Navigating the Retro Arcade World of Q*bert

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Remember Q*bert? Before the era of home gaming consoles, Q*bert was part of the arcade gaming craze of the ’80s, along with other classic franchises like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Street Fighter. While not all arcade games stood the test of time, the quirky orange alien known for his occasional swearing is still popular, especially for those who are nostalgic about the glory days of the arcades.

Since debuting in the 1980s, Qbert has achieved legendary status as a video game icon, ranking as the third most successful arcade video game character after Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.

The Origins of Q*bert

Q*bert was brought to us by a pinball manufacturing company named Gottlieb, which briefly ventured into the world of video games in the 80s. During that time, Gottlieb released 11 titles and had eight more in development that never made it to the market. Q*bert stood out as their most successful game, featuring unique and colorful characters that continue to be part of pop culture.

Development and Testing

Warren Davis, a programmer, wrote that he was inspired by hexagonal patterns implemented by fellow Gottlieb developer Kan Yabumoto.

In another story, the initial concept came about when artist Jeff Lee drew a cube pyramid inspired by M.C. Escher. Lee envisioned a game from this artwork featuring an orange, armless character. This character would jump on cubes and unleash “mucus bombs” from a tubular nose at enemies. The initial enemies included a blue creature (later turned purple, named Wrong Way) and an orange one (later turned green, named Sam).

Q*bert’s design later featured a speech balloon with random characters, “@!#?@!” – which was initially presented as a joke by Lee.

Warren Davis – who was initially hired for another game called Protector – noticed Jeff Lee’s ideas and asked if he could use them to practice randomness and gravity as game mechanics. He introduced bouncing balls that bounce from the top to the bottom of the pyramid for this. David wanted to keep the design simple since he was still learning how to program game mechanics.

To streamline gameplay and allow for one-handed play, he removed shooting elements and shifted the objective to saving the protagonist from danger. As Davis worked on the game, Ron Waxman, Gottlieb’s vice president of engineering, suggested changing the cube colors after the character landed on them. Davis embraced this idea. He implemented a unique control scheme, rotating a four-way joystick by 45 degrees to match Q*bert’s jumping directions. Staff members suggested a more conventional orientation, but Davis stuck to his decision. Davis began programming in April 1982, but the project only became an official product several months later.

When development was finished, Q*bert was tested in local arcades under its preliminary title “@!#?@!.” Jeff Lee’s oldest record of the game is playable in a public location, dating back to September 11, 1982.

They conducted focused groups that allowed designers to observe players through a one-way mirror. The control scheme received mixed reactions during testing – some players quickly adapted to it, while others found it frustrating. Some players would unintentionally jump off the pyramid several times, making the game over in about 10 seconds. Because of this feedback, Davis reduced the game’s level of difficulty, a decision he would later regret.

The game was officially copyrighted on February 10, 1983, and was published on October 18, 1982. It was originally sold directly to arcade operators at the AMOA show on November 18-20, 1982. Then, it was mass-released in the US by December. By March of the next year, the game was distributed in Japan and Europe. It was Gottlieb’s fourth video game and the company’s most successful one, earning acclaim from both arcades and critics.

Naming the Game

Q*bert is a rather odd name, but since it’s a game, a fun and memorable name is crucial.

The Gottlieb staff was actually challenged when it came to naming the game. Its first project name was “Cubes.” Jeff Lee suggested “Snots and Boogers,” but it was rejected, along with other suggestions. The vice president of marketing, Howie Rubin, decided that the title should be “@!#?@!” despite the staff’s concerns, saying it was ridiculous and unpronounceable. Some test models of the machine even had this name on the artwork.

But in the end, this name did not garner enough approval, and they compromised by naming the game after the main character. “Hubert” was suggested, then it evolved into “Cubert.” 

Art director Richard Tracy finalized the name as “Q-bert,” later changing the hyphen to an asterisk, and voila, the legend was born.

In hindsight, Davis regretted that asterisk because it prevented the name from being a common crossword term, and it became a wildcard character for search engines.

Gameplay Mechanics

joystick of a video game

Q*bert is an engaging action game with puzzle elements with a three-dimensional feel. The game is played using a single, four-way joystick that is mounted diagonally. So, instead of up, down, left, and right – the controls for Q*bert are northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest.

Your mission is to change every cube in the pyramid to a target color by guiding Q*bert in hopping on cubes while avoiding enemies and obstacles. Q*bert starts at the top of the pyramid with 28 cubes, hopping diagonally from cube to cube. Each landing changes the cube’s color, and turning all cubes to the target color advances you to the next stage. As with most video games, the difficulty increases with each level.

To stay in the game, Q*bert must remain on the pyramid. Jumping over the edge results in a dramatic and loud demise, except when utilizing spinning disks hovering near the pyramid’s edge. Qbert can hop onto these disks, which then carry him back to the top of the pyramid.

At the start, hopping on each cube once is enough to advance to the next level. In later stages, players must hit each cube twice to reach the target color. Some cubes change color each time Qbert lands, adding to the difficulty. The game is over once Q*bert jumps off the pyramid.

