the fraudulent “balloon boy” hoax from a few years back.
While this adventure derives its general design from Balloon Trip, with auto-scrolling action across the sky, Balloon Kid adds a lot of new ideas to the sandbox. For one thing, the hazards you need to avoid are far more diverse than the tiny star-sparks of Balloon Trip. Alice has to dodge birds, lightning bolts, helmeted bad guys drifting in from the original Balloon Fight, and more. She even has to fight bosses, which she accomplishes by dropping onto their heads.
Oh, right—that’s the biggest change here. While Balloon Kid definitely emphasizes flight, the game falls pretty solidly into the platformer genre, adding ground-based mechanics to the mix. At any point, you can press the B button to cause Alice to drop her balloons and become grounded. On the ground, she plays like pretty much any other platform game hero, running and jumping. Her controls are a bit slippery, and her jump is tough to get a handle on thanks to its floatiness… not to mention Alice’s tendency to rebound off platforms at vigorous angles.
While dropping Alice to the ground would seem to be antithetical to the entire premise of a game about flying around on balloons, it’s not a permanent affliction. While on the ground, you can tap down on the D-pad to inflate a replacement balloon. Four taps fully inflates a balloon, and eight taps gives you two balloons.
Running around becomes necessary to complete the game, especially in later levels. Many times you’ll have to squeeze through areas too narrow for balloons to fit into, and most of the game’s secrets—including bonus stages hidden inside of giant Game Boys—require you to duck through such narrow passages. There’s a lot of nuance to Alice’s ability to release balloons. For one thing, they don’t simply disappear once you let go; instead, they float gently away, and it’s entirely possible to leap up and grab them right away, removing the need to inflate replacements. In fact, that’s more or less how you beat the game’s bosses: Drop onto their heads from a low altitude and use the rebound to snatch your balloons back immediately.
It’s worth noting that most aerial enemies can’t actually harm Alice—they act more like pinball bumpers and cause her to ricochet away. Instead, flying monsters pose a threat to Alice’s balloons. Most of the game’s world consists of wide expanses of open water, and if she drops into the water she loses a life… not so much because she can’t swim as because of the giant, hungry fish lurking in the ocean. As in Balloon Fight, enemies tend to be covered in lots of pointy bits that will pop one of Alice’s two balloons upon contact.
You can float around with just a single balloon if need be, but having a second inflated provides a sort of buffer. Any time you find yourself with only a single balloon, you can drop onto a patch of solid ground and pump up a replacement. This doesn’t exactly turn Balloon Kid into a cakewalk, though—unlike aerial enemies, the hazards you encounter on the ground can do Alice bodily harm and must be avoided at all costs. That can be tricky in tight spaces thanks to the girl’s slippery controls, and it’s no coincidence that the game’s difficulty spikes wildly in the last three stages… right around the time you’re forced to undertake a number of ground-based platforming challenges. Balloon Kid is a bit of a breeze up until that point, but once you’re forced to spend extended periods without flight, you finally get to see the murder that was gleaming in the game’s eyes all along.
Despite Balloon Kid’s transition from lightweight romp to esteem-crushing death gauntlet in its final leg, it’s a great little game. The multiplayer gives it plenty of replay value even beyond the standard mode, and the new take on the NES’s Balloon Trip is one of the more challenging things you’ll ever find on Game Boy. With its controls and physics re-tuned to match the core story mode, Balloon Trip on Game Boy is crazy hard… probably because the newly re-tuned mechanics were based around a more forgiving game design in which players could take a hit and still survive, and even pause to restore their missing balloon. Balloon Trip is all one-hit kills and aerial maneuvering, and it’s absolutely unforgiving.
In a lot of ways, Balloon Kid feels like a sort of culmination of the pre-Metroid work by director Yoshio Sakamoto and the R&D1 division. After all, the team really loved the idea of auto-scrolling platformers with inventive control schemes: Think Gyromite’s sleepwalker mode, or Sakamoto’s own Gumshoe for NES. Balloon Kid marries those concepts to Balloon Fight to create, basically, the definitive R&D1 auto-platformer.
Balloon Kid shares another similarity with Gumshoe: It appears to have been designed specifically for U.S. and European release. The Game Boy version of Balloon Kid never shipped in Japan; instead, co-developer Pax Softnica reworked it for Sanrio as a Famicom game called Hello Kitty World. Indeed, the original Game Boy creation wouldn’t make its way to Japanese handheld enthusiasts until a full decade had passed from its American debut, when it finally shipped as Balloon Fight GB. Japan got the last laugh there, though: Balloon Fight GB appeared on Game Boy Color and sported a nice, bright visual overhaul.
Don’t go looking for a copy of Balloon Fight GB at Japanese flea markets, though. The game never received an official retail release. It was only available through the “Nintendo Power” flash cart system that allowed customers to download games to a rewritable cartridge at convenience stores. At this point, the only physical copies of it remaining in the world are either bootlegs or old flash carts that have yet to be purged by their owners.
It’s also worth noting that you can see Nintendo’s localization philosophy taking shape here. The game’s first stage takes place against a backdrop of school implements, including pencils, so NOA’s writers declared her and her dippy brother to be residents of… Pencilvania.
Sadly, Nintendo wouldn’t do much with the Balloon Fight concept beyond Balloon Kid. This really feels like the ultimate expression of that game’s premise—people floating around on balloons—and rather than belabor the point the studio was content to draw a line under this one and call it a day. Beyond 1990, Balloon Fight has more or less been reduced to cameos in larger games like Animal Crossing and Smash Bros. The closest thing to a proper follow-up came in 2007, when Nintendo and Vanderpool created a Balloon Fight remake for DS starring omnipresent Legend of Zelda weirdo Tingle. Alas, Tingle’s Balloon Fight only shipped in Japan, and strictly as a reward for the defunct Club Nintendo customer loyalty system. It’s pretty easy to get ahold of these days… though sadly, it was based strictly on the NES and Vs. Unisystem versions of Balloon Fight,meaning it lacked an analogue to Balloon Kid’s story mode. (Speaking of Vs. Balloon Fight, a Switch release via Hamster’s Arcade Classic Archives series is pending as of this writing.)
Nintendo did republish Balloon Kid on 3DS Virtual Console, and unlike Maru’s Mission, it’s definitely worth the four bucks they’re asking for it… despite the lack of support for multiplayer in that reissue. This is a fun, charming little adventure, and the ability to weasel your way through the hard parts with save states does a lot to mitigate its more frustrating moments.
R&D1 would follow up with more sequels to their most famous NES works, but this is a great start. Sure, Game Boy lacked the power of the Super NES, but for a fairly simple and breezy game like Balloon Kid, the monochrome portable was absolutely perfect. It’s a Game Boy classic.