Around the turn of the millennium, Namco showed off an arcade game that looked like it had fallen out of the 22nd century. Housed in a giant cabinet called O.R.B.S., it was a sequel to old-school shooter Star Blade, and could have been just the kind of thing the dying arcade scene was in need of.
If, you know, the mainstream arcade scene hadn't been dying.
The game was called Star Blade Operation Blue Planet. Its 1991 predecessor had been something of a technological marvel at the time, using a giant concave mirror to create a large, curved screen which was far more immersive than the flat monitor used in most other games.
But SBOPB, coming over ten years later, had to go even further. So it was planned to ship inside an O.R.B.S. cabinet, which stood for Over Reality Booster System, an amazing design which featured a sliding cockpit/seat, which would open so the player could sit down then close completely around them, encasing them in the game.
Once inside, the player would be surrounded by a semi-spherical screen and speaker array, which given the sensory deprivation caused by locking them in and the fact there was nothing but screen and sound would have been awesome.
As you can see in the concept sketches, penned back in 1999, the O.R.B.S. was originally conceived as something out of a sci-fi anime, with a rotating screen that would slide up and over the player. While this looked cool on paper, the eventual prototype would be a bit simpler; the screen would remain static, with the player entering via a sliding chair at the rear of the unit.
The game itself was an on-rails shooter, and this footage to the left, only recently released by Namco a decade later, shows a title that will remind many people of Sega's classic Rez. Which is funny, because in 2001 Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi was toying with the idea of having an arcade version of the game launched using the O.R.B.S. cabinet.
Sadly, that never came to be. Actually, none of it came to be; given the sharp decline arcades were experiencing at the time, and the astronomical price the O.R.B.S. would have to sell for, both the cabinet and the game were shelved.
Ironically, in 2009 Namco's Akira Okubo said that when the decision had been made to shelve the O.R.B.S. due to its "large size, high price and lack of suitable content", his team had joked that the project could only have been made commercially vialbe if it had been allowed to make a Gundam game. Only a few years later, Namco would merge with Bandai, the owner of Gundam's rights.
While this came too late for the O.R.B.S., the general idea would get its time to shine in a similar, if slightly less cool version of the same design, called the P.O.D. (Panoramic Optical Display), which was successful in Japan using, yes, a Gundam game.
UPDATE - I'm hearing from people in the know that despite a few cosmetic differences the contemporary P.O.D. is in fact almost identical to the O.R.B.S. Meaning the company essentially dusted off the old plans, made a few changes here and there and released it as a new, if slightly different-looking cabinet!
ORBS [System 16]
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.