Aside from the "eye candy" games of today, this was probably, hands down, THE most enticing "back seat driver" spectator video games of the 1980s, if not of all time: even if you're not playing it, it's fascinating and amusing as anything to watch.
The object is like that of one of those tilting maze things that you might've played as a youngster, where a knob on one side of the board would tilt the entire playfield left or right, while another knob would tilt the playfield up or down (note: even though I HAD one of these myself, I can't for the life of me remember what they're called...but then again, I can't even remember what I had for dinner last night, so...). The playfield is riddled with holes, and by tilting the playfield around, you must guide a marble through the maze as far as you can before it goes poink! down a hole (and yes, what I'm talking about is a real toy, NOT a video game).
It seems that Marble Madness is the video game equivalent of the above physical board game, although with a bit of weirdness and humor thrown in.
This is one of the few games out there where you actually have unlimited lives in order to get through a level (another one from the arcades would be Cinematronics' Rip Off, which goes down in video game history for, among other things, Most Obvious Joke Due To It's Title), but where lives are not limited here, you are limited in another way: time. You must guide your marble through a level and reach the goal before the time runs out for that particular maze, or else it's Add Another Quarter Here and Say Goodbye to Your Allowance time.
The imagination between this and the other marble-guided game I mentioned earlier are where all similarities end: there's all kinds of interesting creatures and things that will cause your demise before you make it to the goal. There are holes to fall into, the edge of a maze to fall off of that will cost you one of your marbles (and I don't have to mention the obvious joke about losing your marbles here, do I? Ok, good!), things that jump up and down and pounce on you, moving puddles of slime that can dissolve marbles, if you're competing against a friend for simultaneous play and accidentally smack into each other, you lose another marble that way as well, etc., etc...lotta hazards abound here!
So far, this might not seem like too big a deal, due to having infinite lives, but, unfortunately, when you fall prey to a marble hazard, you won't be granted another marble for several seconds, which will cost you precious time. So that really bites, which is almost enough to make you wanting to cry over spilled mil--err, marbles, I mean.
However, the humor and graphics more than make up for this, though: at times, during a certain marble fatality, a handbroom and dustpan will appear and sweep up the pieces of your marble! This is the part that reminds me of Fantasia, during the Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence, where Mickey Mouse doesn't feel like doing his chores, so he casts a spell on a bunch of brooms to clean up for him, with disastrous results. Walt Disney would've been proud...or sued Atari, one of the two, for the similarity. (Heh, wouldn't that have been something, Atari being on the receiving end of a lawsuit, for once!)
And even though there was no federal law requiring voice synthesis for all games since voice synthesis first appeared in the arcades in the early 80s, this game actually doesn't need any, since the pitiful wailing of when your marble falls off the edge of a maze (guess it's afraid of heights?) is a really neat touch; you end up feeling pretty sorry for it!
There's also all kinds of unique level designs, marble enemies and all that appear as you progress through the game, and there's even a level where "everything you know is wrong", like gravity being defied, as the less you roll the trackball, the faster your marble will move. O...k!
This game was also ported to a lot of systems, and not just the Atari consoles, as I played a version for my Sega Genesis, which I was really surprised that I found the gamepad control to be even better than the arcade original's! That was a surprise, since I thought *NOTHING* would ever beat that excellent trackball! (Speaking of which, the control on here can seem a bit spotty, although that's usually due to people overdoing it, causing your marble to bounce a lot in between the walls of a maze, which will, again, cost you precious time.)
Believe it or not, though, my overall score of the game isn't very high, since I just didn't really like the game that much. Go ahead and want to flay my entrails around, big fans of the game (you might want to save your energy for the gnarly-type games, like Doom, shooting all the cops you want in Grand Theft Auto, or Mortal Kombat 25), but there was just something that I didn't really enjoy about it, although I still might eventually pick up the Genesis version (I had only rented it once) if I find it somewhere, due to showing it's appeal to everyone to ooh, ahhh, and laugh over it who have never seen it before. I'm still acknowledging it as a severe classic, though: I ain't THAT thick, at least! :)
And I still don't remember what I had for dinner last night. Meh well.