Space Orbs Retrospective

Space Orbs is a take on my favorite match 3 game, Magical Drop, that changes most of the rules!

The game is a Commodore 64 16 kb cartridge game created for a game jam with that restriction. The game was created as a personal project while employed to make knight themed NES inspired games a few years back.

I was reminded of this game while I was working on analyzing the “Prisoner Beam” / “Seizer Beam” in Toaplan’s Zero Wing at work. It took me a while to figure out why the screen felt so familiar. (My day job involves porting the Toaplan arcade Shoot’em-up games to PC, Zero Wing is most known for the “All your base” meme)

I must have been inspired by Zero Wing when I created the tractor beam for the ships in Space Orbs.

Zero Wing the original space Shoot’em-up on the left and Space Orbs, the co-op match-3 puzzle game on the right. Zero Wing was developed by Toaplan.

It is lucky that the two games play so different or I might have some explaining to do!

This is my second time bringing Zero Wing to PC. Since arcade emulation was the cool thing to do around 1997 me and my friends jumped on the fad and built an emulator for the Toaplan arcade games including Zero Wing.

Space Orbs was a tricky game to develop since it didn’t feel very playable until the very end of a six months game jam.

So I decided to write this retrospective to document my challenges, please enjoy my struggles 🙂

About Space Orbs

Space Orbs is a free Commodore 64 game that is preferrably downloaded from There are two major versions: one is the plain game jam edition, and the other the complete edition with music and a bit more polish all-around!

While the pitch for Space Orbs lists “Magical Drop” as an inspiration it is my personal opinion is that it ended up as a very different game. Don’t expect a heart-rate-raising adrenaline kicker and instead think of a planning ahead co-op discussion game. It can of course also be played single-player controlling both ships at once if “discussion” isn’t your kind of thing. Magical Drop itself was based on an older game named Drop-drop.

About me

I’m a game developer that got started in the demo scene at a young age, then worked on a few Mega Drive projects while it was still the current console generation. I’ve been working in games for nearly 29 years now.

I’m interested in the history of making games and how the tools and processes for game creation have evolved with technology. Through these projects I get to explore how games were made and experience it for myself both as a hobby and professionally.

I am also a big fan of new games created for retro hardware!

Space Moguls Games” is a made up entity so I can put another logo in my personal project games (memory budget permitting).

Before the idea for the game was an idea

What kicked off the planning for Space Orbs was the process of shipping Space Moguls, a game I had worked on for a couple of years and released on floppy and cartridge together with the C64 publisher Protovision on December 8 2018.

The music for Space Moguls was created by a friend and former colleage I worked with at Funcom in Oslo in the mid 90’s, Stein Pedersen and his music team co-conspirator Ole-Marius Petersen.

Space Moguls was conceived as a game like M.U.L.E. (an older but very popular strategy game) with a number of planned changes of which none worked out. The major takeaway for me from that experience was that you can’t just add things to a finished game design, you need to make room for incremental changes by removing other features.

M.U.L.E. is a four player strategy game created by Ozark Softscape and published by then newly formed startup Electronic Arts in 1983. The game is a cult classic and the inspiration for many strategy games that followed in its footsteps.

I’m happy with what Space Moguls became, there is definitely room for another game like M.U.L.E., and I know people have enjoyed it for what it is! But I was really inspired to apply the lesson of consequences to game design changes to a new project.

To get the new game kicked off I made this title screen (without a game idea to go with it) which was just a wordplay on “Space Moguls”:

The initial idea for Space Orbs, just a word play on Space Moguls.

Deciding on a direction

Let’s reason about the inspiration: What exactly is a space muggle? And what does it look like?

I don’t know so I just drew a ball like this:

What could be created with balls like this?

A match-3 game seems straightforward, let’s do something like Magical Drop then!

The focus for this project was to take an idea and change something fundamental, then explore the consequences, to experience how removing features to add other features works.

Apart from the pull and push mechanic of Magical Drop the original challenge is to keep up with the machine that constantly pushes in new rows to clear.

The change to that feature is that there will be no events based on time, if the player doesn’t act the game doesn’t drop in new rows of balls.

I will also rotate the playfield 90 degrees so that two players can work on the same challenge from opposite sides, adding a co-op as a feature!

