The hot air balloon is a vehicle for lunatics. Any device that suspends you at a lethal height by bringing fire and polyester into close proximity is bound to claim more lives than it improves. The mere act of getting in one is, arguably, a form of extreme sport.
And that's the tack Digital Chocolate has taken with its latest home-grown casual game. Rather than drifting peacefully over the Sussex downs, Hot Balloon Race has you barrelling across stretches of flatland at a hundred miles an hour, collecting speed boosts, weaving through opposition, and setting off rockets along the way.
Hot Balloon Race is a one button game. As in reality, you don't have any control over the balloon's direction and left to its own devices it sinks to the bottom of the screen. The only force you can exert is to fire the burner, sending your balloon upwards for as long as you hold '5', so that the whole game involves bouncing along on gusts of momentum.
It's a simple but fluid mechanic, and exactly the sort of thing Digital Chocolate does best. The animation flows naturalistically, with every balloon followed by a band of colour tracing its trajectory.
Each course is strewn with rings of stars through which you have to steer to gain extra speed, and these loom three-dimensionally across the screen as you pass - the stars constantly orbiting. Whenever you make it through a ring, the basket of your balloon actually swings back against the extra resistance. In short, Hot Balloon Race looks beautiful.
There are nine races in all, each set against the backdrop of a different country, and as you progress the number of opponents you have to race against increases gradually from three to eight, with you invariably starting at the back of the field and clawing your way to the front.
For every location, there are three sequentially unlockable variants: Race, in which you have to make your way through a series of turbo rings; Evade Race, in which you always fly at full speed, avoiding floating bombs and steering into missile icons to fire rockets; and Combo, in which you do both.
You can also unlock new balloons to fly in, some of which have special properties. The Patriot, for instance, fires several missiles when it hits an icon while the Red Lightning enjoys double-turbo when it flies through a ring.
On top of this, somewhere in each level is a coin. There are 27 in all, so completing the game in full means ticking a lot of figurative boxes.
The problem is you'll probably have them all ticked in no time. While the races are hectic in principle - with missiles popping and speed lines cutting through the air - it's simply too easy to cruise to the front of the pack every time, no matter how many bombs you blunder into. It's not necessary to pace yourself or learn how to wield sublime control, and as a result Hot Balloon Race lacks a lot of what makes racing games satisfying.
Part of the reason for this game's gentle difficulty curve is the homogeneity of the locations you race. London may have Tower Bridge in the background while Cairo has pyramids, but none of these features are brought to bear. In practice, the backgrounds are interchangeable, like blue screen special effects in an empty studio - which is a wasted opportunity in a game that needs real texture.
In most respects then, this is vintage Digital Chocolate. It's a beautiful, ingenious game that's polished to a nearly unrivalled sheen, and these qualities rescue it somewhat from its failings. Just barrelling along in Hot Balloon Race feels good, so it's well worth a look, as long as you're aware your thirst for challenge and longevity will likely go unsated.