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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Retro Review Tuesday: Marble Madness


Marble Madness is the sort of game we rarely see these days, no real plot, no real characters and with 6 short but difficult to nigh on impossible levels. It was originally released in 1984 the arcade in and has seen several ports. We choose to focus on the NES version as it's the one we first became familiar with.


As I said in the introduction Marble Madness really has no true plot line as far as I know. You control a marble trying to traverse a series of increasingly complex mazes populated with strange and seemingly random enemies. Though I personally prefer my theory that your marbles are secret agents known as code names Left and Right, who's mysterious mission is to attempt to foil the evil plot of the Black Marble Syndicate, which is somehow tied to winning races in absurd locales...

Controls are simple in theory the d pad moves and the a button speeds up your marbles speed. however, the marble will move erratically before you get used to it's distinct movement pattern. This game originally used a ball for movement so changing it to d pad does create some responsiveness problems. Though honestly, I find it much easier to control with the slightly sluggish controls than with the original super sensitive type.

Graphically it's stood the test of time pretty well. The color palate is more limited than I'd like but it's pretty standard for games of the era. The 3d graphics were revolutionary at the time period and still look good even by today's standards. You really do feel like the playing field is completely in 3d you never get a sense that it was in fact way beyond gaming's capabilities at the time (though it really was). It doesn't have any of the clunkiness you usually associate with early 3d games half as old (I'm looking at you Virtua Fighter).

Musically, it's classic. The tracks an memorable, complex, and catchy. Even if you didn't grow up with these songs, if you enjoy vintage game soundtracks at all these are love at first listen.The Level 2 theme is the one I most associate with the game so I'm sharing it here:

Didn't that fill your day with more awesome?

Your try to roll your marble through the courses in record time to advance. It's important to think of your marble like a real character they get dizzy, they get hurt (though I imagine most humans don't shatter when hit enough*) and they scream when they go flying of the edge. You'll waste a lot of time with any of those afflictions so it's best to try to keep your marbles happy and healthy. Occasionally you can still win a tough race even after pitching yourself over the side a few times, but it's not something you want to do unless you've got an uncanny ability to attract the randomly appearing magic wands which will appear above your marble and grant you a 10 second time bonus.

The magic wand is a godsend

As this game is basically about rolling marbles through courses so there's not much to talk about here other than the courses themselves and the enemies who make things just a little tougher.

I've never learned what the random "3,4,5,6" is about perhaps it's Black Marble Syndicate code?

You start off by selecting whether Lefty Blue is going to go in as a solo agent or if you're bringing your partner Righty Reddy with you. Once that's our of the way you make your way to the Practice Race: A very simple course, you'll have 60 seconds to get used to the controls and feel of the game. Nothing's too complicated, and a lot of the danger zones are barricaded. The time used here does not carry over to the next race. There's not a lot of reason to fail, here. This race is to make sure all that you retained some of the knowledge you learned back at marble academy. How to roll fast and straight without lobbing yourself off the edge. Though since it doesn't count, now might be the perfect time to lob yourself off the edge and contemplate how exactly your marbles scream without mouths.

Beginner Race

From there you move on to Beginner Race. Don't let the name fool you, it's actually quite difficult, especially when you're new to it. Easy to fall down holes, with hostiles and obstacles to overcome, including special flooring to throw you off.

These green waves can be your best friend or your worst enemy

Next up is the Intermediate Race, actually not too bad, although still difficult when beginning. Paths are very narrow, and enemies are plentiful. Offers a shortcut at the expense of requiring more skill to make use of it.

So Rude.

You're probably thinking I got this, next is the hard race, but you're wrong. What we really have next is the Aerial Race. Definitely the stopping point for beginning to intermediate players, this one's a big bad circus of marble death. An initial push in the direction of death welcomes you to this one. Vacuums to suck you up, catapults, and other obstacles will kick you around, guaranteeing your first successful run of this race will be anything but pretty.

It wastes precious seconds but this is an excellent time to take revenge on those nefarious black marbles

In the unlikely event you managed to pass that last race you move on to, Silly Race. It gives what it promises. Physics work in reverse here, pipes make little sense, and enemies are so small you can crush them (giving you a 3-second time bonus for every one you squash). This one's mostly difficult due to the time spent overcoming the three preceding races (as the first one doesn't count) but its craziness will certainly give you much to think about.

everything about this is awful
If you managed to roll on through those first four you're given the supreme honor of falling to your death in the Ultimate Race. You'll use everything you've learned to take your best shot at this one. It's pretty tame to begin with, but once you reach the final stretch, you'll be challenged immensely, as you try to navigate your marble over thin, segmented, traveling floors. Should you overcome this harsh test of maneuverability, you will pass through the final flags and will have completed the game.

Those flags are further away than they look.

Now it's not as though racing through many of those courses isn't difficult enough just via their course construction, but the BMS (Black Marble Syndicate for those of you with short attention spans) isn't ready to just hand over their badges of pure evil without a heck of a fight. Oh no, they've got henchmen to make your little glassy life, just that much more difficult. So here come the enemies:

Black Marble - Henchmen for what we call the evil Black Marble Syndicate, these smash into your marble, throwing you off course, and sometimes causing you to careen off into oblivion. You can, however, shatter them either by fighting with them for long enough, or causing them to fall from a distance. You will see the first of these in the Beginner Race.

Eaters - With movement that resembles a Slinky on stairs, if you get to close to these amusing little guys, they will attempt to pounce on your marble, devouring it if successful, and licking its "lips" to add insult to injury. First seen in the Beginner Race.

I'm melting! Melting...

Slimes -
Green little puddles of something or other, these make their debut in the Intermediate Race. They slither across the ground and will melt your marble into themselves if you make contact with them.

Warp Birds -Strange creatures found only in the Silly Race, if these hit you they will warp your marble a small distance, possibly beneficial, possibly detrimental.


Marble Madness is certainly one of the oddities of the classic gaming world. And in being this way, one can't help but be attracted to its quixotic offerings. It is a demanding but lovable piece of programming that truly deserves a place in this here blog; one that has forever rolled its way into our hearts.

~ Stephanie and Richard

* Sub Zero's freeze and shatter fatality not withstanding, because Mortal Kombat should probably not be used to formulate a medical hypothesis about anything.

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