Similar to Magical Drop, rows of balls will drop down from the top after a predetermined number of player actions are performed.

Space Orbs main menu

I was discussing this idea with Stein Pedersen who correctly pointed out that there was no stress factor that is usually what makes people come back and try again but I figured I’d find some other way to make it interesting.

The Game Jam

Along with my game planning the RGCD C64 16kb cartridge game jam is announced and kicked off. It lasts from January 2019 to end of June 2019. Seems easy enough to pull off this game in that timeframe!

I’m not participating to win, I’m here to learn something and to get a firm completion date to target and to compare notes with like minded contestants. I think this is a healthy approach and fairly common for many participants in retro dev game jams!


The visualization of the game is fairly simple, on the left and right side are the player ships that can move up and down. In the middle is the playfield of orbs that can be color matched in rows of 3 or more.

On the Commodore 64 this is accomplished with hardware sprites for the player ships and multi-color text mode for the balls.

The reason for double wide pixels is that in multi-color mode the C64 uses pairs of pixels to pick one of four colors for the pixels of each screen character or sprite. The way the coloring works lets me choose from 8 colors of which 6 are useful (skipping black and white).

The player input functionality prototype for Space Muggles

The text mode font contains pre-shifted orbs and all the graphics including the main screen logo fits into a single 256 character font!

Creating the visuals as intended was truly a breeze, giving me a lot of confidence to continue.

Making slow progress

From the game jam start date, around January 8, there are regular additions to the game, in the screenshot below there are now “bombs” and “bugs” added to the playfield. The image below shows the preshifted orbs, bugs and bombs near the bottom.

Early progress, getting all the game features in place


Space Bomb

Bombs will explode when next to clearing three or more horizontal matching orbs, taking out its immediate neighbours around it.

Match 3 or more next to a bomb to explode it


Space Bug

Bugs can not be pulled or matched so they act as a blocker, to get rid of them the player must make a match of 3 same colored orbs in a neighbouring space. Or blow up a bomb next to it.

Macth 3 or more next to bugs to destroy them

After a fixed number of moves (pulling or pushing an orb, including sending an orb to the opposite player) a new row drops down from the top of the screen.

When there are no more room on screen for the next row to land on the game is over.

Taking a look at the progress

One and half month into the 6 month project, despite adding more features the gameplay feels completely random.

Regardless of how well you play there is no sense of progress, and occasionally playing recklessly clears the playfield in no time..

At this point I gave up and started another 16kb game. The game didn’t work and I couldn’t see a way to get the game on track.

The last thing that was added at this point, February 15, was the Zero Wing-like green tractor beam animation!

Nono Pixie

In just 48 hours I had a working Nonogram (Picross) game!

Perhaps not as useful as a puzzle game design lesson but more fun to work on. At least I get more practice tiny creating pixel art images as puzzle solutions.

This game is almost complete in less than two months with 100 puzzles so I can return to Space Orbs again (Nono Pixie is free and available from as well)

Back to Space Orbs!

So after a break from February 15 to April 10 I now have a better perspective of the problem with the design.

After a lot of thinking I realizes that when I removed time/speed as the game challenge I needed to replace it with another challenge. My solution was to add a danger level bar.

The “danger level” increases with each player action and must be kept below a maximum level. The level reduces with successful matches, indicating a measure of the density of the playfield. Since the game is cooperative both players share the same danger level.

Playing in the danger zone

The danger level is shown as a vertical bar on both sides of he screen. When the bar reaches the top of the screen critical mass occurs and the game is lost.

There is also a planet in the background to indicate that the game is played in space near Earth.

Another addition in the screenshot are the cyan colored bugs in the playfield. These bugs are armored so the first time a match is made in a neighboring cell it loses its “armor” and turns into a regular bug.

These changes are definitely improvements but getting to this stage has taken another month and there is just a bit more than one and a half month left.

The game still feels unfair/random, meaning that playing well or playing bad doesn’t matter that much for the outcome.

Is there enough time to make it acceptable? Is it even possible?

Final Push

Instead of aimlessly trying things the focus should be features that are likely to the game work better. The most important goal is that playing more methodically should result in predictable progress.

The bean.

The first attempt is adding another obstacle. The idea with the bug is that it disappears when next to a matched orb. The new obstacle, the bean, borrows the stone from Puyo Puyo which in this game can not be pulled and when a match occurs in a neighboring cell it turns into an orb of the same color as the match.

