Kaze no NOTAM (風のノータム)

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

Kaze no NOTAM is a 1997 hot air ballooning game released for the Sony PlayStation by Artdink, the developer responsible for the A-Train series, Aquanaut’s Holiday, Carnage Heart, Tail of the Sun, and No One Can Stop Mr. Domino.

System: Sony PlayStation
Developer: Artdink
Genre: Simulation
Released: 1997

July 30, 2023 – I know more than one might reasonably expect about hot air ballooning. When I was a high school freshman, the local adult school offered a “Hot Air Ballooning” class, which stuck out like a stubbed toe between their basic computer skills and English-as-a-second-language classes. One could hardly think of anything more random, yet at the same time undeniably intriguing to anyone with even the faintest adventurer’s spirit. My own adventurer’s spirit is scant-enough that it limits me to day hikes and “camping trips” to evergreen tree-adjacent hotels, but it’s there. The real hook though was the last line of the course description: “Includes a ride in a hot air balloon”.

We had a family friend, Bob, who was about the same age as my grandfather and was likewise a veteran of the Second World War, though he never wanted to talk about it beyond mentioning taking a German bayonet “in the gut” any time his acid reflux flared up, which was still more than my grandfather ever talked about it. My mom knew Bob because they traveled in the same social circle of local artists. Bob actually ended up living with us for a while when my mom and I still had our own house. We would play chess on his fancy free-standing board with its hand-carved pieces, he was always happy to give me a full-sized Hershey bar out of his stash (with almonds, because Bob was a gentleman), and if I started to walk to school (seventh grade at the time) without eating breakfast he would burst out the front door to stop me before I hit the end of the driveway because “you can’t go to school without food in your gut” even if it meant that I’d be late for first period.

Apropos of nothing except that I think of it whenever I think of him, Bob would make regular trips to San Jose for reasons unknown, and while there would visit a local pawn shop that clearly had a “don’t ask” policy when it came to the provenance of goods traded in. I got my first real camera this way, a Minolta XG-M with a couple of lenses in a proper camera bag. My mom got her first CD player, a Sony D-50 which mysteriously-but-not-really didn’t come with any of its accessories but did come with a paper shopping bag hastily crammed full of CDs, including U2’s The Joshua Tree. Usually when I crossed Bob, he would jokingly threaten to “hang me up in the closet by [my] toenails”, but when I made the mistake of asking where all this stuff came from and why it was so cheap, he stared holes through both sides of my head in a very un-joking manner.

“Don’t ask.”

Bob would eventually get a new house, while my mom sold our house so that we could move in with my recently-widowed grandma. He would on occasion join us for dinner though if my mom was making corned beef and cabbage or a big pot of spaghetti and sausage. One night Bob mentioned this hot air ballooning class that he was planning to take, and asked if my mom and I were interested. My mom had to work at her second job those nights (ironically at a different location of that same adult school), but as an untethered teenager my only nightly obligation was to Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns. And so every Tuesday evening for the next six weeks Bob picked me up in his orange Mazda truck and we drove out to Clark Intermediate School and a classroom that during the day imprisoned disinterested 12-year-olds who no doubt would be far more interested in what we were learning than what they were.

The class was led by a one of the local balloon owner/operators, Bob (no relation), who I’m guessing had the bright idea to use this class to make money between festivals. To avoid confusion between the two Bobs I’ll refer to him as “Captain Bob”, though this is a moniker that I’m making up now, in 2023. He was never addressed as such because Captain Bob wasn’t the type to put on airs – we just called him “Bob”. Captain Bob reminded me of my elementary school principal, Dr. Harrison. Dark hair, round face, big glasses, and as wide as they were tall. Both men exuded kindness and generosity-of-spirit, though while he was a very nice man we were all deathly afraid not of Dr. Harrison himself, but of the wooden paddle in his office. Large as an oar and with holes drilled in it to reduce wind resistance during the forehand stroke. Of course none of us has ever seen the paddle much less had justice meted out by it, but everyone knew someone who knew someone and a parental consent phone call was all that was needed to tan your hide. While Dr. Harrison wore a shirt and tie to work, Captain Bob always wore jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt stretched to its limit, and both a belt and suspenders – a fashion faux pas in any season, but a necessity. One couldn’t help but look at his generous midsection festooned with rainbow-striped wide-as-they-come suspenders and notice the obvious parallels between his appearance and that of the balloon that he flew. Frankly, I think he planned it that way.

