Q*Bert: Classic Video Game Surrealism from the Golden Age of Arcade Games

By e-glide

In their roughly 20-year history, video games have undergone a dramatic increase in complexity and sophistication. However, in the last ten years or so, things have steered towards predominantly violent themes; the goal in recent game designs seems to be ever-more-graphic representations of the myriad ways of killing. It's gotten to the point of "Wow, did you see that? Li-Xang ripped Rayden's spine right out through his nose! You could actually see his spleen exiting through his eye sockets! Awesome!!", which, if you're so inclined, can be fun...but if you happen to be one of the "older" (20-something) generation who grew up on the "classics"- Defender, Robotron, Joust, Tempest, Mario Bros, etc., you might agree that this sort of thing gets old real fast.

This is why I've chosen to focus on D. Gottlieb and Co's 1982 release, Q*Bert, one of the last great games produced during the heyday of imaginative and unique game design, 1980 to '84 or so. Those who played it when it was originally released will probably understand my enthusiasm already, but if you missed this one in the early 80's, you may well find this article interesting.

The most unique thing about Q*Bert is its premise; you control Q*Bert, a fuzzy, orange, limbless and unbearably adorable character whose main distinguishing feature is a large snout completely disproportionate to the rest of his body. Your mission, Jim, is to hop Q*Bert around the tops of a pyramid-shaped arrangement of colored cubes using a four-way joystick, changing the tops of the cubes to a specific color. This seemingly simple task is hampered by various outlandish enemies and objects, which fall onto the pyramid from above and below.

Q*Bert's primary nemesis is Coily, a mind-bogglingly stupid snake who hatches from a large purple ball which falls onto the pyramid and bounces to the bottom row of squares during every round of play. Once hatched, the singularly unpleasant Coily will pursue Q*Bert around the pyramid, and if left to his own devices, will crush Q*Bert with a gleefully merciless crunch. This will invariably elicit a short, completely unintelligible outburst from the fuzzy orange creature, before (extra lives permitting) he continues on his way .

After the initial rounds, Q*Bert must also worry about Uggs and Wrong-Ways, ghoulish purple creatures who live life at a 90-degree angle to the rest of the pyramid's inhabitants: the sides of the cubes are their "tops". These cretins bounce across the pyramid, emitting low, cryptic utterances, and will crush Q*Bert if he isn't careful. They won't follow him, however, and the skilled player can actually make Q*Bert jump under the Uggs and Wrong-Ways with precise timing. In addition to these foes, Q*Bert must also avoid bouncing red balls, which bounce down the pyramid randomly, and will kill Q*Bert if they land on him. To make matters worse, two additional little bastards, Slick and Sam, will periodically appear and hop down the pyramid, changing the color of any cube-surfaces they land on, effectively undoing Q*Bert's work. Q*Bert can stop them by hopping onto them, but in the higher levels of play, attempting this can actually make matters worse, as it may force Q*Bert to change cubes of the right color back to the wrong one as he pursues these two gremlins across the playfield.


There are two helpful objects Q*Bert can jump on during the game to get himself out of perilous situations: Green balls (which appear every so often), and spinning disks. The green balls freeze all characters except Q*Bert if he lands on them, buying him precious seconds to hop unhindered around the pyramid. Spinning disks hover in space next to various random cubes on the pyramid, and will take Q*Bert back to the top cube if he hops on them. This helps dispose of Coily- he'll pursue Q*Bert right off the edge of the playfield to his immediate death- as Q*Bert rides a disk to safety at the top.

There are 9 progressively more difficult Levels of play in Q*Bert, each with four Rounds (pyramids). Sucessfully completing a Round takes you to the next one in the Level. The speed of all the characters' movements increases as the game progresses, reaching quite a clip on the higher levels. If a player successfully completes Level 9, he simply repeats it as long as he can (this can go on for hours, if one is good enough and has too much free time).

In addition to its imaginative premise and outlandish characters, the grainy electronic sounds heard during the game are a big part of Q*Bert's hectic and totally involving feel. The game uses a primitive speech-synthesis chip to string together seemingly-random groups of syllables at various pitches to create the voices of Q*Bert, Ugg, Wrong-Way, Slick and Sam. You can click on the various characters below to hear their particular sounds (these are in .WAV format: if you need a .WAV player for either Windows or Macintosh, check out the Utils section of the Electrazine.) There's never been an arcade game remotely like this one (with the exception of Q*Bert's Qubes, a sequel game released by Gottlieb in 1984) before or since. Although not the monster Pac-Man-sized blockbuster that Gottlieb was probably hoping for, there were nonetheless various ports of Q*Bert to home video game platforms, including the Atari 2600/5200/7800, Colecovision, and Intellivision, Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems. These varied in quality from wretched (hello, Atari 2600 Q*Bert) to very good (Q*Bert 3 for the Super NES is challenging and elaborates a bit on the original game). If you're a true Q*Bert addict, however, nothing less than an original standup arcade Q*Bert machine will do the trick, assuming you have a place to put the thing. If you're interested in getting one of these beasts for yourself, a couple of likely places to look are the rec.games.video.arcade.collecting newsgroup, as well as the many video game auctions taking place around the U.S (which are often posted about in that group). The Video Arcade Preservation Society WWW Page can also be informative in this regard. Prices can vary from $200 to $600, depending on the source and condition of the machine.

NEWS FLASH: I've added a link to the rom images for Faster, Harder, More Challenging Q*Bert here.

You can also click here or here to see both sides of a Gottlieb "how-to-play" leaflet that shipped with the original Q*Bert machines. Jeff Lee, the artist who created Q*Bert and the other characters, has a home page on AOL which you can find here. And if all this wasn't enough, check out Steve Ryner's Q*Bert page- he's almost as fanatical about this game as I am ;-)

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