Why have I been thinking about Marble Madness so much lately, you ask?
Maybe it's the recent video from the Game Developers Conference
by Mark Cerny, the creator of Marble Madness. Maybe it's my desire to find new music to arrange for the Reno Video Game Symphony. It may be that I only had the opportunity to play this game on the NES, and I have never had the pleasure of using the Atari arcade cabinet.
Whatever it is, I think it's time we all took a moment with Marble Madness.
I liked this game to such a maddening state that I stole it from my elementary school. Our teacher was so amazing that she put an NES in the room as a reward for students that finished their work, and one day I swiped it. I would like to apologize to the future children that went through that classroom, deprived of this gem as they felt an unplaceable emptiness int heir hearts. It is a fantastically fun game.
But the most lasting effect of this game on me is the music. In 1984, the Yamaha FM synthesis chip was finally in the hands of Atari's music designers, and the sonic palette had become much broader. The game had three different people in charge of the music, which is likely due to the fact that they had no clue of how to use the FM synthesis chip yet, and it apparently took six months
just to learn how to make the thing work right.
Oh, wait...let's take a step back.
For those out there who are unfamiliar with FM synthesis, let me briefly describe what it was. The Yamaha FM synthesis chip was first implemented by Sega in the Mark III Master System in Japan. The sound generated by this chip would shape an entire new wave of synthesizers and video game music for the next decade, by being able to more accurately simulate drums, guitars, basses, and many other sounds. And in the case that it couldn't accurately recreate sounds, it could create totally new sounds like the Sega Genesis' distinctive bass tone and the soundtrack to the Streets of Rage series.
For Atari, it meant that they could grab people in the arcade with far better music that went beyond the basic sound synthesis used in earlier titles. Marble Madness hit the arcade scene in 1984, with music composed by Brad Fuller, Hal Canon and with some involvement by David Wise, who would later go on to compose the music for the Donkey Kong Country series.
The Game's Soundtrack
The soundtrack to Marble Madness is truly atmospheric, though the tracks are generally fast paced. The songs are fluid and harmonically complex, with subtle pitch bending that reminds me of the Eb Clarinet parts in Stravinsky's music. As the game goes on, the music gets increasingly threatening, invoking a slew of composers like Edgard Varese and Angelo Badalamenti.
By the time one reaches the Silly Race (6:30 in the above video), the player has already overcome some pretty challenging courses, and the music takes on a lighter feel, with the inclusion of accelerando(gradually increasing tempo), a reminder of Space Invaders and its' charmingly simple method of increasing the game's tension. The sounds used in this game are just awesome, although they are a bit scratchy and fuzzy by today's standards. This game has one of the very first true stereo audio soundtracks, and the music is full and lush, with very clear bass tone and bizarre synth sounds.
The Final Stage(8:18 above), incorporates all the strengths of the game's soundtrack at once: otherwordly noises, high-tension composition, and beautifully warped melodies. The bass pounds and moves deviously through the track, and each instrument has an unmatched urgency that really drives the player head-first through the game.
And then it's over. The game can be beaten in less than 4 minutes, and once you've mastered it, there's really not much more to do except run the motions.
And listen to the soundtrack.