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 the C programming language.
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 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.
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 Gamer's 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.