Menu

8-Bit Chronicles: Q*bert

@!#?@!

Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.

Today’s review is based upon the original arcade iteration of Q*bert included within the PlayStation 3 release of Q*bert Rebooted.

A deadly, malformed game of hopscotch endures in the abyss, operating upon a pyramid of color-sensitive cubes host to a wild party of bizarre critters — namely a no-armed, orange ball of fuzz adorned with an adorable snout and speaking in chiptune tongues. Dodging cascading balls, purple gremlins, and a predatory snake, this creature — Q*Bert, many call him — jumps on every last cube for the sake of homogeneous colorization. Undaunted by new foes and escalating workloads, Q*bert hops about again and again within this offbeat, senseless cartoon: one that somehow shapes sense to the nebulous, rhythmic tune of its context-free goal.

A bizarre fever dream 1982’s Q*bert may’ve been, but believe it or not, the little, uh, round thing who could was one of the defining arcade hits of the early 80’s. The game’s isometric pseudo-3D were an eye-catcher in yesteryear’s sea of crude sprites, its curious premise a palatable deviation from the violent slaughters decorating the loud, dark halls of local arcades everywhere. Unorthodox controls misguided players’ muscle memory off Q*bert‘s pyramid, yet their avatar’s voice clips — strings of incomprehensible “swears” — charmed them back for more. Addiction seeped in making all the colors sing, and crowds joined to see this little spectacle at work. But how did something so strange come to be?

Simple: there were no rules. The Golden Age of Video Games was still a formulating genesis, and the receptive environment of Gottlieb, a pinball company looking to break into video games, encouraged cooperative experimentation into this strange new frontier. Without established genres boxing them into any molds or corporate mandates, Gottlieb’s offices were host to programmers and engineers hacking away at derivative projects that’d never see the light of day — a process frequently offset by spontaneous football games. One such experiment caught the eye of a new programmer in Warren Davis, that being an Escher-esque construction displayed on a fellow programmer’s computer screen. An aspiring actor stuck with a Master’s in engineering, he’d only just started teaching himself the programming ropes when those innovative cubes churned the gears in Davis’s mind; up until now, he never had a concrete idea for a game, yet he couldn’t stop envisioning balls tumbling down a cubic pyramid; before he knew it, Davis was tinkering away with cubes of his own.

What's the best route from here?

What’s the best route from here?

He wasn’t the only one playing with geometric shapes; Jeff Lee, Gottlieb’s sole artist and a self-described “rabid gamer” who’d already gotten to work on illustrating games, had already doodled his own pyramid in his cartoon-filled sketchbook. (It’s worth noting that both Davis and Lee have differing memories on who created what for Q*bert; for instance, Lee credits himself for sketching up that fateful pyramid, whereas Davis cites the aforementioned programmer as the late Kan Yabumoto. Regardless, this might not be as contradictory as it seems — while Lee has no memory of this, Yabumoto was apparently intrigued by a cube study of Lee’s for Apple) Finding common ground in both inspiration and Lee’s treasure trove of cartoon characters, the two began a collaboration. Scanning through Lee’s artwork, a certain no-armed orange critter appealed to Davis for no other reason other than that “he looked kind of helpless”, and that’s how “The Cube Game” got its protagonist.

For his part, Davis rejects the notion that Q*bert had adesign by committee” approach; certainly, many Gottlieb members walked by as Davis typed away at this gestating experiment and offered their input, but he stuck to his vision and shot down any ideas that either a) compromised his vision or b) would be too complicated to implement. For instance, while Lee designed the titular character to fire projectiles out of his tubular snout, Davis resisted internal pressure to implement any shooting mechanics, figuring the logistics of stopping and aiming to shoot within a psuedo-3D environment would be too complicated. With Q*bert being Davis’s first project, he insisted on a simple game — with one hand on the joystick and the other holding a drink. (Contrary to popular belief, Davis insists there was never a shooting build.) The game’s diagonal controls were a point of frustration, but we’ll dive into that later.