Q*bert has nine levels, with four rounds on each level. The first five levels introduce basic goals:

  • Level 1: Hop on a square once to change it to the target color.
  • Level 2: Hop on a square once to change it to its intermediate color, hop off, and hop back on to change it to the target color.
  • Level 3: Hopping on a square once changes it to the proper color, but hopping again changes it back to the original color.
  • Level 4: Like Level 2, hop on each square twice, but returning to a completed square changes it to the intermediate color.
  • Level 5: Similar to Level 2, but returning to a completed square changes the color back to the original, requiring you to start over. (Levels 6-9 are like Level 5, only faster.)

On Level 2 and beyond, check the display in the upper left corner before each round to know your target color. This ensures you don’t mistakenly turn the pyramid the wrong color in the heat of the game.

The Coily Conundrum: Q*bert’s Foes

To prevent Q*bert from advancing, enemies gradually join the game. Here are Q*bert’s enemies:

Coily

Coily first appears as a purple egg that bounces to the bottom row, transforming into a snake. Considered as Q*bert’s main antagonist, Coily is unlike other enemies because he chases the main character. But Coily isn’t invincible – you can destroy him by leading him to a disk and making him follow you over the edge, where he plummets to his death. When this happens, Coily makes a sound: a scream and a loud smack when he hits the ground.

The Red Balls

These balls drop randomly from the sky and bounce down the face of the pyramid. When Q*bert gets in contact with a red ball, he loses his life. Their movements are somewhat unpredictable, but they rarely continue to bounce in one direction for long. Also, they never bounce straight down along the edge of the pyramid, so you are usually safe from them in or near the lower corners.

Ugg and Wrongway

Appearing in the third round, Ugg and Wrongway are purple creatures designed to make the game a little bit more difficult. They roam the pyramid and kill Q*bert by touching him. Their movements are random, so they don’t hunt Q*bert like Coily does. Once you get used to their odd movements, you will see that their true purpose is just to confuse.

During the third round, red balls don’t make an appearance. Generally, if Ugg and Wrong-way are on the screen, you don’t have to worry about the balls, and vice versa. You won’t face both dangers simultaneously until later in the game. Additionally, several Uggs and Wrongways can patrol the pyramid at the same time.

Slick and Sam

While these green, raindrop-shaped creatures don’t harm Q*bert, they can be annoying. They usually appear when you’re about two squares away from completing a rack, and as they hop down a pyramid, they change the squares back to their original color, undoing Q*bert’s work. You can stop them by jumping on them.

Game Tips

Contact with purple enemies makes players lose their lives, while the green ones exit upon contact. Colored balls appear occasionally at the second row of the cubes and bounce downward.

The green ball isn’t a character but a tremendous help. Jump on the green ball, and everything on the screen freezes. During this freeze, you can jump anywhere without harm, even onto a square occupied by an enemy. The effect wears off shortly, so plan your moves accordingly.

Capture anything green, but steer clear of anything purple or red. However, exercise caution when going after the green ball or Sam and Slick; sometimes, they lead you straight to Coily or another enemy. Prioritize completing a rack over nabbing the green ball if given the choice.

Points are earned for color changes, defeating Coily, remaining discs, and catching green balls or Slick and Sam. Bonus points are awarded with each screen completion, reaching 5,000 after Level 4. Extra lives are awarded based on scores set by the machine operator.

Here are other some tips to remember:

  • Characters and obstacles, except Q*bert, Ugg, and Wrong-way, initially land on the second level of the pyramid.
  • The top square is Q*bert’s safest spot, especially when Coily is the primary threat.
  • Stay away from the two squares on the second level to avoid surprise attacks from the balls.
  • If on or heading toward those squares, you might get a surprise bop on the head by a ball.
  • Q*bert reappears at the top square if he falls off the pyramid but appears where caught if squashed or bopped on the playfield.
  • When Ugg and Wrong-way are on the screen, patrolling near the top of the pyramid is relatively safe, but watch out for the purple ball.

Legacy

Launched in 1982, Q*bert is one of the most recognized brands from the golden age of arcade games. Originally known as “Cubes” during development, Jeff Lee designed the title character and the initial concept, which was then further developed and implemented by Warren Davis.

The character’s popularity led to sequels and widespread merchandising, including appearances on lunch boxes, toys, and even an animated television show. Since its debut in the arcades, Q*bert has seen ten different installments, with the latest release being Q*bert Rebooted for the PlayStation 4 in 2014 and Q*bert for iOS in 2019.

Q*bert’s distinctive features include his “swearing” and “Q*bertese sound” – an incoherent phrase produced by the game’s synthesized speech and a speech balloon featuring a grawlix that appears when he collides with an enemy.

Because Columbia Pictures owned Gottlieb during Q*bert’s development, the intellectual rights to the character remained with Columbia, even after their separation from Gottlieb’s assets in 1984. Consequently, Sony Pictures Entertainment has held the rights since 1989, when Sony acquired Columbia.

Q*bert’s legacy endured, with appearances in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph franchise under license from Sony and later in the film Pixels.

Q*bert is a retro icon that has been a successful video game and movie character. The series may not be as popular today, but the character is still far from being forgotten. There’s no telling where Q*bert would appear next, be it a new game or another feature film.

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