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  • Marble Madness [EA, 1986]

    Posted on March 2nd, 2010 keving 1 comment

    Marble Madness, Mark Cerny’s first game-industry credit, is a game near and dear to my heart. People still link to the archived Video-fenky page where I described in detail how to beat the secret stage in the Commodore 64 version. The world it portrays is remarkably well-defined, especially for its time — clean, calculated, wonderful, and merciless. I’d like to think its visual style still influences modern stuff like Mirror’s Edge to this day, but ah, wishful thinking will only get me so far in our modern, shiny, Hollywood-ized game industry, won’t it?

    The Amiga version, coded by Larry Reed (who may or may not be the Larry Reed who codes for Crystal Dynamics nowadays), is worth special note. It was the Amiga’s “killer app” for much of the system’s early life in the US, the one title that stood out as massively superior to any other home gaming experience. Even though the Amiga debuted at $1295 (compared to $300-ish for a full C64 hardware set at the time) and Commodore attempted to position it as a professional/business computer, they still used media of the Marble Madness port in much of their advertising. As a kid growing up in the northeastern US, I remember playing only two Amiga games: this one, and Turrican, both of which blew my NES-addled mind.

    I never really followed the Amiga the way I should’ve, and I’m in the midst of teaching myself the ins and outs of its game library, a process that I’m sure will happily occupy my free time for eons to come. Along the way, I came across the above YouTube video, demonstrating a pretty astonishing annotated speedrun of the Amiga Marble Madness. The non-TAS-enhanced player winds up with a final score totaling over 200,000 points, which is about 2.5 times what an average player manages in a complete runthrough. Seeing the player wrangle his trackball in person must be a thing of technical beauty, like a master seamstress at the loom or a mile-long line of Toyota assembly robots churning out Camrys. I wish I was there.

    The review on the right is from an autumn 1986 issue of Amazing Computing magazine. Click the cut to view another look, this one from the March/April 1987 edition of Amiga World — one of my favorite reviews ever for the sheer looneyness lurking between the lines.

    Marble Madness

    Get out the rubber nose, Bozo wants to play marbles. No quarters necessary for this madcap micro excellence.

    When a micro edition of a flashy, popular video-parlor arcade game is released, you expect an abridged, pale, whittled-down version of the original — something like your first game of whiffle ball. Electronic Arts’ Marble Madness, licensed from Atari and popularized on Atari arcade machines, will forever broaden your expectations — it did mine. The power of the Amiga plus the programming expertise of Will Harvey and Larry Reed (who did the Amiga version) have made Marble Madness a first-rate micro arcade game.

    Losing Your Marbles
    Marble Madness is an animation-action-strategy-coordination ball-and-mazes sit-on-the-edge-of-your-chair type game. It consists of numerous screens that contain tracks, ramps, jumps, moving floors and other indefinable animated obstacles, along which and through which you must direct a ball, whichi tself doesn’t always agree to obey the laws of physics. Various little “hoovers,” “marble munchers” and black “steelies” await you along the path to interrupt you and steal our most precious possession — time. Other banes to your success pop up here and there to bonk you, whack you, roller-coaster you and bump you off the path. When you fall, if you hit a hard surface, you go splat and a little broom appears and sweeps you up, or you reel as if dizzy, or you drop into, well, marble-nowhere. Of course, as long as you still have time left in the level, your ball reappears where it went awry, but you have lost time, the main thing against which you play in this game. And how quickly you finish one level determines the time you’ll have for the next one; it does make some sense — how disgusting.

    The sounds in the game are funny and clever; the stereo music is excellent accompaniment (though I often turn it down since it can heighten the excitement to a dizzying pitch). The colorful 3-D graphics are so good, they must be seen to be appreciated. The package calls the raceway screens “Escher-like”; I agree. Maybe Rube Goldberg and Dr. Seuss-like too. But, they have been dressed with a twisted, carnival fun-house feel that, along with the sound, very successfully creates a madcap atmosphere. Bozoville! Marble Madness gets a gold star in the visual category. In overall design, it is probably the most consistent micro arcade game I have seen.

    The game does have a few shortcomings. The levels each take a long time to load. (It does, however, give you time to regain your sanity before the next screen.) It is too bad that you have to go back to the beginning level every time the clock runs out, and start again from scratch. The game, like most arcade games in general, is sort of designed around this approach. You can’t save a game or pause the action (my main complaint — what if the phone rings!); at least the instructions don’t say so if you can. I found that playing with two players was confusing and not as much fun as alone. Also, I found the mouse to be the most accurate means of control — quite a bit better than with a joystick (I don’t have a track ball), and two players using mice presents a logistical problem.

    Rubber-nose (or room) Award
    Marble Madness is a tremendous micro action game, and surely one of the best — if not the best — arcade games for any microcomputer. It is rivalled at this time in the category of Amiga games only by a few others, such as Commodore’s Mindwalker. It is a “set piece” in challenging, zany, goofy, animated microcomputer entertainment. If you only buy a handful of games for your Amiga, Marble Madness should be one of them.


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