A walk in the sky

20200512_084526.jpgAs historically significant as the PlayStation officially cracking mainstream culture was, finally making games cool in that weirdly aggressive nineties marketing way, the console was also a fertile breeding ground for weird and wonderful games – games that would escape their expected Japan-only shackles and sit on store shelves worldwide, acting like they actually belonged there. Remember No One Can Stop Mr Domino, Fluid, Bishi Bashi Special, and Kula World? They’re all about as far from any easily-advertised demographic as a game can be, and yet they’re all as unquestionably “PlayStation” as Tekken, Tomb Raider, or Metal Gear Solid.

Although dishing out labels like “weird” and “oddball” for the likes of Vib Ribbon may be easy enough to do it’s also more than a little dismissive of the enormous change in the industry these releases represent. With everyone unsure what the heck to do with this shiny new technology and Sony eager to encourage anything and everything they could get their hands on it was something of an exciting and experimental time for the game developers turning to the competitive alternative to Nintendo’s cart-based manacles (sorry, Sega), with all and sundry turning up to have a go and literally writing the rulebook as they went along. Any concept could be turned into a game, and with gamers being as swept up by this tidal wave of change as much as the people making them players were generally receptive, or at least politely inquisitive, to any idea that existed outside what were then the over-familiar mascot platformer, action-platformer, adventure-platformer, and platformer-platformer genres. And so developers large and small took this happy little firecracker of a situation and ran for miles and miles with it… and that is how you end up with a game about hot air ballooning debuting on the same format and in the same year as Gran Turismo.

Kaze no NOTAM isn’t the sort of game to shyly use the colourful hot air balloons on its inviting cover as some sort of vague plot device to add a little bit of flair to an otherwise ordinary scenario – they aren’t the lifelong passion of an idealistic JRPG adventurer, nor your sole mode of transportation across a whimsical landscape – the game is literally just hot air ballooning for, er, hot air ballooning’s sake. Even that idea’s pared back to little more than the bare essentials: You’re not participating in a balloon race across the globe or in any sort of competition against other pilots – it’s just you (and even then, “you” are your customisable balloon – there’s not a human in sight), the elements, and the ground peacefully scrolling beneath your basket in clearly defined square chunks. On the surface this might make it look as if Kaze no NOTAM has no identity to call its own seeing as it lacks an obvious personal hook to draw players in and all of the realtime 3D is blocky and rough even by 1997’s standards, boasting a draw distance that seems to extend five, maybe six, inches away from the end of your nose under best conditions. The truth is it’s actually not as far behind the graphical curve as these screenshots may make the game appear; this was the year the world first got their mitts on Final Fantasy VII after all, and if you consider that game’s barely-textured battles and squat overworld models were being held aloft by the international gaming press as some of the most beautiful, resource-intensive, and industry-changing scenes ever to be gazed upon by mortal eyes it becomes a little easier to see Kaze no NOTAM as something that would have been classed more as technically unremarkable than anything else for the time period.

Not that any of that matters, seeing as what the game loses in raw detail it more than makes up for with heart, allowing its three large areas – Drafty Valley, Windy City, and Breezy Earth – to accommodate a wide range of unusual locations that wouldn’t normally exist within floating distance (or exist at all) of each other, deciding that delighting the player with an unexpected sight is far more valuable an experience than worrying about trying to wrangle any semblance of 32-bit “realism” out of the surrounding terrain. Because of this focus on beautiful landscape purely for the sake of creating something worth noticing Kaze no NOTAM is a game where spiral forests, classically sculpted hedge gardens, industrial cities and floating waterways in the sky are all potential sights on your wind-powered trip; the absence of a fixed starting point and your inability to control the direction of the wind meaning you’re never quite sure where you’ll end up and you can’t guarantee you’ll see what you want to see on any given flight. This uncertainty works in the game’s favour, turning a map that would be reduced in any other game to a simple checklist – “Fly to the lower edge, head East, see [Thing]” – into a scrolling mystery box and only adds a real sense of achievement to getting a good look at the windmill you barely glimpsed last time before it disappeared into the fog, or finally spotting the monorail system winding through a futuristic city.

To add further variation to the already impressive range of locales you can alter the time of day to suit your mood before setting off: This has no bearing on the game itself but seeing skyscrapers light up the night sky, the setting sun peeking out over treetops that stretch all the way to the (far too close) horizon, and the bright blue morning sky over lush green hills really change the mood of your unplanned adventures, and can make familiar sights look fresh and exciting all over again. Weather effects haven’t been ignored either with fog, rain, and snow all making an optional appearance – not that extra fog is going to impress anyone in an early nineties game unless they’re playing Silent Hill, but the rain and snow at least do make enough of a difference to be worth toggling on before the start of a flight if you feel the need for a small environmental change. The clouds used in these settings look a little strange (the way they move makes it look like they’re contained within a tight cone that’s always directly above the balloon) but they’re… well, they made an attempt and they do serve as an effective claustrophobic contrast to the free and clear skies of the default fair weather option.

