It’s been over 30 years since Marble Madness made its arcade debut. Since then, it’s just been another day, another marble platformer, right? No, not at all, and that’s exactly what got me interested in The Little Ball That Could. Released last year on Steam, NaissusWorks’ 3D puzzler rolls now onto Xbox One. Does this shiny sphere come to a gentle finish, or does it crash right off the table?
Did I say “table”? Labyrinths of Little Ball really suggest something far more complex and abstract. Your ball isn’t even marble, a fact made apparent when you first see it shatter into pieces from a short drop. Like many other puzzle titles, there's no context here. You simply move the ball from start to finish over dozens of increasingly difficult levels. At a great value for its extensive stage roster, the game certainly positions itself as a nice palette cleanser for your triple-A excursions.
The levels don’t unlock themselves, though. Like many games of its scope, Little Ball uses a star-based progression system. Collect all three diamonds, and you get one star. Collect the hidden puzzle piece for the second and get to the finish point in time for the third. It’s a tried-and-true way of adding an incentive to explore. As you do so, you’ll notice more and more ways to “die,” so to speak. Dropping from ledges will shatter you if you don’t land on a cushy surface, spikes will pop in rhythmic fashion, and wall pads will either push you off the stage or smash you as they contract. Plentiful checkpoints make these easy to take in stride, and make for great tension when going for those time limit stars. I derived plenty of enjoyment from hopping in and out of this game, back and forth between levels, steadily racking up enough stars for the next world. Levels become more complicated as well, presenting switches, tubes and moving platforms as your journey continues.
Not only is the game fun, it’s also very cathartic. I will say that its esoteric, symphonic melodies stay a bit too much on the conservative side, but they instill their intended moods. The sound effects actually stood out the most, with little clacks, pats, and surface-dependent rolling noises providing a truly pleasing experience for the ears. The art style is very abstract, making the action seem along the lines of Tetris in that you’re not really in a physical space. Unfortunately, even this clinical, minimalist setting is undermined by technical limitations. The screenshots you’re seeing are not zoomed, stretched, or compressed. The game just looks that way on basic Xbox One. I know you aren’t going into this for pretty sights, but Little Ball actually has some nice aesthetics that are definitely weakened by a sub-720p image on a console that we know can do much better.
The Little Ball That Could also has a couple issues in the core gameplay. The first is minor and relates to checkpoints. Because diamonds stay collected after respawning at a previous checkpoint, there are actually situations where it’s advantageous to die on purpose. It’s not a game-breaker, but it does come off as an oversight. Much worse is the trial and error that results from your inability to move the camera around the level. There's a lot of feeling around for how each level is laid out, and since you’ll come upon several points of no return, it can be frustrating. It’s just needless busywork with no inherent challenge, and while I understand the need to keep the collectibles hidden, they could’ve simply been made to turn invisible while panning the camera. Towards the second half of the game, it becomes advisable not to even search for anything, so much as just learn the geometry. This only takes a minute or so per stage, but over time, it will certainly try your patience.
It’s very fortunate that The Little Ball That Could features stages that get more interesting the further you play. Otherwise, I would’ve simply gotten burnt out by its peppering of trial and error. Nonetheless, it packs a therapeutic challenge and a massive heap of stages. Despite some archaic restrictions, I can't call this a bad game; in fact, it's actually a good one. While it comes through cracked and nicked by mistakes, The Little Ball That Could rolls to a safe finish.