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The Little Ball That Could (PC) artwork

The Little Ball That Could (PC) review

"The Little Ball That Could offers so much of a good thing that you might be excused for thinking it's too much."

The chief problem with Marble Madness was its length. The arcade and NES classic featured a number of inventive ideas and offered a generally pleasant and often surprisingly demanding experience, but you could clear it in about 5 minutes after probably only a few tries. After that, there wasn't a lot of reason to return to it.

The Little Ball That Could, which was clearly inspired by Midway's classic, is another game that has you roll a marble around, avoiding hazards and long drops. Like its predecessor, its chief problem concerns length. However, that's true in a different way than you might expect. Indie studio NaissusWorks has put together the most competent marble roller I've yet played, but the good ideas are stretched too thin to have the impact the game's creators likely had in mind. Fortunately, it's still very good.

The Little Ball That Could (PC) image

You probably don't even need a story, but The Little Ball That Could sort of has one. There is a marble production line, and the eponymous ball is about to become the latest of its kind to get stamped with a heart and sent down the line. But then the conveyor runs out of power. The whole process stops, and the only way it will ever resume is if you guide the heroic ball through a whole bunch of stages, gathering crystals and hearts and doing all of that in a bit of a rush.

There are five themed worlds to explore, and each one corresponds to a color. Those worlds contain 24 levels apiece, and there are always three objectives: beat the clock as you make it to the end, gather three diamonds scattered around the various platforms and discover the location of a hidden puzzle piece. You don't have to complete all three of those objectives on a single run, and it often doesn't even seem possible to do so. In this way, the developers encourage you to visit every one of the game's 120 stages multiple times. I've spent the better part of 15 minutes on some of them, just on a single attempt, so I can confidently say brevity is not an issue here.

Stages tend to be sterile, with polished smooth surfaces and a lot of straight lines. That makes sense and fits the theme, given your interest in returning eventually to an assembly line, but the lack of personality is disappointing. Marble Madness boasted moving hammers, a rival marble to avoid, weird tubes that moved about like mobile Slinkies, and even rolling carpet and dive bombing birds. It felt unique and lively. Here, the closest thing you'll see to personality is the soundtrack, which loops through a beautiful assortment of classic piano compositions.

The Little Ball That Could (PC) image

There certainly are unique hazards to face along the way, but the developers introduce new ones only two or three times per world. That lack of variety gives you time to get tired of moving platforms, or extending presses, or locked doors or teleportation pads and such. They're all good ideas and the stage designs find a variety of ways to use them--separately and then in interesting combinations--but it felt to me like the game would have benefited quite a bit from only lasting about half as long. Then the best ideas could have been packed a bit closer together and the sense of wonder might have avoided occasionally fading to tedium.

My biggest other complaint about the game is the lack of a camera you can control. Stages are presented from an isometric perspective, as in Marble Madness, and some of them are rather intricate. If you pass behind a barrier, you can still see the marble, but now as a round outline. And there are ledges you have to roll along that you can't even actually see, particularly when you're trying to locate diamonds and puzzle pieces.

Collecting puzzle pieces was probably my favorite part of the whole process, actually, because they tend to be hidden rather cleverly. The developers sometimes used the lack of a helpful camera to their advantage, so you really have to explore to find some of them (or you have to complete extra steps, like tripping switches to open doors that you otherwise wouldn't need to pay any heed). Sometimes beating the clock was also exhilarating, especially since a lot of stages have shortcuts to discover.

The Little Ball That Could (PC) image

NaissusWorks was also careful to give players reasons to keep returning to the various stages, even after clearing them three or four times. There are online leaderboards, so you can compare how you've done with any friends or strangers who might also have purchased the title. I know that's a fairly standard feature by now, but some games still don't include it and I was glad to see it available here. As you find puzzle pieces, you also gain access to skins for your ball, so it looks like a ruby or has a checkered pattern or whatever. And there are a bunch of achievements to reward you for clearing the various worlds or even for getting banged up a bit. There don't seem to be any Steam cards, which would have been nice, but the package still feels substantial without them.

If you've been waiting for a memorable follow-up to the ball rolling classics of yesteryear, I would say The Little Ball That Could doesn't necessarily compete with the finest of the fine. It doesn't have quite enough personality. However, its robust campaign--complete with numerous objectives for each stage--does a good job of remaining entertaining for longer than its predecessors did. Generous checkpoint placement and a soothing soundtrack also keep the experience from generally growing frustrating, which means most players should have few complaints as long as they are honest with themselves about when they need to take a break for a while. If you look at the screenshots and feel the game looks enough like Marble Madness to be interesting, do yourself a favor and just go ahead and buy it. I doubt you'll regret the decision.


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Staff review by Jason Venter (September 10, 2017)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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