Q*bert is one of the first games I can actually remember purchasing with my own money. It was released in 1983, having been out in the arcades a year earlier, though I must have bought it at least 3 or 4 years later. It was and still is a very strange game. Just try describing its gameplay. It’s almost impossible to do it in a way that would be comprehensible to a person who is unfamiliar with the game.
I suppose this is what we should expect from a game that was almost called @!#?@! (the gibberish Q*bert says when he dies… that’s right, Q*bert swears) and SNOTS AND BOOGERS (apparently, Q*bert almost had the ability to shoot, uhm… well, snots and boogers at enemies or something, like some kind of Boogerman prequel). In the end, the people behind the game went with a combination of cube and Hubert, and then spelled it funny. To all the people who thought the game was so named because the developpers knew some British guy named Bert and made fun of him for using the word “queu,” I’m sorry I burst your bubble.
So, in Q*bert, you control, well, Q*bert, some kind of cute aardvark-alien hybrid who has to jump on these boxes to change the colours on their tops because if you don’t, someone will murder all the babies. You don’t shoot and there are no explonsions. You just jump up and down along a pyramid of boxes until all the box tops have been changed to the same colour, or else the babies get it. You get some weird combination of isometric platformers and puzzle games mixed into something that can best be described as uniquely strange. In case you were wondering, this is a good thing.
While you jump around with your bipedal basketball with a fleshlight glued to its face, you’re going to have to avoid some enemies too. There’s a red ball that is red and a ball and deadly apparently. As well, you’ve got a purple ball to deal with, though this one turns into a snake-like thing named Coily once it reaches the bottom of the pyramid and the chases you around. Finally, there’s a real douchebag named Sam, an alien who wears sunglasses even though it is clearly nighttime (as you can see from the black background) like he’s some Corey Hart wannabe. He’s a real dick. If the wearing sunglasses at night didn’t already tip you off to the fact, his going around and changing all of the boxes back to their original colours should make it painfully clear. Omitted from the 2600 release were 3 other enemies: Ugg, Wrong-Way, and Slick, named after those stupid boots, a road sign, and an oil spill respectively… probably.
All of this is fine, I suppose. The game controls well. The sounds are unique and strange. What is missing is motivation. Why do I need to change the colours on the tops of these boxes? Why not the sides? What happens if I don’t change the colours? Who will kill the babies? The instruction manual provides no hints, but I’ve managed to dig out the truth using my librarian skills.
The first hint was that Q*bert swears. If 80s action and sci-fi movies taught me anything (and they haven’t), it’s that only the bad guys swear (unless the good guy is Bruce Willis). This means that Q*bert is the bad guy in this game, making this one of the first games allowing you to be on the side of evil, and damn are you ever evil in this game.
Remember when I joked that you have to change the colours or else someone will kill all the babies? Well, it turns out my joke was not very far from the truth. You see, those boxes are not boxes, they’re eggs, and Q*bert is perpetrating mass genocide… with your help. See, you’re bouncing on the eggs, cracking them as you go, causing them to hatch prematurely. The red balls are just premature foetuses falling from the eggs above you. Coily is a horribly malformed baby out for revenge because you crushed his egg and made him that way. Sam is the poor nurse trying to minimize the damage you’ve caused. And you, well, you’re like some kind of space Hitler. For your sake, I hope you were really terrible at this game. For myself, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sleep peacefully again.