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 atarigames.com, 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.