I'm really struggling to play Marble Madness. And not because it's incredibly difficult. It's just too much. Too much sensory overload, too many childhood memories evoked by a single sprite or sound effect.
It's a game I haven't touched since my hilariously inept 12 year-old attempts. That was 21 years ago. I'm surely better at it now.
I'm no better at it now.
Atari's Marble Madness was originally developed for the arcades and became a big hit. Floppy-haired kids were challenged to guide a marble through Escher-ish mazes using a trackball, and encouraged to seek independent glory.
Such was the game's success it received a port to every gaming device imaginable. It reached me via my father's Atari ST, about three years after the original release.
I love my dad very much, but his crime of getting an ST instead of an Amiga has been hard to forgive. And I'm not dragging up the tedious argument over which machine was better (I believe the correct answer is n, where n = the machine you owned). I'm lamenting the accompanying magazines.
There was, for a time, incredible multiformat mag Zero. But when it came to specialist publications, to say the ST fell short is like describing the Grand Canyon as quite a big hole. The Amiga had the greatest gaming magazine of all time, Amiga Power - the guidebook followed by anyone worth reading today. The Atari had, er, ST Format.
I'm sorry to any Format writers out there, but to a 12 year-old in 1989, that was about as cruel a thing as that year's cancellation of Doctor Who. I remember scouring the pages of features about making boring music or drawing a sphere in DPaint, trying to find something silly, something naughty. I can recall one slightly cheeky feature about how to clean your mouse's ball.
But I still loved my ST. To compensate for the above loss I did at least have the bee mouse cursor, which no stupid Amiga owner could compete with. When something was loading we Atari owners didn't see a boring egg timer - we saw a busy buzzy bee. A bee that I would buzz around the screen, while singing the "Buzzy Bee" song. ("Ooh, buzzy buzzy bee, buzzy buzzy bee, buzz bu- oh it's loaded.")
Which doesn't in the slightest bring me back to Marble Madness. As evocative as that bright green desktop and its accompanying insects are the isometric, minimalist mazes that I could no more roll a marble through then than now.
The game was famous for its difficulty - praised for it, in fact. Arcade gamers liked to be challenged, to empty every ten pence from their wallet into the machine so as to suffer as much as possible, and afford no bus. And those sadists ensured that the home computer ports were just as tricky.
In a world before physics, games were allowed to invent their own laws. Marble Madness's marble is sort of affected by the more natural laws, accelerating as it goes down slopes, coming to a stop after it's rolled so far on a flat surface.
But it also added a few new rules to Newton's list, like its weird propensity to stick to two-dimensionally thin edges, or seeming desperation to refuse to turn around and throw itself off a ledge.
But as if just moving the marble weren't tricky enough, Atari Games decided it was time to introduce an evil enemy marble as soon as the second level. Along with green sausage worm creatures that gobbled you up, raising and lowering floors, a second evil enemy marble bent on your destruction, and a cruel one-minute time limit to ensure a game over was only ever seconds away.
I'm astonished by the patience I displayed as a child. My willingness to replay the same few levels of a game in the hope of just once scraping through to the next is something I would be hard pressed to generate today.
I can remember so many hours spent with Impossible Mission 2, despite never figuring out what I was supposed to do with the tapes (I still don't know to this day) and so never progressing.
I spent an idiotic portion of my life playing the first three screens of Chuckie Egg 2, never to discover what happened next. And I was content to struggle with those opening levels of Marble Madness, in a way I just cannot fathom today.
Perhaps it's the glitchiness, the way it so often feels unfair when you fail. Or the fact that not completing one of its enormously difficult levels means having to go back and repeat the slightly less enormously difficult ones again. Whatever it is, it certainly comes down to my being a terrible person.
So of course I never knew that it was only six mazes long. Six! And people thought Homefront was short. But for me then, and seemingly for me now, it may as well be infinite for all the chance I have of ever finding out what the sixth level even looks like.
However, one of the best motivating factors for returning to the game despite all its complexity is the absolutely stunning, almost frightening soundtrack. Composed by Brad Fuller and Hal Canon, the music combines with the deathly noise as you fall and the bl-el-el-el-el-eb sound of reappearing at the most recent checkpoint to bring back too many sense memories at once.
In fact, I can feel traces of techniques, best paths and mistakes to avoid reawakening inside me. Recollections of a time when I was okay with endless, repetitive failure.
In fact, so much of this game just seems sinister. Its minimal design, those long, deadly drops in the Ariel maze's Formica hell, the enemies like alien organic tubes and puddles, and most horrific of all, the broom that briskly sweeps you away on failure... It's like being shown a fever dream from my childhood.
Fortunately, Marble Madness doesn't seem to have scarred me for life. Little has changed. I've spent my day filling the three-letter spaces on the high score card with "BUM", "POO" and "WEE", and shouting "not fair!" as my marble rolls backward off the narrow path. Any minute now, I expect my mum will tell me to stop playing because it's time for Scouts.