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View Full Version : Why Balloon Fight is a better game than Joust: Design By Example Vol 0X Gaiden


ASandoval
12-01-2016, 12:25 PM
A small preamble before I get to the article: First, apologies for the click-baity title, but aside from wanting people to read it I also wanted to be upfront about what exactly this was. This is the first part of something I've been wanting to do for a long time, namely a series that teaches video game design in the learning style that best works for me: examples and demonstration. Sort of like what Game Maker's Toolkit or Extra Credits Design Club is doing, but I want to take it down a notch or two. Both of those shows and others like it come in at what to me feels like an intermediate or at least advance-beginners level, using words like 'elegance' and 'affordances' casually as if everyone has read The Design of Everyday Things. There's not a whole lot out there for people who are just starting out with video game design theory that breaks a lot of the basics down in an easily digestable way. So this is sort of the 'first draft' of an analysis series I'd like to expand upon some day or at the very least, get a more polished rendition of this article up on Gamasutra or something in the near future.

So this is where Talking Time comes in; outside of just generally breaking something down for this board's entertainment, I want your feedback: did you learn anything, what about this can be improved, expanded or cut down, was it interesting, am I totally off the mark. Anything at all is appreciated, and I hope you enjoy it. All screens right now are taken from the net (mostly HG101), but I plan to replace them with my own soon.

***

While the golden era of video games is often remembered as a hotbed of innovation for titles such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, itís easy to forget that as the gaming landscape was just as full of rehashes it is today. Itís practically built into the industryís DNA as Pong, widely hailed as the first commercial arcade game, was itself an imitator of the Magnavox Oddysseyís pack-in game Table Tennis. Eventually this kind of retread of old ideas would become so ubiquitous that these types of games earned the unflattering moniker of Ďclonesí.

But clones werenít just off-brand duplicates designed to cash in on trends; at times they were a sort of utilitarian necessity; art and mechanics in games are heavily bound to the limitations of the times, so arcade boards and early game consoles could only accommodate for a smattering of ideas. Combine those restrictions with an industry boom that demanded more products be released in a small timeframe, clones were created by both smaller companies and larger, more established development houses such as Konami, Capcom and Nintendo.

Most of the time, these games would languish in obscurity and be overshadowed by the original title they were replicating. In a few rare cases however, there were clones that for one reason or another would stand on their own and remain fondly remembered today. While obvious market factors such as better branding and advertising played a role, itís also possible for a change of art style and/or play mechanics can not just make the clone unique enough to stand out from the original, but also improve upon the original design and make a game more fun for a larger audience. As a learning exercise, letís look compare and contrast a clone that made small artistic and mechanical changes from the original and see how it took an already engaging experience and improved upon it.

http://i.imgur.com/nWcdjNe.png http://i.imgur.com/sx0gDqR.png

Balloon Fight, a Nintendo developed arcade game from 1984, postdates Joust from Williams Electronics by two years yet both share the same basic mechanics; players control their character by pressing a button rapidly in order to gain a bit of altitude with each press while being able to move to the left and right freely. The goal of the game is to clear the stage of opponents while trying not to fall too far to the bottom of the stage. Players can attack their opponent by bumping into them at a higher altitude then they are. Colliding with an enemy at a lower altitude than them will result in your player being attacked, or hitting them at the same altitude will cause them both bounce off each other like a pair of bumper cars. Itís a tense experience created by wrestling with both the unique control scheme and learning to adjust to the gameís physics so the player can properly navigate the stage and clear the board of opponents.

This is where most of the similarities end as both games have minor differences between rules of the game and radically distinct art styles. Joust takes place in a fictional world where Roman style gladiators with javelins ride atop big ostrich-like birds and face off in aerial joust, fighting inside a volcano-like caverns filled with lava and patrolling pterodactyls. Joust also uses a sort of 70s comic book art style, or at least as much of one as the limited palette could replicate at the time. The background is pitch black, allowing the brown and orange cave platforms on the foreground to pop. The game tries to give the riders and birds a realistic sense of scale, albeit from a faraway perspective. The whole board is visible on one screen, and the birds, while bigger than the solid color riders who sit on their backs, still look small on the screen and allow for decent visibility of the board itself.

