Monday, April 21, 2014

Balloon Fight & Ice Climber - Formative Fun
Because some games were created to serve a simple purpose.

The Internet can be a cruel place when it comes to reflecting upon games from the NES' early years. That is, you never see anything but scorn or eye-rolling dismissal tossed in the direction of titles like Tennis, Donkey Kong 3, Urban Champion, Golf and Clu Clu Land, which represent a crop of titles that comprised the NES' "first-generation" of software. While not unique in this regard, the NES was a console popularly known for having two phases of life, the first of which was all about the reproduction of Nintendo and partners' coin-op titles plus the creation of newer, more-simple games that shared their arcade values. Before consoles would come to carve out their own identity, their scene skewed more toward accessible, arcade-style games that featured focused challenges, high scores, and one or two players having a blast as they try to climb the critter-infested building or collect all of the dots before time runs out.

Before I got an NES of my own in 1988, these were the types of games that I played at my friends' and cousins' houses. Everyone had Super Mario Bros. and the The Legend of Zelda, but they were showpieces--the types of games your buddies would use to impress you while probably not letting you play them for more than five minutes. It wasn't something that bothered me, since I naturally gravitated toward games that resembled those I had been playing in arcades and on the Commodore 64 (and who wanted to play long adventure games at someone else's house? Pssh). Instead, my initial experiences with the NES were limited to only a play-session or two of, say, a Baseball or an Excitebike; my first truly meaningful experiences with the system came in 1986, when my best friend Dominick introduced me to titles like Gyromite, Pinball and Wild Gunman, which also happened to entail the gamut of NES peripherals (though, his R.O.B. was mostly busted, so we instead played Gyromite cooperatively, which was much more fun). Though we had a good time with just about all of the games in his collection, there two specific titles that captured our imaginations and brought us back again and again.

Yeah, yeah--I know: Balloon Fight and Ice Climber certainly aren't among the games you'll find on the must-play lists of long-time enthusiasts and critics alike, but to us they were always great fun. They were indicative of the type of game we enjoyed playing, which was any of those that offered two-player single-screen action while giving us the implied option of playing either cooperatively or competitively. I was a fan of Mario Bros., Gauntlet and like, but the majority of multiplayer arcade games were mostly action-, racing- or fighting-oriented; Balloon Fight and Ice Climber represented something different--a home-console realization of the former. Mainly, we could work together to pop the enemies' balloons, or we could screw each other over and share a good laugh about it without either of us having to ever insert another quarter. I could play nice at first, carving a path through the ice for my pal, and then leave him in the dust by swiftly scrolling the screen upward while chuckling about his gullibility (not that I did ... much). They were such a source of continuous entertainment that they became the twin cappers to any of our long play-sessions, our balloon-popping and condor-chasing the final word on a day otherwise dominated by Contra, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! or Wrecking Crew

That was the scene: I'd head over to Dominick's house after dinner, we'd gather into his small den overlooking the quiet 85th street corner, we'd beat up on Don Flamenco and pals before getting roughed up by Mr. Sandman and Super Macho Man, and then we'd blow off steam by hammering some shorts-wearing polar bears and seeing who could get farther in Balloon Trip mode. It was a good time while it lasted, but our recurrent activities started tapering off as we reached the middle of 1988, when the NES' big-hitters started arriving and began consuming Dominick's time and we were both engaging in newer friendships (plus our school broke our oversized class into two groups, with me in one and him in the other), which meant we weren't seeing each other as much. Times were changing, but it didn't mean that old habits had to die, I felt.

Soon after I got my NES, I became somewhat of a "copycat gamer," which meant that I suddenly had the propensity to want to own any game I had previously played at a buddy's house, no matter the quality. Over the years, my NES-themed racks came to be filled with questionable titles like Rambo, Dragon Power, Ghostbusters and Jaws, many of which I wouldn't have purchased otherwise. So during the early summer months of 1989, after I had helped paint the exterior of my aunt's house (which my father owned) on 73rd Street, I continued the trend by taking advantage of my dad's offer for games as the reward for my labor; since their prices had since fallen dramatically, I picked up Balloon Fight, Ice Climber and a few previously encountered older titles that were by then dirt-cheap.

