Marble Madness

aMarble Madness USA 188x267 Marble Madness NES Nintendo Review ScreenshotDeveloper: Rare
Publisher: Milton Bradley

Released: March 1989
US Cartridge ID: NES-MV-USA

Players: 2/Simulatenous
Genre: Puzzle
Supported Peripherals: Controller

ROM Size: 1 megabit
Mapper: ANROM (128k PRG)

Requires Flash10

Marble Madness, Atari’s 1984 arcade hit, was a landmark game for several reasons. As the flagship title for Atari’s 16-bit System 1 arcade hardware, it flaunted its state-of-the-art muscle with its convincing pseudo-3D graphics, unique trackball controls, and the first
ever implementation of true stereo sound in an arcade machine.Taking place across six Marble Madness USA 001 Marble Madness NES Nintendo Review Screenshotgame boards of increasing difficulty, Marble Madness challenges the player to race their marble from the start point to the goal in as short a period of time as possible. The boards are littered with hazards seeking to hinder the players’ progress, effectively accomplished by blocking the path of the marble, by destroying it, or by knocking it off the side of the stage.

The first race, Practice, grants the player sixty seconds to get to the finish intact; upon successful completion of the board, the remaining time will be added to the time given by default on the following race. The time limit is handled in this same manner for the remainder of the game. It is absolutely vital to make it to the goal as quickly as possible, as the difficulty level spikes considerably between each race: though initially the 99 second reserve limit seems excessively forgiving, this in no way buffers the difficulty level of the
final race.

Each of the six boards is distinct in terms of both the challenge it offers and aesthetics. Practice, is as the name implies, is a simple downhill path straight toward the goal, though adventurous players may opt to risk jumping off of a ramp for bonus points. Beginner, as Marble Madness USA 016 Marble Madness NES Nintendo Review Screenshotthe second board is labeled, introduces the Steelie (a black marble that targets players’ marbles, potentially smashing them or knocking them off of the edge) and the Marble Muncher (a green tubeworm that will eat the marble if it lands on it), in addition to branching paths, complicating things considerably. The third race, Intermediate, places puddles of acid in the players’ path, as well as a tempting but dangerous shortcut across ground moving in a wave pattern. Aerial, board four, starts by flinging the player down a steep slope, and keeps up the pressure with vacuums, catapults, pistons, and swinging hammers, all thoughtfully provided to aid the player in failing. Board 5, Silly, informs you from the start that “[e]verything you know is wrong,” speaking to the altered gravity that makes moving uphill easier than downhill, the miniaturized enemies that can be squashed for extra time, and birds that can make the marble explode on contact. The final race, Ultimate, is significantly more difficult than any others before it. Textured surfaces and ice make traveling in a straight line difficult, acid eagerly awaits the impatient player, and platforms disappear and reappear, making it difficult to map a viable route to the goal flag.

Though lacking any characters or story, Marble Madness‘ personality shines in its presentation. The player avatars, blue for player one and red for player two, will smash and be swept up with a dustpan and broom if they fall from too high a ledge, though if it is a minor drop, they’ll become dizzy (as is indicated by a swirling halo around them). If the Marble Madness USA 054 Marble Madness NES Nintendo Review Screenshotplayer happens to misjudge distance or speed and falls into the void, the marble will plunge to its end with a resigned “Ahhh!” sound before being reformed on the board. The Steelies are menacing in their inky opaqueness, and hurl themselves with reckless abandon at the player in a fierce show of instinctive territorialism. The isometric viewpoint from which the game is presented is quite unusual, though excellent in providing an ideal perspective from which one may effectively control their marble despite being in an emulated 3-D space. The music has garnered Marble Madness much of its fame in the decades since it originally appeared, and the NES edition’s tunes, while slightly different, hold up admirably, instilling each race with the appropriate measure of tension or goofiness as demanded by the board (the same cannot be said for the horrendous soundtrack that the Sega Genesis version subjects its players to; though the songs are the same, most of them are loaded with shrill notes and distorted effects that verge on painful, even at moderate volumes).

The controls have been adapted surprisingly well, given the NES pad’s distinct lack of a trackball. Two options are offered at the beginning of each game: 45° and 90°. The 90° control scheme behaves as one would expect: the arrows move the marble in each of the cardinal directions, and diagonal movements require pressing two arrows at once. The
Marble Madness USA 067 Marble Madness NES Nintendo Review Screenshot45° control scheme caters to the unique perspective, instead assigning each of the directional arrows on the pad to a diagonal direction for easier maneuverability. Both are entirely usable, though the 45° scheme certainly is easier on the left thumb.

While Marble Madness can be played as a single player game, it truly shines with a buddy. The two-player option forces players to race one another to the finish, and encourages sabotaging the opposing player’s efforts in tight spaces through knocking them off of ledges or into hazards. The inclusion of the two-player mode helps to offset the largest problem with Marble Madness: its longevity, or lack thereof. The entire game can be completed in five-minutes, and while each course takes a considerable amount of practice to master, the dearth of content quickly becomes glaringly obvious in a home release.

While not as well known as other arcade classics of its day (Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man), Marble Madness stands proudly among them as an icon of a bygone era that retains its relevance through simplicity, playability, and sheer addictiveness. Though its brevity undercuts it to some extent, Marble Madness is a shining exemplar of Atari’s long-since lost sharp instinct for gaming,  and of how much fun videogames can be.

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Milton Bradley, 3/1989
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Milton Bradley, 8/1991