There are a few games that capture a very specific time for me: Boom Boom Rocket, Geometry Wars, Hexic HD, Luxor 2, Uno and – yep – Marble Blast Ultra will always be January 2006. I’d gotten my mitts on an Xbox 360 a couple of months prior (a housemate couldn’t pay rent for a few months, so I subbed for them and got a 360 as thanks), and I was back into gaming in a big way. In particular, a wonderful number was driving my new hobby: Gamerscore.
I only had a few games to work through on the 360 – I seem to remember Viva Pinata and Call of Duty 2 playing on repeat – but that delicious ‘blip’ of Gamerscore was still enough to motivate me. It was all about getting the full 1000G, no matter the lengths, and me and my mates would race to max games out before each other.
It all seems a bit twee now. There are too many games out there, all spaffing out ridiculous quantities of Gamerscore for anyone to consider chasing them all. But if you can imagine the early days of Gamerscore, chasing the full range of 1000Gs didn’t seem so ridiculous. Gamerscore was a valuable commodity, and there were only so many games around to boost your total. It really shouldn’t have been motivating to someone who considered himself to be a functioning adult (and in the grand scheme of today’s ills, it sounds trivial), but it was actually quite an exciting time to be playing Xbox.
Imagine, then, how it felt when Xbox Live Arcade arrived. Sure, this wasn’t a new thing – the OG Xbox had Live Arcade, albeit with the bonkers hurdle of ordering it from the official Xbox website and receiving it by post. But suddenly we had a service that was pumping out games weekly, available to download without a disk, by the gods, and – most importantly – with a sweet, sweet 200G attached.
Some weird switch flipped in my head. I was buying games that I would never have bought on disk, would never have willingly paid for in a store. But the hush-hush transaction of cheap games for Xbox Points didn’t really feel like spending money. So into my backlog went Boom Boom Rocket, Geometry Wars, Hexic HD, Luxor 2, Uno and Marble Blast Ultra.
These games all have places in my heart for different reasons: I could probably still recall every beat of Rave New World on Boom Boom Rocket, and I had too many embarrassing encounters with bearded men on Uno. But Marble Blast Ultra lingers in the memory for its multiplayer scrambles, and the clattering infuriation of hunting for the best times per level, all in the service of getting that 200G.
If you’ve never played Marble Blast Ultra, you’ve probably played a dozen games that feel like it. It was itself a sequel to Marble Blast Gold, which was in the first salvo of games on the OG Xbox. But really it’s forbear was Marble Madness – something I’d played to death on the old NES – which too gave birth to classics like Monkey Ball, Neverball and Switchball.
In Marble Blast Ultra you were a marble (duh), but the camera was reasonably well-zoomed in, even more so than Monkey Ball, making the game slightly disorienting. You rolled around arenas in the hunt for the finish pad, but holes, walls, obstacles and traps all got in your way. Unusually for the genre, you had the ability to jump and double-jump, I seem to remember, which gave the rollathon a slightly clumsy feel. On top of that, you had power-ups and, if the sketchy memory serves, they allowed you to become a kind of megaball or give you super-boost abilities.
Having – just about – been old enough to remember the days of shareware on PC, and the thousands of games you could get on the cheap, Marble Blast Ultra reminded a little of those halcyon days. It really was barebones, with no character to speak of, and it felt like a stripping down of Super Monkey Ball, rather than an expansion on it. It was as vanilla as they came, and that was the hallmark of the PC shareware days, where games felt like they’d reversed rather than progressed.
So why write a Looking Back article on it, if it wasn’t much more than shovelware? Well, it’s probably because I pumped dozens and dozens of hours into it. The achievements in Marble Blast Ultra were mean, perhaps even classified as stingy. There were 60 levels, broken up into three difficulty levels, and you got achievements NOT for the individual times you managed to pull in, but the total time across multiple levels. That made Marble Blast Ultra a marathon time trial, and one that I could shave milliseconds off by improving on specific levels. Eventually the achievements toppled and I had them, but then something else had me: Marble Blast Ultra had another of the features that Xbox was pushing at the time. Leaderboards.
Thanks to hunting the Gamerscore, I was dangerously close to the top of the leaderboards per level. So off I went again, merrily trying to get my name to the top. Having reached the top 5 on one level, I had to force myself to stop, and then entered the multiplayer arenas. Genuinely, these were an unexpected joy and we’d turn to them after a pub jaunt. I can smell the kebabs now.
Marble Blast Ultra will always be intertwined with the launch of XBLA; the excitement of getting games digitally, immediately; the sudden new avenue for getting Gamerscore, and the hidden gems lost amongst the dross. XBLA grew and grew and had its purple patches with the Summers of Arcade, gifting us gems like Fez and Braid.
But I will always remember Marble Blast Ultra, the founding father of XBLA, and the lengths I went to for a measly 200G. Now we can get that for pressing start on a Ratalaika visual novel game, but then… then it was a thrilling (and infuriating) hunt. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Do you remember Marble Blast Ultra and the beginning days of XBLA , achievements and Gamerscore? What games bring back that golden glow for you? Let us know in the comments!