One of the most famous faces of the golden age of arcade games was also one of the most bizarre. A furry orange orb with two eyes, two feet and one long snout, Q*bert was strangely adorable, and his self-titled game lived up to that wacky, unpredictable image.
Designed with a nod to M.C. Escher, Q*bert’s playing field was a false-3-D pyramid of tri-coloured cubes.
Q’s purpose in life was to hop around the tops of these cubes, changing every square to a specific colour (eg: from blue to yellow).
On early levels, this was as simple as a single hop on each square, but later rounds became more challenging – cubes had to be touched twice, cubes changed back to the wrong colour if they got hopped on again, etc.
Making the task even more difficult were the assortment of odd baddies who either menaced or jinxed Q*bert’s every move.
Coily the snake appeared at the top of the pyramid inside a purple ball, bouncing toward the bottom of the screen. Once he hit the bottom row of cubes, the snake sprang out from inside, hopping around in pursuit of our little orange friend.
Red balls also appeared at the top of the pyramid, bringing bouncing death if they collided with Q*bert on the way down.
Other threats came from Ugg and Wrong-way, two purple gremlins who bounced along the side of the cubes, adding even more surrealism to an already whacked-out game.
And on top of all this, Q had to deal with Slick and Sam, two green teardrop-shaped mischief makers who turned cubes back to their original colour when they hopped on them.
Aside from some strategic hopping, Q*bert’s only defences were the spinning discs at the side of the pyramid and the green balls that bounced across the squares. The discs provided a quick escape, floating Q back to the top of the pyramid as Coily jumped to his death in pursuit. The green balls froze time, giving Q*bert a free run of the pyramid for a limited time.
Q*bert’s simple gameplay and controls (one joystick, no buttons) made the game a hit among all age groups, so it was no surprise when the orange furball showed up as a cartoon character on CBS’ Saturday Supercade (now sporting arms, a mouth and a high school letterman’s jacket).
The cute, but foul-mouthed star (who muttered an unintelligible curse with every lost life) was a natural for merchandising and stores soon stocked up on Q*bert dolls, lunchboxes, sleeping bags, etc.
For a time, Q*bert was a king of the arcade world, but the great video game crash of 1984 brought an end to his reign.
The collapsed market was a death blow to Q*bert’s arcade sequel, Q*bert’s Qubes. The new game added more challenges to the Q*bert theme, scattering the cubes into separate space. Now, when Q*bert hopped off, the cubes actually rotated to a new side, shifting in the direction of Q*bert’s jump.
Unfortunately, these new touches were wasted on a depressed market. Few Q*bert’s Qubes machines even made it to the public, and the orange one’s arcade career was over.
Q*bert did make a comeback in home system conversions and in the Super Nintendo’s Q*bert 3, and he remains one of the most well-known characters of the early 80’s arcade.