Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#124 – Marble Madness

This classic arcade game is right at home on the NES.

Simple title screen, saving the graphics for later.

To Beat: Finish Level 6
My Goal: Beat the game without dying
What I Did: Beat the game with 2 deaths
Played: 5/6/19
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 2/10
My Video: Marble Madness Longplay

There are some games on the NES where there is a large gulf in perception of difficulty. Marble Madness is one of these games. I’ve played this game a lot and have gotten pretty good at it. I know a few people that have put in a lot of time to get high scores and know this game like the back of their hand. I have also had a few people tell me that this game is too hard and they haven’t gotten very far. One thing I do know is that from either crowd, this game is always a popular pick.

The original arcade release of Marble Madness was in late 1984. It was developed and published by Atari Games. Mark Cerny was the lead designer and Bob Flanagan was the primary developer. The original run of 4,000 arcade machines was deemed a success, though interest tapered off a few weeks after release. Marble Madness would be widely ported after that to many home computers and game consoles. The NES port of Marble Madness was released in North America in March 1989 and in PAL regions also in 1989. It was developed by Rare and published by Milton Bradley.

Marble Madness is a simple game to pick up and play. The object of the game is to guide your marble through each of six courses to the goal line at the end. The entire game is played from an isometric perspective. Use the D-pad to move your marble in any direction. Press and hold A to move faster. You can pause the game by pressing Start. You will have to pass through all kinds of obstacles, traps, and enemies along the way, but your biggest enemy is the timer. The game ends when the timer hits 0. If you can clear all six courses before running out of time, you win the game.

A nice easy course to get things started.

You begin the game by selecting one or two players. Marble Madness features two-player simultaneous play with one player controlling the blue marble and the second player moving the red one. Then each player enters his name up to six characters long. Next, choose with directional option you want. The 90-degree option is the standard control scheme where you move in the direction you press. For the 45-degree option, you will rotate your controller clockwise at an angle so that the primary D-pad directions point diagonally. While the 45-degree option makes sense given the perspective, I have always used the 90-degree setup.

Death is a very common occurrence in this game. There are several enemies that will get rid of your marble or knock you around. There are many pits for you to fall into. Your marble is also fragile and breaks if it falls from too high. The good thing is that you have unlimited lives. The bad part is that each death and restoral takes precious time away. Some deaths are worse than others in the time department. Falling off the side, for instance, is a brief setback and you get back to the action quickly. If your marble gets crushed from falling too far, you must sit through a short animation of a broom sweeping up the marble dust left behind. You can survive shorter falls but your marble will spin out a little and it becomes difficult to control for a second. Some death animations from being killed by enemies are longer than others. Obviously, you want to avoid dying if you want to get through this game, but you can suffer many deaths and still win.

The clock may be the major enemy in the game but there are some ways to add precious seconds to the timer. At the start of Level 2, you are given a bunch of time to start off with. You are awarded added time at the start of each subsequent course. Every now and again, a magic wand will appear. Your marble will stop dead in its tracks and the wand bestows you with 10 added seconds. It is a welcome sight that seems to be completely random. For experienced players, you might see your timer capped at 99 seconds.

These worm sucker enemies aren’t too scary.

Marble Madness is a brief experience from start to finish, so it is quite popular as a score attack game. You can earn some points from obstacles on the course. There is a black marble enemy that you can get 1000 points from if you knock if off the side of the ledge. Chutes suck in your ball to transport them, giving you points for doing so. Most of your score is earned from the time bonus at the end of each level. If you beat the game, you also earn a bunch of points depending on how much time is remaining on the clock and how many marbles you lost along the way.

Each course in the game has a name and some features specific to that course. The first course is called the Practice Race. You start with 60 seconds but this is a very short level. I normally clear it in 6 seconds. It’s just meant to give you a little time to play and get accustomed to the controls, movement, and physics. Even so, this level has an additional bonus. There is a half-pipe-like structure at the bottom and if you speed your marble into it and cross the pit to the other side, you can hit what looks like a tic-tac-toe puzzle on the ground and earn some points.

