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Zen and the Art of Galaxy Maintenance: Orbient vs. Orbital

Spencer at Siliconera points out that today’s surprise WiiWare downloadable, Art Style: Orbient, is pretty much bitGenerations: Orbital. Since there are at least two more Art Style games scheduled for release via WiiWare, Spencer rightly speculates they’ll be updates of bitGenerations games. Maybe.

The bitGenerations series of games were high concept/low-bit carts for Game Boy Advance, released only in Japan, in 2006 or so. Each bitGenerations game is essentially a tiny, playable art installation with a retro bent.

Including Orbital, I own three bitGenerations titles, which I play exclusively on my Game Boy Micro. This is to say, I don’t play anything else on my Micro; I only play these three bitGenerations games on it.

Stranger still, I’ve never played a bitGenerations game on my DS, my GBA SP, or even on my Game Boy Player. I think this is because at some point I read, somewhere (God knows where), that the bitGenerations games were specifically created to better market the Micro. I believe it. To me, GBAs are decidedly SNESy little 16-bit handhelds. My Micro, however, is disguised as a Famicom; therefore, only 8-bit games will suit it.

Of the three titles I own, Dotstream has the best music. It’s chippy and forceful. Dotstream is a racing game, except that each of the racers is just a pulsing line, sort of like a heartbeat.

There’s Soundvoyager, which Kohler gave me. I don’t remember his logic in gifting it to me, exactly, but it had something to do with how we are each deaf in one ear, which in turn makes the game nearly impossible to play.

Not least, there is Orbital, my favorite.

I bought it from Pink Godzilla during PAX 06. Initially, I was so frustrated by it. There are no instructions. You realize that your D-pad does nothing; one button pulls you toward astronomical bodies, and the other repels. So you can’t really control your course absolutely, you can’t completely direct what happens to you: you only float, and tug at your path, and the path is really governed by the context of the bodies that surround you. It is a perfect metaphor.

The simplicity of the game is a deception, of course. It is possible to become very good at it, at moving decisively toward a goal and gaily colliding into it. In fact, Orbital is addictive because, as with Lumines or Tetris, you can feel yourself getting better at it. There is the slow realization that, with a patient hand, you have control over your course and your destiny. It is zenlike.

Here is the goal of the game: you are a particle of space dust, just a little grey speck, and you want to grow. So you collide into smaller planetary bodies and consume them, adding them to your sum total. You become larger and more meaningful, until you are finally large enough to draw the sun into your orbit. That victory marks the end of a stage. So I guess it’s like Katamari Damacy, but with fewer cats and candies.

As you grow, you also add smaller planets to your orbit. In the game, the sounds begin as mere cosmic ambiance, but as you add planets to your orbit, layers of aural complexity reflect your progress. In that way, the sound and music in Orbital is the best of bitGenerations. You can hear yourself becoming faceted and beautiful.

I’ve compared. In Orbient—that’s today’s WiiWare downloadable—the sound effects and music are just like Orbital’s, mostly, if somewhat less chippy. The sound of actually moving is a little bit different—it sounds a little bit like if you were able to adjust a radio frequency inside of Galaga. Also, I count only 30 levels in the original Orbital; Siliconera reports that Orbient boasts 50 levels.

Orbient is, in many ways, an improvement. Moving your space particle around seems maybe a little easier, less frustrating and more focused. The Wii remote suits Orbient’s design perfectly, too, and movement is intuitive. Bringing your thumb down on the big face button draws you closer to planets; depressing the trigger button underneath the remote pushes you farther away. The buttons seem especially responsive to pressure, in a way the original Orbital controls perhaps weren’t. You can push yourself away from a planet, and you can push harder.

It was difficult for me, in a way, to acclimate to seeing such (comparatively) pretty graphics, and on a (comparatively) big screen. You’ll remember, when I began this whole reverie, that I said I’ve avoided playing Orbital on any screen larger than a nicotine patch. Remember, the Micro has a playscreen about the size of the face of a men’s wristwatch. Seeing Orbient on my bigscreen television—de-de-rezzed—absolutely struck me down.

