Marble Madness (1989)
I’m not exactly sure when those stubborn little roundy things called marbles were at the height of their popularity, but as ever, the Wikipedia page on the subject throws up a huge amount of information. Did you know that over 12 million of the little fellas are produced daily? Call me cynical, but I’m sure that even with an automated process, we could put that manpower and raw material into some other, far more worthy venture. Like perhaps the materials involved in making marbles could be used to put a big roof on those sly Icelandic volcanoes. Or maybe they could be used in creating power suits for when those same robots follow Skynet’s example and turn bad – they’re tough enough little objects, after all. Another repository of marble info and goodness, landofmarbles.com, tells us of various “fun” marble games that deprived children can play. The site, well worth checking out for its wonderful GeoCities throwback design, shows us via crude 1980s schoolbook diagrams how to play Puggy, Skelly, Bunhole, and my personal favourite based on its name, Boss-Out.
Still, what’s the point? You won’t find marbles anymore in the schoolyards or on the street corners, both of which being time-honoured barometers of how socially acceptable any given fad is. Kids these days would sooner be rolling marbles on their tablet screen than condescending to roll them by hand, and who could blame them? In any case, what these sites don’t tell us is just how aggravating it is to tread bare-footed on a stray little blighter – a sliding-scale Wikipedia table of its pain yield alongside solitary Lego bricks, cast-off earrings and upturned plugs would have been ideal. But whatever about it, I think marbles are something that nobody was ever really into. If you find one marble, two marbles, or even a collection of marbles to use the proper phrase, you might be enthused by them for about five minutes before returning to more productive and profitable leeesurely pursuits.
I can’t say I know much about marbles myself – the only marbles I’ve ever had, I’ve lost countless times. Still, they must have enjoyed some form of popularity to have had an arcade game based around them. It may have been way back in that frightening dark age (or so I hear) called the ‘early to mid eighties’, when pop culture of that decade was still finding its feet – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Commando, Predator and Rocky IV were all distant marks on the horizon, but at least Duran Duran had released Rio. Hobbies back then didn’t stretch much beyond throwing stones at passing cars and visiting dangerous building sites, but I tell you what – the arcades were full. And the kingpins of the arcade, they even crowded to this particular Atari-developed game called Marble Madness, notable for having a trackball to control the lead character (in this case, a feisty azure marble) and an honest-to-God soundtrack, which was pretty big beans back then.
The game was simplicity itself: it’s a race against time to get your marble to the finish line, which is typically downhill through an colourful Excel spreadsheet made 3-D. You’ve got to compete against hills and pits, but falling off the sides or getting struck by any of the large variety of enemies (for its time, at least) is only really a slap on the wrist – in an unusual show of forgiveness from an 80s arcade game, cocking it up just sets you back a few seconds. Still, this can really cost you if you keep mucking about because you’re really up against it timewise. Your remaining time is carried over between levels, which means you’ll need to be consistently clever to avoid being shown up as a marble dummy in front of all your peers. It presents an interesting challenge – important for a game that is designed to be finished in literally (yes, literally) less than five minutes.
Years later, this arcade smash received its big release on the now-dominant NES system. Well, it got releases on just about everything, as was the style at the time. Game Boy, Commodore 64, Amiga, Sega Master System, your fridge-freezer, the lot. Some ports were deemed to be vastly better than others, which really gets the mind wandering – I know even the development computers back then would have had about as much processor power as a house brick, but was it really that tough for some of the porters to get a moving marble, six whole stages and a rudimentary grasp on physics together and come up with a marketable game? The NES version is pretty solid, which is good because with the quality control that took place in the NES days you can never be too sure. I’m obviously too frightened to play it on the likes of some machine called the ‘X68000’, of course, in case I get marked out as one of those types, and people talk.
Yeah, you read that last bit right by the way – six stages to get through. That’s a bloody woegeous amount, you may say, but back then it was a supreme luxury. The Cranky Kongs that passed for gamers in those days were still getting used to games that had more than one screen and two colours. So you can imagine what sort of rush they must have felt when they saw this harbinger of doom called Marble Madness land in their arcades – like how I felt the first time the hormones caught hold of me and I finally realised what a female was, and what they were all about. I suppose you can only carry a game about moving marbles down a hurriedly coloured hill again and again can get tedious pretty quickly, but keeping the amount of levels and the time you have to complete them in tight changes proceedings completely. Marble Madness actually works, back then and to this day. It’s crazy, and I’m not sure how, but if you started adding more content, the game would simply stop working.
And that’s well and good, really, because the graphics and sound are puke. But, thrillingly, the game is absolutely undaunted by this. In actual fact, the further in you go, the worse the sounds, choons and honkey-tonk get and the more garish the courses become. This should objectively be a bad point, but I sort of begrudgingly admire the game for that. More about the graphics – they’re isometric, which I usually reserve an especially spiteful level of hatred for. But a game like this had to be free-dimensional, and it’s not actually so bad. Yes, the levels in their infinite squareness are an affront to your eyes (and eyes don’t come much more easily offended than mine), but you get wrapped up in just getting down to the finish line in time that these superficialities no longer matter.
And when you finally find out that holding the A button speeds your marble up, like I found out after an embarrassing amount of time, then the game completely changes again. As the game itself says, everything you know is wrong. It’s a terrific example of an old-fashioned, classic game. Completely forgotten about in this day and age, trapped in a time of primitive technology and hardly bursting with depth. But nobody who plays it even today could legitimately say that Marble Madness disappoints them. That’s what the test of time is all about.
07 September 2014