Marble Madnesss

Let's all lose our marbles!

Source // Wikipedia

I don't ever recall playing Marble Madness, but I get the feeling I might have. Maybe I'm confusing it for playing an actual marble maze game made of wood and marbles, I don't know. What I do know though is that I know of it. That was a mouthful, but then again it is hard to bargle nawdle zouss with all these marbles in my mouth.

Jesus, what's become of me? Get back in the game.


Before we begin, know that you won't be as good as that guy (or as 'badass', as the video title puts it). Marble Madness does include marbles and you will probably either use the word mad to describe it, or go mad yourself trying to perfect its levels. It requires a bit of practice and dedication.

There are only six levels in all but they are devilish, so you'll be working out the best routes for a while, avoiding obstacles in the form of stage hazards like sheer drops and disappearing platforms, and enemies of all kinds including other balls and moving puddles of acid, or something like that, they're hard to describe.

The faster you finish, the more time you'll have added to the next level in order to beat that too, meaning the more hours of practice you put in to perfect the earlier levels, the more leeway you'll give yourself for messing up on the later levels.

A nice little incentive for playing better, however, what platform will you be playing on? I can't play the arcade original of Marble Madness, and so nor can I play it with a trackball for that true marble-controlling experience.

Fun Times

It's not all bad though, as the handful of ports from over the years have done their best to bring the arcade into our living rooms. They each have their own little quirks, but they all know how important the controls for Marble Madness are, coming with options to play with the more familiar layout that was on every gamepad, or to play at a 45 degree angle to better match up with the look of the game.

I forget which game it was where I struggled with angled controls (maybe it was a game we haven't even reached on the list, such is my memory sometimes), so I avoided any angled control schemes like the plague and dove right in. Let's see which port loses the most of our marbles...

"I wonder where this goe--nooooo!"

Sega Mega Drive, 1991

This port is the looker of the bunch and I could easily see myself playing it for a while. It looks simple, but then so did the arcade version. It's a clean kind of simple where you're able to focus on the gameplay, watching all the animations related to your marble smashing from long drops, and getting eaten by slinky slugs, and feeling dizzy (Dizzy? Really? A constantly spinning marble getting dizzy?). It's got it all, including difficulty levels for even more replayability.

The Marble Madness Misplaced Marble-o-meter reads 1 misplaced marble.

I have made some terrible decisions...

NES, 1989

The NES port was where I first really noticed the animation of the marble's insides, which, while not new to Marble Madness, doesn't appear to serve much purpose. It looks good, I guess, but I couldn't see if it has any gameplay purpose in terms of using it to work out which way your marble was rolling. Perhaps I missed it, perhaps it's not there in the first place.

Animated marble or not, the presentation is alright, both in terms of sound and visuals. If you got this for your NES, you wouldn't be complaining. Except of course for when it got difficult, which it does. That funnel up there? I entered it with 45 seconds left on the clock. Pays to know where each route will take you...

The Marble Madness Misplaced Marble-o-meter reads 2 misplaced marbles.

Count the enemies. I'll wait.

Game Boy, 1991

As we've seen with previous titles, Game Boy ports are rather limited in terms of what they can display, not just in colour but also in terms of how much of the game they can put on the screen. Like Pac-Man, Marble Madness on the Game Boy suffers from a zoomed in view and greyscale graphics, but I really must commend developers Tengen for bringing such a playable game to the handheld regardless.

I actually played a fair bit of the Game Boy version. The screen shots will show you that I didn't get too far, but then I haven't gotten too far on any version of Marble Madness, not yet at least. I must have a soft spot for the Game Boy, because I could play this version for a while longer yet. No options beyond your choice in direction, so replay value is limited in that regard.

But yeah, it's got it's problems...

The Marble Madness Misplaced Marble-o-meter reads 5 misplaced marbles.

Just sweep that mistake out of your memory, that's right...

Sega Master System, 1992

Not too bad on the presentation side, though our marble does look like a moving sprite than an animated ball. It's got to be a simpler version than the Sega Mega Drive but it's still easily playable... were it not for the difficulty. There are 10 levels of it, 0-9, with level 2 being the default. Fair enough, I'll start off slow and build up, right?

