Your Weekly Kusoge
Hi Tech Expressions was a notorious publisher of licensed crap on a level close to LJN. They gave us bad games based on Tom and Jerry, Barbie, and several from Sesame Street, but they were responsible for at least one game that wasn't founded on an existing property. The game in question was Orb-3D, which sees you as the pilot of a spherical spacecraft, the eponymous "Millenium Orb," diving into a black hole which leads to the evil space wizard Krohn. You need to beat thirty "Enigma Chambers" to reach Krohn and foil his attempts to destroy the universe, and this is done by having your Orb collide into various objects to achieve a goal. Most chambers require you to clear the screen of objects; the first level has lots of bubbles that only need to be hit once, and you move onto the next level after they're all popped. Later stages have more elaborate requirements, like winning a game of Tic Tac Toe or lining up a flock of ducks in the same row. You're not in direct control of the Orb, but you instead guide a parallel pair of bumpers that bounce the Orb over to the other side. When it reaches a bumper, the Orb turns into the background if it's in the foreground or vice-versa. It also turns around early if you press the A button, which is how you slam into the objects you either need destroyed or moved to win the level. The game is somewhat reminiscent of Breakout, except you control two paddles instead of one and colliding with objects takes a bit more effort.
Your Orb has a fuel gauge which essentially acts as a time limit, and failing to rebound the Orb at an edge bites a fair chunk out of the gauge. You'll also be accosted by "Chasers" after hitting a target, and if one of these odd snowflake-like ships hits your Orb, a taunting sound effect plays as you lose some fuel. If you stay away from a Chaser long enough, it somehow turns into another Orb, but it's incredibly difficult to juggle two Orbs at once and it will likely Your fuel gets a large boost if you clear a chamber, but if you find yourself running low early, you can press the B button to travel over to "Vern's Orb-O-Rama," a strange intergalactic gas station with seven open holes. You're put in direct control of the orb during this part, and looping through a hole restores a good deal of fuel. However, the holes close one by one every few seconds, and it's not easy to swoop through an open hole, so you may be left empty handed. There are also three caveats to Vern's: You lose 1000 points every time you go there (the dollar sign can give you credit if you're low, but you’re out of luck if you can’t get enough points after that), your paddles shrink down when you return (and can shrink down a second time if you head there twice in one level), and there's a random chance that you'll be forced to deal with some sort of bizarre purple space monster which only exists to waste your time. You need to loop your Orb through both of the monster's eyes to beat it, though it blinks intermittently to keep you away. Running out of fuel ends the game with a chime of the song "Happy Trails," though you have infinite continues.
That's quite a bit to say about such a strange game without getting into why it's called Orb-"3D". The constant motion of the Orb switching between the background and the foreground demonstrates the "Pulfrich effect," where lateral motion processed through a filter gives the illusion of depth perception. The game sold with a special pair of 3D glasses with one lens darker than the other to bring this effect to life. It was a neat little gimmick, but it wasn’t enough to gloss over the game's vicious difficulty. Trying to line the Orb up with a target requires you to bounce it off the edges to give it some vertical spin, but it may take several angled bounces and more time than it should just to line up one proper shot. Some of the later challenges are incredibly brutal, and you're not always given a clear picture of what you need to do. The worst offender is the twenty-fourth level, where these weird animal faces generate more copies but can also disappear if surrounded by each other. You're not told you need to fill the entire screen with these faces instead of killing them all off, so you'd likely spend too much time trying to figure out why you can't completely destroy them. Then there's the penultimate level where you need to hit a marble from all the right angles to guide it through a maze, but it is aggravating to move it up or down as it requires the Orb to be moving vertically and it seems like a crapshoot as to whether or not it'll inch towards your intended direction.
Orb-3D's premise seems interesting at the surface, but it becomes a slog to play through some of the more taxing chambers later on. It will take at least two hours to beat the whole thing, likely more when accounting for the times you'll have to continue in later levels. Yet there is absolutely no password system, which is really the sort of thing this game should have had. It might be better if you were allowed to step away from it instead of having to play it from start to finish without turning off the NES, but without any such reprieve, playing it to the end just doesn’t feel like a worthwhile venture. That being said, Orb-3D is probably one of the least sucky games linked to Hi Tech Expressions, for whatever that's worth. Still, if they expected the game would sell based on its demonstration of the Pulfrich effect, they should have realized that quirky gimmicks don't sell a game which is fundamentally flawed. Orb-3D could have been decent with better controls, less frustrating levels, and/or some form of saving your progress, but the arduous trials of Krohn are likely to prove too heinous for most.