Retrospective: Q*bert

Even though I started my gaming odyssey back in the late 1980s with an Amstrad CPC 464, there are some mainstays of the retro scene that just never really resonated with me. Whenever I take a cursory glance at the smouldering hellscape that is Twitter, I will invariably see stuff from people who are of a similar age, frothing about games such as Horace, Jet Set Willy, Manic Miner et al. For me, these titles hold zero nostalgia. I realise their importance as the foundation of what we now view as the vidya gaem industry, but I just never really saw any appeal in them, even at the time. Another title that fits neatly into this bracket for me, is Q*bert.

I do vividly remember being aware of Q*bert when I was a kid, but something about the name and design of the character itself left me cold; and the actual game, with its isometric boxes, bouncing deathy spring things (which I later learned was actually a snake) and fairly simplistic gameplay did nothing for me. I was much more of a Heroes of the Lance or Heavy on the Magick type of urchin. Although I did enjoy a spot of Super Robin Hood every now and then, if only for the high fidelity speech samples. Cough.

Why am I talking about Q*bert though? What's this got to do with the Dreamcast? Well, here's why, dear reader: Q*bert made an appearance on the Dreamcast, his orange tubular schnoz recreated in fully realised 3D texture-mapped ray-traced polytriangulargons™. This won't be news to a lot of people reading this, but as Q*bert was an NTSC-U exclusive, I'm guessing there are at least a few people who didn't know the foul-mouthed, mutated little aberration was given an outing on Sega's final console.

It is curious that a lot of these early 2000s reboots of classic titles were only released stateside. Many of those original titles were quite popular in Europe - the UK especially - back when they were contemporary so why PAL releases were off the table is a bit of a mystery. The Dreamcast releases of Frogger 2, Centipede, Mrs Pacman and the Atari Classics Collections are all missing in action, presumed dead (and don't even get me started on Yu Suzuki Game Works), and I'm at a loss as to why this is the case. 

Indeed, the gaming scene was massive in the UK during the 1980s, plus there was no 'gaming crash' as there was in the US. The aforementioned titles (or their prequels at the very least) were huge hits on this side of the pond. But no, none of these Dreamcast sequels to classic games of yesteryear were released in PAL territories, and you can add to that list Q*bert. Here's the rub though. While some may lament the lack of blue box releases of those aforementioned titles, you need not shed a tear for Q*bert's Dreamcast release, as it is - for lack of a better term - cack.

Now I know this sentiment may upset a lot of folks. Q*bert is an institution in some parts of the world, and the legacy of the little orange blob is wide reaching. The Q*bert franchise is easily one of the biggest of the classic gaming era, spawning multiple ports and sequels - there was even a cartoon series at one point. I'm not pissing on that legacy - far from it. What I'm urinating on, from a great height and with unrivalled accuracy I might add - is specifically the reboot released in 2000.

Developed by the now defunct Pipe Dream Interactive and published by Hasbro Interactive (did I mention they're interactive?), Q*bert on the Dreamcast was an attempt to revive the character's somewhat waning popularity at the turn of the century. The game was released on PC, Mac and PlayStation too, and as far as I can tell is pretty much identical to the Dreamcast game in terms of modes and gameplay. And in some ways, the new Q*bert (new*bert?) is probably about as good as an update of a relatively primitive game could be.

It has new visuals, some toe-tapping muzak and the same slightly surreal feeling that the original games foisted upon the player. Q*bert himself still exudes the same 'kooky' character traits, with his garbled psuedo-swearing. There are some new play modes to keep things interesting and - in truth - it's hard to see what else the developers could have done with the template and still keep it faithful to the original. I mean, taking the Q*bert character and chucking him into a 3D platformer might have worked, but then that's just not cricket. No, here you are given the same objectives that someone who played the original Gottleib arcade machine would have been presented with: guide Q*bert around the various cuboid-filled maps, avoid the bizarre insta-death enemies, try not to fall off the map and turn every cube you bounce on the same colour. It's actually rather a simple concept in all honesty.

So why my negative intentions towards Q*bert then? In a word, it's the controls. The controls are absolutely, staggeringly, mind-bendingly bad. See, when you start playing a game - be it a fighting game, a racing game, a platformer...whatever - you have in your mind some idea of what to expect. There's some pre-conception about how it will control and your hands and brain work together with your eyes to make the action on the screen play out as you would expect. Not so in Q*bert. The way he jumps around on the screen literally makes no sense, and I'm aware I'm doing a bad job of explaining this.

Basically, when you press a certain direction and expect Q*bert to move in that direction, invariably he will go in an unexpected direction which more often than not results in death. You want to jump up on the the platform above you, and logically that would mean you need to press up on the d-pad. But pressing up makes Q*bert jump right off the edge of the map. You want to jump down to the cube below because it's the one you need to get to in order to finish the stage with one life you press down. And Q*bert jumps on to the cube to your left instead, just as a bouncing ball of death falls from the sky and lands there. It simply defies logic, it really does. I tried to methodically work out what I wasn't getting, but even looking at the situation objectively and deducing that perhaps the directional movement is based on which direction Q*bert is facing...maybe that might help things? Nope. It's still just as infuriatingly nonsensical.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that the manual does try its best to explain what is going on with the controls, but after several attempts at trying to work out where exactly the blockage in my understanding was occurring, I decided it simply wasn't worth the time investment...mainly because I wasn't having anything approaching what could be deemed 'fun.' There's a fair amount of content in Q*bert, with an original mode and an adventure mode. Original mode sticks pretty much to the blueprint of OG Q*bert; while adventure mode introduces new enemies and power-ups, and contains 5 worlds each with its own mini map comprising multiple stages of rage inducing gameplay. If you're anything like me though, and you like controls to be logical, I doubt you'll get anywhere near completing the first world before the controller is flung through the nearest window. Quickly followed by the Dreamcast. And probably the telly too. Luckily I lift (bro) so my massive CRT was fairly easy to throw out onto my neighbour's car. He's away until next week though, so I'll deal with the ramifications when he gets back.

So that's that then. Q*bert for the Dreamcast. Looks alright in a sort of 'hi-res, less warping PlayStation game' kind of way. The music is functional and the FMV sequences are worth a watch for their utterly bizarre nature. But as far as being a fun experience? Not a chance. I don't know if this was the whole point of Q*bert; that it is designed like this simply to be absolutely rage inducing (it would make sense, what with Q*bert's penchant for uttering garbled profanity), but go into this game with zero nostalgia - like me - and you'll be reaching for the off switch in minutes, wondering what people saw in it all those years ago.

I've probably totally missed the point with this retrospective, but some of us still live in a democracy (well, a weird dystopian analogue of a democracy) so that's fine. We're all allowed an opinion, and all of that up there is mine. You can now tell me yours in the comments...just keep it clean. Or at the very least, take a note from Q*bert's book and self censor.


DCGX said...

I remember owning this version of 'Q-Bert' back in the day, trying to play it and getting bored quickly. Some of the other revivals, particularly 'Ms. Pac-Man Maze Madness,' are quite good. But not 'Q-Bert.'

Lewis Cox said...

Maybe Q-Bert swears a lot because he’s embarrassed to be in this game