The recently released Marble Blast Ultra for the XBox 360 (available only through download) is equal parts Marble Madness and Super Monkey Ball, and the end result is as fun as it sounds. The only limitation to the package is somewhat limited multiplayer, which made me a little sad, but is not a serious deterrent to purchase at an approximate price of eight dollars and a newspaper. ("Microsoft Points" seem to make exact conversions pretty useless since they're somewhat cheaper in bulk.)
Marble Blast, like several other games before it, will for most people bring to mind the seminal NES classic Marble Madness. The goal here is essentially the same: control a rolling marble through an increasingly complex set of environments, avoiding a variety of environmental hazards and accomplishing some simple goals.
Marble Blast Ultra also adds mandatory gem collection to the mix, which isn't always an "improvement". Of course, Marble Blast Ultra uses polygons where Marble Madness used two dimensional sprites. I have no opinion on how Marble Blast compares directly to Marble Madness, (apples and oranges, a classic vs a cheap, new game) but I will say that this is easily the most fun marble game I've played since Marble Madness.
The free, downloadable demo of Marble Blast Ultra lets you play through a limited subset of the 60 levels available in the final game, as well as play in online matches (for seven minutes, at which point you will get disconnected and see a trial-mode reminder). This is similar to virtually all the other titles available through the Xbox Live Arcade, and I like this demo model very much. It brings to mind the height of the 1990s shareware and BBS era of PC gaming. I only wish all retail games were available as direct downloads, and I could completely avoid giving money to Gamestop or any other intermediary.
Marble Blast Ultra's 60 levels are broken up into three sets of 20 beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. Even the beginner levels get pretty tough by the end of them. Beating all the levels in each respective difficulty level unlocks one set of awards, while beating each level under par time unlocks a different set of awards. In theory, you could unlock both sets of awards on a single pass through the levels, but most people will be hard-pressed to defeat many of the intermediate and advanced levels under par during their first attempt.
The difficulty of Marble Blast Ultra comes mainly in the form of increasingly precarious levels, which offer plenty of opportunities to run your marble off a ledge. Strategic use of power-ups found around the level is necessary to master the game, as well as a familiarity with the varied terrain of each level. The power-ups include rocket speed, super jump, and a propeller that allows your marble to hover across large gaps.
The multiplayer pits Xbox Live Gold members against each other in a race to collect gems (and knock each other off the level in the process). This works fairly well, but my one major gripe with the Marble Blast Ultra multiplayer is the lack of a 'deathmatch' type multiplayer mode, where the only goal would be to knock other marbles out of the ring. For $8, this is an oversight I can accept, but it stops me from reviewing Marble Blast Ultra as a five star game.
As with other Xbox Live Arcade games, Marble Blast Ultra should be a no-brain purchase for anyone who wants it. Download it and try before you buy. Odds are, you'll find plenty to enjoy here.