Why play with a real life marble when you can put one in a video game? Atari Games asked gamers this way back in 1984 with the release of Marble Madness. Now, Binary Takeover is taking it one step further, asking the inevitable follow-up question: why play with only one? In Lost Marbles, a self-dubbed PC/Mac mash-up of Marble Madness and the classic platformer The Lost Vikings, players steer up to three marbles at a time through a 3D world of increasingly perilous puzzles.
Lost Marbles is a rare case of pure truth in advertising; the story is nothing more and nothing less than what the title suggests. Three marbles, one player, and a finish line waiting just on the other side of danger. Controls are fittingly simple, restricted to directional commands, one special move, and camera angle adjustment, and both movement and mouse sensitivity are blissfully precise. This simplicity in design allows players to direct all their focus (and inevitable puzzler frustration – or as I like to call it, puzzlation) toward the main course, the puzzles.
The pacing of the increase in difficulty and complexity in Lost Marbles is commendably pitch-perfect. Initial stages welcome even the most naïve of newbie gamers with open arms, guiding players step by step through various gameplay elements, including basic controls and level navigation. The learning curve slopes gently up from here, gradually introducing more and more challenging scenarios and amping up the level of dexterity and precision timing necessary in order to move forward. What begins as basically a telekinetic take on golf ends up as a mad scramble through fire and steam and spikes to reach the relative, temporary safety of the other side.
However, if the name of your game is nightmarish challenge, feel free to try hardcore mode. Not only are the puzzles harder, so is the punishment for failure. Death sends you back to the beginning of the previous level, as if the game is saying, “Say, did you cheat last time? Better do it again, just to be sure.” (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
The twist of turning a single marble into a trio introduces an interesting element one would not normally expect to see in a game starring inanimate objects as the protagonists: teamwork. Each of the marbles has particular attributes which reflect the materials they are composed of. The steel marble is close to indestructible and can use its inertia to “dash” across short distances; the paper marble is fragile but light, and can crumple up to fit into tight spaces; the rubber marble can leap tall buildings (or at least clear low obstacles) in a single bound. The strengths and weaknesses of each complement one another, allowing the group to accomplish together what none could accomplish alone. Sort of like the Avengers, but shinier and less argumentative.
The look and feel of the game is also pretty comic bookish, including bright colors, exaggerated sound effects, and an overall cartoony feel. The combination of vibrant (if less than dazzling) graphics and a cheery-muzak soundtrack is a definite nod to the retro hits from which the developers drew their inspiration, but with the nice added touch of marble appearance customization and a modern edge. Speaking of edges, words cannot express the gratitude I feel towards Binary Takeover’s art department for the simple joy of clearly defined edges. There are few things worse in a platformer than not being able to see where a ledge ends and a drop begins. Lost Marbles is a much-appreciated departure from this all-too-common issue, and it saved my marbles many a time from unnecessary death.
It may not be the most exciting or groundbreaking game out there; adrenaline junkies will need to look elsewhere for their fix, and the more narratively inclined may find disappointment in the utter lack of any story whatsoever. But for those seeking a nice, solid brainteaser, or even a pleasant time-killer, Lost Marbles just might be the golden ticket.
At the very least, the free demo is worth a look, and those interested in buying have the added bonus of looking forward to free updates with additional content in the future. Both the demo and the full game are available on the official site, and Lost Marbles is also currently up for voting on Steam Greenlight.[review pros="Brain-tantalizingly challenging puzzles, intriguing teamwork element, great use of physics, variety in marble and level design, pleasant aesthetics, gentle learning curve, free updates" cons="Lacks long-term entertainment value and cross-genre appeal, graphics could use some polish, lacks ambition" score=79]