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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 12 of 23 Next

Post-Crash Games

Marble Madness
Designed by Mark Cerny

Marble Madness was the beginning of a great change in Atari's output, moving both towards standardized hardware and software components. After the split with the old Atari, Inc. after Jack Tramiel bought only the consumer electronics portion of the company, the arcade group was renamed Atari Games. Marble Madness was one of its earliest products, if not the very first.

This was the first System 1 machine, the beginning of a much-revised branch of Atari hardware that served well until around 1991. Even those games that didn't fall under the System 1 or System 2 lines share many hardware similarities with Marble Madness. This was the game that brought us the Atari Font, the Atari Bell, and demonstrated the potential of the POKEY interface chip.

Again, Space Invaders introduced the idea of lives determining the end of a game of indefinite length. Marble Madness abandoned that idea, reverting to a version of the Extended Play mechanic from old racing games like Sprint. In those games, the player was allowed to play until a timer ran out, but if he could reach a target score his game would be extended with a limited amount of extra time.

Marble Madness mixes the two ideas up a bit. You begin the Beginner Race (after Practice, which doesn't factor in) with a set amount of time. The time for each succeeding level is the time left over from the last, plus a large bonus.

Thus, every second the player wastes comes off the end of the game; every wasted second is its own penalty. It's an idea that has not made tremendous inroads, but it pops up in surprising places: it is just this mechanic that makes Crazy Taxi so addictive.

It seems somewhat strange that Marble Madness is so remembered now. When a game like Monkey Ball, Mercury Meltdown or Hamsterball comes out, the reviewers will invariably describe it in terms relating to Marble Madness.

But the thing about the original game is that it's really short. Six levels is all there are, and the Ultimate Race at the end requires such skilled play just to get to, let alone complete, that most players have probably not gotten through the whole thing, at least on an arcade machine.

The game's legend has spread somewhat from the strength of some fairly good computer and console ports, but those sold in the first place mostly because of the popularity of the arcade original. That's not to say the game is bad by any means, just... brief.

The basic play involves using a trackball to maneuver a ball around a series of geometric landscapes. The landscapes are covered with gridlines, which help the player to get some perspective on the isometric world the marbles inhabit. The cool thing about the ball is that its acceleration is converted directly from the input coming in off a trackball. Roll the ball south-east, and the on-screen ball rolls likewise.

The emphasis is simultaneously on precision, maneuvering the ball across narrow ledges, and speed, for to get the ball to the goal quickly means the player must exert a lot of force on the controls. The force required to get the ball to the end in a decent amount of time both makes Marble Madness an unusually physical game, and means that arcade machines have a very high control failure rate, as trackball mechanisms get busted up by excited players trying to better their time.

Marble Madness is another highly abstract Atari concept, but the game's design document, unearthed by, tell us that the game once had a backstory. It was originally intended to bear the name "Omnichron", and be a sport played by people of the 27th century. (This explains the level names a bit, e.g., Practice, Beginner, Intermediate -- they were skill levels of the sport's courses.)

The coolest fact revealed by the document is that, in the original concept, the trackball had motors attached to it, so its motion would match that of the marble on-screen. If it rolled down a ramp and the player didn't want to go, he'd have to fight the motor to stay up there! While an intriguing concept, I'm sure the developers of all those home ports are glad that the designers didn't use it.

Article Start Previous Page 12 of 23 Next

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Arseny Lebedev
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Oh man! And I wanted to make a list like this for myself for ages! Thanks!

Brandon Sheffield
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very good read - I do wonder about the inclusion of Batman merely as an example of something Atari did wrong - there are certainly enough of those! This could've easily been substituted for Defender. Anyway, not that this should be on the list, but I quite liked Fire Truck, and think it had some rather innovative ideas itself.

The speed was unparalleled for 1978, and featured two steering wheels, as it was meant to be played with one player controlling the front, and another at the back. Unfortunately the game is completely broken if you just play the back end, as the computer will drive the front flawlessly for you, and you have more time to adjust if you're in back, but still, it was pretty neat for the time. I also quite liked how the game would reverse image polarity when you reached a certain point - everything black became white. Goooood times.

