I’m amazed we’ve never mentioned this game in any context before. Immensely popular, a staple of our retro gaming bringing up, Marble Madness did so much with so little but how has it stood the test of time? Only one man who can find out and that is our Andy (UKNESBoy).
There is always a certain challenge in reviewing a game that may resonate on a personal level, trying to be as objective as you can without straddling into the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia that envelope us all. It could be that it was the first give you played on a certain console, a certain game played with a loved one or even a game you played with a best bud that you would share a big bowl of popcorn with and swore you’d be best friends forever only to realise a few years later that love is lost and you went separate ways. Whatever the reason, reviewing a game that is personal is a mini-Everest which we will tackle today, and a game for myself that holds dear even to this day. Although there are memories of a certain moustachioed plumber running round jumping on blocks, the first game to be delved into properly was Marble Madness, originally an arcade hit in 1984 but ported to the NES later. How does this game fare today, fine as Italian Marble or drive you to Madness?
Marble Madness is a platform game with which you guide your marble through various levels in order to get to the finish line before the on-screen timer runs out. It really is as straight-forward as that, with no mini-bosses, end-bosses or long-drawn out ending sequences in order to complete the game. Standing in your way between you and marble-greatness are certain enemies that will do anything to disrupt the flow of your marble and stop your progress. These enemies take the forms of hammers and spikes and ranging through to pools of acid waiting to dissolve the marble. The greatest enemy it can be argued is your own skill, as there are times you need tight controls and reflexes akin to a feral squirrel hunting its nuts to get to the end.
When the game is booted up, you have the option to play either by yourself or if you’re lucky enough to have someone sitting by your side, to play with them. The beauty of the multiplayer feature here is that unlike other games that had two player features on the NES, rather than waiting for each person to complete a level before you get the opportunity to have your go, you both play at the same time on screen. If one player gets to the edge of the screen before the other, the loser marble is teleported to where winning marble is located but loses 5 seconds off their time as a result. Prize for the winner? 5 seconds added on to your time before the start of the next level, so the competitive element is alive and well there. As well, when you start the game you get to choose your name but restricted to 6 letters so be as imaginative with your name, obscene and all as much as you like. You then get to choose the control type, choosing from of two – 45 degrees or 90 degrees. The game then starts, and with the levels becoming more difficult the further in you go, it certainly is a game where it gets easier with experience and enjoy it nonetheless.
The controls for the game are as straight-forward as they come, and feel very fluid and responsive. All you need is the d-pad on the controller to move your marble – arcade versions of the game had a rollerball which was better however with the lack of this option on the NES controller, you’ll have to make do with jamming down on the controller’s d-pad. As noted earlier, there is two different control schemes to choose from, a 45 and a 90 degree angle. The main difference is that with the 90 degree angle, the marble will go in the direction of the d-pad. For example, pressing down on the d-pad will make your marble go down, and whichever direction your d-pad faces. The 45 degree angle, the control is slightly different so for example if you press down on the d-pad, your marble goes down-left, and pressing the right d-pad makes the marble go downwards. It is a lot simpler playing at a 90 degree angle but if you like a challenge then you knows which option to pick. Graphically, the game looks bold with a rich palette of colours that jump out from the screen – not literally of course. Later levels have features such as unorthodox colours and polka dots which keep the graphics fresh and fun without taking itself too seriously. Music/SFX? This game has you covered, with an upbeat funky score in it’s 8-bit pomp and circumstance so need to reach for your TDK-90 full of euro pop to blast out whilst playing.
Looking back, is Marble Madness a game worth being your first gaming memory on the NES? Is it worth picking up a copy nowadays? On both counts, absolutely unequivocally yes with no hint of personal preference there at all. The gameplay is simple yet effective, fun whilst helping you improve your reflexes and concentration. It doesn’t take long in the slightest to reach the later levels so you don’t have to backtrack a great deal of time to try and improve how you fared with these more challenging levels. There isn’t a password system or back-up save on the cartridge however by persevering you will certainly be able to complete the game in a short amount of time. If you have a spare thirty minutes or so and didn’t want to start or continue an in-depth title, Marble Madness certainly has you covered and is a gem of a title for the NES collection. With the two player option as well there is no need for your friend to look on with jealousy that they aren’t getting a turn, and allows your competitive edge to shine through. To pick up a copy in the wild nowadays is a relatively easy affair and one that is friendly to your wallet, so if you haven’t done so already then do check it out, you would be suffering from “madness” not to……….
All screenshots from Moby Games