Redefining Silver Linings
By Joseph Walter
That game is "Balloon Kid."
A stunning sequel to the NES' "Balloon Fight," 1990's "Balloon Kid" not only takes every element that worked in "Fight," but adds to and evolves this precious proto-matter into a form that surpasses the original incarnation.
"Balloon Fight" followed the adventure of the last Balloon Fighter (or two, if you had bravely chosen the 2P option) on his quest to come out victorious in the hallowed "Balloon Fight Tournament" against the insuppressible Bird forces and champions. "Balloon Kid" abandons this concept for a fully-interactive narrative.
While some may scoff at the alleged loss of "immersion" by giving the main character a name and altering the original's non-specific scenario, they're wrong for the simple fact that now, more than ever, there is a deep, emotional connection to the plot and its heroine.
Yes, you read that right: Heroine.
Going against the male-centric grain of the modern video game, "Balloon Kid" rebels against stereotypes and revolutionizes the very concept of what makes a true hero. Fearlessly featuring the character Alice, "Balloon Kid" tasks the player (or, perhaps more accurately, observer or partner) with rescuing her foolish brother, Jim, who's found himself blown away, helplessly floating due to an attachment to a hefty amount of balloons.
The plot is that simple. You won't find pretense here. What could be more poignant than a relationship between a sister and brother?
And Alice is not your average avatar (calling her an avatar is a disservice, due to how incredibly well-defined she is, but please bear with me.) Unlike the highly sexualized Lara Croft or Samus Aran, Alice does not have the insecurities in which she must prove her worth through physical appearance and acrobatics. She wears her pig-tails proudly, without the need for two pistols or a Power Suit of questionable alien design. And while her combat skills and ability to navigate with only two balloons are impressive, its her rich characterization that many true fans find as her greatest strength. She isn't a fabled "strong female character." She's a strong character.
But what of the gameplay? Surely, you are already impressed enough by the plot and characters to understand why "Balloon Kid" has been placed on such a high pedestal, but such trivial elements are arguably the least important part of true video game experience. "Show me the gameplay!" a hardened interactive entertainment veteran would say.
In a nutshell, the gameplay is essentially definitive proof of Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
As I lightly touched upon before, "Balloon Kid" uses its predecessor as a mere stepping stone, borrowing its working elements, while infusing them with new life. Gone are the duels against the Birds, as this game's setting is in the aptly-named "Pencilvania" (more on that later) and appears to canonically take place after the Balloon Fighter has not only emerged victorious from the Tournament, but also conquered the treacherous Balloon Trip. The Birds themselves are seemingly reduced to their real-life size, and no longer need be quashed in a high-speed and high-altitude duel. Instead, much like the aforementioned Balloon Trip, the screen continually scrolls, and Alice, with minor input from you, must navigate the environment with her two balloons while avoiding obstacles and new enemies, such as a man set forever-ablaze running madly to and fro, and evading adversaries of old, such as the ever-hungry and truly ancient leviathan of the deep.
You can tap A to make her flap her arms, giving her height and maneuverability while having her two balloons attached to her, much like her possible-ancestor, the Balloon Fighter, himself. But that is the end of the similarities between their skill-sets.
While it's true that, one popped balloon hinders her, and two balloons be popped will cause Alice to plummet to the ground like the Fighter, this is also where she shows just how much greater her skills are.
In a truly unprecedented move, Alice has the uncanny ability to press Down repeatedly, and inflate a new pair of balloons, barring she did not fall into the treacherous depths of the sea below.
To even further prove her superiority as a protagonist, you may press B at any time to willingly release the flight-enabling balloon pair and show off Alice's proficiency with ground navigation.
These two new abilities illustrate not only how a sequel should expand upon those that came before it, but also prove once-and-for-all that Alice would emerge victorious against the admittedly-legendary Balloon Fighter in single-combat.
Of course, your only goal isn't to show your limitless control and technique, but to travel to the exit on each of the eight stages, while collecting balloons left behind as a trail by Jim for Alice to follow.
Surely many variations await the player on their quest through these stages, but the first stage is really all you need to realize what you're playing/experiencing is not only a gem, but the brightest gem of an entire medium (and then some.) Apparently, there are also four (count 'em, four!) bosses in this game. I can hardly imagine what thrilling, titanic bouts these must be, but, with certainty, they unquestionably put to shame the tired, over-the-top encounters of "God of War" among others.
Of joyous note is the inclusion of a fascinating bonus stage, and method of entering it: While I floated haphazardly along the rough seas of Pencilvania, dodging errant birds, burning tormentors and ill-placed spikes, I was enthralled to see a human-sized Game Boy mysteriously placed near the end of an architecturally-perfect bridge. Needless to say, its unspoken invitation was not only seen but felt, so I recommended to Alice that we investigate. I was more-than-pleased to see a return to the exact bonus stage of the original "Balloon Fight!"
