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The Moonlight War novel by S.K.S. Perry

Marble Madness (NES) artwork

Marble Madness (NES) review

"Super Monkey Ball was quite the hit at Gamecube's launch. Sega made a great sleeper hit that has become one of the many well loved games this generation. But do all of the Monkey lovers out there know that this game is not a new concept, but is roughly based on an old game that happened to make its way to the NES? Yes, Marble Madness is in fact similar to design as its more well known and more advanced cousin. But whereas Segaís game may be wonderfully appreciated, this one does not deserve such..."

Super Monkey Ball was quite the hit at Gamecube's launch. Sega made a great sleeper hit that has become one of the many well loved games this generation. But do all of the Monkey lovers out there know that this game is not a new concept, but is roughly based on an old game that happened to make its way to the NES? Yes, Marble Madness is in fact similar to design as its more well known and more advanced cousin. But whereas Segaís game may be wonderfully appreciated, this one does not deserve such praise. Why? Because the game was dreadfully difficult, not to mention harmed by the NESí own limitations.

The premise of the game is that you control a marble. Moving the D-Pad around is akin moving your hand over the top of said marble. This naturally makes your little glass sprite to move around the 3D isometric world roughly on par with the laws of physics. Your goal is to navigate the marble through all sorts of twists, drops, and other hazards to the finish line, but itís not as simple as it sounds. Thereís no railings on the edges of long catwalks, and falling off means losing precious time. Besides, youíre following the laws of physics, so you must take into account inertia and all those other big words you ignored in school. And, if thatís not enough, random enemies abound, destroying your marble or throwing it off course. Hey, thereís a reason they call it Madness! When you make it to the finish line, your time gets transferred over to the next level along with a preset value, and it's game over if you donít make it in time. Whew, sound tough?

It is. And probably too hard too. The catwalks and bridges are almost too narrow at times, and navigating them is deadly. Long slopes abound, forcing you to build up much more speed then you would like, and generally with lots of ugly little hazards waiting for you at the bottom.And what hazards might befall our hapless shiny ball? Puddles of acid move around (mobile acid? how odd), trying to dissolve your little marble. A vacuum cleaner will endeavor to suck you up, and another marble may attempt to knock you off course. And then thereís the gauntlet of hammers in level four, a devilishly impossible sequence that doesnít actually separate the men from the mice, but more along the lines of the lottery-winning lucky folk and obsessive-compulsive perfectionists from the rest of us. Good luck pulling through that one. And who can forget the catapult that doesnít always work, or the wave machine? Just try to keep a marble on a rug while someone else is shaking it vigorously; you're doomed to failure before you start. And if thatís not enough, weíll reverse gravity or create disappearing platforms in later levels. You might as well kiss your marble goodbye, as winning this game occurs about as often as a politician avoids a scandal.

And then thereís the time aspect, one which aggravates me greatly. See, these developers came up with the idea that your extra time at the end of one level gets added to your time for the next one. Normally, this would be an excellent idea, as it should reward better players. Ah, if only that were the case here. Your default times for the later levels is not enough to get even the most skilled players to the finish line, meaning the extra time is absolutely vital. Thus, rather than reward excellent players, the system punishes all but the best. Thereís no getting by just in the nick of time here, and donít even think about messing up a level. Honestly, this system makes me wonder why they even split it up into separate levels, as obviously it makes no difference. Thereís no breathing room here; you cannot screw up once or youíll never make it. Thatís just unfair.

And then there are the technical and design limitations. Since this is only pseudo 3D obviously, the view is constantly isometric (for those who donít know, isometric means the 3 axis (x,y,z) are positioned so they look like an upside down Y). That, coupled with a grid for the landscape, makes it somewhat difficult to see all the features of the surface, and occasionally it is tough to visualize everything. And of course, because the ďcameraĒ is static, controls are static as well. The D-Pad just doesnít work. Rather than let the D-Pad correspond to the grid shown, it moves your marble in the natural up/down/left/right directions. Dumb move. In order to go in a straight line parallel to an axis in the game, you must continually alternate between down and right or down and left or whatever, because otherwise youíll just find yourself flying off a cliff. Itís hard to blame the developers of course, as this is probably the only system that could work. Sadly, the NES just cannot make a game like this.

Despite all of this, the game still does start out fun. And that is pretty much its saving grace. Marble Madness is such a great and original concept that, at first, you donít notice the problems. Instead, you think about how cool of an idea it is. You marvel at the pseudo 3D world, and nod appreciatively to the music in the game. You are impressed by how nifty and realistic the marble looks as it is spinning. Youíll smile at the various animations of our poor marbleís demise. You think you can get used to the controls. Obviously the first few levels are easy, so you are not likely to notice the difficulty at first. Similarly, the time aspect wonít get to be a problem until you start to be serious about beating the game. I guess thatís the problem. Once you try to play this with the intent to conquer it, as is inevitable with practically any game, all of the gameplay problems suddenly jump out at you. Frustration runs rampant as events outside your control ruin your groove, and an error in the third level will come back to haunt you thanks to the time aspect. You start to see through the cool idea, and then start to wonder why you should bother. Slowly, the game fades away from memory.

Tough luck huh? Marble Madness just canít cut it, sad to say. It really is a wonderful concept, and the first few minutes are bound to be quite positive. But you might as well quit right there, because once the novelty wears off, youíre left with a game trying to do what it canít, and hiding its inability under downright cheap ways to kill off your hapless marble. If you can find the means, itís not a bad idea to check this game out. Just donít expect the initial high to last forever. Grab Monkey Ball instead.

Rating: 6/10

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Community review by mariner (February 03, 2005)

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