The class started out covering the history of ballooning starting with the first manned balloon flights in 1783, anatomically dissected the modern hot air balloon from the parts of the envelope (that’s the balloon part) to the basket (that’s the part you ride in), the gas plumbing, how to inflate and deflate, the role of the ground crew, and so on and so forth, before covering safety. We learned that all hot air balloons required an annual safety inspection, without which they were not allowed to fly. Then to drive the point home, Captain Bob slid a VHS tape containing the hot air ballooning equivalent to high school driving class mainstay “Blood on the Asphalt” into the VCR. On the screen, an envelope with a lapsed safety certification failed during flight, instantly deflated, and during the rapid descent flapped like a party streamer in the wind until it’s passengers were killed on impact.

I would end up going on not one but three flights; two with the Bobs at a couple of hot air balloon festivals, and a third as payment for serving on the ground crew of a pilot called “Wild Bill”. Living up to his name, that last ride ended in a pseudo-crash landing. I jumped out of the basket while it was literally being dragged on it’s side along the ground, for which I was later rightfully upbraided by Wild Bill. Thus ended my hot air ballooning career in the late summer of 1992. Five years later, almost to the day, a hot air ballooning game was released for the PlayStation, and had I known about it and had I known where to buy import video games and had my console been able to play those imports, I absolutely would have bought it.

Kaze no NOTAM was released for the Sony PlayStation on September 11, 1997 by developer Artdink, an “arthouse” studio that with some of it’s more experimental titles (most notably this game and 1996’s Aquanaut’s Holiday) challenged the idea of what a “game” was, exactly. Does a game need scores or clearly-defined objectives, or is it enough to be an atmospheric interactive experience? Such is the case with Kaze no NOTAM, in which the traditional “game” elements are secondary to flying a hot air balloon for the sake of flying a hot air balloon. Kaze no NOTAM tells you this when it posts its mission statement in the form of a question right on the package: “Did you luxuriate in the wind?”

Kaze no NOTAM‘s cover art was painted by noted Japanese artist Hiroshi Nagai, whose work is closely associated with the City Pop genre of music popularized in the 1980’s. Nagai rose to prominence after an artistic collaboration with musician Eiichi Ohtaki resulted in the former painting the artwork for the latter’s most famous album, 1981’s A Long Vacation. Artdink no doubt intended Nagai’s artwork to draw a line between Kaze no NOTAM and nostalgic 80s city pop albums, while Nagai’s art style characterized by bright, solid colors and clean lines dovetails perfectly with a game about hot air balloons; themselves characterized by those same visual attributes.

Hiroshi Nagai. Photo credit: Thomas Venker

Kaze no NOTAM was not released outside of Japan, but is quite playable using a translation guide as needed. The game’s package and title screen translate the name as “NOTAM of Wind”. NOTAM is not a Japanese word, as evidenced by the use of katakana to spell it out, but rather an aviation acronym for “notice to airmen” – a communication to flight crews. Artdink explains the title as meaning “the wind gives us flying permission for our flight.” An apropos title as the wind is the only thing steering or propelling a hot air balloon.

Booting up Kaze no NOTAM, after a title screen featuring a digitized version of the game’s cover art, the player is presented with four choices; two are the options and memory card interface, leaving just two game modes. The “Try Task” mode allows the player to set up a custom game scenario by first selecting from one of three in-game locations and then from one of three “tasks”. “Fly In” challenges the player to float toward a target on the ground, getting close enough to throw a bean bag marker from the balloon’s basket to as close to the bull’s eye as possible. The “Try Delta” task involves throwing three bean bag markers onto the ground, creating the three vertices of as large a triangle as possible. Lastly, in “Wolf Hunt” the player chases down other balloons and shoots them down by throwing bean bags at them. For all three tasks, the player chooses where on the map to begin their flight.

The game has no timer, but limited fuel prevents long flights.

The three tasks on offer in the “Try Task” mode are used to create the sequentially-unlockable levels in the game’s “Round” mode. Here, nine levels in three groups (presumably beginner, intermediate, and difficult) each make use of one of the tasks. Completion of each round unlocks the next one, and completing all nine rounds summons an end screen and a staff roll. My suspicion is that “Round” mode was included in order to “gamify” Kaze no NOTAM, as though someone felt compelled to make the game enough of a game to be able to call it a game. Obvious parallels exist between Kaze no NOTAM and Aquanaut’s Holiday, which literally and unceremoniously throws you into the ocean, and it’s possible that on the back of that Artdink felt the need to provide some structure to this game. These nine levels can reasonably be beaten in one sitting and provide the game with little replay value, as that’s not the function they serve. The “Try Task” mode is like RPG Maker for hot air balloons in that you’re the one designing scenarios, and that’s what gives the game its long-term value.

