Have You Played… Marble Madness?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

As the debate about game difficulty seems to rear its sanctimonious head ever-more often, I always find it fascinating to look back at the puzzle games of the 1980s. They seemed to fall into two camps – explicitly easy, designed to be played and enjoyed, or murderously difficulty, designed to be utterly impossible for all of human kind. Marble Madness, at least to my 10 year old self, very firmly fell in the latter. Or so I thought.

It was a game of excruciating difficulty, as you attempted to use the woefully inept controls of your computer of choice – mine an Atari ST – to balance a twitchy ball on the narrowest of isometric obstacle courses (it was of course originally an arcade game, controlled with the more appropriate trackball). And attempt I did, over and over and over, until the first few levels were all I’d see when I closed my eyes, while the later levels would never be seen at all. Or, as it turns out I’ve now learned, would. Because Marble Madness was six courses long, and I had just never managed to complete the sixth course. I could get to it, just never get past it.

I was good at Marble Madness! I never knew.

Looking at screenshots is so incredibly evocative, my fingers twitching with muscle memories at the sight. The dodges, the learned patterns, the points of almost inevitable failure. And those green slinky worm things. The course designs, so simple and yet so outrageously distinctive, all look so immediately familiar thirty years later.

I spent so long with this, never knowing just how close I was to completion. Invent time travel so I can tell me.

30 Comments

  1. Da5e says:

    Ever play Marble Blast Ultra? That’s the only game I ever played that felt like a proper update to this.

  2. squirrelrampage says:

    Interesting historical tidbit: The game was made by Mark Cerny who also worked for Sega on Sonic 2 (among many others) and later was lead architect of the PS4.

  3. pookie101 says:

    Never heard of.. Oh the photo brings it back. *GLARES* May that game burn in hell

  4. Kefren says:

    I was playing this the other day (Amiga emulator). I love the music and strangely haunting atmosphere, though think I prefer Spindizzy (C64) overall link to c64-wiki.com.

    • Kefren says:

      I wish RPS had a regular retro game article. Nowadays the games play better than ever on PCs (being able to load in seconds, save snapshots whenever we want etc) – I’ve completed games on emulators that I never could back in the day.

      Here’s some I’d recommend. (Heck, I’d write about these all day.)

      SPECTRUM

      Cyclone – fly your helicopter, rescue people from the islands by winching them up, land when the cyclone comes near. Perfect mix of relaxing calm and panic. I was amazed at the graphics, how real they looked.

      Exolon – A lovely side-scrolling shooter with neat moves such as launching rockets from backpack. About positioning and timing. Felt like I was really assaulting a base.

      Knight Lore – Couldn’t believe the graphics. Played and played, game after game, amazed at the creepy dark world. Randomised elements. Completed it once.

      Turbo Esprit – real world. The first GTA. I often ignored the main game, just drove around, followed rules on traffic lights. Or went on a killing spree. Or did deliveries. Made my own rules. Turned down brightness on TV for night driving. Broke my heart that C64 version was rubbish and broken compared to Spectrum version.

      Target Renegade – beautiful music, good moves, perfect difficulty, felt like an action film. Played with a friend added to it. Game didn’t prevent you fighting each other – your own story.

      Honourable mentions: Robocop; Rolling Thunder (both good shooters – one with very limited movement, but filmic, fun weapons and surprising levels; one much more agile, ability to hide behind doors and crates, vertical sections).

      C64

      Antiriad – played and played. Completed. Great music. Two sides to the game – with and without power armour (best reveal I’d ever seen when you first find and put on the suit). Gradually upgrade suit, go from rock-throwing primitive to super-armoured flying warrior.

      Alleykat

      Boulder Dash – amazing world. Start thinking in terms of rocks falling. Level design amazing, required thought but fun to just attempt. Amoeba and diamond/rock level genius.

      Bruce Lee – lovely 2 player, lovely screen design, fun.

      Bubble Bobble – 2 player made it the best. Co-op, but rush for best fruits and goodies.

      Fairlight – I was blown away by music and graphics. Created a haunting atmosphere that stayed with me, far exceeded the gameplay.

      Friday The 13th – kept playing, felt like I was in my own horror film. Would turn down the brightness on TV to represent night. Mood continued in Lakeview Cabin

      Ghostbusters – I was running my own team. Went from calm and fun to incredibly tense. Every time I completed the game I could write down the code, use it next time, start with more money. First implementation of game+ I’d ever come across. (Remember – you couldn’t really save on tape C64 games; fiddly, very few games had the option).

