Retro Game Story: Marc Cerny and Atari Marble Madness (1984)

The Story of Retro Games: Marc Cerny and the Story Behind Marble Madness on

The smiling young man posing for this photo holding a million pages of code (strictly printed on continuous paper) is Marc Cerny, a veteran of the video game industry, since the early 80s.

Marc Cerny designed Marble Madness for Atari, his first commercial success, at the age of 17 and since then he has never stopped. He traveled between America and Japan, working with Sega (Sonic the Hedgehog 2) and Sony (Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Jak and Daxter, Rachet & Clank), until he founded his own consulting company, Cerny Games. In short, think of a successful game released for Playstation from 1996 to today: Probably in the development team you will find, hidden somewhere, the name of Marc Cerny. His skills were essential in the design of the Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita, too.

In 2004 he received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the International Game Developers Association and the “Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences” in 2010 introduced him in their Hall of Fame. In short, in Cerny’s house the shelves are almost full of prizes and awards.

But let’s go back to its origins in Atari, and to his first great success, Marble Madness. A success that Marc Cerny lived mainly behind the scenes, as Atari did not want its developers to become more important than the product they had made.

Atari invested heavily in creative teams, but the ultimate goal was solely the economic return. For this reason, recalls Marc Cerny, it happened frequently that almost complete video games, which may have required long gestation times, were canceled out of the blue, just because they had recorded poor results in the field test phase. It was the restricted public called to test the game that decided its fate.

Even the very first project by Marc in Atari, Qwak !, was canceled shortly before production due to a too lukewarm reception by the testers.

Atari’s requests for the game that would become Marble Madness were clear: it had to be absolutely original in terms of concept and control system. Furthermore the game should have included a two-player mode … because two coins at a time were better than one.

The design of a video game in the 1980s followed simple rules: choose a subject, a character or an original element and build a game around it, in the fastest, most direct and spontaneous way possible.

Marc Cerny was fascinated by three-dimensional graphics. In the gaming field, video games like Battlezone and I, Robot had shown that much could be done even with primitive vector elements, but for Marc results were still too uninvolving and stylized.

The Story of Retro Games: Marc Cerny and the Story Behind Marble Madness on

When Crystal Castles, by his colleague Franz Lanzinger, was released, Marc Cerny experienced a mixture of envy and admiration, and realized that the project he had in mind could only be achieved by combining three-dimensional elements with a more detailed, hand-made raster graphic. The result would have given that illusion of depth that he was looking for, inspired, in some ways, by the drawings of M.C. Escher.

M.C. Escher drawing inspiring Marble Madness - Retro Game story on

The first concept of the game was very similar to a minigolf simulation. Through a system of bumpers, the player had to modify the ball path on the screen to reach a finish line. The control system should even have used a touch screen.

Afterwards, Cerny proposed a competitive running game between two spheres, controlled by motorized trackballs, which spinned continuously, imitating the rolling of the objects on the screen. In practice this system should have returned the feeling of the spheres to the player, but in reality it looked more like a sadistic palm-grinder torture mechanism.

The Story of Marble Madness arcade game by Marc Cerny on

Proceeding with the development, Marc realized that the key to the success of his game had to be cleanliness, essentiality. For this reason, strange mechanisms, complex swings and colorful moving surfaces were erased from the project, to make room for clean and linear game levels, timed paths, all suspended in a beautiful semi-three-dimensional space, accentuated by shadows placed at the right point. As a control system, they opted for a very simple console with two trackballs, one for each player.

Retro Game Marble Madness control trackball system on

Compared to other video games, Marble Madness didn’t have a background story, it didn’t have a “mission” to accomplish. There was no real reason why the player had to push the ball to the finish line. There were no prizes or princesses to save. Marble Madness was a game that simulated a basically useless task. However, in its simplicity, it was incredibly compelling and well-built in every element.

And when, in the final meeting, Marc Cerny presented his basically finished game, illustrating how clean and abstract lines made Marble Madness unique, one of the managers proposed to replace the marble with a likeable mouthed character, a kind of Pac-Man who could attract children. Marc Cerny wanted probably to jump out of the window.

MArble Madness Retro Game marquee. The Story of Marc Cerny on

In the end they found a compromise, leaving the game as it was but using marbles with a reflection that looked like a half smile on the cabinet graphics. “So it will look more friendly,” they thought.

The video game was released in December 1984 in 4000 units, a number not so high but enough to earn the title of best-seller of the year. The video game also had an infinite number of conversions for almost all the home systems of the time.

Marble Madness is a video game that Marc Cerny remembers fondly and even with a little regret. “In hindsight,” says Marc Cerny, “I wanted to perfect it further, particularly in terms of longevity.” The game, in fact, lasts in its entirety only four minutes, divided into six short levels.