Even so, he hails Q*bert as a collaborative process, and what better example than those colorful cubes? While the hitherto-unnamed character dodged objects rolling down the pyramid, there was no other objective to the game — as Davis wracked his brain for some secret ingredient, it took a silently observant Ron Waxman, vice-president of engineering, to suggest: “What if the cubes changed colors as you jumped on them?”. The ball, as they say, began rolling from there.

Neon!

Neon!

Warren Davis might very well be right in this Electric Playground interview in that dissembling Q*bert‘s DNA would trace its origins to Pac-Man — much like how we “need” to gobble up every last pellet as Pac-Man, that same desire is echoed in Q*bert’s goal in coloring all the blocks. Q*bert strikes an engaging balance within its innate stress — the color rotations escalate to the point where you might flip from yellow to blue to green in one level, making it all too likely to lose track of which color flips to what; meanwhile, new enemies debut in the form of Slick and Sam: slick green imps who undo our hard work by flipping the colors back. All this is enough to overwhelm anyone from the casual gamer to the seasoned arcade veteran, yet amidst its frenzied chaos is its one discernible goal, and the pieces begin clicking one by one as we gradually formulate strategies to stay one step ahead.

Look no further than the other parallel is our eternal pursuer in Coily: a serpentine predator hopping after poor Q*bert like a diabolical pogo stick. Like the ghosts forever haunting Namco’s mascot, the key to winning Q*bert is deciphering Coily’s movements and knowing when and where to hop; putting it this way, simply jumping around without any definite strategy is no good — in littering the pyramid with an unholy visage of colored/uncolored cubes, Coily’s all more likely to strike down any desperate players rushing to reach that last cube. Hence the game’s ticket of escape — rainbow-colored discs hovering just outside the pyramid, teleporting us to the top while poor Coily leaps to his death in his ill-fated pursuit.

This disc is no mere safety net: as most (if not all) enemies are cleared from the pyramid upon boarding, we’re granted that same momentary power rush delivered from the likes of Donkey Kong‘s hammer and Pac-Man‘s Power Pellet, leaving us inhibited in charting new routes. However, the smart player won’t use this lifesaver willy-nilly: Coily will only jump off whenever he’s teetering by the edge, so you’ll have to time your trip carefully lest you want a hungry snake waiting for your return. This cycle of reward upon success supersedes any pigment-related frustrations, and we’re surely but slowly lured into Q*bert‘s no-armed clutches. (The time-freezing green balls also play into this philosophy; naturally, you’ll want to quickly color as many blocks as you can, but steer clear of the suspended enemies — or better yet, their charted paths — lest you run into their moment of awakening.)

Fuc-oh, er, “Esxhdearedar”…?

Still, lost lives and Game Overs endure, yet much as we’re compelled to swear at our missteps, Q*bert beats us to the punch with the little guy’s synthesized garble. Well, saying he “swears” might be a bit of a stretch considering his cartoonish visage — c’mon, does that cute little snout look like the mouth of a sailor? — yet that bizarre mumbo-jumbo was practically synonymous with the game’s identity. How did his alien speech come to be? Turns out it was just simple curiosity born out of frustration: an audio engineer named David Thiel was tasked with getting the game to vocalize coherent phrases via a phoneme generator, yet most everything were littered with mispronunciations. His solution? Jamming the voice chip with random numbers and watching what happens — the result stuck. (Davis tells a different story in how the generated speech came across as too dry and lifeless; for what it’s worth, only two decipherable lines exist in Q*bert: “Hello, I’m turned on” and “Bye bye.” While we’re on the subject of naughty language, get your mind out of the gutter with the former.)

