Everygamegoing26th August 2018
Published in EGG #013: Acorn Electron
Orbital was one of Impact Software's "not AAA but a bit better than budget" releases, and hit the shelves in 1989 boasting twelve screens of plutonium marbles in Ozzy the Orbital's cubic domain. It disappeared almost as soon as it appeared and I have never found a single person who played this game and liked it. Indeed, I suspect none of the later screens of Jonathan Temple's game have ever been seen by anyone apart from him.
The game looks reasonable enough. Done in the Electron's high resolution mode with four colours, it's essentially monochrome but the marbles, and anything that moves, are done in a distinct "other" colour. This makes it very easy to determine exactly what's going on and what may count as a goal or a threat.
The animation of Ozzy is also quite nice - he is a ball with a face and glasses, and as he rolls around, the face moves over the surface of the ball so he's always looking where he's going. The mazes are done in what was known as "oblique projection" style, a style made famous by games like Ultimate's Alien 8 and Nightshade, and which means blocks are built up on top of each other to give a psuedo-3D effect. However, each of Orbital's "worlds" is self-contained and you can't jump back up to higher levels, only roll in one of the four diagonal directions.
There are enemies in the maze called Octopodes, eight-legged jellyfish things with whom contact is fatal. They also move in one of the four directions. That is, until they collide with a wall or a marble and then they reverse, meaning that, as you start collecting up the marbles, they will start to be able to reach areas that were initially 'safe'. Indeed, much of the skill of the game is judging when it is 'safe' to collect a marble without the risk of colliding with an Octopode.
Unfortunately, the entire playing experience of Orbital's worlds is ruined by the tightest time limits in the entire Electron library. It appears that the author set these by setting it to how quickly he himself, knowing exactly how it should be done, could complete the world. Of course, that doesn't work for anyone else! When you encounter each new world for the first time as a player, you need at least a few seconds to get your bearings. Taking that time will always condemn you to doom because the time limit will then always expire before you are anywhere near completing it.
Ok, there is a password system every four worlds, but just try and imagine the frustration of having to complete worlds one and two over and over again, just so you can get a teensy-tiny bit further on world three. And that's not to mention how just knowing about that tight time limit affects the way you're forced to play the game. It panics you to such an extent that you make mistakes you shouldn't.
The result is that Orbital isn't enjoyable at all because it's just too hard. Oddly enough though, no-one seemed to pick up on this when it was released. Electron User awarded it 80%, summing up the review with "if you like games which need a little bit of thought, this is one for you". Considering any thinking at all robs you of the chance to win, this is hysterical. It makes me wonder whether anyone actually played it. Other magazines were decidedly lukewarm to its charms.
Originally retailing at £4.95, Orbital was only available for a very short period of time and is now extremely difficult to find. If you're a real masochist, expect to pay about £4 for this game that, apparently, Impact billed as "basically a load of all balls". Hmmm...