Andrew norton
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Intriguing list. This article has made me aware of the games designed from Atari, and not just the game consoles.

Jeff Zugale
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Aw man. No WONDER I spent all that money on Gauntlet! And most of a day with the console port version trying to get to the end. There's no end??

Heh heh heh... good one, Ed & Atari. Good one. I hope you're enjoying the fancy car I must have bought for you. :)

Gregg Tavares
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Great article. I loved many of these games.

There were a few of mistakes I thought that should be corrected.

Asteroids was not the first game to have controls where a ship had left/right buttons and thrusted in the direction the ship was facing. That belongs to what many consider the first video game, Space Wars which was released in the arcade by Cinematronic and pre-dates Asteroids by several years in creation and at least a year in the arcades.

Tramil was not responsible for the Atari 8bit systems. He was at Commodore, making Atari's competitor at the time. He may have been around for a few of the last models.

Also, where did you get the info that Marble Madness used the POKEY chip for its sound? Having programmed the POKEY for many years I would never have guessed it could make those sounds, at least not unassisted.

John Leffingwell
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Gregg Tavares is right about the Atari 8-bit computers, although the Tramiels did release the 8-bit XE series during their tenure with Atari using cases stylized after their 16-bit Atari ST line of computers.

And Gregg's suspicions are correct: Marble Madness did not use POKEY for sound. That duty was handled by a Yamaha YM2151, the sound chip developed for Yamaha's line of DX synthesizer keyboards. Atari's Marble Madness was the first arcade game to use it.

There is some confusion about Space Wars. Cinematronic's Space Wars was released in 1977, two years before Asteroids. It was inspired by the 1962 DEC PDP-1 computer game Spacewar!, which is sometimes credited as the first video game or graphical computer game (although it missed that honor by decade). Spacewar! was never a coin-op, but another game that was inspired by it was, and it was the first. It was called Computer Space, and like Asteroids, had Spacewar!-like controls. It was released in 1971 and was created by future Atari founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney.

In the interest of fairness, I'll mention that the very, very first coin-op video game was another Spacewar! inspired game called The Galaxy Game. It was released two months before Computer Space. Only one them was ever made, and at 10 cents a play on $20,000 worth of hardware, it could never be economically viable, so I'm not sure it should be considered a legitimate coin-op.

Christian Nutt
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The text doesn't actually say that Asteroids is the first game to use that control methodology (as far as I can read) which may be limited, even at 10:30 on a Monday morning. I don't doubt that it was the primary influence on a number of games that came later, given its massive success, though I suppose it's hard to argue that for certain, yeah?

Deleted the bit about POKEY being responsible for MM's sounds.

Thanks for the tips.

Lewis Pulsipher
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"I find it interesting, in games of Gauntlet I've had with other people in the past few years, that their interest tends to survive only until the point where they learn there is no ending. Times have certainly changed." This is indeed a generational difference. Older people normally play video games to enjoy the journey; younger ones to "beat the game", and many of them don't mind using codes or other tactics that the older folks regard as unfair or "cheating".

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The physics-game element of Asteroids had a precedent in Spacewar! too.

John Leffingwell
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In his 2011 GDC Classic Game Postmortem talk for Marble Madness, Mark Cerny revealed that Qwak (1982) was the first game he made for Atari. Although Atari was pleased with the way it looked, it was not considered fun enough to be released -- a typical fate for first games.

One of Qwak's innovations was a version with a touch-screen interface. After the failure of Qwak to see release, it was Cerny's initial plan to use this interface for Marble Madness. This was at a time when the game resembled miniature golf. Later, when the game design shifted to racing, the unique motorized trackball interface was envisioned. As intriguing an idea as the motorized trackball was, the concept was abandoned because Atari's hardware engineers were unable to produce a system of motorized support rods that would make adequate contact with the ball.

One final detail from the article that I'll expand upon here the "extended play" mechanic of Marble Madness. In his talk, Mark Cerny specifically points to Pole Position for its inspiration.

The talk is highly recommended and can be viewed for free on the GDC Vault should you wish to seek it out.