What started as something of a gamified tribute to M. C. Escher has been reduced, in recent years, to dazzling, minutes long dance thanks to modern speedrunning. Marble Madness was in many ways a forerunner to the art, and this winter the players who know the game best are closing in on its limits.
"I always remember that I was terrible at it," said Steve "Elipsis" Barrios, one of the game's foremost speedrunners. "I think in reality the game is just really hard, because one of the most common comments I get is 'Oh, I had this game but I never realised there were only 6 levels' and stuff like that."
When he decided to start speedrunning the game back in 2014, the world record belonged to one Andrew G, a runner who first made a name for himself with Super Mario Bros. even at one point showing off for its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto.
"It had been the record for six years and it seemed untouchable," said Elipsis. "I went from casual races to noticing that my sum of best was better than WR and then thinking, wow, if I can string together a good deathless run I could actually take this record."
Soon enough he had secured a record two seconds ahead of Andrew G's "untouchable" one. He kept pushing himself and eventually got it down to 2:44 last year before taking some time off.
Anyone who's played Marble Madness knows how hard it is, but unless you spent a lot of time trying to navigate its frustrating physics puzzles, you might not know just how short the game actually is. The game only has six levels and because Marble Madness is a race against time, an experienced player can complete the game several times inside of an hour.
For this reason the game isn't just a natural fit for speedrunning, it's the only way to play it. "It seems like the perfect forgiving yet optimised speedrun," said AD2 in an email, another of the Marble Madness series' veteran runners who specialises in the Genesis version. Deaths might be frequent but restart times are minimal, making it approachable for newcomers. Decades before Super Meat Boy, OlliOlli, or Trials, Marble Madness had already made tight gameplay loops a cardinal virtue.
In addition, the game has a clock and treats time like a scarce commodity with players having a limited number of seconds in which to complete each level and eventually the game, making every playthrough a speedrun by default. "The shortness of the game allows it to have a range of interesting and precise tricks in it because after a reset you are always less than three minutes from the end," said AD2.
Mark Cerny, the developer behind the original arcade version, explained that the race against time idea for Marble Madness was borrowed directly from another arcade game, Pole Position. In his 2013 GDC talk about creating the game, Cerny discussed how the limits of hardware at the time, and specifically the difficulty of working with raster graphics forced the team to strip away anything that wasn't necessary and stay focused on a single concept: steering a colourful blob across a series of warped mazes.
The shapes are simple but the geometry is precise, simulating the weight and feel of a marble as well as early 80s arcade cabinets could.
As a result, most of the game's secrets lie out in the open. While speedrunners have spent years combing through games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in search of any little wrinkle in the game's code that might give them a slight edge in completing it faster, Marble Madness is tightly wound and relies on the same handful of pixel-perfect stunts every playthrough.
One example is on the game's fifth level, Silly Race. In the Genesis version there are a row of birds which fly across one section of the level to obstruct the player's path, but it's possible to actually get out in front of them and shave precious seconds off a final run time.
On the NES version, a trick immediately after the bird section on Silly was what allowed Elipsis, another pillar of the series' speedrunning community, to break his previous world record by little more than half a second with a time of 2:43:684.
Getting your marble to a specific point on the screen — the third gridline to be precise — makes it possible to clip through a wall and save fractions of a second. It's something Elipsis spent months practicing in preperation for performing the game at this year's Summer Games Done Quick speedrunning marathon.
"What made me feel like I could get the 2:43 was how consistent I was getting to Silly Race from my SGDQ practice," Elipsis said in an email. "So I needed a run that was near flawless and then to pull off this stupid hard trick at the end. But I was going for every little time save on the way there. Fast Frame-rule 55 in practice, blind Intermediate race section, early hammers in Aerial."
What Elipsis refers to as "early hammers," for instance, is a part of the game where the player, if they're extremely practiced, can actually move faster than the view on the TV screen, allowing them to bypass traps intended to slow them down. Shaving a single heart beat off the game's world record meant nailing every trick he'd previously learned in addition zero-room-for-error one on Silly.
And by that same logic, Elipsis has more time in his back pocket that could be shaved off in the future if he was ever feeling up to it. "So if you take out the small mistake on the Ultimate Race I would have had maybe 2:43.2 or so," he said.
"So then we're talking about that run happening again, but with even more frame rules saved on the way to Silly, and then literally every corner done flawlessly and then the pixel perfect bounce and then the perfect Ultimate and that's your 2:42. Then I retire forever."
Despite the passion and dedication of a handful of runners like Elipsis and AD2, the game's speedrunning community remains surprisingly niche relative to the game's cultural significance (how Nintendo left it off the roster for the NES Classic is beyond me). But given the success and popularity of Elipsis' run at SGDQ 2017, and new records, both are hopeful the game will get more attention in the future, starting with its inclusion in the Best of NES competition this September.
There's something of a Xeno's Paradox for speedrunning where the more sophisticated playthroughs of a particular game become, the harder it is to keep progressing. It took years to close in on 2:42 and it could take years to get the rest of the way there. In the race for flawless speedruns, however, Marble Madness stands out as a clear contender.
"I think Marble Madness is unique in that it's one of the few speedruns that I believe has the potential to be absolutely perfect," said one of the game's earliest star players, Andrew G. While he's not sure we'll ever actually get to see that happen, he admits it feels like there's a real chance it could happen.