Wrong. I was sliding around the stages like they were made of ice, and bouncing off the walls like they were made of rubber. I just didn't take to the controls, but I've got to admire the amount of customisation you can have. And I could have sworn I heard some Pac-Man like sound effects scattered throughout my failures. Was he inside the marble or am I just losing more of mine?

The Marble Madness Misplaced Marble-o-meter reads 7 misplaced marbles.

The slinky slugs are trying their hardest to defeat me, but I'm more than capable of doing so myself

Game Boy Colour, 1999

It took a while to arrive but when it did, the Game Boy Colour port brought a much needed splash of colour to the handheld. I want to make it clear that the Game Boy port looked pretty even though it was all kinds of hard to look at in places, but the Game Boy Colour does away with it all, and we can finally see what is right in front of our noses.

Unfortunately, it has also done away with the sound too. The music sucks. I don't know what happened to it. Were my ears deceiving me, or was the classic soundtrack replaced with generic bleepy bloops? There's an option to mute it, but little else.

The saving grace, besides colour, is that the respawns feel really snappy and quite generous in places. Handy for both beginners and to help deal with the zoomed in viewpoint on the handheld.

The Marble Madness Misplaced Marble-o-meter reads 16 misplaced marbles.

What in the hell happened to Marble Madness?

Game Boy Advance, 2005

Finally, we come to the most recent port I played. Where to begin? It sounds horrible. That's my one word note for the sound. I really should have elaborated, for my own benefit as much as yours. Sorry. It's the least of it's problems though.

The enemy placement has changed and they are now scattered about the place, some having swapped with other enemy types. That must have been done for a reason, but what reason? If all the ports kept the enemy placement, then surely those enemies were in a good place? Or maybe they weren't, and this is the one truly correct version of Marble Madness. Perhaps it was done in an effort to increase replayability - hey, sure, I know you've played Marble Madness before, but have you played it with enemies in different places? Huh?

Before you moan about where the enemies are though, you've got to get there in the first place. The controls are just... no... They are both rigid and zippy and all kinds of wrong. In the other ports, you feel like you're influencing the direction of the marble. Sometimes you can see it move a little funny, but more often than not it's like you're jabbing a direction in the hopes that the marble moves in that direction, in the same way that (I assume) you spin the trackball in one direction until you see the on screen marble doing something similar.

Here, it feels more like you're translating a point on a piece of graph paper, the marble sliding in the exact direction you pressed, until it hits a slope because then gravity takes over and hurls your marble right down the slope and usually off whatever edge was at the bottom. It's not Earth-like, that gravity, and the controls on flat land aren't marble like either.

To try and turn this into a compliment sandwich, I can say that the graphics remind me of the NES version. They're not quite up there with being the best to look at, but coupled with the widescreen on the Game Boy Advance, we can at least see more of the stage on our handhelds. A positive, no?

The Marble Madness Misplaced Marble-o-meter reads 27 misplaced marbles.

Funnel tunnel shortcuts should be taken inside the funnel.

Final Word

If you're an expert, you can complete Marble Madness in minutes. You kind of have to, what with that countdown, but the point is that it's not a long game. It's just difficult. You're either going to find it addictive enough to complete through determination and a willingness to beat it, or you're going to just have a bit of fun trying to control a marble on various systems with differing control schemes and marble physics.

It made excellent use of the trackball, and its legacy lives on after 30 years, but as the sales figures showed Atari, the arcades were done with Marble Madness after just six weeks. People just moved on from it, whether they were able to master it or not.

A telling reflection of our gaming habits, don't you think?

A mistake you can really only make on a Game Boy, thanks to the zoom.

Fun Facts

Lead designer Mark Cerny was working with fellow programmer Bob Flanagan on a video game for Michael Jackson's Thriller. It got cancelled, so they had time to work on Marble Madness instead.

Marble Madness, developed by Atari, first released in 1984.
Version watched: Arcade, 1984 (Justin Epperson)
Versions played: Game Boy, 1991; Game Boy Colour, 1999; Game Boy Advance, 2005; NES, 1989; Sega Master System, 1992; Sega Mega Drive, 1991 (all via emulation)