      Great Escape – I was in that world. Exploring, trying things out, hiding from guards. Tension when I explored areas I shouldn’t be in, in case a guard came through the door. Safety in tunnels. Mono colours. Escaped but brought back, never had the right items.

      Green Beret – so hard you could be dead in seconds. Green beret with a knife. Ridiculous reflexes required; had to use a key for weapon, split second. Would smash joystick, then play again. Getting to level 2 was an air-punch moment.

      Kikstart 2 – music, calmnesss, creation, fun, atmosphere. Beautiful.

      Killed Until Dead – never played games like that before. Mysteries, spying, interviews, clues. Like Rocky Horror, like Miss Marple, funny and tense. Good enough I could put up with long load times.

      Nosferatu – atmosphere again. Mono graphics, creepy, music.

      Paperboy – music. Was a paperboy, immersed in that role. When made it to end of day assault course I was happy; if saw snowy scene then knew I’d done well.

      Paradroid – scary. Explored ships. Often hid, especially when in a basic unit. Resources – can’t survive long alone, but can’t stay in control – tougher the robot, the less time. So resources are time and the enemies, who are your life and your death. Smooth bas relief graphics, freedom to roam ship, power down levels when complete, tension when taking over. Only niggle was that droids shown by number, have to go into encyclopedia to see what look like. Made snap decisions as to who to control harder. Fixed in Amiga version, but C64 had more charm (and didn’t have Amiga’s annoying raiders).

      Rogue Trooper – atmosphere, mono graphics, completable.

      Saboteur (and Saboteur 2) – atmosphere, sneaking, weapons. Second one drop off glider intro, amazing freedom. Explore. Difficulty.

      Scarabaeus – atmosphere, immersion. Maze. Intro with dog. Ghosts/spiders. Lift, slow but tense if got it wrong. Dread and mystery, nearest thing to being Indiana Jones (in space).

      Skool Daze – freedom, realised world. Writing on blackboards, renaming people, jump, catapult and get enemy blamed, sit-ins on floor, never enough chairs, hiding instead of going to lessons (horror of knowing you’re trapped).

      Spy Vs Spy 1, 2, 3 – only 2 player fun, but then amazing,
      little worlds, traps, tense. Usually one player better at HTH so other avoids them, running away.

      Star Trader – crazy unknown game. But the music and stories and two player mode (even though you didn’t interact) blew me away. Needing food, sleeping rough.

      Zorro – atmosphere, little world to explore, secrets, unforgiving. But did complete it.

      Honourable mentions: Aliens (US) – tension, music, variety.
      Alleykat – music, action, approaches (speed vs weapons), horror of Skulnia Challenge.
      Action Biker – crazy, should be rubbish, but presented with a little world, just rode around. Precision required, refuel regularly, upgrade bike – if you died it was your own fault, always. Didn’t pay attention.
      Barbarian – music, smoothness. Battle after battle, decapitation, fancy moves, never blocking properly. All good fun until Drax when you’d throw joystick at screen.
      Blue Max – little world, freedom to bomb and shoot, simple but spot on.
      Buggy Boy – Simple but smooth, addictive, variety in levels.
      Cleanup Service – punishing, impossible in 1 player, but in two player, if co-operate properly, nothing more fun than cracking it. Burger level randomness aside. Oh and ghosts (don’t think I ever got off their level). Fun opportunities to do other player in “accidentally”.
      Ghosts ‘N Goblins – classic. Learnt to work around bugs. Completed it once.
      HERO – small game, but so smooth and fast. Could imagine these descents to rescue miners. Thumb up when rescue them.
      Impossible Mission – hardly ever knew what I was doing, but felt like there was a hi-tech world, it made sense, I just had to become part of it. Animation and smoothness.
      International Karate + – super smooth. Again and again.
      Law Of The West – Early Bioware. Would have dialog choices, or could draw gun. Different routes through each encounter. Could often avoid conflict – or just shoot.
      Little Computer People – “knew” it wasn’t real. But left it running. Found key combinations. Watched it. Tried to work out what he was doing in room alone, talking. Sent record,s books, dog food. Asked him to play the piano. Almost believed it could understand me, but was just being awkward, had own personality.
      Ninja – great pace. Sneak. Throw weapons – daggers more damage, but might not stick in point first, so do no damage if only handle that hits. Enemies pick up weapons and throw back. Deadly sword blow. Explore. I was that bouncy-toed ninja.
      Panther – music, gradually harder, rescue little people. Would get to water crossing, and press pause continuously, on and off, to slow game to stutter. Would take 5 mins to do 30 seconds of action, but still did it, hoping to see the end of the game. Never did.
      Parallax – music and graphics. Freedom – land ship, get out, stun scientists, go in shops. I remember a set of beams opening and closing, had to time it perfectly but ship bounced and slid around. Not sure if I ever got through.
      Raid Over Moscow – Xcom of day, send out missions. Fun, surprising.
      Spy Hunter – play and play. Music, moves, made my own little stories.
      Trap – okay shooter, but included on-foot sections, and upgrades, and secret music video.
      Uridium – impossibly hard. Felt good to succeed. Tension, know you’re doomed, but hope to take down one more dreadnaut.
      Wizball – own world, see it colour in. Hard work, but doable. C64 better than Amiga (though enjoyed that too). Co-op best in world, as other player took control of your cat.