Level 2 is the Beginner Race. Your time from the first level does not carry over. You start off with a fresh 65 seconds. There are a couple of enemies at the first part of this level. The infamous black marble appears right off the bat. I don’t think it is too difficult to get past. After that are these green worms that hop and suck your marble up if they land on it. Near them is a panel that pops up and prevents you from crossing until it goes down. Past that, you have a branching path. The left side is longer but easy to clear. The right side you have to take a chute down and then cross some narrow hilly ledges. It’s significantly tougher this way, but you get points for the chute and it is faster. The final obstacle is this deep net with a hole on the other side. I go along the very edge so I don’t fall in.

This is one of those iconic images in gaming.

The third course is the Intermediate Race. You get 35 seconds of time added to your clock that carries over from the previous stage. A new acid puddle enemy appears here. They appear to move randomly but I always seem to pass by them the same way every time. Don’t touch them at all or you lose your marble and some time. Near the end of the stage is another branching path. The quick way is across a conveyor belt that has a wave in it that shoves you off.

Course 4 is the Aerial Race. You have 30 more seconds added on. This level has several new traps and gadgets. First up are the vacuums that appear along a straight stretch early on. You have to go fast to get by them. There is another branching path after the catapult. The way I go takes you through these pistons that pop up out of the ground and throw you in the air. As always, the fast way is the trickier way. The final obstacles are these hammers that pop up along a narrow stretch of track just before the goal line. There is a pattern to them that is hard to discern early on. This level was my first roadblock when I was learning the game years ago.

Level 5 is the Silly Race. This time you only get 20 additional seconds. This is the only level in the game where you go from the bottom up to the top. It takes some getting used to. Up the initial slopes takes you to a section that looks like a miniature version of the game, complete with tiny little enemies that you can crush and get a few seconds of time added. Up the branching chute always pushes you to the left side in a single player game. This section is nasty because the gravity is weird here and it is hard to parse how you need to navigate the slopes. Past that are these endless flying birds that destroy your marble.

The final course is the Ultimate Race. You only get 20 more seconds here for the end. This level features an ice surface that causes your marble to slide and a grooved surface that causes you to move slowly against the grain. Some familiar traps make a reappearance here. The final section is a brutal gauntlet of appearing and disappearing ledges that puts your skills to the test. It is the Ultimate Race after all!

This obvious looking trap is not so predictable.

I have played a lot of Marble Madness before but I didn’t start on NES. I grew up owning the Game Boy version and that was what I was familiar with. Probably due to space limitations, the Game Boy port only has the first five levels in the game. I was always interested in playing that mysterious final level. I am not sure if I ever beat the NES version before 2014 when I first played it in the Nintendo Age contests. Since then I have beaten the game many times over.

For this playthrough, I wanted to see if I could beat the game without dying. It is not an easy task. I set aside about an hour to play and took the best attempt out of that hour of recording. I usually end up dying 15-20 times, so I figured, if I’m careful, I should at worst come up with a run around 5 deaths. Pretty early on, around the 5th try or so, I managed a two-death run with a nice score of 156K. To get the big scores, you need to go quickly but also get lucky with some wands so that you have a bunch of time remaining at the end. You can get up to three wands if the luck falls your way. I had two of them in my run, so combined with only two deaths I came away with my personal best high score. I could have had 160K if I had tried for the bonus points in the Practice Race. I kept on playing and had a couple more two-death runs but with lower scores because of no wands. It probably wouldn’t take much longer for me to get that no-death run, but this is good enough for now.

Marble Madness is a classic arcade game that I think should be in every NES collection. It is a very short game but with good action and it is fun to replay over and over. The controls are not ideal without the trackball from the arcade version, but they are good enough. It is nice to have two control options. The graphics are kind of plain but in a good way. The tracks are clear and the slopes are shaded differently to help you see them better. The game casts a lot of shadows too which gives it a more realistic look. The music is very good as well. This is a cheap cart to own that is very common, which is always appreciated for good games. This is a game that has wide appeal to all demographics, so if you haven’t played it before, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

#124 – Marble Madness

Posted In: Finished

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