Since the bean becomes an orb it can also be part of a chain of matches, which is implemented after the screenshot below.

Space Beans will turn into colored orbs when next to a matched row

This let’s players get more creative lining up chains and also increases the challenge.

Like the other obstacles the result is more of a tool for difficulty progression than predictability but it is a welcome improvement.


What is a puzzle action game without a score? Well, to be honest, I can’t think of a puzzle game I paid much attention to the actual score but a score multiplier is something else!

Adding scoring and a score multiplier adds immersion! Unfortunately lots of glitches in this version.

The scoring might not help so much with player progression but it definitely helps make the game feel like you’re making progress.

Without the ability to save data on the cartridge I can’t make a hiscore table which would give the score a bit more meaning.

One week to go

Having iterated on all the listed features with one week of time left it is very little time to tie it all together, but with a good dose of optimism it is time to start on defining “levels”!

Up to this point I have simply hardcoded which color orbs should appear, whether beans, bugs or bombs appear and their frequency.

So the level system is just that, a list specifying the orbs that appear in a given level and what obstacles and their frequency, plus how many moves between each new row of orbs.

The level system is a breakthrough! In the final week I create 32 unique levels for the game.

So what the level system specifically helped with was to allow more controlled mixes of orbs and obstacles, like limiting the number of colors of orbs in a level.

Intentionally creating easier levels and then step by step adding tiny bits of complexity made creating fun levels a pleasant chore. The game is submitted on June 29 without any sound.

The cartridge does not have support for saving games, and to avoid remembering and entering passwords the levels can just be selected directly from the title screen.

There is also a story screen for a little bit of added color in the last minute!

What happened to the Jam?

The game jam ended but due to understandable personal events for the organizer it hasn’t been rated.

The end result was many games that are way too impressive to be just 16kb and run on a computer with a CPU with roots in the mid 70’s.

The entries from the RGCD C64 16k cartridge jam are available from

For anyone curious I recommend checking out Doc Cosmos, a retro-dimensional platformer puzzle and Neutron, a fun vertically scrolling space Shoot’em-up!

Fans of match-3 games should also make sure to check out Vegetables C64!

Post Jam Improvements

It is hard to stop working on something after barely finishing it.

Thanks to Stein Pedersen I have awesome relaxing music for the game!

Aside from gameplay tweaks and bugfixes I also painted a title screen, all of which still fits on the 16 kb cartridge! The complete version is released early November 2019, right after I decided to move back to Sweden from Los Angeles.

The titlescreen shows a pilot entering a spaceship with a orbsplosion causing devastation in the distance.

Conclusions from the jam

As far as deliberately taking a game design concept and alter a major portion of it, this was achieved at a significant cost in time and effort. The consequence of a deliberate change can be signicant, perhaps greater than it was to create the original implementation.

A better approach for this kind of experiment is likely to work in prototypes until the consequenes are mapped out, but the whole idea with the project is to see the process through a game jam release.

Game Jams and personal projects should only exist because they are fun or relaxing or learning something for yourself. Or everything at once. And despite all the setbacks this project was all those things, but with a hint of frustration at times.

It was no problem at all to abandon the project when I found an alternative game that was a lot easier to work on, but maybe because that project was so easy I felt I had to give the harder project another chance.

If this project was a team effort it would make absolutely no sense to go back to it after initially stopping. It would have been a valuable experiment that should be analyzed for potential ideas for future projects.

But the feeling of reaching that wall, taking a break and then, in the last minute, turning it into something is great!


I’m happy to leave the game as is, but occasionally I’m asked what’s next. I don’t have any solid ideas other than perhaps building more levels with the same mechanics and introduce a game save feature. If anyone takes a chance on playing it and want to discuss what a full / deluxe / sequel version could be I’m interested to hear you out!

I think there is something here, maybe it is a dead end or maybe it can be inspiration for something new. It has a hint of fun!

One or two people have asked for another game, I am still feeling I got really lucky to get it playable at all so I’m really curious what other people think. With more design could it work on Steam or Nintendo Switch? Any missed opportunities that could make it stand out?

Published by Space Moguls

I make Commodore 64 games and sometimes demos.

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