Graphically, Kaze no NOTAM looks like countless other games from a time when 3D was the expected norm but photorealism was not yet possible. There’s nothing wrong with it; rather it just presents itself exactly as one would expect. Issues with draw-in are partially masked by fog, issues with polygons can make flat surfaces appear otherwise, and overall the game doesn’t feel as inspired visually as it does conceptually. I would like to have seen Hiroshi Nagai’s influence extend into the game beyond the cover art and title screen, as it might have visually taken Kaze no NOTAM from “yup, that’s a PlayStation game” to something more special. During Kaze‘s teaser mode your balloon floats upward along a wall adorned with artwork presented in an impressionist style, and it’s probably the most visually-interesting thing in the game. An included balloon editor allows the player to customize their envelope, and the game smartly uses custom balloons saved to the memory card in lieu of the default options when displaying the aforementioned teaser mode, which is a nice touch. Credit where credit is due however, during a night flight lighting the burner creates a subtle flickering glow around the base of the envelope, and that really does look cool.

The lower portion of the envelope emits a warm glow when lighting the burner during a night flight.

While Kaze no NOTAM’s graphics are largely unremarkable, the soundtrack is second only to the gameplay in terms of what makes the game great, featuring new age jazz fusion the likes of which provided background music for the local segments on The Weather Channel. As any appreciator of the genre knows, whoever was in charge of music at The Weather Channel had impeccable taste, featuring such artists as Shadowfax, Ira Stein & Russell Walder, and The Pat Metheny Group. Within the gaming space, the music is not unlike what one might hear in a Sim City game, or another of Artdink’s creations: the A-Train series. While “it sounds like The Weather Channel” might not be the most enticing of descriptions, Kaze no NOTAM’s music perfectly compliments the game itself. One could hardly imagine tranquilly floating above the treeline while ever-present-on-the-PlayStation 90’s big beat-inspired techno music bumped in the background. The soundtrack was in fact recently released on CD and vinyl as well as to most streaming services, though you may have to search for it in Japanese (風のノータム) to find it.

Kaze no NOTAM is very English-friendly overall, but Google Translate or another camera-based translation app is helpful for deciphering objectives in “Round” mode.

Kaze no NOTAM‘s controls are simple – expectedly so as the player has only limited control over their aircraft. The triangle activates the balloon’s burner for as long as the button is held down, while the X button opens the envelope’s maneuvering flap, a small port that allows some of the hot air to escape, gently decreasing the balloon’s altitude. No other controls have an affect on the balloon’s flight, they only change the player’s perspective or throw the bean bag. The game’s controls are absolutely not responsive, nor should they be. Hot air ballooning is not flying an airplane – the only thing they have in common is the venue. Light up the burner for a couple of seconds, see what the result is, maybe light it a little more, or maybe not. Maneuvering flap – same thing. The balloon’s only means of transverse locomotion is that in which you luxuriate: the wind. The wind blows in different directions across Kaze no NOTAM‘s five altitude ranges, represented by green arrows on the right side of the screen, and shifts semi-randomly at regular intervals. Find a gust that’s blowing your way, and raise or lower the balloon to hitch a ride.

Herein lies the life lesson that Kaze no NOTAM has to share: the wind doesn’t always blow your way. Wind in the game isn’t predetermined; it contains an element of randomness. Two trips through the same level are never themselves going to be the same. Often, the totality of the wind’s currents during the few minutes your fuel lasts simply aren’t going to get you where you need to go. This isn’t a flaw in game’s design; this is the game’s design. A wise man once said, both 35 years ago and 341 years from now, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness; that is life.” It is also Kaze no NOTAM. When playing through the “Round” mode, I found myself having to retry one round something on the order of twenty times because the wind was just never going the way I needed it to. Never getting frustrated, I enjoyed every one of those twenty times because the point isn’t to beat the game, but simply to play it. Kaze no NOTAM doesn’t ask you to break records or to complete it’s nine rounds, and gives you nothing for doing so. Kaze no NOTAM only asks one thing: “Did you luxuriate in the wind?”

Download Classic Gaming Quarterly’s translation guide here: LINK

Kaze no NOTAM includes a balloon editor, which while not strictly necessary, is a fun addition.