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Marble Madness is an arcade video game designed by Mark Cerny, and published by Atari Games in 1984. It is a platform game in which the player must guide an onscreen marble through six courses, populated with obstacles and enemies, within a time limit. The player controls the marble by using a trackball. Marble Madness is known for using innovative game technologies; it was one of the first games to use true stereo sound—previous games used either monaural sound or simulated stereo—and it was Atari's first to use the Atari System 1 hardware and to be programmed in C.
In designing the game, Cerny drew inspiration from miniature golf, racing games, and artwork by M. C. Escher. He aimed to create a game that offered a distinct experience with a unique control system. Cerny applied a minimalist approach in designing the appearance of the game's courses and enemies. Throughout development, he was frequently impeded by limitations in technology and had to forgo several design ideas. Upon its release, Marble Madness was commercially successful, becoming a profitable arcade game. Praise among critics focused on the game's difficulty, unique visual design, and stereo soundtrack.
The game was ported to numerous platforms and inspired the development of other games. A sequel was developed and planned for release in 1991, but canceled when location testing showed that the game could not succeed in competition with other titles.
Marble Madness is an isometric platform game where the player manipulates an onscreen marble from a third-person perspective. The player controls the marble's movements with a trackball, though most home versions use game controllers with directional pads. The aim of the game is for the player to traverse six maze-like, isometric courses before a set amount of time expires. Each course has its own time limit, with the remaining time left over from completing a course added to the succeeding one. The game also features an option which allows two players to race against each other on the courses. Courses are populated with various objects and enemies designed to obstruct the player. As the game progresses, the courses become increasingly difficult and introduce more enemies and obstacles. Each course has a distinct visual theme. For example, the first course, "Practice", is a simple course that is much shorter than the others, while the fifth course, "Silly", features polka-dot patterns and is oriented in an opposite direction from the other courses.
Marble Madness was developed by Atari Games, with Mark Cerny as the lead designer and Bob Flanagan as the software engineer. Both Cerny and Flanagan handled programming the game. It uses the Atari System 1 hardware, an interchangeable system of circuit boards, control panels, and artwork. The game features pixel graphics on a 19 inch Electrohome G07 model CRT monitor, and uses a Motorola 68010 central processing unit (CPU) with a MOS Technology 6502 subsystem to control the audio and coin operations. Marble Madness was Atari's first game to use an FM sound chip produced by Yamaha, which is similar to a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and creates the music in real time so that it is in synchronization with the game action. The game's music was composed by Brad Fuller and Hal Canon who spent a few months becoming familiar with the capabilities of the sound chip. Cerny and Flanagan first collaborated on a video game based on Michael Jackson's Thriller.
The project, however, was canceled and the two began work an idea of Cerny's that eventually became Marble Madness. Development lasted 10 months. Following the North American video game crash of 1983, video game development within Atari focused on providing a distinctive experience through the use of a unique control system and by emphasizing a simultaneous two-player mode. Cerny designed Marble Madness in accordance with these company goals. He was first inspired by miniature golf and captivated by the idea that a play field's contours influenced the ball's path. Cerny began testing various ideas using Atari's art system. After deciding to use an isometric grid, Cerny began developing the game's concept. His initial idea involved hitting a ball in a way similar to miniature golf, but Atari was not enthusiastic. Cerny next thought of racing games and planned for races on long tracks against an opponent. Technology limitations at the time could not handle the physics necessary for the idea, and Cerny switched the game's objective to a race against time. The Motorola CPU included a run-time C compiler, C being the language the two programmers were familiar with. After Atari had conducted performance evaluations, it approved usage of the language.
The decision by Cerny and Flanagan to program Marble Madness in C had positive and negative consequences. Atari games had previously been programmed in assembly; C was easier to program, but was less efficient, so the game operated at the slower speed of 30 Hz instead of the normal 60 Hz frequency of arcade games at the time. Cerny decided to use a trackball system (marketed by Atari as Trak-Ball) to give the game a unique control system, and he chose a motorized trackball for faster spinning and braking when the in-game ball traveled downhill and uphill. As it was building the prototypes, Atari's design department informed Cerny that the motorized trackball's design had an inherent flaw: one of the four supports had poor contact with the ball, and the use of a regular trackball became more feasible. Additionally, Cerny had anticipated the use of powerful custom chips that would allow RAM-based sprites to be animated by the CPU, but the available hardware was a less-advanced system using ROM-based, static sprites.
