For decades, Atari's scrapped prototype arcade sequel Marble Madness II has been one of the un-emulated "holy grails" for popular multi-platform emulator MAME. This has limited gameplay to a handful of rare cabinet collectors and convention goers. That changed this week, though, with the unexpected and unexplained leak of a full Marble Madness II ROM that can now be played by the world at large.
After confirming the ROM's authenticity by comparing its gameplay to extant footage, we looked into the how and why of getting this game running via emulation—and talked to community experts about Marble Madness II's unique mix of exciting arcade history and disappointing gameplay.
A tale of two Marble Madness II's
First, a bit of background. In 1991, seven years after the hit release of Marble Madness, Atari Games set out to create a sequel that included "more of everything," as designer Bob Flanagan put it in a 2020 interview with Antstream. That prototype sequel, subtitled Marble Man, packed in 17 large and complicated mazes, loads of new enemies, three-player support, a pinball-style bonus game, and even power-ups that let players fly across the level or crush threats in their path.
Initial tests of Marble Man cabinets with internal focus groups and at an external test location didn't go well, though. While that might have been the result of stiff competition from flashier new cabinets like Street Fighter II, Atari blamed the performance on the game's trackball controls.
"From the Focus we learned that the trakball [sic] is the more intuitive control to roll a marble, and that it is the desired control for the high-end player," Atari wrote in an internal "Changes to Marble Madness II" document archived by the historians at AtariGames.com. "But, the joystick was perceived as an easier control for a beginner to learn the game. Thus, we would like to change the trakball to a joystick and see if we gain a wider audience."
We all love a good 'what if' story, [and] unreleased games like this are the closest we get to peeking into alternate realities.
Video Game History Foundation Founder Frank Cifaldi
Flanagan would later call the shift to a joystick-and-accelerator-button control scheme a "mistake" driven by a lack of faith in players. "By the time the game was to come out, more people had played the game that way in the home market and didn’t even know what a trackball was," he told Antsream.
Early Marble Man testers also reportedly reacted badly to brief animations where the marble transformed into a humanoid superhero with a face, spouting goofy sound clips like "The Adventures of Marble Man" (as seen in this footage from a collector). These transformations were described as "hokey, stupid, and meaningless," according to Atari documents, leading the team to "remove Marble Man from the entire game" for a second prototype.
"I made the design choice to target too young an audience with the Marble Man character," Flanagan told Antstream. "I should have kept it abstract like the original."
The second, trackball-free, Marble-Man-free Marble Madness II prototype reportedly didn't do much better than the first in limited location tests. Rather than rework the game yet again, Atari Games quickly scrapped wider production plans for Marble Madness II to refocus on Guardians of the Hood, a simple brawler featuring digitized human actors. Marble Madness designer Mark Cerny, who was not involved with the development of either sequel prototype, told Next Generation magazine in 1997 that "at most 10 to 12 boards exist" of the ill-fated Marble Madness II.