Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Game 156: Q*bert

I was a little bit surprised when I first learned that Q*bert was something of a one-hit wonder. This bizarre little macaroni-nosed, armless, grawlix-spewing tadpole man is every bit as much of an icon of the golden age of arcades as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. On that note, he might just be, along with Ms. Pac-Man, one of the only American-designed characters of the era with that kind of enduring fame. But while these games solidified their respective developers as industry titans, Gottlieb never had a strong presence in videogames outside of Q*bert and its several ports to home consoles. Their principal business was in pinball machines, going back to their seminal Baffle Ball in 1931. They dabbled a bit in video games during the early 80’s, releasing a version of Universal’s No Man’s Land for the US market, original titles Reactor, Krull, Mad Planets, and after a years-long hiatus from video games, the surreal and technically impressive Exterminator, but video games were never Gottlieb’s priority. It’s strange then that their sole hit would be one of the biggest in its day by any developer.

Note the perfectly isometric perspective. Q*bert’s qubes are aspect-ratio corrected!

One quirk of is that the original machine with unavoidable consequences for emulation and ports alike is that it has a 4-way diagonal joystick, used to intuitively traverse this M.C. Escher-inspired zone. There are four-way DIY joysticks which can be rotated 45 degrees specifically for playing Q*bert, but since I don’t have one, I found the next best thing was to use standard up-down-left-right directions and just remember to mentally offset them 45 degrees clockwise. I tried playing by mapping diagonals of an 8-way input, but this just didn’t feel right.

I didn’t like Q*bert much the first time I played it – I found the objective, hopping on every flat surface to change its color – monotonous and kind of dull, and your tactics pretty limited. It’s quite similar to the Pac-Man formula, but instead of having a maze, it has a right-triangular grid, projected at a pseudo-3D angle.

Q*bert would play pretty much the same if it had looked like this.

Further viewing it as a Pac-Man variant, instead of traversing the entire maze to collect all of the dots, you traverse the entire grid to flip all of the squares to a new color, and subsequent levels task you with flipping each one twice, or even flipping them back to the original color should you re-land on a previously flipped square, creating a pseudo-Hamiltonian path problem. Instead of being chased by monsters, you have deadly and/or annoying things falling from the top of the pyramid and bouncing their way on a random path to the bottom, though two of them are monsters with different ideas about which way the pyramid is oriented. Only one enemy, Coily the Snake, actively pursues you, and without any walls or corridors he is relentless, and certain to kill you if he traps you in a corner or forces you into a cascade of falling stuff. The rainbow disks will offer some respite, carrying you to the top of the pyramid and allowing the debris to clear, and will even kill Coily if he’s close enough on your tail when you hop on, awarding a goodly sum of points and buying you precious time before the next one spawns.

I must grant, it looks and sounds pretty good for its time. Q*bert and the various monsters are large and colorful, featuring up to six colors per sprite, when most arcade games only had three. The Votrax chip, previously used for voice synthesis in games like Midway’s Wizard of Wor, Gorf, and several Gottlieb pinball tables, is put to good use here rendering catchy gibberish, under the idea that if voice synth will be unintelligible anyway, might as well go all in.

Unfortunately, audio emulation in MAME is, at this time, broken. Older versions of MAME used game-specific samples to bypass the need to emulate the Votrax’s obscure circuitry. Current versions emulate it, but incompletely, and while Wizard of Wor took on an interesting raspy quality, Q*bert suffers badly. Q*bert himself sounds like a dying old man, the enemy jabber becomes clicks and scratches, and eventually the audio just cuts out completely.

Real hardware also apparently uses a mechanical pinball knocker to generate a loud THUD against the cabinet whenever something falls off the pyramid, but these things are notorious for failing, and I didn’t hear such a thing when playing at ACAM. MAME’s placeholder sound isn’t terribly impressive either.

My best attempt made it to level 5, and scored 110,000 points in the attempt. At this point, you have to deal with the utterly insane rules that not only does every square need to be stepped on twice, but stepping on it a third time resets it to the original color, forcing you to step on it twice again!

I’ve cut out levels 2 through 4 in the video, on the assumption that nobody would want to watch me play Q*bert for twenty minutes.

GAB rating: Above Average. With replays, the game did grow on me as my skill improved, but I never loved it. There’s more strategy than first meets the eye, and trying to figure out how to spread your colors efficiently before the board has a chance to fill up with overwhelming amounts of cruft, or how to flip that last tile without hopping into falling stuff is often an interesting puzzle. It’s also quite unfair at times, dropping stuff right onto you without giving you any chance to move out of the way, or spawning nuisance enemies Slick and Sam far away giving you no chance to stop them from screwing up the game board. I had fun for a few hours, but can’t see myself putting in the sort of time needed to become a Q*bert master.

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