music and Marble Blast
a “retrospective” is a form of internet video clickbait, a deliberately vague term for a fan documentary that is neither history nor analysis; at best a review and at worst 1-6 hours of mining nostalgia for engagement by summarizing and reacting to things. but that's not why we're here.
Marble Blast is a 2002 marble-rolling platformer that came pre-installed on the iMac G4. you might remember it as the game that got princess into gamedev at age 9. it was made by GarageGames, a company founded in Eugene, Oregon. for a small price ($10? i don’t remember, i was 9) you could buy an upgrade called Marble Blast Gold, which came with additional levels and was by far the more popular version of the game. Gold was followed by Ultra (2006), a fan mod called Platinum (2007), a lot of other fan mods, and a spiritual successor called Marble It Up (2018).
but we’re not here for a Marble Blast retrospective. we’re here to talk about the significance of music in the history of Marble Blast.
part 1: Nardo Polo
before you get any high scores in Marble Blast, the leaderboard is dominated by a mysterious marble player called Nardo Polo.
it’s the handle of lead developer Mark Frohnmayer. it’s also a reference to a song called “Spaz Attack” by Seattle group 2nu, from their 1991 debut album Ponderous. the album is a series of spoken-word poetry dreamscapes, and in “Spaz Attack” the narrator of the story, assuming a false identity, introduces himself as “Nardo Polo, the greatest marble player who ever lived.”
if you listen to the song, and you’ve heard Marble Blast’s music and sound design, the resemblance is uncanny. the loops, the 80s bass, the low pitch-shifted voice (“spaz attack!”), the occasional stock sound effects, it’s all unmistakable: 2nu was the blueprint for Marble Blast. and not just the sound, but the visuals too. compare the cover art of the album’s titular single to Marble Blast’s textures:
those groovy abstract shapes and bright colors are the hallmarks of Memphis design, a movement that supposedly got its start with the Memphis Group in Italy in 1980.
the original Memphis designs were a little different from what people now recognize as the iconic "80s-90s geometric" style, but they obviously had an influence on the look of the era, which, by the way, also happened to be the era of spoken-word poetry slams.
2nu’s music and art embodied the aesthetics of 1991. about a decade later, 300 miles away, GarageGames carried on that legacy. it’s as if someone heard “Spaz Attack” and wondered, if this guy Nardo Polo is the greatest marble player who ever lived, just what kind of marble game does he play?
side note #1, and credit to babygirl for pointing this out: “Spaz Attack”, both in sound and in name, is oddly reminiscent of Ian Dury’s “Spasticus Autisticus” (1981) which itself is a protest song with its own interesting history. not sure exactly when this cover art was designed, but it’s somehow even more Memphis than 2nu:
side note #2: it's worth noting that Marble Blast had a lesser-known sister game called Chain Reaction (also called Gadgets?), developed by Marble Blast’s publisher Monster Studios and involving many of the same people. it came out after Marble Blast, but was in development first. the art style is similar, the fonts are the same (Dom Casual and Estro), and they even share a handful of music and graphical assets.
part 2: Ultra Future
in 2006, three years after Marble Blast Gold, there was a sequel: an Xbox 360 game called Marble Blast Ultra.
Marble Blast Ultra was, in a word, futuristic. the music was updated to a more contemporary trance style, and the visuals mostly fit the vibe. it’s somewhere between Y2K Future and Frutiger Aero, aesthetics commonly associated with the Xbox 360 era. at its peak, Marble Blast Ultra feels like a transcendent digital rave.
except, the whole time you're playing, you're surrounded by this weird renaissance-looking skybox with painterly clouds and roman numerals?
it’s a little confusing. any sense of futuristic gloss is thrown off by the constant looming presence of… architecture? clockpunk? davinci? trance emerged from new-age music, but this isn’t quite new-age, so what is it?
obviously a game is not required to draw all its energy from a single internet-ordained aesthetic. but it’s clear that Marble Blast Ultra is going for a feeling, and it’s unclear what feeling this cluttered atmosphere is supposed to evoke. maybe, like the gem radar, it's there to help orient the player? maybe it’s to market the game as a cerebral physics platformer, specifically for the nerd demographic of Xbox gamers?
jessica girlsoft has a more straightforward theory: Marble Blast Gold was made by 90s beatniks; Ultra was made by the same beatniks grown into 2000s dad-hipsters. the guys who listened to 2nu and beat poetry were now discovering dance music on iTunes and shopping at Barnes & Noble, surrounded by faux-vintage pseudo-academic imagery. “think Galileo on a Kindle”, says jessica. it's hard to find examples, but it was a thing.
so the aesthetic was not informed by the music; the music was just whatever these dudes happened to be listening to between podcasts, and the aesthetic was tangential. maybe that’s why, despite being a more polished game, Ultra doesn’t feel quite as cohesive as Gold.
part 3: Platinum Paradise
Marble Blast Platinum was a fan mod of Marble Blast Gold released in 2007, one year after Marble Blast Ultra. it was amazing.
a lot of the devs were inexperienced teenagers, and so the result was this janky homemade version of Ultra. which is (a) adorable and (b) actually kind of better? instead of the hipster skyboxes, there were moody cg renders of oceans and mountains that actually fit the 2000s trance vibe.
also the music was made in GarageBand, because GarageBand came pre-installed on the same iMac as Marble Blast and therefore every Marble Blast modder was obsessed with GarageBand. (and still is.)
