Xbox Live Arcade, how we love it. We're only half joking when we say that were it not for the plethora of ridiculously addictive titles available to dip into on during a spare moment, the 360 would be gathering dust by now. The irresistible instant fix allure of pick-up-and-play titles like Geometry Wars Evolved, Bejewelled, Hexic and Zuma kept us going through one of the dullest starts to a year in living memory. Factor in our undimmed competitive streak that ensures the need to claim the bragging rights in Gamerscore achievements and high scores, and it's no wonder it's the only thing gamers want to talk about these days.
But the problem with this quick fix gaming malarkey is that we need more fuel to fire our craving for instant thrills. Frankly, Microsoft can't get 'em up on the Live Marketplace quick enough. Needless to say, we were hungry to devour one of the most recent additions to the ever-growing line-up. Perhaps predictably, Marble Blast Ultra is another dusted down, updated version of a previously available Xbox Live Arcade offering, but one that definitely shouldn't be ignored.
Immediately recognisable to oldies as GarageGames' latest homage to crusty old mid 80s arcade hit Marble Madness, it's a direct evolution of the 'roll the ball to the goal' formula of old, rather than a subtle reinvention in the mould of the excellent Super Monkey Ball or Archer Maclean's Mercury.
In keeping with practically every Xbox Live Arcade title ever released, the concept is as effortlessly simple as they come, but all the better for it, frankly. In this instance, each course is set in an 'astrolabe arena suspended high in the clouds' with the idea to roll your marble to the goal, negotiating ramps and traps galore, with the occasional requirement to also collect a finite number of gems along the way. Each of the 60 available levels have a (fairly generous) par time which you can challenge yourself against, but unless you're hellbent on unlocking every Gamerscore achievement known to mankind, there's no real obligation to rush.
To aid you in your seemingly simple quest, a bunch of power-ups appear where needed, with things like a super jump, mega ball, speed boost, helicopter and the like making it possible to negotiate otherwise impossible hazards. Throw in crazily designed courses, icy sections, moving platforms, pinball bumpers, levels that you have to literally flip 90 degrees to properly explore and every other kind of gaming evil known to man and you'll get an idea of what to expect in Marble Blast Ultra.
Inevitably, with only 60 courses to complete it's not going to last all that long - especially once you factor in how easy the first 30 or so really are. The beginner courses are largely insultingly easy, and it's only as you inch towards the more advanced courses that the experience lasts more than a couple of minutes per course. The game's secret weapon - perhaps inevitably - is the time attack element, and although beating your own best time isn't a big incentive, we guarantee that once you get a few mates playing it, you'll all be desperately trying to shave off precious seconds to show everyone who's boss. It's only then that the true charm of the game shines through, and it becomes apparent how evil some of these courses really are.
In addition, there's also an online multiplayer version for up to eight players, which isn't quite as exciting as you might expect, but fun for a while. Essentially the idea is to grab gems ahead of your opponents within a specified time limit, using whatever power-ups to your advantage. With ten courses to choose from, there's certainly fun to be had, but it feels like more of a frantic-but-lightweight diversion to the main event than something you'll play in preference to the main single player game.
You'd certainly never buy a Live Arcade Game based on its technical prowess, but Marble Blast Ultra certainly looks the part, and represents a massive improvement on the almost shareware-esque standard of old. Replete with delightful shader effects, GarageGames has done a decent job of producing a (literally) very polished looking effort with a simplistic style that works. And a special mention for the excellent squeaky sound effects when you're slipping frantically on the ice. Lovely stuff.
For the money Marble Blast Ultra is definitely worth a look, and even if you can't bring yourself to shell out for it, there's a decent demo to sample first. Sure, it's not going to win awards for its longevity, but its instant playability and rampantly addictive qualities make is damned near irresistible. A fitting update to an enduring classic.