Friday, 16 March 2012

King & Balloon

Man the space cannons - Richard Branson is attacking the monarchy. This is King & Balloon, released in 1980 by Namco. Remind me why we don't care.

Yep, a vertical shooter released after Galaxian but before Galaga - you'd think I'd notice, but I guess I just suck. King & Balloon was all the rage back in the day - 28 years ago this week, German pop sensation Nena made it the subject of her first and only UK official number one single... because as we all know, the underlying tones of 99 Luftballons are to do with the degradation of the British monarchy by the Virgin Group, not Soviet oppression over the former German Democratic Republic.

I mean Christ, if there wasn't a wall to separate ideals here, you'd not be able to protect the king at all!

So yes, either we have a political game on our hands or I'm going off on a bizarre tangent to satisfy my weird sense of humour. Either way, King & Balloon is an excellent little game, and is certainly worth your attention. Though it's arguably not a great deal different from Galaga, it's historically significant because it was released before man took revenge on giant space insects. It's a "Galaxian 1.5", so to speak - a long lost relative that we don't send Christmas cards to anymore.

Obviously the themes are very different, but gameplay is more-or-less the same. You're tasked with blowing up waves of enemies for points, and said enemies can traverse down the screen to get in your way, Galaxian-style. The twist is that this time, destroying your ship is only a secondary objective of your foe - their goal is to capture and steal your "king" - an odd little man who wanders back and forth below. It's a idea you'll also encounter in games like Defender, but there's a good chance King & Balloon is pioneering the concept.

Death is not a concern in King & Balloon, just a hinderance. Lives are lost if the King is taken off-screen by an enemy - the peasants controlling the defences are expendable. There's also bizzaro "super-balloons", where several balloons group together to form tougher enemies. It's never really explained why hot air is such a threat.

Also new is digitised voices... which are pointless. You also have bonus rounds which are triggered after a few normal stages - they're the same sort of thing you'd find in Galaga and its sequels. Other than that there's nothing too surprising, but for something released over thirty years ago, life was never going to get too complicated. Generally if you like Galaxian or Galaga (or in fact any shooter of this nature), there's no real reason to hate King & Balloon... except people clearly do, because it barely gets any attention in comparison.

King & Balloon did reach home platforms, but not in large numbers. There was an MSX port in 1984 for the Japanese, but nothing for the west until the 2005 PSP release of Namco Museum Battle Collection. Compared to a decade ago it's not a game that's completely ignored these days, but by no means is it as common as Namco shooters beginning with the letter G.

So yes, this is one one worth considering. Perhaps not as brilliant as the equally ignored Bosconian, but still good fun.

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