Despite the wholesome, big-haired
young adults enjoying themselves with it on the cover of the box, the toys themselves look intimidating to the uninitiated viewer - with their loops, parallel curls and swoops, and all that white plastic rail contrasting with the black grips and steel supports, they look like austere abstract art
, or like a cartoon swirl of motion lines
that might have a Tasmanian Devil somewhere inside it. They don't look like they'd fit inside, or like they come in big, easy-to-snap-together chunks. Spacewarp failed as a toy for the same reason it succeeds today as a hobby
: Some Assembly Required
Spacewarp is the name under which the Bandai toy corporation marketed (in both the US and Japan) a system of extremely flexible and customizable marble roll kits in the mid- to late 1980s. To call Spacewarp a marble roll, though, is to call a Lamborghini a decent way to get from here to there. Spacewarp takes the concept of a toy made simply to fascinate very small children, and spins it into a tool of astounding flexibility, for creating things closer to the ornate "ball machine" layouts you see installed at science museums, or to roller coaster layouts.
The marble rolls pictured on the covers of Spacewarp sets are labyrinthine in a very real sense. Heavy steel balls travel up an elevator, which leans balls against a thin pole and moves them upward with its motorized spiral core. The Spacewarp spiral elevator has three poles and therefore three different axis along which a ball run can start or end. Runs can also be split off into two with simple black alternating-switch pieces (or joined together again by having one track suddenly stop and drop onto another). The layouts pictured on the boxes are detailed in the step-by-step Lego-like instructions inside. From looking at the instructions, you can grow amazed at how complexity results from such simple sets of curves, layered and layered. You can also see that things are not really all that complex after all, and don't even really look it. The joy of a child's marble run scales to higher ages, for the same reason that a maze that wouldn't challenge a 6-year-old can provide adults with relaxation, art, even transcendence.
The tracks themselves are created with thin, flexible white plastic tubes, no more than an eighth of an inch wide. Black plastic cross-ties, which look remarkably like curly brackets, are made to hold two of the long white lengths of tubing apart from each other at a standard, regular width, so balls will roll between them smoothly and quickly. The completed tracks look very much like the tracks of a contemporary steel roller coaster, although Spacewarp tracks are not supported directly on poles, but are typically held on short arms which the cross-ties clip onto (like a Lego minifig's hand onto one of those walkie-talkies with the absurdly large handles). Those arms then have a socket on the other end for either another arm (handy for those parallel tracks) or the larger vertical clip that attaches to Spacewarp's standard metal support poles. The last piece of the system is the black plastic plates, which bear a faint resemblance to Lego baseplates despite being half an inch thick, three inches wide and eight inches long. These plates have holes at 5/8" intervals to hold the support poles up, and fit securely together at their edges to form a "breadboard" of whatever size your layout requires.
The holy book of Spacewarp is the Parts List, the black-and-white leaflet of replacement and special parts that came in every box. One could easily imagine Bandai making parts that could adapt to a long, linear run or a whole different way of thinking, such as new parts that facilitate making a Rube Goldberg series of connected events, or logic gates, or pinball machines, or anything. Instead, the initial set of special parts were comprised of things like light sets, chimes, elaborate little windmills and a truly Goldberg-esque staircase - things that looked sort of cool in the standard-shaped, manageable layouts that Bandai put on the covers. In any case, they never developed past that, because Spacewarp never sold to a broad audience (although sales were better in Japan), and the line was discontinued in 1990. Obviously, there's a brisk hobbyist trade of the original sets on online auction sites, and a handful of fannish Web pages.
Sets sold in the US:
- Set 10 - "Beginning Coaster." Entry-level set, simple back-and-forth layout for the most part, narrow footprint. Uses molded plastic curve pieces instead of wide turns in the track. Has one switch whose forked track leads right into a loop (a common characteristic of the out-of-box layouts).
- Set 20 - "Intermediate Coaster." Taller and wider than Set 10, with actual track curves rather than compact turn-tubes. Does the switch-into-loop trick.
- Set 30 - "Advanced Coaster." Broad layout with three tracks coming off the top of the elevator, two loops, and numerous timed parallel tracks.
- Set 40 - "Expert Coaster." About as wide as Set 30 and a bit sparser in terms of track quantity, this set had symmetrical plunges into triple loops, broad stretches of parallel track, and other things which this noder can confirm are a pain in the ass to engineer.
- Black Wolf - A special set with black tubing for track, numerous curve tubes for a compact layout, and the special Staircase and Chimes parts included in the layout.
Sets produced in Japan:
Source for dates and set information (and the first hit on "Spacewarp toy" in Google): http://www.angelfire.com/journal/scottmills/SpaceWarp/spacewarp.html
- Set 10 - Simple, but not as spare as the US beginning sets, with no curve pieces and some entertaining tangles of track near the bottom.
- Set 15 - The first of several Japanese sets with a "Christmas tree" layout, with the elevator in the middle and the track more or less centered radially around it.
- Set 20 - Similar to the US Set 20, but a different layout.
- Set 30 - Comparable to the US Set 40 in complexity. Looks like a twin-spiral parking garage.
- Set I - Very sparse, single-track layout, with the unusual feature of a looped-belt elevator instead of the spiral model.
- Set II - Equivalent to American Set 20 in complexity.
- Set L - L is for lights. A small, but compact and interesting layout with three sets of 4 lights.
- Action 1 - A spare but quite tall set, with the special parts Windmill, See-saw, and possibly others.
- Action 2 - A larger set with an off-kilter layout, with Windmill, Staircase, what looks like a little mining car, two bells, and a fly swatter-ish thing at the top that waves back and forth when a ball rolls by. Action, baby!
- Blue Wings - Special blue rail tubing, in a broad but simple layout.
- Space Tree - A Christmas-tree style layout that actually attempts to look like one. Quite tall and broader near the base. Has white rails but sky blue plastic bits.
- Set W - W is for wide, maybe. The broadest layout of the Japanese sets, somewhere between US sets 30 and 40 in complexity.