Marbles. We all played with them as kids and so when, in 1982, Atari's Mark Cerny created Marble Madness, a game based on the venerable playground activity, it was a guaranteed hit. The premise behind the game was simple: guide the marble to the exit, avoiding hazards en route. It's as basic as can be, but the combination of great course design, challenging game play, eye-catching visuals and one of the best video game sound tracks of the early 80s meant that it was as addictive as they get.
The game is played from an isometric perspective, in order to give the illusion of the courses being three dimensional. With the aid of some Escher-like level design, you genuinely feel as through you are progressing through a 3D terrain and can clearly determine when hazards are on your platform. All told there are just 6 courses in the game, some of which take less then a minute to complete, meaning that it's possible to finish the game in less than 10 mins. However, like most games of that era getting good enough to finish at all takes months of practice. I've never got past the 4th. The difficulty comes in two parts. 1.) The hazards, which range from narrow or steeply banked sections of the courses, to hostile marbles, acidic platforms and marble-gobbling bouncing tubes.
Marble Madness was subsequently ported to every platform going throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s. Even today you can get a rather good clone on Android and PCcalled Flarble Badness. However, the arcade machine used trackballs to provide control over your marbles, which were far more precise and responsive than using a keyboard, joystick, mouse or even touch screen controls of any of the home versions.
The video below shows the game in action. The screen display isn't the best, but it does show how crucial the trackballs were.
Finally, I can't talk about this game without talking about a cover of the title track by indie musicians Stemage and Disasterpeace. They manage to take everything that makes the track so memorable and elevate it to become a soaring, majestic, uplifting piece of music. You can listen to it here.