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Review

 

SpaceOrb 360 Game Controller - SpaceTec IMC
(or How I learned to Quit Complaining and Appreciate the Mouse)
Reviewed by Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

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My "Spare" Serial Port
Before I even get started with my review of what is without a doubt the oddest thing I have ever even attempted to plug into my computer, allow me to direct you to a wonderful little excerpt from a 1989 article by Douglas Adams entitled, Under the Desktop Publishing. This article chronicles Adams' experience with the wonderful (and frustrating) world of peripheral devices and the personal computer. But I'm blabbing too much here. I present, for your reading enjoyment, the excerpt:

"(I) got very excited by the idea of the Wacom digitising tablet, and I was all ready to quote some plastic down the phone to MacConnection when some uneasy sixth sense made me go and consult one of the reviews in greater detail to find out how the tablet connects to the Mac. The answer was, of course, that it connected to the serial port. Not to my serial port it didn't. I am trying very hard to increase that portion of my life which I call quality time, by which I mean time that is not spent under my desk."
--Douglas Adams
Under the Desktop Publishing

This rather nicely sums up my initial experience with the SpaceOrb 360. You see, beyond the simple baffling design of the damn thing, the SpOrb requires a COM port.

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Somewhere out there right now, someone is understanding my pain. Let me give you a quick rundown of all the crap sticking out of my computer at any given time: a ZIP Drive (SCSI, of course), a Trackball, 2 sound cards (don't ask...it's not worth the explanation), 2 gamepads, a network card, a Wacom Tablet (the same Wacom tablet that Adams was so excited about almost 9 years ago) a microphone, and a few other cords that serve no real purpose.

So when I picked up the SpOrb from its odd looking box, imagine my reaction to learn that this thing requires a COM port.

Not one of my COM ports it doesn't.

But indeed there is no way around it. This thing (which closely resembles a gamepad with a tennis ball shoved into it) requires a COM port. After letting it lie aimlessly around my room for a few days, I decided to bite the bullet and install the thing.


Under the Desktop Publishing
copyright 1996
Completely Unexpected Productions.
Used because it was relevant, dammit.

October 25, 1997

Before I hop into the nightmare that is the installation of the Space Orb 360, let me first explain the concept to the unaware. The SpOrb is a gamepad with an odd looking ball attached. The general idea of the thing is that the ball will allow you to move in a full 360 degrees, thereby adding depth to the controller. Still with me? Okay...First off, I had to unplug my Wacom tablet, which by some miracle I managed to install in the first place. Already I knew this was not going to be a fun installation. So I plugged the thing into my "spare" COM port, and restarted my computer (my computer is never actually turned off, although it sometimes is simply between boots).

Win95 loaded (sorry NT fans...I'm afraid you're going to have to leave the room...there aren't any drivers for you here) and my next indication that this was going to be a less than "plug and play" installation happened when I didn't get that fun little "new hardware found" box. Instead, I got my desktop (and an ICQ message, but that's another story). Oh yeah, and my little notepad to myself which read, "take your medicine you schmuck" (I normally only turn my computer on when I wake up in the morning, which is coincidentally when I have to take my medicine. It makes sense. Really).

But I figured so what, right? I'll just run the CD-ROM install program, and it'll all work out fine. So I ran the program.

senstvty-sm.gif (4902 bytes)After successfully installing the software (or...I'm sorry Spaceware) the program launches into a long drawn out Director slideshow of the SpOrb's wonderful features. After taking some Vivarin with a NyQuil chaser, I was ready to continue. The program then launched into the SpOrb's Interactive Trainer, or for that matter, it attempted to. I listened to my hard drive loading for a few minutes (hey, it's a p100 for chrissakes...what do you want from me?) and then I was treated to a delightful little error message: "this program requires your system to be set to 256 colors". How droll.

So I changed my system settings to 256 colors (despite the fact that it turned my background image from a beautiful painting by Kent Williams into what looked like chunky pea soup) and started the program up again.

Again, my hard drive loaded...only this time I got to see a bitmap (which looked pretty awful...maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was in 256 colors?) which told me, "prepare to enter Orbitron".

I grabbed the sides of my chair, and prepared to enter Orbitron (hey for all I knew this was a hostile environment). But Orbitron never came (was it something I said?). However, I was treated to another nifty little error message "no SpaceOrb device found". How cute.

So I figured maybe this has something to do with the fact that I never restarted after installing the thing (hey, it sounded rational at the time, okay?). So I restarted my computer again (no doubt baffling everyone on ICQ, who were wondering why I was offline twice in one day). So Win95 loaded up again, and my computer told me to take my medicine again (which of course would have been a bad idea, since I had already taken it). But this time, I got a new little dialogue box: "SpaceOrb not selected as your current Joystick".

Ahhhh...now I understood. The SpOrb and my gamepads weren't playing nice. So I figured what the hey...as long as I was taking stuff out, why not unplug the gamepads? So I took them out, and removed the Gravis GRiP control panel (which always annoyed me anyway). Of course this meant that temporarily there would be no three player Bomberman games, but sacrifices had to be made.

So I took all that crap out, and restarted my computer. Again Win95 loaded, and again I was told to take my medicine, and again I was told that the SpOrb wasn't chosen as my current Joystick. So I loaded up the Joystick control panel, and clicked on the first slot to add a new joystick. Lo and behold...the SpOrb was not an option. Well this certainly was not a good development.

At this point, I figured that perhaps there was a conflict with my other COM ports (hey, I use them all...). So I figured maybe I should switch the SpOrb to a new one. I unplugged my Wacom tablet, and moved the SpOrb to a different COM port. Again, I restarted my computer (no doubt slowly frying my motherboard in the process). This time when I started up my computer, I was asked to take my medicine, but more importantly (at this point in the day, that is) I was greeted by a "new hardware found" dialogue box (well that and four messages from people wanting to know why I kept going offline). I happily let Win95 install the drivers for the SpOrb, and restart my computer yet again (I wonder if NASA had this many problems?).