Ballooning may be a more hands-off form of air travel but when turned into a game these restrictions morph into something of an interesting real-time puzzle, and you’ll need to keep a keen eye on the ever-changing wind direction (that’s the five arrows on the right hand side of the screen, ordered by altitude) and learn when best to apply the burner or release some warm air using the valve if you want to do anything more than passively float around at random. Relinquishing this much control – the game is deliberately lacking in solid numerical information – can feel jarring when mastery of personal movement and navigating your surroundings have been such a common measure of gaming expertise for so many decades, but even though Kaze no NOTAM doesn’t fit the usual gaming mould (or any mould, really) it still requires player skill and quick thinking – not luck – to encourage the balloon to move in the right direction. With a bit of practise the game changes from “Guess I’d better go up to not hit the big mountain” to smoothly adapting to unexpected changes in the wind as they occur, trying to anticipate undesirable gusts before they come up while still taking into account any obstacles that may pop up along the way – a wind that’s going in the right direction at high speed is no use to you if all it’s going to push you into the side of a castle wall. To help give you a fighting chance of reaching your intended goal you can check the handy target-displaying map at any point with a single button push and the pre-flight objective map will always show this outing’s prevailing wind direction – you may not know exactly what’s going to happen once you’re up in the air but even so it’s never a good idea to choose a launch site that’ll have you fighting the wind currents every step of the way.

You do get to have a little bit of direct interaction with the world lazily passing by below in first-person mode – the closest you ever get to having a human avatar in the game – as when looking around like this you can fire green markers at the landscape in a gravity-respecting arc. These are used in different ways within the selectable missions that help to give Kaze no NOTAM the light touch of game-y structure it needs to make the most of its breezy potential The first type of exercise is called Fly In: With this one you’re given three markers, a target some distance away to float yourself towards, and then the aim to try and fire a marker as close to the centre of the target as possible. Then there’s Try Delta: Make (or in some of the missions, complete) a delta shape using three markers, with a better rank awarded the bigger your marker-made triangle – it doesn’t have to be neat, anything that vaguely fits the bill counts. Last of all is Wolf Hunt. In this mode you have to shoot down a hot air balloon (they’re easy to spot even without the help of the convenient minimap because they always come in ridiculous shapes, like a giant chicken head) using an infinite supply of markers. You only need to land a marker on one of them, with your rank being based on how quickly you were able to do it.

These challenge types are reused and/or repurposed for Round mode’s increasingly difficult series of, well, rounds. The challenges you unlock here are surprisingly tough and exacting, which creates some frustration in a game that’s gone out of its way to be imprecise and cultivated such a strong “Deal with things as they come” attitude. An early Fly In target stage sets the tone: You’re asked to fire a marker within 10m of the target’s centre – the only problem is you have no idea how big the target is. There are visual clues around but when the most prominent is a giant polygonal sphinx that’s of no use to anyone you feel as if you wouldn’t do much worse closing your eyes and hoping for the best. Is the target 100m across, making that mission-clearing 10m a point just outside the very centre of the target? Or is the target itself just 10m wide, meaning a valid shot would be anything that lands within it’s glowing circle? You have no way of knowing outside of patience-testing trial and error. The good news is if you do stick with Kaze No NOTAM long enough to get a feel for the game’s woolly sense of distance (it took me about an hour) these challenges transform from muddy irritations to events that can be completed easily and reliably, underlining once again that even a game that only lets you move up and down in imperfect increments using the nothing more than the power of heat relies on player reactions and good judgement to see through to the end.

This all does rely on the player being flexible enough to accommodate the game’s unusual approach to… to gaming, really. Learning to let the wind take you along for a while and not seeing a drift in the opposite direction of your intended target as a personal failing or bad design does take some conscious internal readjustment before it starts to feel right. Kaze no NOTAM’s also – and this is not an excuse for anything although I can definitely see how it could be read as one – very much a game that you can only take as much joy from as you’re prepared to emotionally invest in it yourself: The unguided pleasure of discovering of new places in unfamiliar corners of the map, the wonder of seeing a horse-drawn cart moving a long a path you didn’t even know existed until it came into view. The graphics may be primitive by most standards but honestly the nature of the game and the lack of fine detail all work in its favour, allowing your mind the freedom to wander and your imagination to fill in the blanks for itself.

The opening page of the manual asks players if they’d like to try walking in the sky (now you know where the title of this post came from!) – Kaze no NOTAM is a beautifully unique title that absolutely delivers both the letter and spirit of that gentle dream.

2 thoughts on “A walk in the sky

  1. I love these kinds of more or less experimental “Just explore and take in the sights (and maybe catalogue them to make it a bit more game-y)” type of games like Aquanaut’s Holiday, LSD Dream Simulator, Endless Ocean etc.

    It helps that they usually are very easy to play even without much knowledge of Japanese, even if they never got localized.

    Maybe I shall indeed try ballooning through early 3D landscapes soon, thanks to this post >:3

    Like

    1. Oh yes! Those are all great examples! 😀

      Let me know how you get on with Kaze no NOTAM if you do play it – I hope you have a great time!

      Like

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