Together Retro: Marble Madness
Presented by: Fastbilly1, Marurun, & Racketboy
New To Together Retro? Check out the introduction to the club
Welcome to a fresh installment of the Together Retro Game Club. After a full month with the classic RPG, Lunar Silver Star Story, we’re going back in time to a game that is essentially a genre in itself — Marble Madness.
“I designed a game that I’d want to play so you’d want to play it.” Mark Cerny – Designer/Programmer
When a game uses a quote like that to advertise, you should know they either have a lot of faith in their product or are foolish. Atari took this exact route in 1984 when they released Marble Madness to the world, and boy did it work. Marble Madness has a very simple concept, an insane difficulty spike, and great controls. All of this makes for one of the greatest arcade games of all time. At first it may seem like simply rolling a ball through a series of mazes before time runs out, but after a few rounds it reveals itself to be something much more. Featuring six stages of isometric labyrinths full of traps you never would expect, Marble Madness really does live up to its name. From the straight forward first stage, to the obviously Escher-inspired sixth, the game will keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire ride.
Built for the Atari System 1 line of arcade hardware, Marble Madness was in good company. You may know the Atari System 1 for other great titles such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Peter Packrat and Gauntlet’s 1 & 2 (the Gauntlets use a more advanced form of the hardware). It also utilized dual trackballs so two players can play at once. In a brilliant move, however, which may have been a first in arcade history, the cabinet allows the player to use either set of controls to play a single player game. That is a complex way of saying that you can play either colour as a single player game.
Why is this important? The game is murder on the controls and more often than not the player one set is blown. Attention to details like this is what made the game unique at the time. That and the fact that it remains one of the best games of its kind. Sure it has its spinoffs: Gyroscope, Airball, Monkeyball, Kororinpa, etc, but the genre was defined and is still best represented by Marble Madness. There was a sequel in development, possibly reaching the test cabinet stage, with a lot of neat features (3 player), it was never released. Many believe the sudden influx of Street Fighter clones is what killed it. This may be true, but to this day there is no report of even a leaked ROM of the mythical game.
As Marble Madness was born into the arcade the best way to play it is on the original hardware. This is not because the ports are bad, but they just can’t match the arcade controls. Adapting a trackball scheme to a d-pad or joystick is possible but the feel is very different. Unfortunately dedicated Marble Madness machines are about as rare as Pong machines. The intensity of the game was murder on the trackballs. The expense of replacing them caused the game to become very rare only a few years after its release. I have attended many arcade auctions and have never seen one, not even a broken one. This means original hardware is right out for those of you with bottoms to your pockets. Luckily for you you can replicate the feel on your computer fairly easily with a trackball mouse/controller and our good friend MAMEUI (it supports trackballs in the options).
If you would prefer to go the black and white route your best options are either the Commodore64 port or the Midway Arcade Treasure port (those who have been with us since the beginning may remember this compilation from our time with Defender). Why the Commodore port, you may ask? It was a very close port gameplay-wise and featured trackball controllers. While the NES port is probably the most available version the d-pad is a far cry from a trackball (the joystick is a better choice but not by much).
Marble Madness Remakes
In the world of remakes there is only one you should look for. Rolling Madness 3D is a beautiful recreation of the arcade version in Open GL. It is pretty, plays very similarly to the original, and adds some neat features like full 3D and different “skins” for the game worlds. Whichever path you choose you will be frustrated but that is part of the game.
Emulation for Marble Madness
Since there are various ports of Marble Madness, there are also various ways to emulate them. If you need assistance setting up any emulator, please post your question in the Emulation section of the forum.
As we mentioned above, if you are going to be emulating the arcade version for the most authentic experience, you might want to look into using a trackback controller (like X-Arcade’s) or trackball mouse (see Amazon.com’s listing of devices)
How To Play Marble Madness
The controls in Marble Madness are pretty straighforward, but it takes a lot of practice to master. I’ve included scans of a few pages from the NES port’s manual for some info and illustrations. (Check out full Marble Madness NES Manual)
Together Retro Goals & Discussion
Instead of posting in the comments section of the blog, we will be using the forum for all of our discussion in order to keep things more organized. So play Marble Madness and talk to us about your thoughts and play experiences in the forums. We want to know your tactics, your strategies, your successes and your failures.