[17 May 2007]
Journalistic ethics compel me to open this review with a safety tip: If you are playing Hudson and Konami’s Kororinpa: Marble Mania for the first time, do not connect your Wii to a widescreen projection television. Loss of dignity or even personal injury could result.
I’m not talking about the rash of injuries and bizarre accidents which have been previously reported by especially zealous users of the Wii’s wireless “Wiimote” controllers. I’m talking about vertigo, the kind of vertigo you might get if you were navigating a three-inch strip of pavement suspended high over a city street. At one point in Kororinpa, that’s exactly what you must do, and any unintended twitch of the wrist can send you hurtling to your doom.
Okay, not doom. Because you’re a marble. But you still have to start over, and in this game, that’s often bad enough.
Kororinpa: Marble Mania is a clearly descended from the 1984 Atari arcade classic, Marble Madness. In that game, a deranged, out-of-tune pipe organ provided the soundtrack as players raced against the clock to guide their marble through a desolate maze riddled with acid puddles and creepy, faceless tube monsters that leapfrogged around like evil Slinkies.
In softening the title from “madness” to the friendlier-sounding “mania,” Marble Mania reclaims the heritage of the old, wooden maze-and-marble puzzles that entertained generations of kids before the advent of the joystick. Gone are postmodern tubes, cubes and inky black backgrounds. They have been replaced by teddy bears, Lincoln Logs, and birthday cakes. Here, menace is festooned with cherry licorice and plays happy xylophone music.
Gameplay is intuitive. Tilt the controller forward, and your marble (which is always front and center) rolls forward. The orientation of the Wiimote corresponds to the orientation of the course, which, in the early levels, is flat but for a few dips and curves. Obstacles along the way include ice patches, puddles of honey, conveyor belts, and whirling magnifying glasses that incinerate your marble in a puff of smoke. And then, just when you’ve become comfortable, the game seizes your understanding of “up” and “down” and chucks it out the window. What looks like a drop into oblivion at the end of the track is actually the next section of the course. Roll over the edge and quickly flip the remote so it’s pointing at the ceiling, because what used to be “backwards” is now “down.” Somewhere, M.C. Escher is smiling.
When you’re focused on navigating a series of ramps angled at 140 degrees away from your vertical axis, it’s not always easy to remember that you’re standing in your living room. My wife used to think that my body English while playing bowling on Wii Sports was silly, until she watched me trying to maneuver my marble through network of shallow crevices carved into the skin of a big, floating apple. On more complex courses, I’d swear that I could feel the part of my brain which handles spatial relations actually stretching.
As with seemingly all console games, performing well “unlocks” secret levels and new music tracks. Better yet, it unlocks other types of marbles, each with its own attributes. Some marbles are fast, slow, or heavy, and some aren’t “marbles” at all. The game saves a record of which marble achieved each course time. Sure, your buddy came over for a visit and beat your record…but you can point out that you achieved that record with the football.
And then there are the baby animals. If, for some reason, you’d like to send a ball-shaped puppy or baby panda hurtling ass-over-teakettle towards the finish line, Kororinpa can accommodate you. They will even make piteous sounds as they yearn to be rescued from the course and returned to their mothers. A cat-shaped marble was my three-year-old daughter’s favorite. She loved its constant, earnest mewling, and laughed every time a hard impact elicited an annoyed yelp. An unfortunate encounter with a magnifying glass, however, brought a nervous silence.
“What happened to the kitty, daddy?”
“She got beamed up, pumpkin.”
Experienced gamers will blast through all of Marble Mania’s levels within a few hours, at most. But this is not really a game for the hardcore crowd. Like many puzzle games, it’s aimed at a demographic which doesn’t usually self-identify as “gamers.” More significantly, it’s a bright, colorful enticement for people who may never have held a game controller in their lives. If Grandma already spends an hour a day playing Bejeweled on her old PC, this could be her Wii gateway drug. Just make sure she takes her Dramamine first.