Review: Marble Blast Gold Really is a Blast

Sunday, 2004-07-04; 03:56:00

Gameplay, graphics, levels, and music are all very entertaining and well put together; upgrade to Gold version forces replay of old levels

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

Interested in a fun, easy-to-learn game that allows for gaming sessions that range from a few minutes to a few hours? Look no further than Marble Blast Gold. This game is packed full of marble-rolling action that's sure not to disappoint, and even becomes quite challenging.

Marble Blast Gold, created by GarageGames, is a simple game where you maneuver a marble around an obstacle course, trying to get to the exit. Sometimes, there are other objectives as well, such as collecting a number of gems that are strategically placed around the course, or finishing the course in a set amount of time. The game boasts 100 levels (24 easy, 24 intermediate, and 52 advanced) which get increasingly difficult and force the player to learn a number of different strategies for marble-maneuvering in order to survive the level.

The first thing you'll notice about Marble Blast Gold is that it boasts excellent controls: the main controls are the 4 keys that move you in the four primary directions. The camera is placed behind your ball so you can see not only the platforms and structures in front of you but a bit behind your marble as well. The camera is also user-controllable by four different keys. The mouse can be used to control the camera in a more natural way as well: it can either control simply the direction in which you are facing (simply by rotating the camera around in the horizontal plane), or you can allow the mouse to rotate the camera in any direction by checking the "Always Free Look" option in preferences. Jumping is accomplished by another key on the keyboard, and powerups can be activated by either using yet another key or the mouse button.

When I first played Marble Blast Gold, I initially started using one hand to control both the moving and camera keys, with the other hand controlling the jump and powerup keys. Instead of this, I've found the best setup for optimal control of the marble is to use one hand for the direction keys and the jump key, and use the mouse for free looking and activating powerups using the mouse button. Since the maneuvering controls are always relative to which way the camera is facing, you can use the mouse to change the camera direction while going around turns and other obstacles, making it easier to naturally move around the course.

Enabling "always free look" allows you to move the camera so you can see above you and around you with a flick of your wrist.

The stock levels in Marble Blast Gold are very well architectured. (For the curious, all of the levels in the regular or .mac versions of Marble Blast are included in Marble Blast Gold.) The beginner levels take you through the basics of maneuvering and controlling your marble in the game, and also through the various terrains, powerups, and obstacles. These levels go by very quickly, so for the novice Marble Blast Gold player, it doesn't hurt to go through these just to get yourself oriented to the gameplay. The intermediate levels become very entertaining, getting into the real fun of the game. Advanced levels are tough, often taking more than a few tries to finish, but only in rare cases do the levels simply frustrate you. Many of the levels are also styled in the form of familiar places: there's a level designed like a skate park, one like a racecar track, a roller coaster, a skee-ball game, and a maze.

It's very hard to get bored of the levels in Marble Blast Gold. The only danger to your marble in any level is going out of bounds by falling off the track or running into an obstacle, in which case the level is automatically restarted. If you hit a mine or fall through a trap door and manage to stay on the course, then you're still able to continue. Although once in a while there's a level that's really hard to get through, you usually don't have to spend more than 30 seconds to make up for your mistake. And the advanced levels offer a lot of interesting twists that aren't found in other levels: platforms that rapidly rise to shoot up your ball high in the air, acrobatic platforms combined with super speed powerups that allow you to loop up and back, and levels that are designed to be like ski slaloms with holes through which your marble can fall. Obstacles like tornadoes that fling your marble in a random direction, fans that try to push your marble off the edge, and trapdoors that drop out from under your marble keep you on your feet and looking for stable ground. Even the terrains can vary, and give you a lot of traction (grass), very little traction (mud), or even no traction at all (space).

One of the best parts about Marble Blast Gold are the various powerups that you can pick up to help in finishing each level. There are super jump powerups, that allow you to jump to greater heights than usual, super speed powerups that allow you to bridge large gaps, gyrocopters that make you fall very slowly, super bounce powerups that allow you to bounce higher than normal, and shock absorbers that prevent you from bouncing at all. Marble Blast Gold even has powerups called "gravity modifiers", which (obviously enough) change the direction in which gravity pulls you. This allows for very intriguing levels like one shaped like a Moebius strip: you actually traverse the whole strip picking up gravity modifiers along the way. Although these gravity modifiers make the game very interesting, they can also make it very frustrating, as is the case with the Escher's Maze levels.

After navigating around Escher's Maze for a few minutes, you'll be totally lost looking for that last gem. And then later you do it again, only with a timer.

The Moebius strip. Now's your chance to be one of those ants crawling around it!

