Notam1.jpg["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Artdink's Notam Of Wind, released in Japan in September 1997.]

Up, Up And Away?

A good friend of mine had taken several hot air balloon lessons, and at one point was studying to get her hot air balloon license. She passed on 2 notes of interest to me. One, hot air balloons gets priority above all other flying vehicles at airports, and this fact, perhaps, fueling the second: you have no direct control over the X or Y axis planes of a hot air balloon. All you guide is the Z, with instruments and instincts for the prevailing crosswinds for compensation. But its pretty much all up. And down. (She never did get her license, but did go on to make flying robots.)

Notam2.jpgKaze no Notam is a game about going up and down. It's a vaguely realistic hot air balloon game from designer Artdink, the proto-masters of the none-game-game (Tail of the Sun, A-Train, plus the recently GSW-covered puzzle title No One Can Stop Mr. Domino.) This 1997 PlayStation release lets you design your balloon, choose an exotic location, time of day, music and weather for three different scenarios. Try to hit a target on the ground with a limited amount of green sandbags or drop three of these green slugs in a triangular formation and see how much surface area was covered. But if hitting stationary targets and, uh, surface area, don’t float your balloon, you can go ‘wolf hunting’ as you try to peg down floating kappa, penguins and other Macy’s Day Parade floats gone awry.

Drifting Through The Skies

If you just want to tread the air, the visuals will keep you company, as well as the gentle music selection. Though presented with first generation graphics from a 1997 game, the fluid 3D world and capable camera gel nicely with the leisurely pace. The weather effects and subtle use of the sun also bring a serene, naturalistic atmosphere to the blocky cities and football fields you pass over. I could almost see the terrain populated by MuuMuu. A first person mode is activated when you decide to drop some sandbags. And above all, the CD case is the real design winner, with the beautiful Engrish phrase “Did you luxuriate in the wind?” written on the flat end of the spine.

On a language front, Notam is an easy entry for import. The menus have copious amounts of English, and the controls are what you would expect: you can flame on to rise and release some of the hot air to lower yourself. Your instrumentation shows you the current wind directions for particular altitudes (and your balloon's altitude) on the right hand of the screen, while a compass sits at the top and a mini map on the left. A more detailed map gets its own dedicated button. The compass responds to how you position the camera, so if you want a keep a direction as relative North (and you will) there enters a bit of dexterity with a dash of cinematography.


Surf The Wind, But Mind The Time

Despite the charming and leisurely flow of the game, a constant time limit is always taunting, dogging and failing you. For such a laid back experience, where you literally expect to go wherever the wind takes you, it’s really a sadistic feature, especially for the Rounds option which asks for more specific goals within the three tasks. The Wind itself is a harsh mistress, that will repeatedly beat you mad north, northwest when all you want to do is go south by southwest and listen to some music.

It's an interesting entry in Eastern game design that would never fly (hover?) over in the Territories. Still, with the exception of the Rounds' requests, I’ve put hours into conquering all of the challenges through snow, sleet, and sunset as the games holds up the mirror of nature with the unforgiving wind, and the tenacity of man with the damnable time limit. In all, a zen-like amusement that won’t let you reach Nirvana.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which show videos of many of these games. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]