Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
In 1984, Atari Games released an arcade cabinet entitled Marble Madness that let players use a trackball to guide an on-screen sphere through isometric tracks. This innovative video game quickly became among the most successful arcade hits of all time, soon leading to ports to home consoles, including Milton Bradley publishing the Nintendo Entertainment System version in 1989 as developed by Rare.
After inputting a name and selecting a control scheme, one of which had the directional pad used intuitively (down moves down, right moves right, etc.) and the other tilting toward diagonal favor (the down-right was now down, down was now down-left, etc.), one or two players would then guide their marble through the levels in an effort to beat the time limit. Remaining seconds were cumulatively added to the next race, to a maximum of 99 seconds, with a score being tallied as well. Along with the directional pad, the other controller input was pressing the A button for a speed burst.
Bonus points and time gains could be given for performing certain gameplay feats, such as defeating the enemies that appeared on some courses, or taking alternate routes. If the timer ever ran down to 0, it was Game Over, and if you beat all six tracks, you got to see your name hit the High Rollers high score chart.
The isometric view was always a graphical treat on the NES, offering one of the closest simulations of three dimensions available with the then-current technology. Each course had a distinctive look and feel to it, with their elements painted in a certain range of hues, and featuring unique obstacles to each course, such as the ramp jump at the beginning of the Ultimate Race level six, or the randomly appearing hammers at the end of Aerial Race track four that could spoil an otherwise good run.
The arcade unit was renowned for its great audio, with the first appearance of true stereo sound on the gaming scene. Although the Nintendo Entertainment System version of Marble Madness may have been considered a step down in quality, it still rocked some nice tunes and offered solid effects. The synth beats over simulated bass on the soundtrack provided memorable, almost earworm-worthy tracks for each level.
Marble Madness was a quirky, unique little game on every console it appeared on, only continuing to blaze the trail it began in the arcades. It was not quite a racing game, not quite a puzzle game, and not quite a platformer, and offering a two-player mode was icing on the competitive cake. Retro gamers still vie for high scores and speed runs, with truly impressive tool-assisted videos available for public consumption as well.
Although it was not for everyone, Marble Madness was undeniably one of the more unique NES titles, giving players a gameplay experience not quite like any other. It did have one glaring flaw, though, and that was its remarkably short playtime: With a maximum of 99 seconds given per every level (and that is only if a particular level is done absurdly quickly to begin with, not nearly using the 99), and six tracks in total, anyone can do the math and figure out and even a moderate completion takes less than ten minutes, often around five. Once the challenge of mastering each track’s route was done, this became merely a vessel for attaining further goals, or competitive runs against friends. Even with a depth issue, though, Marble Madness remains a great video game with intuitive controls, good soundtrack, unique gameplay experience, fun two-player mode, and a vestigial homage to an arcade classic worth three and a half stars out of five.