I didn't have any designs on shelving these older titles, specifically Balloon Fight and Ice Climber, and instead had every intention of recommencing our old routine of capping off a day of games with our own brand of frantic multiplayer madness. Since I now had a rather large collection of NES games and my house was the center of attention for the neighborhood's game-hungry kids, I was able to rope a few extra people into our circle, including existing friends Mike and Chris (who both lived on my aunt's block), and indeed breathe new life into two of my favorite old-school NES games; the intrinsically linked pair now became the capstone to sessions consisting of a new assortment of games that included Trojan, Renegade, Double Dragon, Adventure Island, Metroid and Rygar. Even a day largely occupied by the Commodore 64 or a nostalgic unpacking of the 2600's magic box was likely to be punctuated by an appearance from the diminutive Nana and Popo.

Still, the best memories I have of playing Balloon Fight and Ice Climber were with Dominick, who rejoined the party after a short absence and helped milk another year or so of good times out of them. It was over this painfully missed period where we created all of our usual goofy memes and inside jokes, none of which was more hilarious to us than calling Balloon Fight's killer fish "Ginetta." See--in 5th grade (the year our classes were combined), we were standing in the schoolyard on the first day of school when classmate Joseph ran in from the street to inform us that our new teacher "looks like a penguin." This new nightmare was Sr. Ginetta, a nun from the St. Bernadette Convent and the largest, roundest human being we had ever seen. Sr. Ginetta was not a nice person and in fact one of the nastiest, most sarcastic teachers the school had ever employed. She'd make fun of students' hair, figures or speech patterns like she was a habited Don Rickles without a net, so we got revenge by caricaturizing her in our drawings and games.

Naturally, the focus was on her considerable weight, which she proudly earned through a diet of chocolate and, well, just about anything else that could potentially be consumed. Thus, any encountered creature exhibiting traits of being fat or gluttonous was immediately termed a "Ginetta," including Kim from Renegade, the green sumo from Bruce Lee, and of course the hungry fish from Balloon Fight. Woe be the player who foolishly soared over the watery abyss in any stage, whence they would hear the dread cry, "Stay away from Ginetta! Haha--she'll eat us!" Being eaten was better left to the birds, which we'd intentionally knock into the abyss for the purpose of seeing Ginetta dive out from the water so we could promptly mock her. 

Sure--we were an oblivious lot, but we weren't blind to the games' flaws. Ice Climber's controls, in execution, were fairly terrible, with Nana and Popo never able to solidly land where you intended and always falling or jumping through platform edges in a way that felt totally arbitrary. Balloon Fight was better but admittedly short on content; there were a limited number of stages (12 repeating phases in all), and the Balloon Trip mode, while a nice distraction, was clearly cartridge-filler. I can't with much confidence tell you that these games hold a lot of value today (though I'm sure Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, who programmed Balloon Fight and currently works to keep it prolific, disagrees), but they were invaluable to us when we were kids for how they provided simple fun in a more simple time and helped us to bond in a way not possible on a playground. So what if I lost my chance at the big bonus because I fell through the platform while diving for an eggplant? We were too busy laughing to care.

My only lament is that Nintendo doesn't expand its online services to its Virtual Console content (with one or two exceptions). While my feelings on the matter can probably be attributed to repeated bouts of silly romanticizing, I've always hoped to see a day when I could get in contact with an old friend through a digital network and spend a few hours on a boring Sunday flailing away at those icicle-pushing Topis or dropping hapless birds into the unwelcoming gullet of a specially identified fish, if only just for old time's sake.

You may not be able to ever go home again, but you can always ride down the block and have a quick look about the place for a reminder of who you are.

1 comment:

  1. I've grown an appreciation for these types of games. It's nice to have a game you can switch on and enjoy for a few minutes, maybe try to break a high score, without having to commit to an adventure's worth of worlds and bosses. Sometimes it's enough to hear the "pluck" of whacking a Topi and seeing the game count up all your points at the end of a stage.