Marble Madness is a one or two player simultaneous race against the clock through six brief courses. The goal is simple, make it from the start to the finish line at the end. Since the game is so brief, between five and ten minutes through each run, your remaining time from one course gets carried over to the next where you’re given more time at the beginning. There are a few wands that will appear to give you more time. After the six courses, the game keeps you going from the first course again as you gain a higher score.
Since the game was born in the arcade and its one of the only games that let you play as what you’re controlling, a sphere. The original arcade game used a track ball, but here for the NES port, you’re using the D-pad. When you start the game, you select a control scheme of 90 degrees or 45. Its a tough game to control. You have a button for speed, but your momentum can send you off a cliff if you’re careless. The momentum plays a part in rolling down inclines and heading up slopes. It does a great job of creating physics.
You never really die in the game. Every time your marble falls down a pit, gets eaten by an enemy or breaks, it just respawns. The time it takes to respawn is just time off your clock. The game is set in an isometric play land, everything zigs and zags at right angles. Hitting a wall will bounce you off. Falling will daze your marble, but at too great of height it will break the marble.
On the NES, the game is bright and colorful. It sounds amazing and the music is some of the most memorable on the system, but it has to be for such a short game. Controlling with the D-pad can begin to grind away at your fingers, even with the grounded edges.
Its tough to find something to talk about with a game so short outside of discussing each of the courses. Its a challenging game, mostly for the controls and learning how to work with the momentum. There are a top ten list of high scores to keep you playing, but other than that, this is a basic arcade game with no frills. To really pad out the game, you enter your name before the game begins, each time.
The first course is short and sweet to help you get used to the controls. Guardrails keep you from flying off in key parts. There are trenches to guide you and berms to keep less experienced players from falling off the course, but let the more experienced players ramp off of them to alternate paths.
The second course turns everything blue and offers more of a challenge. Enemies, a hydrollic bridge, walls, and down slopes will really introduce you to what the game is all about. Half-way through the course, there is a branch that lets you chose between a shorter, rough path or a longer easy path. Its at the end of this course and every course after that Marble Madness makes you earn your victory. In this case its some sort of pit after rolling through a bowl. You need momentum to get through the bowl, but too much will fly you into a gap after it.
The third course offers acid enemies that are easy to fall into. The enemies in the second course were more forgiving, because they didn’t just eat you when you touch them. Instead with the green worms, you can bounce into them and they still have to jump on you to eat you. The black enemy marbles can ram you and bounce you around, but the puddles of acid just dissolve you.
The challenge in this course comes at the end with a fork in the path. There’s a longer path that is by no means easier. You need to roll down a narrow slope and then roll up a different hill of a ramp. Both have a pit and a wall next to them. Bump into the wall and it sends you flying into the pit. As for the shorter path, I’d wager that it is easier. You roll on a smooth broad plane, that has wave ripples to throw you off of the edge. Its a quick path, and getting caught by a ripple can prevent you from making it to the narrow exit path.
With the fourth course, its all about catching air. The course starts you off riding down a ramp and shooting you off a narrow path to the course below. There’s a catapult that launches you to the first real branch of the course. This path forces you to chose between a longer, easier route or a path full of pistons that will launch or block you. Launching you into the air can either dace you or break your marble, so I recommend the longer path.
This course makes good use of the three dimensional look of the isometric view. There are ramps, jumps, bridges and underpasses. Its nice visually. At the end is probably the most daunting challenge of the game, the hammers. These hammers block your marble or will unfairly knock it off the edge. The hammers feel random, so it seems like luck to get past them.
As for the fifth, its the only course that you need to head uphill from the bottom to the top. Its a much needed change in a game without much diversity. It of course offers a different challenge, because when you go up hill and almost make it, that only costs you more time when you need to roll back down, get more momentum and charge back up again. What would be normal flat paths in other courses are now rough terrain, forcing you to really cling to a path rather than just roll on it. The entire course seems inverted. Fat lanes have narrow gaps between them, when the norm is narrow paths with wide gaps.
The final course looks to be set in space itself with stars in the background. It has narrow areas with enemies, when the previous courses always had big areas for enemies. The end forces you to jump narrow gaps to thin paths and its a real challenge, but it has to be when the game is so short.
Marble Madness is still a legendary classic because of how unique it is. Its still a game you can pick up and play for an almost instant challenge. The NES port feels like the best. Its the music, and the colors that make it stand out from all the others.