Q*Bert [1982]

It’s hard to tell what Q*Bert [1982] is. It’s literally at a 45 degree angle to other games. It seems at first like it’s going to be a puzzle game, but it never gets off the runway and introduces an actual puzzle. It forgoes even as much narrative contextualization as Pac-Man [1980]. Instead of words, you are provided with gibberish and punctuation. It’s not really any good, but it’s not half-bad either, leaving my reaction one of null time burnt.

Pigbag – Big Bag [1982]

You control Q*Bert, the original Birdo, as they hop around on a pyramid staircase of cubes like a 6 year old’s stack of blocks. Each landing of a hop changes the color of the cube’s surface. Certainly, this could be made the backbone of a puzzle game, challenging you to find optimal paths, introducing new board layouts and obstacles and special mechanics and traps as you progress, like Marble Madness [1984]. However, Q*Bert barely iterates, and its conceit never rises to the level of a higher-order cognitive challenge. Its 3D space seen from a fixed position is arranged such that it is as all-known as a top-down view. As you progress, the color-swapping goals and cycles become slightly more elaborate, but not more challenging. You essentially have to hop thrice on each block instead of twice, which does modify your final steps to sewing up a board a bit, but ultimately just takes more time. I got in a brief disagreement with a friend recently about whether or not Qix [1981] was a puzzle game. I don’t think it is: you can strategize, but fundamentally you’re reacting to and dodging bad sprites, same as Galaga [1981]. The same applies to Q*Bert: It’s an avoid-em-up, and each board is simply a stage upon which the cast of characters dance.

Like Pac-Man, which ignited the trend toward characterization, enemies are personified and behave differently based on type. Unlike Donkey Kong [1981], this cast of characters is not attached to any particular narrative nor real-world context, adding to the game’s gently-confounding abstract atmosphere (and making it, frankly, a real stretch for me to even think about drawing something of social relevance out of this article.) They are unrooted symbols that are defined only by shared opposition to Q*Bert, and everything’s alien to boot. A few of them are simply featureless bouncing balls. Those that aren’t, though, are all visually distinct and memorable, fine examples of cartooning. There’s one that I call Coily the Snake — and that turned out to be what its name actually is so good job, me — that follows Q*Bert around and must be either outrun or led off the edge of the map, that’s our Sparx. But most are Qix, cascading down from the second-to-top tile (the most dangerous spot to be) according to the edicts of a random number generator, aside from a wacky pair of twins who cascade from the bottom up even more erratically.

To me, the gameplay cues are all over the place, where I can think about them and explain them, but in the moment I’m hopelessly adrift. To its credit, there’s color-coding of what you arbitrarily can and can not stomp on from above. But there’s no immediately legible way beyond the school of error and memory to tell the difference between the green orb that serves as the sole power-up (which offers temporary reprieve from motion and chaos) and the rest of the deadly nuisances, one of which is another green orb that I incorrectly call Q*Bert’s Little Brother. Because of the extensive randomization and the inconsistent heuristics, I don’t learn to read the board and memorize patterns so I can predict enemy behavior. I just have to keep my distance, and I think that goes for most who aren’t sufficiently dedicated enough to learn to game the random number generator.

Though puzzle games are traditionally considered “slower” than action games, and this was another thing contributing to my initial impression that Q*Bert is some kind of puzzle game, in reality, the ideal, as in Sokoban [1982], is that the actual response to your inputs are nigh-instant and the slow tempo is set by the player thinking things over. It’s not slow, like Castle Wolfenstein [1981], but rather deliberative and methodical. In Q*Bert, moving around in the game is not just awkward on its isometric field — I kept jumping off the edge, which was never not funny — but sluggish. You have to wait for the just-a-bit-too-slow jumping animation to completely play out. A contemporary strategy guide even advises that you use this to your advantage, sending the next three movement inputs in the time it takes Q*Bert to make one-and-a-half moves. It all adds up to a dull kind of panic.

Q*Bert wasn’t directly cited as inspired by the smash hit Pac-Man [1980], another non-confrontational avoid-em-up, nor by puzzle games, but by the surprisingly influential moderate hit Berzerk [1980], with the shooting simply removed partway through development. (This kind of dynamic of influence on developers will be seen again in the “Myst [1993] vs. Doom [1993]” era.) Philosophically, Q*Bert shares more in common with Gridiron Football [1869-2020] than Sokoban: it’s a game of difficult, opposed motion in the name of territory acquisition. In other words, it’s a war game that simply omits combat. You could simply opt to view the psuedo-3D cubes as a hexagonal grid, and suddenly it resembles, of all things, an extremely rudimentary real-time strategy game where you only have one pawn and no resources. (An editorial note: Sorry for the profound lack of actual early strategy games, it’s honestly my biggest regretted omission about the selection in this blog so far. Shouldn’t have skipped Hamurabi [1968], couldn’t get Utopia [1981] to start which is its own political statement, Nobunaga no Yabō [1983] is Japanese-only until its sequel in 1986…)

I think Q*Bert gets by on its novelties more than its gameplay. It may not look like much today, and it’s definitely not as loud and in-your-face as some of its contemporaries, but it actually has a lot going for it. Its isometric 3D perspective is fresh to the arcades of 1983, and in the grand scheme of isometric control schemes, the 45-degree joystick is both novel and a good idea. And if you DO pilot Q*Bert off the board by mistake, there’s a machine inside the cabinet that makes a physical “CLUNK.” At the same time, on-screen, Q*Bert will assert their personality by cursing, just like the player might be. It’s cutely censored by random punctuation. It knicks the voice synthesis idea from Berzerk [1980], but spouts random gibberish that fits that string of random punctuation instead of Dalek taunts, which is more endearing and inviting. It’s baby talk. The sprites, thanks to advances in hardware, are big and detailed, with actual facial expressions and shading; just compare them with last year’s Jumpman, who was famously a product of trying to make a cartoon under intense spatial constraints where there could be no extraneous details. I think Q*Bert, the game and the character, foreshadows if not inaugurates the phenomenon of the “mascot platformer”: sometimes sub-par jumping gameplay attached to an ideally-instantly-iconic character, one with a bit of a rude attitude, one who can serve as the brand logo for an entire games company.

The creation of Q*Bert is nowhere near as cynical as the creation of a Gex or even a Sonic, though. Whatever my mild dissatisfaction with the game, the sting is pretty much completely balanced out by hearing the tale of its development as told by those there. It’s sweetly collaborative, notable for this era. It began as a programming exercise and some unrelated doodles of characters that predate any notion they’d be game stars, then coworkers kept throwing ideas into the stone soup, all of whom programmer Warren Davis is eager to single out as brilliant and crucial to the eventual runaway success. The name Q*Bert, even, is of unclear providence. There’s no collapsing down to one or two Mad Overlord genius figures; instead, it’s a lot more like the iterative development process of Spacewar [1962], except one where shooting was taken out instead of put in.

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