      AMIGA

      Buggy Boy – play and play, different worlds. So addictive.

      Captain Blood – alien, never made progress, but atmosphere was unlike anything else. Vector landings amazed me every time – made me dream of a day when they’d look more real. Sometimes loaded up CB just to do landing, pretended I was coming down on LV426, then would load Aliens (UK) on C64. Lovely. More of an experience than a game. All those planets rotating, each slightly different; random jumping round the map, always hoping to find the endgame or a new race (I never found anything when doing random jumps). This is the game where you could just nuke a planet if the aliens annoyed you, even though it made the game unwinnable.

      Dungeon Master – knew every level and secret by heart. Kept lists of which heroes I’d used, how often. Used wand to teach even non-magic characters how to use magic. Look through walls. Crush enemies in doors. Fireball and poison gas.

      Hired Guns – creepy, alien. Tried multiplayer, was good, early amazement at possibilities. Scary horror – sharks underwater, monsters. Great sounds, great unique characters. Felt like exploring a harsh alien world, a real mission. All the lovely, lovely manuals that came with Hired Guns on the Amiga! I kept reading them when not playing the game. Character descriptions, world details, technology and so on.

      It Came From The Desert – again and again, trying different things. Completed, and would play again. Tapped into some part of my mind that watched giant ant films in black and white as a kid. That, and the freedom, the locations. Amazing.

      Laser Squad – better graphics and extra levels, great game.

      Lords Of Chaos – mostly played alone, rare treat of enemy. Gamble – dragon spell, may fail, but if win it is a game changer. Make wizard tougher, or summon (broad range or specialise?) or other spells, upgrade after missions.

      Megatraveller – really did feel like had squad for a while.

      Sid Meier’s Pirates – summer playing it with hayfever. Different periods, different endings, seeing how much treasure and how many family members I could rescue. Crucial decision of when to end game is yours – play on, get older, weaker, but more land and money? Or retire early, poorer but healthier? Really felt like your choice, and it mattered.

      Starglider 2 – a world. 3D, freedom. Leave any planet. Fly out to space, turn round, watch solar system. Space whales. Completed. Oh, and the manual/novella with Starglider 2 (Amiga) – it gave me a new perspective on “Use the force, Luke!”

      Honourable mentions:
      Alien Breed – tense 2 player, kept playing, Aliens on the computer.
      Blood Money – so smooth, so addictive, eventually learnt patterns, bosses always scary and amazing. Only last world lets it down, so hard, so many bits of scenery that kill you in seconds.
      Body Blows – 2 player tournaments (though not Mike or Russian).
      Bubble Bobble – see C64.
      Cannon Fodder – kept playing to see what happened next. Switched between special levels, bit levels, small levels. Every soldier had a name (and a gravestone waiting). Cartoony yet harsh.
      Elite – played blue Danube when docking (tape, rewind). Some perfect single-player, offline, immersive experience in my own private universe. (All know how that turned out).
      Moonstone – multiplayer madness. Monty Python crossed with horror, a boardgame and a beat-em-up. As awesome as it sounds.
      New Zealand Story
      Project X – to try all ships and upgrades, get to end of speedup bits, sheer polish that looked and sounded better than an arcade game.
      Sim City – first game of this type, chance to be god. Always same – tried to develop cities with minimal damage to environment, not to damage any of trees, challenge to build round and enhance.
      Speedball – got so good I could score in a second or two, reflexes. No-one would play against me.
      Turrican 2 – never got far, always crashed, but struck me as an amazingly free world, so many upgrades and powers, Aliens-themed levels, ached to explore it more.
      Wicked – just for the alien atmosphere and music. Hardly knew what was going on half the time. Completed it a couple of years ago by spamming the emulator’s quick save (was still rock hard by end).