Balloon Fight goes for a different, more abstract aesthetic; while Joust opts for a fantastical-yet-grounded world design and theme, Nintendo goes colorful and cartoony. Here, you play a small man with balloons tied to a helmet that allows him to defy the laws of physics by flying around when he flaps arms, facing off against other similarly clad enemies whose helmets also sport a long spike at the end. The goal here is to gain enough altitude to Ďpopí the enemy balloons while protecting your own. The game takes place against a starry night backdrop, with small grass plateaus and a water-filled lake beneath the characters that is home to a human-eating fish. Although each stage still takes place on a single screen, the perspective is a little closer in, allowing the characters to be slightly bigger and more visible but diminishing the amount of movement they have.

http://i.imgur.com/LZUXMQf.png

There are other small differences in terms of obstacles, but the basic mechanics remain the same; clear the stage by attacking enemies at higher altitudes while trying not to connect with them at lower altitudes, so what makes Balloon Fight stand out? Iíd argue that Balloon Fightís unique theme and larger, cartoony sprites allow the player to better understand how to play the game with clearer signifiers that help communicate each itemís affordance.

But letís back up for a moment; what exactly are affordances and signifiers? Theyíre related, but separate concepts; first defined by James J. Gibsonís ĎThe Theory of Affordancesí, an affordance is a term that refers to all the ways a user can interact with an object - for example, a chair Ďaffordsí to be sat upon. But just because an object affords a particular use, doesnít mean that affordance is always obvious. A chair affords to be sat on, but it also affords being picked up and carried, stood on, used as a door stop, and more. Thatís why in design, we use signifiers to help communicate how an object affords to be used. A door Ďaffordsí to be open and closed, but how exactly does it open? A handle helps to Ďsignifyí that a door can be pulled open, while a bar or flat, metal plate can be used to signify pushing.

Affordances and signifiers arenít just concepts for physical objects, but digital objects as well. We use signifiers all the time in games, from literal signs that point in the direction youíre supposed to go to making interactable objects a different color than others in the level to make them stand out. In Balloon Fight, the player and enemies both Ďaffordí to lose health when their opponent comes in contact with the large, solid color balloons they carry: a very clear signifier resting above each combatant that also communicates both flight and frailty. Furthermore, the enemy balloon fighters have pointy helmets, giving the player a clear idea of what exactly is going to happen if their balloon comes into contact with them.

http://i.imgur.com/l1rE2vm.png

In fairness to Joust, it does try to signify its play mechanics based on the theme. The title ĎJoustí at least relays the information crashing into each other in order to knock the other player off their respective steed at the very least communicates that running into each other is necessary. But while thereís a certain amount of logic to trying to connect with the opposite rider by being at a higher altitude, itís not necessarily the easiest to intuit, particularly when the Joust characters are so small in comparison to their mount.

None of this means that Joust isnít a great game of course. Itís built on a solid foundation of original mechanics that Balloon Fight owes its very existence to. Yet itís pertinent for budding designers to understand that art and game design arenít separate practices; they need to work in tandem to create experiences that are as functional as they are compelling. With itís unique style that organically expresses the rules to the player without the need of a tutorial, Balloon Fight remains an endearing title in Nintendoís library to this day despite its own progeny.

Falselogic
12-01-2016, 12:48 PM
I am excited about this thread!

Dracula
12-01-2016, 02:53 PM
This is good stuff.

Balloons in video games are an interesting signifier for exactly the reasons you stated. For example, the balloon enemies in Mega Man 9's Tornado Man stage (on my mind since I played it last night). They float up and down and spit bullets at you. But a balloon signifies frailty, right? So you would conclude to fire at the balloon. But if you do, it expels air and starts to fly all over the screen in an erratic pattern, possibly damaging you. On the other hand, if you attack the enemy's face (a smaller target), it dies normally.

So I could see that as another way of the game playing off of a signifier and changing the player's reaction based on their notions. In the same way, it's natural for you to aim for the balloons in Balloon Fight because they're obvious targets, unlike the sprites in Joust.

conchobhar
12-01-2016, 02:56 PM
Subscribed. Looking forward to more!

Falselogic
12-01-2016, 03:10 PM
True Fact:

Until I read your post I had no idea how I was supposed to defeat the baddies in joust. And I've played the game on multiple occasions. I figured out I had to run into the baddies but I never did intuit or discover what meant a win/draw/loss until you described it here.