Another great thing about the game is that informational messages often pop up at certain points in the level to inform you about what you need to do or what a certain object does. These not only appear on the beginner levels, but also on intermediate and advanced levels, so you're never totally lost at what to do in a level. For advanced levels, there's usually only a tip at the beginning of a level, but it's very useful.

The graphics in Marble Blast Gold aren't meant to be too realistic, but enough to allow you to easily recognize some of the objects in the game, like the marble, floors and walls, danger and caution signs, and the gems and powerups you pick up. Everything is very colorful (including your marble), and it all seems to go in line with the fun atmosphere of the game. You might get a little annoyed by the music provided with the game, though. Like the graphics, the electronic music is appropriate for the style of the game, but it repeats after only a short while. Fortunately, the music can be turned off completely, and you can even have iTunes running in the background playing the music you prefer without disrupting smooth gameplay.

It's a long fall down to the ending platform! Many of the advanced levels, including this one called "Free Fall", are short-lived but require delicate maneuvering.

As for performance of the game: don't worry if you've only got a relatively modest computer. GarageGames recommends a G4 processor, Mac OS X 10.1 or higher, at least 64 MB of RAM, and any OpenGL compatible 3D graphics accelerator. On my 800 MHz G4 iMac, the game ran very smoothly even at 1440x900 resolution. However, on a 600 MHz G3 iBook, the gameplay was just as smooth at 800x600 resolution as it was on the iMac, as long as I changed to 16-bit color. A demo of Marble Blast Gold is available so that you can make sure performance is adequate on your own computer, as well. (If you want to access screen resolutions that aren't available through the game's preferences, simply press the tilde key once to enter console mode, and then type "SetResolution(1440,900);", changing the numbers to your desired resolution. Note that capitalization and the semicolon at the end are very important. Simply press the tilde key again to exit out of the console.)

The physics engine of Marble Blast Gold is excellent: all motions are fluid, even while adjusting speed and momentum to what you would expect in the real world. For example, when on a moving platform, you have to constantly monitor your marble's position and speed because of its inertia, in case the platform turns or slows down. Also, the direction you bounce in is affected by the spin of your marble, so backspin and forwardspin can be either very useful or very annoying. The game does allow you to change your marble's direction of travel and speed in the air, though, but this is necessary in order to make gameplay reasonable. If it wasn't for this, it would be much harder to control where you end up after being launched into the air, and many of the levels in Marble Blast Gold would be virtually impossible.

You have to be a bit careful in certain situations when playing the game, though, because you could run into some unexpected behaviors. For each level, there are invisible barriers beyond which are designated "out of bounds"; once you go outside these barriers, the level is automatically restarted. The only problem is that these barriers are in every direction. Sometimes you can rocket your marble very far up into the air, in which case you go out of bounds even though you would still be able to continue playing the level after coming back down. This got a little irritating in one particular level where two superspeeds combined with a "half-pipe" repeatedly caused this behavior to occur. It would be nice if there were no out-of-bounds limits in the up direction.

Another level was particularly troublesome crash-wise. In the Moebius strip level, gravity modifiers were spaced closely together, enough so that you wouldn't fall off the track while going around. The problem is that if you catch a gravity modifier while in the air, the game freezes, and you have to force quit it. While this wouldn't usually be a big issue, Marble Blast Gold forgets the levels that you completed since you last launched the game, if it crashes, so you'd have to play them over again. Marble Blast Gold has only ever crashed for me on the Moebius strip level, but because of this flaw, it might be wise to quit Marble Blast Gold every few levels, especially if you're on the advanced ones.

If you DO manage to get bored of the game and its stock levels, Marble Blast Gold also supports custom levels that have been created by the Marble Blast community. (Many of these custom levels require Marble Blast Gold, but some may work with the regular version.) They're relatively easy to install with the provided instructions. A Java-based map editor also exists, although since it is only the source code, you'll have to do a bit of compiling to get a working application.

Marble Blast Gold costs $19.95 for a single license. If you previously bought the regular version of Marble Blast, you can upgrade to the Gold version (with 28 advanced levels over the regular version) for only $5. However, .mac users and "MarbleBlaster box copies" do not qualify for the upgrade.

If you're a first timer to Marble Blast Gold, it is definitely worth the $19.95 (try it out for yourself). However, if you're upgrading, be aware that if you want to play the new levels, you'll need to beat the original 24 advanced levels AGAIN. (You don't need to go through the Beginner or Intermediate levels a second time.) As I had previously downloaded the regular version of Marble Blast through .mac, this was very frustrating. Upgraders may be turned off by this, but if you had fun with the original levels and really enjoyed the gameplay, it might be worth it to endure the first 24 advanced levels again.

-- Simone

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