• Recently inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, Mark Cerny produced one of the most influential and innovative games of the 1980s. Marble Madness originally hit arcades way way back in 1984. The game was entirely controlled by a trackball, and players took the role of a marble navigating a tricky network of platforms, lifts and ledges to get the marble to the finish line.

    Thanks to some superb gameplay and the illusion of physics as different forces acted on your marble as you sped through each level, the game spawned various clones over the years and the core idea is still an intriguing one. Enough that even now, in the era of proper physics emulation on consoles, we’re still seeing games that hark back to Cerny’s excellent original.

    Switchball borrows several elements from Marble Madness but rather than control the game with a trackball you use the Playstation 3’s sixaxis controller. Most players will opt for joystick control, but sado-masochists among you might want to opt for the tilt control method. I gave it a try, and it actually is quite responsive but personally I found it a little too vague for moments when fine control and a deft touch are required on trickier levels.

    Switchball brings marble rolling right up to date, shot through with physics and kinetic effects that give the game a serious challenge that goes beyond just rolling a ball around.

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    Styled in a blissful blue-skyed Steampunk fashion, the game breaks the player in gently with a single ball type to start with. As you progress, you gain the ability to “morph” your ball into other types of spheroid at various locations scattered throughout a level. These transformations are necessary as each ball type has its own characteristics that are vital to solving a level’s puzzles. For instance, transforming into a heavy metal ball will allow you to move heavy obstacles out of the way, and also give you a better footing on platforms where fans blow air streams across your path. The power ball gives you temporary special abilities triggered by the X button, and the air ball can roll easily up steep slopes and also be filled with helium to float through the air in several locations. Mixing the different ball types keeps the gameplay fresh and often ensures that there is more than one way to crack each level depending on your skill and dexterity.

    At the start of each level, you’re flown to each location in a cool little Da-Vinci-Styled Gyrocopter. Once you’re dropped off at the start of a level, you must find the best path through to the pickup copter at the end.

    Each level consists of raised platforms and ramps hanging in mid air. Some platforms are nice and easy to roll around on, with safety rails to keep your ball in place. Others are trickier, angled or similarly designed to pitch your ball off into nothingness. Luckily falling off a platform doesn’t mean starting right at the beginning of a level, as handy checkpoints are dotted around your route.

    In addition to the simple platform puzzles, various pieces of machinery act on your ball. Everything from fans, to cannons, to air ducts can pitch your ball into the air or put it in peril. Each puzzle on early levels has a pretty obvious solution if you hunt around a bit, but on later levels the solution isn’t always readily presented, and your grey matter will be twisted, pushed and pulled around as you try and figure out what the game requires of you. For instance, one level sees you presented with a grid of boxes, some metal and some wood. You need to work out how to attract the metal boxes with switched magnets, in a way that leaves a clear path through the boxes to the other side of the playing field. Certain ball types can’t move metal boxes so you have to work out how to morph into the right ball type.

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    Other physical elements also hinder your progress. Cloth sections ripple between platforms, and if you try to roll across these with a heavy ball they will tear and pitch you into the abyss. Certain sections can only be squeezed through with smaller balls. All in all, Switchball’s puzzles are nicely designed and the difficulty curve is gradual enough so you don’t run into any nasty brick walls as far as skill levels go.

    Each of Switchballs main gameworlds has a different theme, and often the theme will have a bearing on the type of puzzles you’ll encounter and need to compensate for. The environment types are Skyworld, Iceworld, Caveworld, Cloudworld and Lavaworld and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what sort of difficulties you will encounter in each.

    Speedy progress through a level reaps rewards; with gold, silver and bronze trophies awarded the quicker you get through each area. The game is split into timed and infinite modes, so if you just fancy playing for kicks, infinite mode doesn’t give you a countdown – you can just take your time and get a feel for each level as it unfolds.

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    Switchball is certainly one of the most highly polished and accomplished of the recent ball-rolling games, and the Playstation 3 version is silky smooth, visually crisp and extremely easy to control whichever method you choose. Though it’s over a quarter of a century since Marble Madness first set the standard for ball-rolling games, Switchball adds plenty of modern tricks and “wow” moments to make it a worthy addition to the genre.

    Score: 8/10

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