Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Marble Madness

Year: 1984
Developer: Atari Games
Publisher: Atari Games
Platform: Arcade (originally); ported to numerous platforms; currently available on PC, iOS
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

Life is full of simple pleasures and gaming is no exception.  The gaming industry loves to get worked up over big AAA titles and the drive for greater immersion in games, but there's plenty of what we now deem "casual" titles vying for our attention.  There's a tendency to view these games with scorn, citing their simple mechanics or limited depth as evidence that our hobby is being dumbed down to appeal to players lacking the skills to play "hardcore" games.  To those people, I humbly present Marble Madness.  This is a game without story, plot or even any characters and whose gameplay is based on a simplistic board game popular since the 19th century.  With only six levels and no save feature, it's a game designed specifically with casual play in mind and a skilled player can beat it in under 5 minutes.  It's also one of the most challenging video games ever created and is probably responsible for an entire landfill's worth of broken controllers.

You'd think watching your marble shatter from too high a drop would be a warning to treat your controller well, but it only serves to further enrage you
Developed in the wake of the Great Crash of '83, Marble Madness wasn't exactly meant to be Atari's next killer app, but to push their new emphasis on more lucrative specialized controllers and simultaneous two-player gameplay.  Marble Madness fulfilled both these goals by making use of Atari's new trackball device and allowing two players to compete with each other at the same time.  Luckily the head designer was Mark Cerny, lead system architect on the recently revealed PS4, and as a result gamers got a game that was both challenging and addictive in it's brilliantly executed simplistic design.  Players take control of a marble and try to race through a simple isometrically viewed maze before the timer runs out.  You're given 60 seconds to make it through all six levels, but each time you finish a level you get some time added back onto your total.  The levels themselves are 2D polygonal drawings heavily inspired by the work of M.C. Escher to give the illusion of 3D graphics.  The levels are populated with various traps and enemies (and possibly a second player) that can impede your progress or bust your marble, causing a significant time penalty.  Speed is the name of the game here, as a faster finish rewards you with a higher bonus score and more time to take on the remaining levels.  Since you only have a set amount of time to complete the whole game, each level is a nerve-wracking battle between your desire to get there as quickly as possible while patiently navigating the course to avoid costly time penalties.  With a second marble thrown into the mix and a 5 second bonus going to whoever wins each race, two-player mode can ruin a friendship if you succumb to the marble's madness.

Roving pools of acid will dissolve your marble to dust, costing you precious seconds while you regenerate
Despite the humble origins, Marble Madness stands as a notable entry in the history of gaming.  It was one of the first games to use stereo sound and had a composed soundtrack.  It was the first Atari game programmed in C, whereas most games were written directly in assembly up into the 1990's.  It was also one of the first games to use 3D elements convincingly by combining perspective drawings with ray tracing to create levels that gave the illusion of depth and height.  When it first debuted in arcades, Marble Madness generated so much interest that the trackballs would break down from overuse.  Ports were launched on every system imaginable, including the NES version most of us are familiar with that has some of the weirdest credits of any video game.  Milton Bradley (yes, that Milton Bradley) got the license from Atari through their quasi-legal subsidiary Tengen, which is why their name appears in the title credits.  Even though they aren't credited anywhere, the game was actually developed by Rare who would go on to make the similar Snake, Rattle n' Roll for the NES.  Other ports of varying quality were produced for the Apple II, DOS, Sega Mega Drive, Genesis, Windows, Amiga, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Gameboy (and later Gameboy Advance) and many more, most of which were published by Electronic Arts (who currently holds the rights).  While most of these ports were forced to ditch the trackball in favor of the inferior d-pad controls standard to most consoles, they at least gave players a bevy of ways to get their marbles rolling.    

A short but impossibly challenging game is the perfect recipe for arcade success, but in 1984 the arcade scene was in its death throes.  The Atari 2600 signaled the rise of the home console domination of the market, giving the first taste of a future where video games could be enjoyed from the comfort of your own couch.  While most arcade ports to the 2600 were vastly inferior to their arcade counterparts, it was still clear that soon the technology would catch up enough to close the gap.  When the NES arrived Stateside in 1985 that promise would be fulfilled, but in the meantime Atari was still focused on the arcade.  They sold over 4,000 Marble Madness cabinets in the first 6 months while interest peaked and the game became the highest-earning cabinet in most arcades.  But then demand suddenly dropped as gamers grew bored of the limited number of courses.  

Though few in number, the levels got progressively harder by adding more challenging obstacles and increasing the complexity of the mazes
The desire for fresh games may represent one of the earliest impacts of the growing impact of the home market.  Arcade games had traditionally been very short and incredibly hard since they were specifically designed to scam kids out of their quarters.  Donkey Kong was just 4 screens that repeated until it overloaded the memory and glitched out, but it still made over half a billion dollars in it's first two years of release saving Nintendo of America from insolvency.  But by 1984 gamers weren't content playing the same few levels for years on end and the arcade profits dried up.  That same year, Atari was split in two with the gaming division taking over existing rights and software development while the hardware division began producing new consoles.  They released a flurry of consoles and home computers over the next two years, some of which competed against each other but the crown jewel was supposed to be the $1000 Atari ST.  That went about as well as you'd imagine, but it was the only Atari system to get a port of Marble Madness.  Ports on other systems saw better sales but most of those were published by Electronic Arts and developed by outside studios so Atari only would have received a flat licensing fee.

Definitely, but don't expect developers to race the clock in bringing it to market.  Atari released the game on iOS as part of a massive collection in 2011, but shows no interest in a standalone title.  EA was developing a spiritual successor to the game that also included the original levels, but quietly slipped passed it's 2010 release and has been unheard of since which could suggest licensing disputes.  It's too bad, because the trackball controls and gameplay mechanics are a great fit for tablets.  New levels with updated designs would greatly add to the games appeal, you could even incorporate tilt-based controls to give more depth to the mechanics.  But given how many different studios released various ports over the years it wouldn't be much of a surprise if the game turns out to be a legal hornets nest.  

Other versions of the game that have already been released are available on PS2, Xbox, GameCube and PC in the form of the Midway Arcade Treasures collection.  The title is misleading since it actually contains multiple games never published by Midway, including Marble Madness.  And while that port was developed by an outside studio Midway had contracted, it was actually just a compilation of three arcade collections the studio had developed earlier for SNES, Playstation and PC.  At the time Midway owned both Williams and Atari, but since then Atari has been sold and resold multiple times and just last month filed for bankruptcy.  Don't mourn too long, because the brand has already died many deaths and will likely be resurrected once again.  But when Lazarus rises again from his pit, it's unclear if he'll bring Marble Madness with him.  

Choose the right path and you will shave a little time off your run, but choose poorly and you'll be stuck in development hell while lawyers wrangle over your publishing rights.  
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!  

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