This gibberish ended up catching like fever among the developers too, albeit nearly to the game’s detriment: it was already silly enough that Jeff Lee jokingly proposed the name “Snots and Boogers” out of his original plans to have the character fire deadly nasal discharge, yet “@!#?@!” was not only seriously considered at one point but plastered under actual test cabinets. As detailed in this Retro Gamer interview, common sense concerns over this unpronounceable name were brushed off by one marketing VP’s naive optimism. (How would people ask or talk about it? “They’ll find a way because it’s so good.”) Deciding the game should be named after the player character, it took a board room meeting to invent a pun involving cubes and “Hubert”; what we ended up with in Q*bert proved as weird as the actual game, but it certainly rolls off the, well, snout. (Is there a tongue lodged in its fuzzy recesses? Best not to think about it.)

qbert

From the archives: an example of Jeff Lee’s sketching, which included Q*Bert’s discarded projectile-firing.

While the pseudo-3D pyramid attracted players, customers and in-house testers alike experienced disorienting navigation with its diagonal joystick — another design choice by Warren on the grounds it was only natural for the game’s graphical set-up and jumping mechanics; after all, no matter which way you’re jumping, you’re always going up or down. He recounts how players fell into two camps: adept players who instantly “got” it, or unlucky saps who inadvertently jumped off right away and wasted quarters in just one play session! Even so, Davis repeatedly adjusted the game’s difficulty in accordance to the testers’ concerns; enough, even, to the point where he found it too easy, and so he quickly whipped up a tougher sequel by the name of Faster Harder More Challenging Q*bert. Introducing bonus rounds and a new predatory enemy by the name of Q*Bertha — whose amorous advances costs Q*bert his life — the game certainly lived up to its title, but as test locations found that players were still adjusting to the original, any plans for a widespread release were quickly scrapped. Regardless, Davis released the ROM for the world to enjoy in late 1996. (You’re on your own for that!)

Even so, addiction persisted through wasted quarters: Q*bert was a runaway success following its 1982 debut, enchanting customers and buyers alike with its unusual premise. Neil Tesser of the ancient Video Games magazine notes how Q*bert’s “un-American” game design channels, yet again, the Japanese likes of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man in its commitment to non-violence — hence the character’s marketability in everything from Q*bert-themed lunch boxes, sleeping bags, stuffed animals, a children’s book my brother may’ve had lying around somewhere, and yes, a Saturday Supercade segment featuring a teenage, four-limbed, jacket-sporting Q*bert who discharged “Slippy Dew” to slip up the local bullies. Its banal supplementation of context aside (High school? Seriously?), it is an interesting coincidence how they revived Lee’s original concept for projectiles. (That, and well, they naturally applied the character’s “swears” whenever he’s subject to physical comedy — gotta give props there!)

Ports were considered hit or miss – Davis agrees with the consensus that the Colecovision port was the most faithful, whereas he dismisses the disappointing Atari conversions on the grounds that they weren’t designed to host cartoon graphics like those found in Q*bert. Even so, the Atari 2600 version isn’t entirely without merit: in a 2018 study on Atari games utilizing a self-playing AI, this particular port is host to an infinite-score glitch where Q*bert exploited the Coily-falling system to rack up lives. Will the AI truly kill us all? Much as you might welcome a Q*bert overlord, Davis thinks this poor port’s not up to the task, suggesting this glitch wouldn’t be in the original arcade game he designed.

While the original arcade Q*bert has since been treated to console and mobile ports, one element of the game center experience remains impossible to replicate: the internal knocker coil. An idea birthed by technician Rick Tighe, the development crew installed a pinball knocker that strikes harshly against the inner cabinet walls whenever a character falls off the pyramid. Think it sounds a little off? Davis and co. agree: they wanted a softer “thud” rather than the loud knock — a feat achieved by adorning a piece of foam within the coil’s striking zone. Sadly, the financial logistics of installing the foam weren’t affordable, and so we’re left with the grating knock. While this regret might make Q*bert‘s fathers wince today, surely 80’s arcade-goers fondly regard it as a core component of the Q*bert-playing experience; another familiar agent of sound operating amid the general cacophony of arcades.

