Balls of Fury

If you're looking for a laugh, find a kid raised on Grand Theft Auto and introduce him to Pac-Man for the first time.

As he stares at you blankly, explain the addictive joy of eating dots and the simplistic genius of the neon-blue maze. When he sneers, "That's it? It's the same level over and over?" stand your damn ground. Yes. That's all there is. And it never stops being fun, Junior.

Now sit the same brat down and repeat the process during Marble Mania for the Wii -- a similarly minimalist game combining state-of-the art controls with an old-school arcade heart.

In truth, Marble Mania is nothing more than a high-tech update of those wooden labyrinth toys your father played with: You carefully guide a marble to the goal while avoiding pitfalls. But instead of twiddling knobs to shift the maze floor, you'll rotate and balance the Wii remote to guide your marble down thrilling slopes and hairpin paths. Needless to say, one wrong twist of the wrist, and you'll lose your balls faster than a stray mutt on Bob Barker's lawn.

It's no secret that Marble Mania's game play shamelessly borrows from the original Marble Madness for the NES and, more recently, the Super Monkey Ball franchise. The difference is, you're actually controlling a unique 3-D environment, while gravity guides the marble itself. When you reach a dead end, you may have to keep tilting your controller until the wall becomes a new floor or the ceiling becomes the stairs. It's like navigating an M.C. Escher drawing.

Various difficulty levels arrive in the form of 20 different marbles, each containing distinct "stats." If you can't get past a particular stage, try the Panda Ball -- it's fat, sluggish, and less likely to fall off the side. Don't need a handicap? Try the ridiculously fast Flash Ball, and you'll . . . wait for it . . . lose your marbles.

Marble Mania's two-player mode is a fun but basic race to the finish. Unfortunately, the second player -- who must control the game using the Wiimote's awkwardly curved "Nunchuk" attachment -- is at a disadvantage; the Wiimote's rectangular design makes it much better for controlling a rectangular 3-D plane. And with all the twisting required, the Nunchuk wire just gets in the way. Most Wii owners own more than one remote, so why not put them to use?

The game's increasingly difficult and unforgiving stages (around 80, if you count the "mirror versions" of the original levels) are often too challenging for kids, yet older gamers may be turned off by their kiddie-friendly "Candy Land" and "Toy Workshop" themes. Then again, maybe that's just part of the difficulty: Let the dancing strawberry break your concentration, and you're screwed. (Still, who wouldn't choose whimsical fruit over the ear-piercing primates of Super Monkey Ball?)

While games of late tend to steer players toward certain victory -- Legend of Zelda and Prince of Persia, we're looking at you -- Marble Madness is all skill, baby. With its well-rounded puzzle designs (and cute characters that are, well, rounded), Marble Mania puts a new spin on classic gaming and sticks to the old-school fundamental: It takes minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.

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