Over the last fifteen years, obstacle-course-themed games have risen in popularity. This is due primarily to the popularity of the Super Monkey Ball series that really kicked the genre into mainstream overdrive in the mid-2000’s. However, games like it have been part of gaming for years up to that point. In fact, it could be argued that in many ways obstacle courses go back decades to titles like the platformer Pitfall and even Frogger. However, the niche has drifted in and out of popularity over the decades and more recently the Trials and Trackmania series have brought the risk-encouraging gameplay to the world of motor racing. Yet, the classic title that can be most closely-attributed to inspiring these modern games is probably Mark Cerny’s Marble Madness, which was first released to arcades by Atari in 1984 and set the standard for the crazy time trial courses so prevalent in the subgenre.
The original cabinet used an intuitive trackball which was not uncommon to arcade machines at the time but felt more natural here than any just about any other game that implemented it. It was flawed-but-fun and remained one of the most resilient arcade games of the 80’s. As if to prove its popularity, Marble Madness was ported to just about every major system from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s. From PC’s to consoles, Marble Madness was everywhere! However, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to solely review the NES port of the game published by Milton Bradley in 1989; it is WedNESday, after all.
From the start one will notice that the game is very true to the arcade original. The resolution is lower and the audio is of a poorer-quality but it is nearly beat-for-beat the same game, which is both a blessing and a curse. What made Marble Madness challenging in its day was the isometric perspective, and this was fine when a trackball was used, however in the case of the NES, the directional pad can make things a little awkward. You are given an option at the start of the game to choose between 90° or 45° modes which affect the orientation of the controls, and depending on who you ask either one works and the qualities of each are entirely subjective (I always went with 45° myself; which oriented the controls to match the diagonal movement across the isometric field). Alternatively, if you have one, an NES Advantage joystick works very well for this game in either mode.
Marble Madness is famous for its insane level design. The races are filled with unique traps, many of which only appear once in the entire game. This made every stage entirely unique and each obstacle had their own behaviors and consequences. Pistons would fire out of the floor and launch you into the air or off the track, marble-melting acid pools move chaotically in tight spaces, sadistic birds fly diagonally from your position that require careful navigation to avoid, disappearing bridges force a flawless crossing and a notorious carpet uses waves to push the marble along a path for a high-risk shortcut. All of these obstacles require you to chose your path wisely because time is short, but having the option to take a more dangerous route to save a few seconds added a distinct challenge and risk/reward element to the game.
There really is not much in terms of power-ups aside from a notorious magic wand that freezes the marble in place then grants the player a few additional seconds on the clock, seemingly at random. This is usually not a big deal though in the final stage a Magic Wand can result in ending your run because you end up losing more time than you actually gain. However, it is also known for stunning the marble at inopportune times, so by the time the game returns control to the player, their fate is sealed if they happen to be in the path of a dangerous obstacle. So, lacking any form of real player-support, Marble Madness is purely skill-based. Shortcuts, dangerous skips and tricky tactics can help you improve your time each playthrough until you can nail that perfect run, but that is about all you have at your disposal.
Marble Madness is essentially just an arcade experience, and on the NES it is more of a pick-up-and-play title as opposed to a more involved, complex experience such as The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. The goal is to improve on your previous run, not to complete some grand quest. If this sort of quick-fix experience is not your thing, chances are you will not find this to be a great title. However, I actually quite enjoy it. The main gripe I can come up with is due to the game’s isometric design, the strange shapes of the floor and obstacles can be difficult for new players to discern and may send your orbicular avatar rolling and spinning here and there. But it is a learning experience and over time players can resolve these challenges with consistency. It is also an extremely short game and can be knocked out from beginning to end in under five minutes. I would go so far as to argue it is one of the shortest games of quality on the NES if not of all time.
On a collector’s note, NES’ Marble Madness is a very common game and is extremely easy to get a hold of for a cheap price, sometimes being as low as $1 depending on the seller. Chances are anyone who has browsed stacks of NES carts at a retail store specializing in used games or a local pawn shop has come past a copy of this game. It is ubiquitous to the point of infamy. I would say if you do not have it and are a collector, outside of sheer disinterest there really shouldn’t be much holding you back from picking a cart up. It is a fairly decent game and after some initial frustration subsides, can be a fun challenge for retro gamers.