Alas, the character’s marketability lasted only so long: various follow-ups over the next several decades attempted to capture that same magic, but safe sequels and awkward 3D transitions failed to materialize a comeback. My only experience lies within Q*bert Rebooted — a 2013 reboot featuring the original Q*bert. (As it happens, Rebooted is currently the only modern avenue to legally purchase Q*bert.) Hardcore Gaming 101 gets into the nitty-gritty of why this modern update’s a bust, but my concerns echo most everyone else in its movement options: as I mentioned earlier, Q*bert‘s something of a paradox in its diagonal controls, as while the titular character can move left or right, the pyramid construction ensures he’s always either ascending or descending; consequently, our limited navigation ensures tight-knit strategy in plotting repeated routes and avoiding enemy traps. With Rebooted‘s full six-way control scheme operating upon a hexagonal pillar playground, Q*bert’s liberated movement practically feels like cheating — or at least it would be, were it not for slippery controls tripping me into the abyss.

Eagle-eyed Q*bert veterans will certainly note your character’s free reign — and not in a good way.

With the character’s rights secured under the neglected pocket of Sony Pictures Entertainment — strange, yet true; Gottlieb was owned by Columbia Pictures before the latter’s acquisition by Sony — Q*bert remains but a nostalgic novelty we’ll maybe spot twice or thrice every decade. This doesn’t mean the character doesn’t hop back into our lives now and then; why, out of all the star-studded gaming icons populating Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, the homeless Q*bert — his game pulled from the in-universe arcade, leaving him and his former enemies begging for coins and food —  ends up having the biggest role of all, informing Fix-It Felix via Q*bert-ese that Ralph’s gone game-hopping. There’s also his appearance as the only good video game character in 2015’s Pixels, but, well, we don’t talk about that movie. (Really, I’d say Billy Idol’s performance would be cute if it wasn’t for the epilogue twist involving Josh Gad and Amy Benson; seriously, you were warned.)

Even so, many gamers might not recognize him today; sadly, Davis has cited confused looks and scratched heads upon bringing up his magnum opus. For their part, Davis and Lee never created another mega-hit: with the rules of game development becoming more rigid over time, it could be unthinkable that such an offbeat product could take off today — for one thing, he mentions in the Retro Game Guys podcast that part of their passion and drive in making arcade games was staying ahead of home consoles; after all, why would arcade-goers visit when they could play it at home? (Ominous, eh?) Even so, they remain humble over their 80’s hit, not only visiting numerous conventions and shows but writing books about their quirky little game — their names loving jabs at the indecipherable title that never was.

Could a new Q*bert work in this day and age? Perhaps — after all, even the rigid Pac-Man found successful niches in Pac-Mania, Pac-Man Championship Edition, and Pac-Man Battle Royale. If fate wills it, a dedicated Q*bert scholar might one day find the secret ingredient — a hidden booger, if you will — to channel and preserve that cryptic, delicate balance for a new generation. Yet even if little Q*bert remains an antiquated oddity, let us not dismiss Gottlieb’s masterful jungle gym as anything but a shining example of gaming’s formative building blocks.

qbert

It’s funny how plain the title screen is compared to the iconic pyramid; a little *too* blue if you ask me.

(And before you get any bright ideas over naming your kid “Q*Bert”, just know that a) It’s a wildcard character for search engines, and b) The Simpsons already did it.)

Screenshots courtesy of HardcoreGaming101 and MobyGames.

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.

Join Our Discord!

Join Our Discord!

Click the icon above to join our Discord! Ask a Mod or staff member to make you a member to see all the channels.

Review Archives

  • 2021 (488)
  • 2020 (302)
  • 2019 (157)
  • 2018 (251)
  • 2017 (427)
  • 2016 (400)
  • 2015 (170)
  • 2014 (89)
  • 2013 (28)
  • 2012 (8)
  • 2011 (7)
  • 2010 (6)