Platinum was far from perfect. it was messy and full of bad levels and annoying mechanics. but as a work of art, it felt so alive compared to Ultra. these weren’t bookstore nerds trying to sell an Xbox game, they were GarageBand kids making an iMac game! a game full of arches and obelisks, magnets and teleporters, sunsets and moonlight! these kids could feel the music. homemade computer music for a homemade computer game.
GarageGames always supported and encouraged fan mods, and by passing the torch to a younger generation, they enabled Marble Blast to become the best version of itself. (until 10 years later when Platinum was subsumed into a trainwreck of a mod called PlatinumQuest and made virtually unplayable, but we don’t need to talk about that.)
part 4: Jessica
at the end of 2017 (the year of PlatinumQuest) (we don’t need to talk about it), princess released a marble platformer game called Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica. hey that's me!
“princess stop plugging your own game in this essay about Marble Blast!” ok first of all this is my blog so i can do what i want, but also, Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica is closer to Marble Blast canon than you might think.
princess was 9 when she started making custom Marble Blast levels. at the time, she was sharing them with the very first members of the Marble Blast modding community, and some of them cited her arrival as a catalyst for the movement really taking off. she made hundreds of (bad) levels, many of which are still circulating in level archives and the fanmade browser version. they've even been rebuilt by Steam Workshop users for the 2018 game Marble It Up. (which, like Jessica, was made in Unity.)
all of which is to say, princess directly influenced the course of Marble Blast history, and Celestial Hacker Girl Jessica can at least be considered a distant cousin of Marble Blast, even if the physics and mechanics are different. you’re welcome, Marble It Up developers. my paypal is email@example.com by the way.
anyway, Jessica is kinda like Marble Blast if it was powered by internet music: vaporwave, pc music, nightcore, vocaloids, whatever this is. we’re working on a sequel which has more of a 2020s post-internet hyperpop/industrial vibe. every princess game is influenced by music in one way or another. it doesn’t feel right without the music.
remember what we learned from Ultra, though! an aesthetic can be tangential to good music, but that doesn't mean it carries the same weight. if Jessica was simply a paint-by-numbers pastiche of album covers, or a collage of internet trash, it wouldn't hold any particular meaning.
princess was immersed in this world, and she made deliberate choices to pay tribute to the music and express how it made her feel, what it meant to her, not just what she saw in front of her or heard in passing.
part 5: Up and Away
the most recent Marble Blast of note is Marble It Up, a 2018 spiritual successor. it’s made by some of the original Marble Blast devs, plus people from the modding community, further blurring the line between “official” and “unofficial” Marble Blast games. (see, Jessica totally counts.)
the EDM is back, more house than trance this time, but still pretty solid. the visuals… have not moved past the dad phase.
at least this time it’s more millennial hipster dad than y2k hipster dad.
let's be honest: Marble It Up looks like a phone game. it's all neon lines and space rocks diluted in a noncommittal cloud of 80-90s nostalgia, 2010s internet awesomesauce, and 2020s hypercasual. it’s like hyperpop imagined by someone who’s never heard hyperpop and thinks EDM is hyperpop.
they forgot about the music, man! it’s Ultra all over again! the Platinum modders are old squares now, and they lost sight of what Marble Blast is all about. (jk i don't know their lives, maybe they're cool)
Marble It Up is not bad, it’s fine, but compare it to Gold and you can see there’s a personal touch that got lost somewhere along the way.
Marble Blast Gold was tacky for a reason. it wasn’t just a game about marbles, it was an esoteric puzzle box full of references to obscure beat poetry. it had soul. part of what makes art compelling is that it’s created by people, real people with their own culture and life experience and weird fixations on forgotten 90s bands.
Marble It Up is fun, and it has some good music, but it’s not about the music anymore. it is, unfortunately, just a game about marbles.
when music speaks directly to your soul, you should listen. channel that inspiration into something beautiful, no matter how weird it may seem. share it with the world. maybe you’ll inspire a generation of marblers.
if anyone asks, my marblesona is Helga the pony woman, the first woman to ever say “two wrongs don’t make a right, but three do.”