But the updated graphics are not, to me, an improvement. Little pathways and trajectories illuminate onscreen, where their implication ought to have been enough. Instead of abstraction, this time things are carefully demarcated.

Worst of all… there is a tutorial. I cannot believe how much I wanted instructions in 2006, and how much I hate the tutorial now. I understand that, without a tutorial, Orbient could be too alien, too inaccessible. But to me—and I am comparing Orbient against Orbital and to my own revelatory zen-rock-garden experience with it, of course—Orbient is almost too clear-cut. It is—I am sorry I am such a snot!—fitted too carefully for a new, broader audience.

There! I said it! I’m terrible!

Dear Diary, I know this is absolutely the snottiest thing I’ve ever written. I also know that, if I were playing Orbient/Orbital for the first time, here on my living room sofa instead of on an airplane, I would become completely frustrated without instructions, hitting the directional pad in a fury. If I couldn’t understand the dynamics of the game in the first three minutes, I’d probably quit it.

I’d written this much, and stopped. I suspect my bias has to do with this: I played Orbital for the first time on a plane, trying to forget that I am scared of flying. It made me forget.

Maybe it has everything to do with which game you play first.

So at this point, I asked a friend to play Orbient, then Orbital afterward. Of Orbital, he said simply, “This one is way too hard.” I suspected so. To be honest, he didn’t really seem to like it. But awhile later, he said: “It’s tougher. But I think… it’s prettier.” In the original Orbital, your movement is more about duration of button-pressing; in Orbient, it has to do with pressure, too. But both games are beautiful and tactile. “I really like both, in different ways,” my friend concluded.

I am conflicted. Making Orbital available, as Orbient, is wonderful—I hope everyone will give it a little time and realize how engaging, even emotionally affecting, this game is. I love that, as Orbient, the game is less frustrating and, by all mainstream aesthetics, prettier, in a way.

I can’t shake the idea that the original Orbital is the more elegant game. If you can find a copy, you might love it, and if not, big deal! I can’t wait to see what your mom, sisters, and friends think of Orbient.

Orbient is available now for 600 Wii Points, which comes to about US$6. Which means, even if you like Orbital a little bit more, Orbient is by far the better buy.

5 responses to “Zen and the Art of Galaxy Maintenance: Orbient vs. Orbital” »

  1. Greg says:

    Just to let you know (since you linked my old Orbital article), we posted some impressions of Orbient: http://www.4colorrebellion.com.....e-orbient/

  2. Kevin Bunch says:

    That game sounds amazing. I’ll have to check it out.

    I love goofy games that require some basic knowledge of physics to work through. The whole abstractness of the concept I think is what makes it work more than anything else.

    But this isn’t the only game I’ve seen that mechanic in. At PAX 08 there was a PC game on display, called Strange Attractors 2. The control mechanism was pretty much the same; one button drew you into objects, the other repelled you. You have to work your way through these levels, collecting items, and reaching the goal. I consider it the best game of PAX, but Orbital, from the videos, seems more…laid back? Slower paced. Orbital appears like it would be a better game to zone out and relax to, as opposed to “ohgodohgoddon’tcrashagain.” The music may play a part in that.

  3. librarian says:

    Jesus, Greg! You’ve written a ton about Orbient and Orbital! This is really good, too. I don’t think I realized, until I started peeking at Orbient and Orbital write-ups, that a lot of people liked Orbital best out of the bitGen games.

    Also: There was a time limit in Orbient, wasn’t there. Grr! I just hate how these games are not identical!

  4. matt says:

    Are you sure the Wiimote has pressure sensitive buttons? I’m convinced it doesn’t, I can’t find mention of it in a quick search.

    Anyway, I am loving Orbient – I find it more accessible than Orbital simple because of the visual queues that show whether you are using gravity or anti-gravity.

    I’ll have to play the Orbital a bit more, though.

  5. librarian says:

    Hey, Matt! Yeesh, I’m actually not sure. I’m trying to think back, though, and maybe what I’m trying to get at is its, uh, gamefeel? It seemed like Orbient was more responsive somehow—maybe your ball sort of accelerated when you held the trigger button for a longer time? In any case, the sensation, I remember, was something very dynamic, a far cry from Orbital’s seeming stiffness.

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