Marble Madness is a game that I remember the commercial for, although not as vividly as I thought upon re-watching it (Such 80s! Much overacting!). It was also a game that I don’t think I had played since Classic Games Done Quick back in 2010. Given this, I’m happy I actually get to write about it for this series!
Marble Madness was released on the NES by Tengen and a pre-Battletoads Rare. It’s a port of a 1984 arcade game in which you control a marble through six “races”, each one more difficult than the last. The initial race is a simple Practice Race. Starting with the next race, the Beginner Race, any time left over from the race carries over into the next race, and you get a small bank of time besides that leftover time. Finishing quickly also increases your score, and as this is a port of an arcade game, getting a high score is the primary goal, almost moreso than beating the game.
Of course, the game isn’t just going to let you merrily roll your ball through it without putting some obstacles in your way. To name a few, enemy marbles, pools of acid, slinky-type marble-eating worms, and pistons that will launch your marble into the air will all try to impede your progress. Additionally, there are few walls in the races, and some of the passages are narrow, requiring precise navigation to avoid falling off and losing precious time. Typically, races will have one of two possible paths–a longer, easier path that tends to simply be rolling your wall on even ground, and a quicker, but riskier, option involving dodging more of the aforementioned obstacles.
The arcade original used a trackball to control your marble, which is still a unique way of controlling a character even today. The NES version replaces this with one of two control schemes. The 90 degree control scheme is what-you-see-is-what-you-get–up goes up, right goes right, etc. The 45 degree scheme effectively turns the game into Q-Bert, with right actually moving you diagonally down and right, for instance. The game itself involves mostly diagonal movement, meaning the 45 degree scheme can be useful if you can adjust to it.
Regardless, Marble Madness is a short game, comprising six races, as mentioned earlier. Completing all six races gets you even more bonus points, plus a small penalty for each time you died. While I found the game difficult as a kid–maybe due to my insistence on using the 45-degree control scheme–its quite a bit easier now that I’m all grown up, so to speak. The Wikipedia article notes that the earnings of the arcade version consistently dropped starting around week seven, perhaps due in part to its short length.
In fact, while I enjoy the game, I would go so far as to say that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend paying for it. Like Kung Fu, it can be beaten in under 5 minutes; unlike Kung Fu, though, it doesn’t get any more difficult on completion, meaning the 6 races in their configuration at the start is all you get. Still, if the worst thing you can say about a game is “I wish it were longer!”, I guess it’s doing something right.