Sunday, 6 May 2012

A Lesser Known Sequel: Q*Bert's Qubes

Q*Bert is one of the few game characters that requires no introduction, even among non-gamers.  He was the star of a hit 1982 arcade game that was ported to several home consoles, and has since been merchandised to death, even receiving the dreaded Saturday morning cartoon treatment with the likes of Pac-Man himself.

In spite of this fame, I didn't even know until fairly recently that there was a Q*Bert sequel called Q*Bert's Qubes released in 1983.  I certainly never encountered the game in an actual arcade, and for some reason, the cartridge never found its way into any of my home console collections through the years.

Upon firing up Qubes in MAME, you will find the Q*Bert DNA to be instantly recognizable.  The graphics and sound effects are more or less identical to Q*Bert, leading me to believe that this game ran on the same hardware as the original.   

As everybody knows, the object of the original game is to hop around a pyramid made of blocks that change colour, until all of them match the specified target colour.  Of course, all of this has to be done while dodging bouncing balls, little green monsters, and a snake named Coily.  

Game play too cerebral for mass appeal?
In the sequel, the pyramid is gone in favour of 25 cubes arranged in a diamond pattern, each displayed in an isometric view that allows you to see 3 sides at a time.  Every time Q*Bert leaps off of a cube, it rotates in the plane of his jump, revealing a different view of the cube.  The goal is to rotate the cubes to match the colour arrangement specified in the upper left of the screen.  When a cube is made to match, it turns into a wireframe green, and no longer rotates.  Levels are cleared when the player is able to create rows of matched cubes, similar to Tic-Tac-Toe.  

I'm not sure why, but the enemies are all different from the original game.  Even the dreaded Coily has been replaced by a purple rat; which seems stupid, considering the rat behaves and sounds exactly like his predecessor.  In Qubes there are no discs to jump on, but it is still possible to lure your enemies into traps.  If you time a jump just right so that your enemy lands on a cube while it is rotating, he will plummet to his death.   

Q*Bert: "FUCK!"
The game starts out easy enough, with the cubes only having 2 colours, and the player only needing to create a single row of matches to advance.  As the player advances, so does the difficulty.  Cubes eventually have different colours on each side, multiple rows are needed to clear a level, and most irritating of all, these little green pricks start hopping around the level and undoing your finished cubes.  Luckily the "green ball" from the first game is included in this game as well; catching it freezes your enemies for several seconds, allowing you to get some work done in peace.  

Enemies: Coily has been replaced by a spread-eagle rat.

I have never been any good at the original Q*Bert; I find it to be a very difficult game.  In general, it's easier to dodge enemies and survive in Qubes while casually hopping around, but this security is negated by the requirement to focus part of your brainpower on solving the cubes.  

I can understand why this game was not a commercial success.  Rotating those cubes to match the target pattern takes some real spatial-temporal reasoning, and I think that probably turned lots of casual players off.  Personally, I like the brainy aspect of the game; it makes for a very interesting challenge.  I think it is a fantastic sequel, in that it takes the look and feel of the original hit game and infuses it with entirely new game play mechanics, rather than simply changing level designs or enhancing the graphics.  Q*Bert's Qubes will definitely be seeing more play time on my MAME cabinet in the future.  

Cynigrade: B         

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