Marble Madness

Original version: Marble Madness, released in 1984 for arcade

Did you ever play with marbles as a child? I did, but one day I lost all my marbles. Anyway, I’m going to show you Marble Madness today, as you no doubt surmised by the title of this article. Atari had a really good year in 1984, pumping out tons of innovative and interesting titles such as Paper Boy; I, Robot; and many others. If only such innovation had come in 1982 or ’83….

It’s a good thing that the Czar didn’t remove Atari completely from the arcade business, because in the depths of the video game crash, the arcade seemed to be all they had. 1984 seemed to be in general a great year for innovation in the arcade industry, and this is a great example of it. Marble Madness was the brainchild of then-freshman Mark Cerny, who would later go on to help design the PlayStation 4. His first game was an arcade game called Major Havoc. His role was minor–he joined the team when the game was already a year into development and he only designed a few levels. After the release of Major Havoc Cerny went to work on his first creation, Marble Madness.

It’s funny how usually the most memorable arcade games from the ’80s are the games that lack shooting, and yet developers continued to saturate the market with shooters. From 1984, I can recall off the top of my head 1942, Dough Boy, Skyfox, and Bank Panic–all shooters, all completely forgotten (OK, so maybe a few gamers remember 1942, but only because it was the first of a long-running series). Cerny did something different by making a game that has the player control a rolling marble.

Specifically, you have to roll a marble down an obstacle course that wouldn’t be too different from a mini-golf course as designed by M.C. Escher. In fact, mini-golf and Escher paintings were the two primary influences for the game’s level design.





See the resemblance?

There are only six stages in the game, although its difficulty makes six more than enough. Especially with the fifth stage being a backwards stage that makes you roll the ball uphill instead of down (which I never get to in this video). Have a watch:


So, it’s pretty difficult. I am really glad that there is no life limit in addition to the already difficult time limit. You have to control the marble with, fittingly enough, a trackball. (Atari’s version was called Trak-Ball, because of course it was. If there were two things Atari liked, they were novel controllers, and names without spaces.) A trackball peripheral was never manufactured for the NES, so players had to use their regular D-Pad. This made the game no easier, of course. Originally, Cerny wanted the game to have a motorized trackball that would resist movement while the marble was moving uphill, and to spin faster when it was going downhill. Unfortunately (or fortunately, now that I think about it), the technical team informed Cerny that a motorized trackball would be inherently flawed and so a regular trackball would have to do. Atari’s new policy following the crash of ’83 was to focus on novel control schemes (Paper Boy was controlled with bike handles, for example) and a motorized trackball would have fit the bill, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

As far as complexity goes, this one isn’t up there on the list. The gameplay concept is quite simple, but what really sets Marble Madness apart is its presentation. To start off with, you’re playing as a sentient marble (or maybe you’re piloting it?). You roll down the practice course pretty easily, and the upbeat music is comforting. But as you progress through the game, it gets madder and madder. Enemies appear. The first enemy is just a black marble (this world contains good and evil marbles!?) but subsequent enemies become more and more surreal. There are scurrying tubes that will prey on and eat you, there are moving puddles of acid that will dissolve you, and there are vacuum cleaners that will disintegrate you. Are the vacuum cleaners alive? If not, then who is operating them? Who is trying to stop you on your quest? What even is your quest!? The already trippy music becomes frenetic and discomforting, the colors and layouts of the stages clash and intimidate! The eerie atmosphere is too much!

Man, that was some decade.


If you own a Marble Madness arcade cabinet you can download a backup rom here and play it with MAME.

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