Hall of Fame Inductee
Original Release: 1984 (Arcade)
Designed by: Mark Cerny
Developed by: Atari
Published by: Atari
As video games were getting more complex during the 80s, it was still the games with the most simple ideas and gimmicks that made the most money. Marble Madness is one of those games that took money away from games that may have offered a more visual bang but didn’t have a lot of substance to them. However, despite it’s simple looking display (even compared to other games released at the time), Marble Madness employed some of the most sophisticated graphical, sound, and input devices available when it was released.
The concept of getting from point-A to point-B has been done so many times in video games that it wasn’t even considered innovative at the time of Marble Madness‘s release in 1984. However, what this game did differently is how it made players get from A to B. The idea of the game is to roll a marble on an isometric game field from the start to the finish before the time runs out. There are plenty of obstacles in the way and while players have unlimited lives at their disposal. There’s no penalty when the player’s ball gets destroyed; like if a ball gets destroyed by acid or if it falls off the playing field. The only thing is that as the ball is being reset, the timer is still ticking on the countdown clock. Once the timer runs out, it’s game over. Even though the game only boasts six levels, it’s tough to make it through all the levels before seeing the game over screen.
The game was an ambitious project for Atari although the company did not fully accommodate the full design that designer Mark Cerny would have hoped for. The game was designed with simultaneous two-player gameplay in mind. The game had briefly been similar to what you’d expect from a mini-golf game and then shifted towards looking like a racing game until the final design was ultimately settled on (which incorporates elements of the two original working ideas of getting a ball to the goal and a race against time).
The game had been designed with the idea that it would be supported with super-powered hardware but it wasn’t made available for the game. While Atari did make the Atari System 1 board available for the game, even that had limitations to Cerny’s anticipated design. Improvisations were made to work with the hardware as well as presenting a visual style that would make the game unique from others on the market. The mixture of an isometric perspective interlaced with a visual design influenced by M. C. Escher was used to enhance the visuals of the game and to also hide Cerny’s lack of artistic ability (although many would argue that Marble Madness is a visual work of art as it is).
The sounds used for the game aren’t spectacular but the game was the first one from Atari to use an FM sound chip which would allow for perfect synchronization of the sound produced with the gameplay. Unfortunately, there were limitations to this technology as it did cause some sound distortion. However, this issue affected Marble Madness less than other games that employed the same sound hardware setup.
The game was controlled by a trackball which, while not new, was still considerably unique. There was a plan to use a motorized trackball but due to hardware issues, the plan was scrapped for a much simpler model. It’s hard to imagine what the game would have been like had it been controlled by a joystick as the trackball feels more natural.
While the game became very popular in the arcades extremely quickly, it also suffered from a steep drop-off soon after its release. The biggest factor for this is the limited amount of gameplay available since the game was only six levels long. There was only so much one could do with the game before it would begin to feel old and tired.
Much like many of the popular arcade titles of the time, Marble Madness was ported over to the home market quite a bit throughout the 80s. However, unlike most of the games of its era, the most popular versions of Marble Madness were produced as handheld and tabletop LCD games made by Tiger Electronics. The game was ported over to many home consoles and computer systems. There were several computer versions of the game produced in 1986 including versions for the Apple II and the Commodore 64. A NES version was made in 1989 followed by one for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1991. 1991 also saw the release of a version for the Sega Genesis. In 1999, a port was published for the Nintendo Game Boy Color. The arcade version was released as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures compilation for the Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Gamecube, Sony Playstation, and Windows PCs.
There had been plans for a sequel titled Marble Man: Marble Madness 2 but it never left the prototype stage. Although the game had included much expanded gameplay, it had failed to capture the hearts of test audiences as it had bombed out of the testing trials.
However, the legacy of the game has lived on in spirit as there have been plenty of games that have taken the core concept and evolved upon Marble Madness‘s gameplay. Super Monkey Ball might be the most famous example as it uses much of the elements of Marble Madness but with a true 3D perspective.
Marble Madness is a game that has done very well considering that it was considered small potatoes against the arcade giants like Pac-Man as well as it never had a proper sequel. Yet, despite this, Marble Madness is one of the most famous games to come out of the golden age of arcades and is even recognized by non-gamers due to its imaginative design and unique presentation.