"On loony's Irritating Installation Chart, with a 1 being the obscenely easy, literally plug-and-play Gravis Gamepad, and a 10 being that damn friggin' Creative Labs CDROM I bought that was completely defective...I'd give the SpOrb about a 6. Certainly 5 higher than any joystick should ever get."

Win95 restarted and lo and behold, I was not greeted by the same dialogue box again. This was good. So, content that the damn thing was finally installed, I moved on to using it. On loony's Irritating Installation Chart, with a 1 being the obscenely easy, literally plug-and-play Gravis Gamepad, and a 10 being that damn friggin' Creative Labs CDROM I bought that was completely defective (despite the two days I spent attempting to get it to work), I'd give the SpOrb about a 6. Certainly 5 higher than any joystick should ever get.   

So again, I prepared myself to enter Orbitron. Once it loaded, I had to come to the realization that Orbitron was butt-nasty-fugly. I suppose any program that's intended to be a trainer doesn't have to be exactly cutting edge or anything...but this was one ugly-ass "game". It's basically this weird looking ball (sorry..."orb") who tells you to follow him around this arena (and in the process teaches you how to maneuver the SpOrb). Personally, I got real tired with this real fast. Aside from the fact that the SpOrb is just plain difficult to use at first, the program was boring me (and I was out of Vivarin).

So I figured I'd load up Quake. Upon loading, I got a dialogue box that read, "this program had to be configured for the Space Orb 360". Scared that this strangely shaped controller had taken over my computer, I restarted GLQuake, and prepared myself to use the strange thing.

Rather than start a multiplayer game (and let them marvel at my patented "walking aimlessly while looking at the floor action") I opted for a non-game-game. That is to say me, DM2, and nobody there to laugh at me as I figured out how the heck I was supposed to walk with this damn thing. So I played with it for a while, and I must say that I did eventually get somewhat decent with it.

The SpOrb has some nice touches to it, most notably the gratuitous number of buttons. The problem with a lot of gamepads, is the fact that they only have four (or lord help me, two) buttons. The SpOrb has a healthy 6, all of which can be programmed with Quake. So I happily bound them all to my strange alias' and kept playing.

I started up a single player game, and while I wasn't doing too shabby, I was suddenly struck by a major revelation: "why?". Profound, I know. But honest. Here I was struggling to make a flat turn, when I could be using my trackball, or even (lord help me)...a mouse. When all's said and done...sure you can play Quake with the SpOrb...but why?!?!?. There really isn't any major advantage to it, it has a really steep learning curve, and well...it looks odd, so I suppose at LAN parties you can intimidate your opponent with it ("hey...look at the size of that guy's controller! I'm only using...a mouse"). Besides...no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't manage to rocket jump with the damn thing. You see, the ball (oops..I mean "orb") controls both your movement (including strafing), and also the way you look. So in order to rocket jump (or I suppose if you're Thresh, grenade-rocket-jump) you have to figure out how to look down while firing a rocket and jumping. It sounds easy (and it is with a trackball or even...that other thing) but with the SpOrb it's practically impossible.

"...sure you can play Quake with the SpOrb...but why?!?!?. "

So I started thinking about other possible uses for the SpOrb. I considered using it as a paperweight, but I was determined to find a game where it provided a clear advantage. Besides...I already had plenty of cool paperweights already (and as paperweights go, this one ain't exactly too impressive).

boxshot.gif (8248 bytes)So I loaded up Doom. Now I did occasionally play Doom with a gamepad, so I was pretty confident that the extra buttons on the SpOrb would help. And indeed they did. Also, since I never really strafed in Doom (see my Assassin 3D review) I found myself doing considerably better. I also found it much easier to adapt to the SpOrb in Doom, but largely this has to to with the fact that Doom is a 2D game. In Quake, I couldn't help but end up looking at the floor all the time. In Doom, there simply isn't any way not to look on a flat plane. So for fellow Doom-gamepaders...think about trying the SpOrb. You might dig it.

"If ever there was a game that was simply made for the Space Orb 360, this was it...I must say...the SpOrb is the ultimate way to play Descent."

Content that I found a game where the SpOrb worked, I set off to find another one. Mechwarrior was a mistake (make that a major mistake) and I have never played so badly in my life. But then I started up Descent. Ah...Descent. If ever there was a game that was simply made for the Space Orb 360, this was it (hell the shareware Descent 2 comes with it...for good reason). I must say...the SpOrb is the ultimate way to play Descent.

Of course...bear in mind I also used to play Descent with a gamepad. Largely this is due to the fact that every time I played with a keyboard or anything else, I found myself getting physically ill, and not able to keep myself stable. The strange ball affixed to the SpOrb reacts beautifully in Descent, and really provides a clear advantage over any other input device. Just for the hell of it, I loaded up Kali, and set off to kick some serious tuchus online. Ahh...how long I had wanted to be good at Descent. Thank you oh strange-looking-almost-paperweight-controller for allowing me this opportunity.

Beyond Descent and Doom, I really couldn't find any other games where the SpOrb provides an advantage (lord knows it didn't in Bomberman). So whether or not it's worth the price tag is entirely dependent on the kind of games you play. Of course, if you're reading this page you obviously love (or at least play) Quake, so I may be farting in the wind here, but if you still play Doom (and I know a ton of people still do) check out the SpOrb.

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When he isn't busy keeping the SurfWatch people on their toes,
loonyboi is maintainer of the web's first Trespasser site, Keep Out!