Saturday, October 29, 2011

Deflating Balloon Fight

As it does fairly frequently, Nintendo did something funny. This particular funny thing happened in 1990, when it released a Game Boy game, Balloon Kid, as a sequel to its 1984 title, Balloon Fight.

A lot of Nintendo’s lesser-known titles saw sequels rendered in the glorious creamed spinach color of the Game Boy, I suspect because these cheaper, shorter games presented less risk to the companies that made them. In any case, non-A-list Nintendo franchises like Metroid and Kid Icarus saw their first sequels on the Game Boy before getting more respect on “proper” systems years later. Balloon Fight did too, with Balloon Kid and its floaty airborne adventure through the pointy-tipped landscape of Pencilvania (ha!), but it as a franchise never really crawled out from the bargain bin.

And that’s too bad, because it’s a fun little game — a festive little variation on Joust where in balloons replace funny flying ostriches. Flit about, clip the balloons attached to the bad guys and, if you want, also pop the balloons keeping Player Two aloft.

There’s also an alternate mode unique to the NES version, “Balloon Trip,” where in one player can float in one direction, attempting to snag free-floating balloons while avoiding obstacles. (Weirdly, the screen scrolls right-to-left — a rarity in platforming video games.)

It’s the second mode that Nintendo chose to focus on in the sequel, but that choice isn’t the strange one. As I realized while reading The Gay Gamer’s entry on Balloon Kid, Nintendo’s strange move was actually the one to switch the gender the main character. In place of the anonymous little dude in the skydiving suit is Alice, a little girl wearing a bow in her hair. In fact, Alice is the second-ever female character to be the main controllable one in a Nintendo game. (The first is Samus from Metroid, whose space armor totally disguises her gender until the end of the game — and even then only if you meet certain conditions. Bubbles, the lead of the Pac-Man-like Clu Clu Land, is only female in the U.S. Alice, however, is clearly female from the get-go.)

original dude on the left, his successor on the right

Alice and her unflinching girliness are also featured fairly prominently in the box art.

So why make this call? Why make the second entry in the franchise stand out by putting a girl in the lead role? The game was fun, as I remember, but it didn’t benefit from the fact that its main character wore a skirt. Of course, Alice being female didn’t have any effect on the gameplay, exactly, but what it did do was turn off a few boys who saw the box art and decided they didn’t want to be caught playing a “girl’s game.” In the end, Balloon Kid didn’t become a major seller, and Balloon Fight as a franchise never really went anywhere. Mr. Anonymous Fighter was shortlisted for inclusion in one of the Smash Bros. games, but ultimate didn’t make the cut. And the series has yet to get a new entry. Balloon Kid, however, did find a strange second life that further situated it in the “girl’s game” ghetto: It underwent a makeover and finally got released in Japan as Hello Kitty World, with that weirdly mouthless Sanrio cat replacing Alice.

Hello Kitty and her friends being the sort that typically decorate the backpacks and pencil boxes of young women, Nintendo clearly thought the game, with the proper dressings, could appear to girls, though I’m not sure what it is exactly about balloons that skews feminine.

So what eventually became of Balloon Fight? Not all that much. Like I said, the Balloon Fighter himself just missed out on Smash Bros.. However, the original title scored a remake in 2007 for the Nintendo DS as Tingle’s Balloon Fight, starring one of Nintendo’s least masculine characters ever — Tingle, the Zelda series’s middle-aged, spandex clad man who thinks he’s a fairy. (What, you mean every long-running video game franchise doesn’t have one?)

Nintendo was a lot more straightforward about the fact that they were mashing a foreign character into Balloon Fight, hence this cover with Tingle being taped into the original box art. For what it’s worth, Tingle already had an association with balloon travel…

But the fact that the this version of Balloon Fight starred a character most gamers seem to have a hard time loving — and furthermore it was only released in Japan and only made available to Club Nintendo members — makes me think Nintendo maybe isn’t as interested in making the franchise as popular as it could be. Which is too bad, because the series features simple, fun arcade-style play at its best, no matter how Nintendo dresses it up.

Games and gender stuff, previously:

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