A glimpse at what could have been...
Enlarge / A glimpse at what could have been...
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 access 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.

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 sequels

There is 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. The prototype sequel was packed with 17 large and complicated mazes, 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.

The original Marble Man prototype of Marble Madness II featured some over-the-top animations.

Initial tests of Marble Man cabinets with internal focus groups and at an external test location did not go well. Atari blamed the performance on the game's trackball controls, not stiff competition from new cabinets like Street Fighter II.


The trakball is the more intuitive control to roll a marble, and it is the desired control for the high-end player, according to Atari. We would like to see if we can gain a wider audience by changing the trakball to a joystick.

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

The shift to a joystick-and-accelerator-button control scheme was driven by a lack of faith in players.

The early Marble Man testers reacted badly to brief animations where the marble turned into a superhero with a face and spouted goofy sound clips. According to Atari documents, these transformations were described as "hokey, stupid, and meaningless", leading the team to remove Marble Man from the entire game.

The design choice was to target too young an audience with the Marble Man character.

Two <em>Marble Madness II</em> prototypes in the hands of a single collector. Note the lack of trackballs.
Two Marble Madness II prototypes in the hands of a single collector. Note the lack of trackballs.

The first prototype of Marble Madness II did not do as well as the second prototype. Atari Games decided to focus on Guardians of the Hood, a simple brawler with human actors, instead of redesigning Marble Madness II. 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.