These technical limitations forced Cerny to simplify the overall design; inspired by M. C. Escher, he designed abstract landscapes for the courses. In retrospect, Cerny partly attributes the designs to his limited artistic skills. Unlike most other arcade games of the time, the course images were not drawn on the pixel level; instead, Cerny defined the elevation of every point in the course, and stored this information in a heightmap array. The course graphics were then created by a ray-tracing program that traced the path of light rays, using the heightmap to determine the appearance of the course on screen. This format also allowed Cerny to create shadows and use anti-aliasing, a technique that provided the graphics with a softer appearance. Cerny's course generator allowed him more time to experiment with the level designs. When deciding what elements to include in a course, practicality was a big factor; elements that would not work or would not appear as intended were omitted, such as an elastic barricade or a teeter-totter scale. Cerny's personal interests changed throughout the project, leading to the inclusion of new ideas not in the original design documents. The game's enemy characters were designed by Cerny and Sam Comstock, who also animated them. Enemies had to be small in size due to technical limitations. Cerny and Comstock purposely omitted faces to give them unique designs and create a minimalistic appearance similar to the courses. Flanagan programmed a three-dimensional physics model to dictate the marble's motions and an interpreted script for enemy behavior.
As Marble Madness neared completion, the feedback from Atari's in-house focus testing was positive. In retrospect, Cerny wished he had included more courses to give the game greater longevity, but extra courses would have required more time and would have increased the hardware costs. Atari was experiencing severe financial troubles at the time and could not extend the game's development period as it would have left their production factory idle.
Reception and legacy
Marble Madness was commercially successful following its release and was positively received by critics. Several thousand cabinets were shipped, and it soon became the highest-earning game in arcades. However, the game consistently fell from this ranking during its seventh week in arcades. Cerny believed players lost interest in the game after mastering it and moved on to other games. The arcade cabinets have since become fairly rare. Many reviewers felt that the high level of skill required to play the game was part of its appeal. In 2008, Levi Buchanan of IGN listed Marble Madness as one of several titles in his "dream arcade", citing the game's difficulty and the fond memories he had playing it. Author John Sellers said that difficulty was a major reason that players were attracted. Other engaging factors included the graphics, visual design, and the soundtrack.
Retro Gamers Craig Grannell, in referring to the game as one of the most distinctive arcade games ever made, praised its visuals as "pure and timeless". In 2008, Guinness World Records listed it as the number seventy-nine arcade game in technical, creative and cultural impact. Marble Madness was one of the first games to use true stereo sound and have a recognizable musical score. British composer Paul Weir commented that the music had character and helped give the game a unique identity. A common complaint about the arcade cabinet was that the track ball controls frequently broke from repeated use. Beginning in 1986, the game was ported to numerous platforms with different companies handling the conversions; several home versions were published by Electronic Arts; Tiger Electronics released handheld and tabletop LCD versions of the game, and it was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System by Rare. Early versions featured simplified graphics, and the different ports were met with mixed reception. John Harris of Gamasutra thought the arcade's popularity fueled the sales of the home versions, while Thomas Hanley of ScrewAttack commented that most versions were not as enjoyable without a track ball. Grannell echoed similar statements about the controls, and added that many had poor visuals and collision detection. He listed the Amiga, Game Boy, and Mega Drive ports as the better conversions, and the ZX Spectrum, DOS, and Game Boy Advance versions among the worst. Dragon's three reviewers — Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk Lesser — praised the Apple IIGS port, calling it a "must have" title for arcade fans.
In 2003, the game was included in the multi-platform title Midway Arcade Treasures, a compilation of classic games developed by Williams Electronics, Midway Games and Atari Games. Electronic Arts announced a mobile phone port for 2010 that would include additional levels with different themes and new items that augment the gameplay. Marble Madness inspired other games which feature similar gameplay based on navigating a ball through progressively more difficult courses; such games are often described in terms that relate them to Marble Madness. Melbourne House's Gyroscope and Electric Dreams Software's Spindizzy were the first such games; both met with a moderate reception. In 1990, Rare released Snake Rattle 'n' Roll which incorporated elements similar to Marble Madness. Other such games include Marble Blast Gold and Super Monkey Ball. The Monkey Ball series uses similar gameplay based on rolling a ball, but adds other features such as minigames and monkey characters. An arcade sequel titled Marble Man: Marble Madness II was planned for release in 1991, though Cerny was not involved in the development. Development was led by Bob Flanagan who designed the game based on what he felt made Marble Madness a success in the home console market.
Because the market's demographic was a younger audience, Flanagan wanted to make the sequel more accessible and introduced a superhero-type main character. Marble Man: Marble Madness II expanded on the gameplay of the original game by featuring new abilities for the marble such as invisibility and flight, included pinball minigames between sets of levels, and allowed up to three players to traverse isometric courses. Flanagan intended to address the short length of the first game and, with the help of Mike Hally, developed seventeen courses. Atari created prototypes for location testing, but the game did not fare well against more popular titles at the time such as Street Fighter II. Atari assumed the track balls accounted for the poor reception and commissioned a second model with joystick controls. Because the new models were met with the same poor reception, production was halted and the focus shifted to Guardians of the 'Hood, a two-dimensional beat 'em up game. The prototypes that were produced have since become collector items.