      • Carra says:

        They should hire you to write them. You’ve just written a dozen of them :)

        • April March says:

          Agreed! Honestly, you could pitch a series to them by just sending them a link to this post and a 😏 emoji!

      • criskywalker says:

        I’ve been think a lot about Amiga games lately and trying to find spiritual sucessors to them. For example I consider Rocket League as the new Speedball 2. Few games can bring me back to that age of pure fun!

      • GameOverMan says:

        Good selection. I would add Raid on Bungeling Bay for the C64, the first game designed by Will Wright before becoming the Sim everything guy.

      • and its man says:

        Great list indeed. I wish I wasn’t burried in work at the moment and could spend some time discussing it with you.
        (I’d add an Amstrad CPC and an Atari selection…)

        Stumbled on your list (and lost some precious minutes of due-to-yesterday-work reading it) because I was about to write a simple “no, I haven’t played Marble Madness, but I love Spindizzy“, and just wanted to check if someone had already mentioned it in the comments. :)

      • apa says:

        I, for one, would welcome our new retro column overlords! It’s great to read about the games one played as a kid and to find out exactly kind of things John here did :)

        Actually, a group of experienced (=old) games journos in Finland are creating a crowdfunded 2-issue PAPER magazine this year: link to retrorewind.fi

        And about Spectrum’s Turbo Esprit – I was just last week telling someone at work how it was “GTA3 on Spectrum” :D

  5. G_Runciter says:

    So you like Funhaus too?

  6. quasiotter says:

    I sexually identify as Marble Madness.

    But really, though, an abstract surreal geometric game like this was the most brilliant thing I’ve seen as a kid! I much preferred this style over characters with faces and whimsy and such, which wasn’t easily available on the Game Boy. That sounds dark, a 10-year-old interested in a cosmic horror vibe, but I just really thought that this was the coolest thing.

    (also, the GB version only had 5 levels, sadly)

  7. Someoldguy says:

    I sank a fair amount of pocket money into this at the arcades in Brighton. I wasn’t that good at it because I preferred to play Gauntlet more, but a friend was determined to beat it and came very close.

  8. Urthman says:

    Just looking at that picture put the unforgettable music from the first real level (Level 2) in my head:

    • Foosnark says:

      No lie, that is my ringtone.

      I loved the arcade Marble Madness at a time when my dad worked in an arcade, and I got to play stuff free on Sunday mornings while he did the weekly collection and other pre-opening stuff.

      Marble Madness was one of the first games with Yamaha FM synthesis chips, which pleases me greatly as a synth nerd as well as a gamer.

      Beyond the sound though I always loved that theme music. Stemage did a fantastic cover album (and another for TRON, and some other stuff.)

  9. Retne says:

    6 Levels? Blimey, yes, I was there at level 6 too and, likewise, hadn’t realised that was the final level. Thank you John!

    Excellent game, and I too had many hours on it. I recently found and would recommend Road to Ballhalla as a good update.

  10. Carra says:

    I have this game on my Sega master system. Never got anywhere near the finish.

  11. Ghostwise says:

    I remember this was part of one of the high school’s Amigas piles of warez. Though I don’t think that the latter term already existed back then.

  12. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Yes! But only the NES version. I had a friend who could beat it after a few tries, but I never played it much myself on actual hardware until a couple decades later, where I got stuck at that last part of the final level at a party, and we went on to play other games after that.

  13. FizicsMcmanus says:

    It was better in the arcade with the bowling ball.

  14. Spacewalk says:

    All home versions of Marble Madness are terrible because you can’t use a trackball. I was pretty into this when I first played it on the Megadrive but I’ve since played it in cabinet form with the trackball and I couldn’t go back, it was physically impossible my body wouldn’t let me.

  15. Arren says:

    As Fizics and Spacewalk say, the arcade original is the only Marble Madness worth the name. Responsive trackball control, crisply legible graphics, solidly smooth frame-rate. ‘Twas a masterpiece.

  16. malkav11 says:

    At some point in the distant past, yes. I remember finding it entrancing. But I don’t remember the context and I’ve never actually owned it.

  17. BadCatWillum says:

    I think John was lucky not to know it was the final level. I was obsessed with the arcade version as a kid. When I finished level 6 on the Amiga, I was bereft to learn that that was it.

  18. mgardner says:

    Most video games easily transitioned from Arcade to home system without any problems. Marble Madness is one that is hard to enjoy without the correct trackball control – it is essential to the experience!