Marble Madness

Marble Madness is a game that many have heard about, but few have actually played. It was an early hit by superstar developer Mark Cerny, back in his Atari days. Arcade audiences were enamored with the game’s easy-to-grasp concept and high skill ceiling. Ports to home computers and consoles were inevitable, of which I own the NES version.

The premise of Marble Madness is that you control a marble that has to roll through perilous stages to reach a finish line. These levels are inspired by the paintings of M.C. Escher; presenting players with confusing perspectives and surprises aplenty. Sudden drops, slippery surfaces, traps, and impossible transitions are all obstacles you’ll have to deal with. That, and a supply of marble-hungry enemies that’ll try to ruin your day.

Besides being inspired, the level design is also devilish. You’ll have to roll along narrow paths with winding turns, often at great speed to overcome slopes or make jumps. Enemy placement is also cruel with no real way to retaliate against them. It’s a fun challenge that, sadly, becomes annoying due to its punishment.

Each level is on a timer and these are tight. Even after practicing levels a few times and memorizing their layouts, I often still made it to the end with only a couple seconds to spare. That’s not good enough though. Any time you have left is then carried over into the next stage with only a few seconds added on top. Barely making it in time on one level means you’ll have even less room on the next. At one point you’re going to arrive in some crazy long stage with all kinds of new gimmicks, which you’ll have 25 seconds to beat in its entirety. Madness indeed.

Marble Madness is designed for you to fail. You’ll have to grind out those early levels to perfection, literally just so you have enough time to then stand a chance on subsequent ones. It encourages a playstyle whereby you are always rushing. It’s better to make mistakes while going fast than to actually take your time to navigate obstacles. And… I kinda hated that.

Playing Marble Madness with Game Genie is, by far, the superior experience. Turn off the timer and suddenly it feels like an entirely different game. You can take your time, you can appreciate the level design and animations. Best of all, it takes the frustration out of the experience. You can just zen out and enjoy rolling your marble around. Without having to fret about every little mistake costing you precious seconds that could damn the entire run. Unless you are trying to set a genuine highscore, there’s no reason not to do this.

The downside is that this leaves you with a very short game. Marble Madness was clearly designed on the presumption that you’d replay levels over and over again. As good as those levels are, there are only 6 of them in total; none of which are very long. With Game Genie, you can beat the game in 10-15 minutes even on your first time through.

Nowadays, I’d say that runtime isn’t too big of a deal anymore. I had a great time with the game, more so on my Game Genie run, and I’d recommend it to retro enthusiasts who have yet to check it out. I can’t understate how impressive the game looks for an NES title. The 3D environments, the physics, the cute animations. Barring the lack of a trackball, it’s a darn good port of the arcade version.

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