Marble Madness (NES) review
"It turns out your marble is made out of china or something. Even a small drop will either set it to spinning (which delays your movement for a second or two) or cause it to crack (which delays you something like five seconds, in some cases). None of this would particularly matter, except the marbles have a tendency to be reluctant about directional changes."
I'm not entirely sure what it was about Marble Madness that attracted me to it. When it was released, I didn't have the luxury of buying just any title that caught my eye, but the footage of marbles rolling along carpets and ledges won me over. I waited anxiously for weeks to make that game mine, and finally I did. But as it turned out, there wasn't a whole lot more to the game than what I saw on the television screen that day. It's literally possible to whip through the whole of the game in less than five minutes. Before long, I grew disappointed enough with my purchase (and hungry enough for money to buy games with more longevity) that I parted with the cartridge, only to snag it again years later. And now the question must be asked: how does the game hold up?
To be honest, it holds up just fine. Though it hasn't suddenly become more thrilling or revolutionary, the game is just the same a good title to pick if you want a few moments' worth of fun between homework assignments or television shows. Even better, two people can enjoy the experience simultaneously if you convince a friend or relative to join you for some retro gaming.
The main contributor to the 'pick up and play' nature of Marble Madness is the game's inherent simplicity. There's very little you have to do. In fact, it's quite possible to complete the game pressing no more than the d-pad (a complete dream for those of you who like to keep the right hand busy while you play; just don't get frustrated and break something). The only goal you have when you turn on the power is to make it to the end of a series of extremely short levels without losing your marbles.
When I say the levels are short, what I really mean is that they're some of the shortest stages in the history of the industry. The first one, an introductory level, can dependably be completed in less than 15 seconds. That's fine, though; it's just a quick introduction to the play mechanics. Here, you learn that all you're doing is pressing the direction on the controller that you wish for your marble to roll. With only one exception, your marbles are rolling down slopes. Before starting a game, you can choose from 45-degree rolling, or 90-degree rolling. The latter makes the most sense to me, but other people may have different play styles. It's good the developers put in that feature to simplify things.
Each stage in the game has an isometric perspective, which is why the two control schemes work so well. In the default mode, you press the direction you wish to move and the marble will roll up, down, left, or right (or a combination of the two, if you're being clever). In the other, pressing down will cause the marble to follow the contours of the actual courses. Either way, you're going to need to be infinitely familiar with the way the stages are designed for one very simple reason: this game is extraordinarily difficult.
On one hand, I can see why the developers would work so hard to make this game a nail-biting experience. If it were simple, everyone would beat it on the first attempt and realize their quarter only lasted them a few moments even though they totally mastered the game (this was, after all, released in arcades first). So even though I can understand why things were made so difficult, I can't appreciate the impact it has on the gameplay.
The way things are set up, you start in that first introductory course with a set amount of time. Then you roll toward the level goal, where you'll receive points for the time remaining. From then on, each level you complete (up through the last one) rewards you with a jump on the timer for the next stage. Suppose you finish an area with 15 seconds remaining on the timer. Those will be added to the timer in the next challenge. You'll soon learn that the later stages cannot be completed with the time you're allotted, so you'll have to become quite adept at navigating the early portions, just so you reach the game's conclusion with enough time to move.
Because of this set-up, many players will grow frustrated and will likely quite prematurely. Imagine playing this with a friend who has never tried it before. He'll probably lose all his time almost immediately, and then there may be a brief fight before the next match begins. And the next, and the next. Even if the two of you are good, the narrow platforms the game forces you to follow aren't built to comfortably hold more than one marble. Two-player matches get old fast, simply because of the level of teamwork required to advance very far at all.
Even the single-player games can lead to frustration. That's because you're not just rolling through static environments. Instead, you'll be hassled by pools of acid that absorb your marble, birds, vacuum cleaners, and giant rugs. There are other hazards, as well, but none of them are likely to cause you as much frustration as the drop-offs that litter each area. It turns out your marble is made out of china or something. Even a small drop will either set it to spinning (which delays your movement for a second or two) or cause it to crack (which delays you something like five seconds, in some cases). None of this would particularly matter, except the marbles have a tendency to be reluctant about directional changes. Get rolling quickly in a set path and switching direction abruptly (a necessity in many areas) becomes something akin to pulling teeth. Some stages required you to navigate winding paths while vacuum cleaners and hammers get in the way. It's almost too much to handle all at once.
With that said, the game can still be a joy to play. This is due in part to the graphics, which look good to this very day. The developers did a good job of presenting each stage in a clear-cut fashion that feels three-dimensional even though it isn't. Though the design is simplistic, like a sheet of graph paper turned 45 degrees, the effect is simply unparalleled by any game I've played since. Color palette choices are always pleasant. No single stage has a lot of color variety, yet everything fits together in a manner that is entirely pleasing to the eye.
The sound department also does its job. Bump your marble against a wall and you'll hear one sort of noise, while a brush against enemy marbles does something completely different. Best of all is the slight wail your marble emits if it rolls over the edge of a precipice. Add in the subdued but appropriate soundtrack humming in the background and you have one of the best aural presentations the NES ever produced.
Because of the way such strengths come together, it becomes easy to forget the game won't last very long. What is here is great stuff, after all, and it will likely challenge you for a good long while. Though I can't recommend spending a great deal on the cartridge, the NES version of the game is the best one I've found (its inclusion on the Midway compilations that have come since just doesn't feel quite right). If you stumble into some money and happen to find Marble Madness in the 'used games' bin at your local retailer, don't hesitate to make it yours. Just be prepared to lose some of your marbles.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (March 24, 2004)
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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