“And pluck till time and times are done, the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.” - The Song of the Wandering Aengus, W.B. Yeats.
Quoting a Yeats poem may seem like a painfully pretentious way to begin a review of a video game, but if you spend just five minutes with Orbital, you will agree that it is an apt quotation for one of the most calming chill-out experiences you will find this side of the Milky Way. Orbital (no, not the 90’s electronica outfit) was released in 2006 as part of the Japan-only Bit Generations series of seven Game Boy Advance games focusing on simple gameplay and minimalist visuals. Orbital exemplifies those ambitions perfectly and is arguably the best of what was largely considered a mixed bag.
You control a planet drifting through the twinkling backdrop of space. The only controls you need to concern yourself with are the A and B buttons which will attract and repel you in relation to the other celestial bodies that occupy this wraparound playfield. Your goal is to increase your size by absorbing blue planets until you are big enough to draw a golden star into your orbit, thus completing the stage. Other planets adhere to a simple colour scheme – grey if smaller than yourself, red if bigger. Grey planets can be drawn into your orbit for bonus points and extra lives, while colliding with anything red will deplete your stock of lives.
Orbit hopping by swerving in and out of the gravity rings of other planets at the right angle is the only skill you will need to master to slingshot your way to victory, but the increasing difficulty of the stages makes this a challenging proposition. In the final levels you will see vast planets and asteroid fields, spiralling in ever more complex patterns. Precise manoeuvres and mindful anticipation of gravity wells from massive rocks are essential. The quasi-realistic momentum-based control and the euphoria resulting from a successful blue collision are reminiscent of Elite
and its manual space station docking. The game has plenty of longevity, with 35 regular stages and a further five which are unlocked if you can manage to capture the crescent moon just before the sun on every level (which is no small feat). That is to say nothing of the temptation to improve on your score for each galaxy by collecting the maximum number of satellites.
Sound is inextricably linked to the gameplay experience of Orbital; playing it muted is not playing it. When you begin a stage, you will be greeted by a soft, ambient hum. Repelling and attracting causes two distinct and pleasing tones to ring out like whale song. Each grey planet you pull into orbit will add another layer to the soundscape, building up a harmonic melody until you capture the moon, when it switches to a much slower, melancholic refrain. Hearing this last piece will make you want to put your Game Boy down in your lap, close your eyes, and simply enjoy its calming effect. The whole audio package is akin to listening to a telemetric symphony of satellite beeps and boops. To frame it slightly less conceptually, if you are a fan of Boards of Canada
, you ought to enjoy it. If you can make it to the final hidden stages though, be ready for a bizarre trip into haywire radio crosstalk and snatches of ghostly astronaut babble.
The visual style is in keeping with the rest of the Bit Generations series - nothing flashy; functional yet atmospheric. The colour coding of planets and obstacles makes the game easy to understand, while little touches like the gradually dimming light emanating from your own planet and the pulsing radiance when repelling or attracting add a comforting touch in the bleakness of space. It's this blissful audio-visual combo that banishes all thoughts of frustration with the game, even at its most difficult.
For those of you who are intrigued, but having trouble locating a copy of this now-scarce gem, it might be advisable to sample the WiiWare remake for a similar, though not identical gameplay taster. Either way, it is an experience not to be missed, with the emphasis firmly on experience. Orbital is a portable isolation tank for your GBA – just put your headphones on and Chill. Out.
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