On the topic of "Balloon Fights" fondly-admired Main Theme, I'm sure you're all curious to hear what other audio delights await you. You'll be pleased to know that, once again, "Balloon Kid" defines precisely what a sequel should be.
A dream-like score brings you into this world, but when Stage 1 starts, you won't believe what you're hearing. The musical genius, Hirokazu Tanaka, delivers, hands down, the finest tune to grace the Game Boy in its entire life-span and, arguably, of any console game ever.
The "Balloon Fight Main Theme" is not merely remixed, but, much like the gameplay, is a fascinating evolution to a tried-and-true element. Some have argued that the pure version of the Balloon Fight theme is perfect as is, but they are simple-minded. Much like "Castlevania" fans frothing at the mouth for yet another brain-dead remix of a "classic" song (one that has been done ad infinitum) with little evolution (and, subsequently complaining endlessly when they're given an advanced, both intellectually and musically, retelling of these themes in the "Lords of Shadow" saga) these same people who believe the original theme to be insurmountable simply have a mental block that will hopefully be removed in due time.
Tanaka takes the classic theme and increases its worth at least seven-fold, in what is easily the most intellectually-interesting and spectacular arrangement ever committed to a piece of video entertainment. Don't believe me? Listen for yourself. I'll say again, simply one of the most awe-inspiring, astounding 3-minutes of music ever written for a game. Right when you think all the mileage possibly able to be extracted from the Main Theme has been tapped, Tanaka-sama proves his expertise once more by taking this thread of pure dream-fuel on a new course, much like the titular balloons, along with your mind, on a journey unlike any aural experience you've ever had.
Needless to say, I was in tears mid-way through the level for these reasons alone, but I haven't yet even spoken about the truly-enlightened level of artistry this game employs.
I don't presume to call myself an artist, or even artistically-inclined, but even I could recognize that what I was seeing went beyond a mere "game." It was art. Pure and simple. The cleverly named "Pencilvania" was home to tall sky-scrapers that resembled enormous pencils. If this were an amateur game, such a decision would not have been made. And what's more, it's clear that Pencilvania is an idyllic land, but the subtle suggestion that something dark is brewing (clues to which are the various enemies, rough waves, and other extremely obscure elements) can tee off an astute participant that the canon is richer than imagined. This isn't full, on-the-nose, wretched, heavy-handed pseudo-symbolism, featured in the likes of "Halo" or "Final Fantasy." This is actually meaningful, with complex symbols and suggestions that only an equally-enlightened player will be able to pick up on.
Before I forget (as I nearly lost myself once again thinking of the ethereal qualities of this masterpiece) I find it prudent to mention the other game-types included, aside from the gripping story mode. There is 2P mode, similar to the multiplayer of the original game, but it features an interesting narrative element: The second-player assumes command of a character known as Samm, described as Alice's "eternal rival" by the manual. You were already aware of the level of storytelling in this game, and the high-bar that it set, so I'll let you chew on the implications of this untapped lore. Lastly, the final feature is a stunning, nearly-pixel-perfect reproduction of the cherished Balloon Trip mode from the originally, but this time at a much quicker (and more difficult) pace.
Now, I'm sure you all want me to talk about the graphics now. Typically, I try to avoid discussion of such vapid, surface elements, but the sad truth of today is that many gamers (connotation intended) base everything on appearances. Lucky for them, "Balloon Kid" does not disappoint: Put as plainly as possible, the graphical representations of Pencilvania and its inhabitants are breath-taking.
The graphics are nearly on-par with, if not superior to, "Grand Theft Auto V," but, unlike the generic, run-of-the-mill look the latter brazenly employs, "Balloon Kid" features an imaginative aesthetic, which succinctly creates a world unlike anything ever seen before. Despite this, I'd even suggest the graphics were photo-realistic, but I'm not one for hyperbole.
Once in a generation, once in a lifetime, we get a game that completely demolishes the feeble prison of the words "video game" and eclipses its entire medium, while also ascending above and beyond (pun-intended) the other, so-called "fine arts" (Books, Film, etc.)
Much like the beloved "Simon's Quest" and "The Adventure of Link," "Balloon Kid" not only improves upon its predecessor in every conceivable way, it dares to break new ground, and digs so deep that it stumbles upon the most precious, and rarest of ores.
"Balloon Kid" is a piece of pure art. If you ever have the chance to see the apex of human achievement, treat yourself and indulge in it. After all, you almost certainly won't be alive to see anything usurp it.