I may not be the smartest person.

ASandoval
12-01-2016, 03:27 PM
True Fact:

Until I read your post I had no idea how I was supposed to defeat the baddies in joust. And I've played the game on multiple occasions. I figured out I had to run into the baddies but I never did intuit or discover what meant a win/draw/loss until you described it here.

I originally came up with the thesis for this article because as a kid I had absolutely no idea how you were supposed to play Joust, even though I owned and loved Balloon Fight (and Balloon Kid on GameBoy). Eventually I read (probably an article of Parish's) that Balloon Fight was a clone of Joust, and it all suddenly clicked after that.

So yeah, you're not dumb. I imagine it was like that for a lot of people!

I'm glad people are enjoying this! I got rough ideas for others, but I'm going to return to Klonoa before anything else. I guess that's more than enough motivation to finally push through and finish that series.

MetManMas
12-01-2016, 03:33 PM
I am excited about this thread!

Ditto.

Speaking of Joust clones, while the differences are more obvious, Mario Bros. drew inspiration from that pool as well, with its fixed arena stage with differing variables.

Dracula
12-01-2016, 03:51 PM
So what were Nintendo's major clones of popular arcade titles?

Joust > Balloon Fight
Pac-Man > Devil World/Clu Clu Land
Space Invaders > Uh...Radar Scope?

Bongo Bill
12-01-2016, 04:14 PM
Good.

WildcatJF
12-01-2016, 06:25 PM
I like this thread and await more. :D

ArugulaZ
12-01-2016, 06:39 PM
(grumbles)

There's an attract mode, you know! It shows you exactly how to play Joust, and you don't have to put in a single coin to watch it. For what it's worth, I go back to Joust a lot more than Balloon Fight. The nostalgia is stronger and frankly, Balloon Fight is just a little too cutesy for its own good. I look at it and think, "boy, Nintendo sure Nintendo'ed the HELL out of this idea." Maybe pudgy balloonists make for a more intuitive experience, but they don't hold a candle to knights riding ostriches and vultures in the coolness department.

LBD_Nytetrayn
12-02-2016, 03:22 PM
Awesome, and you've done well to describe more thoroughly one of the reasons I've long said that Balloon Fight is the better game.

Falselogic
12-02-2016, 07:24 PM
The Balloon Fight bits in Ultimate NES Remix (3DS) are some of my favorite.

ASandoval
12-02-2016, 10:54 PM
Awesome, and you've done well to describe more thoroughly one of the reasons I've long said that Balloon Fight is the better game.

Thank you! I'm glad you liked it! :D

The Balloon Fight bits in Ultimate NES Remix (3DS) are some of my favorite.

The remake of Balloon Trip mode in Nintendo Land is far and away the best part of the entire game. I'm loving this Balloon Fight revival in the past couple years.

Ludendorkk
12-03-2016, 01:30 AM
I did not realize the Balloon Fight enemies had spikes until now

Good Thread! I liked the part about affordances and signifiers. That's a really useful concept I hadn't had described before

ASandoval
12-04-2016, 10:28 AM
I did not realize the Balloon Fight enemies had spikes until now

Good Thread! I liked the part about affordances and signifiers. That's a really useful concept I hadn't had described before

Thanks! That was a big part of wanting to do this series. I'd heard the terms thrown around before but no one ever explained them. Last year I got 'Design of Everyday Things' which devotes a big chapter to the concept. That book's pretty much a must read if you ave any interest in functional design, be it for games, applications, architecture... anything really.

LBD_Nytetrayn
12-05-2016, 04:40 PM
Thank you! I'm glad you liked it! :D



The remake of Balloon Trip mode in Nintendo Land is far and away the best part of the entire game. I'm loving this Balloon Fight revival in the past couple years.

That was one of my favorite parts. I rather like it more than the original Balloon Trip (regular mode was always my favorite), since it combines the two in a cool way. I'd love to play a more traditionally-controlled version as well.

On a related note, breaking the demo at a preview event before it came out remains one of my proudest gaming moments.

Seriously, this is one of my all-time favorites. I imported Tingle's Balloon Fight (I still wish we'd gotten some form of localization), made it my business card, and even cosplayed as a Balloon Fighter at the Otakon following Iwata's death (that touched some people).