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Much like his predecessor Pac-Man, Q*Bert is a strange-looking creature trapped in a maze from which he will never escape no matter how many times he completes his mission. In this instance, he's on a pyramid of stacked cubes somewhere in limbo. It's his job to hop onto each cube and change the colors of all of them to the destination color in order to advance to the next stage (only to repeat the same quest infinitely).
There are five levels of four rounds each for a total of 20 different stages to the game (which is innovative for a Sisyphus game to actually have any kind of finality to it). In the early rounds all you're required to do is change the cubes once or twice but the colors will be locked in at the destination color. As the rounds advance, the colors will change every time Q*Bert lands on the same cube, often forcing him to start over on the color-changing process. Here is where the game becomes a true brainteaser since you'll have to figure out how to cover your tracks while simultaneously dodging the bad guys.
Out to get him are some baddies, of course. There are randomly dropping red balls (which only appear in expert mode); a purple ball which hatches into a jumping snake named Coily when it reaches the bottom of the pyramid; and a green sunglasses-wearing alien named Sam which changes all the cubes he touches back to their original color (which is the only enemy Q*Bert can counter). Oddly, the Atari 2600 port does not include three additional enemies from the original arcade version: Ugg; Wrong-Way and Slick. This is most likely due to the limits of the machine's processing power as well as the memory of the cartridges. Still, the game is challenging enough with the enemies is does contain.
Fortunately, you have some tools to help you along the way. The most helpful devices are discs which float just outside the pyramid which can be used to make an emergency escape back to the top, and in the process, hopefully lure Coily to jump off the pyramid. There are also randomly dropping green balls which freeze the enemies for a few seconds. Unfortunately, the green balls are not like Pac-Man's power pills which turn the tables on the baddies, but they certainly are helpful if you can catch them.
PLAYER 1 - READY!
Although Q*Bert is essentially a maze game, there's a lot more to it than hopping around. In fact, the challenge often lies not in changing the cubes' colors but in staying alive. The enemies in this game aren't as confined as they are in most classic arcade games, since at any given moment you might be one or two moves away from death.
Q*Bert owes a lot of its gameplay to the classic game of checkers, but ups the ante by making the game so quickly-paced. The player must always be aware of the enemy's location and expect their next move, as well as how that effects the player's own movement - not only in terms of surviving, but in figuring how to complete the stage properly. This makes the game a multi-tasking challenge of dexterity, cunning anticipation and puzzle-solving.
There really is no one strategy to take in beating each stage. A good approach would be to clear the top four cubes immediately, because once the enemies start bouncing down from the top it makes that area dangerous to approach.
You're probably heard the adage "Look before you leap" and it's definitely applicable here. A common mistake is to simply move as fast as possible and in random patterns around the field of play. This method often causes more harm than good because it's not about strategy but simple action. It often leads to cornering yourself or crashing into an enemy you weren't paying attention to. My advice is to always leave two choices of movement when an enemy approaches and to get a real sense of timing of their moves. NEVER underestimate their speed!
Since the game is intended to be played on a three-dimensional plane, all the angles on the screen are at 45 degrees (and multiples thereof). The Atari 2600 controller is capable of eight directions (up, down, left, right and in between each), however, the game is specifically programmed to use the controller itself at a 45 degree angle. The instruction manual advises the player to literally tilt the controller so the button is at the top center instead of the top left, that way they'll know which direction to move the joystick. I tried playing with this method and found it awkward.
N00bs will undoubtedly attempt to play the game using the controller in the standard way only to realize moving the joystick to the corners doesn't always move Q*Bert where they want him to go. Truly, the best way to play Q*Bert is to hold the controller normally and just get used to the controls. Left is top left, down is bottom left, right is bottom right and up and top right. I'll admit this does take some getting used to, but should feel natural after just a small amount of practice. Once the player becomes comfortable with the controls the game will be much easier to play.
My only real grievance about the controls is that Q*Bert does not move nearly as fast as I want him to. I'll often flick the joystick in a certain direction to avoid an enemy at the last moment, but the response is definitely not as receptive as I'd wish. This is why it's crucial to get a sense of timing of the baddies' movements because you'll often find yourself unexpectedly pwn'd!
SPRITES & PIXELS
The original arcade edition of Q*Bert utilized a high-end processor for the time because the graphics and animation were very smooth and fluid. Since this is a game where the field of play never changes (a la Pac-Man), it's forgivable to have choppy, blocky graphics.
What's interesting about this Atari 2600 port is the images do take on something of a 3D effect in your peripheral vision. You definitely get the feeling you're jumping from block to block and not on elongated diamonds. Another nice feature is how the colors change on every stage, which is very pleasing to the eyes.
Graphically, my biggest complaint is the lack of animation in the characters' movements. Q*Bert's movements are animated fairly well, but the enemies' motions are not animated at all. The images simply appear and disappear from cube to cube giving the sense of animation (like a flipbook), but is not truly animation. It makes it difficult to anticipate what direction Coily and the red balls are headed towards and will often lead to your defeat.
A minor problem is the score display does not continually stay on the screen. Also, there's no counter showing which round number you're on, so you'll have to keep track yourself. But these are fairly minor flaws and certainly forgivable and don't take away from the fact this game is decent-looking for the most part.
As is the case with the majority of Atari VCS games, there is no running background music to be heard here (neither was there in the arcade edition). However, this is definitely an aural-intensive game with plenty of sound effects to accompany every action on the screen. And since this game involves constant and quick action you can be sure to hear a lot of sounds.
The sound palette is fairly standard fare for Q*Bert's hops, as well as the enemies', but where this game is different is the weird distorted electronic sounds when Sam appears and when Q*Bert is caught. These sounds certainly are interesting but after a while they become grating. Sound isn't key to the gameplay so playing it muted won't hurt.
INSERT COIN TO CONTINUE
For such a simple game, Q*Bert can be very challenging. There's something about this game that's addictive. Perhaps it lies in the fact that it's so simple to learn, fun to play but truly a difficult game to master (as is the maxim of old school gaming). You could play this game over and over again without tiring of it, which gives the game great replay value.
Q*Bert is an arcade classic, but for the Atari 2600 it's something of an over-looked game because it was ported more faithfully over the years. Why should you play this crude version? Because it's so darn fun! Where else are you going to see a character "cuss" in an Atari game?