I played Marble Madness today. I’m not entirely sure why. It wasn’t because my blood pressure was getting dangerously low and needed a boost, nor did I feel that my Tuesday was lacking in number of shouted expletives. I suppose revisiting Maximum Carnage triggered some sort of memory feedback from my childhood, causing me to recall the games that gave me so much trouble as a youth. For that reason, I’ve been prompted to do a sort of theme week based on such horrors.
For a game that be, theoretically, beaten in a few minutes, I never met anyone that beat Marble Madness. The translation from trackball control in the arcade to a D-pad was the target of blame for many, but in a lot of ways, the presentation was the real killer. That timer created a sense of tension that would often force you into making careless mistakes and as the game progressed, it seemed to morph from quirky 80s game into something almost… sinister.
Something I didn’t notice as a kid was the way that the game wouldn’t just increase in difficult, but in how much more surreal the world became. Later levels are filled with abstract monsters and obscecles that are in contrast to the rigid clinical look of the stages. The music gets more atonial and distorted the further you progress and there’s a sense of hostility in the air, the game going out of its way to tell you at one point that “everything you know is wrong”. Had it been released a few years ago, there probably would have been a disembodied narrator taunting you throughout and/or hinting at some greater narrative twist, but that wasn’t possible back in the day. For all the hand-wringing about how stories need to be told better in games, there are lessons to be learned from the past. Those stories don’t always have to be “written” to hold up or be effective.
By the time the credits rolled on the game, I felt vindicated, not just because I finally beat that final masochistic section with the disappearing platforms, but because I came away with some deeper appreciation of the design. It’s kind of always been one of the lesser goals of this project, to find details I may have missed the first or seventeenth time around and surmise that there can be more to the deceptively simple games of the past, that they’re not antiquated simply because of technological limitations. Good design is timeless and something we should never take for granted.
Yup, that’s totally what it’s about. It’s not so I could brag about beating Marble Madness. Only a jerk would do that, and I’m not certainly not a jerk with a blog that goes out to a bunch of strangers. Nope. Not this guy.
It is pretty hard, though. Not everyone can do it. Just saying.