Monday, July 8, 2013

Video Game Review: Q*Bert for Atari 2600

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Good game play that will suck you in for hours
Cons: Dated look and sound (which you'd expect)
The Bottom Line
Jump from block to block
All just to change the color
Still so addictive

Q*Bert and the Ultimate Addicting Pyramid Scheme

The 80's were the golden age for creativity in video games.  While now you get lots of shooters or driving games, back then you got puzzlers that make no sense if you think about them but are addicting to play.  Q*Bert is a great example of that, and the Atari 2600 version of the game is still addicting to play.

You are playing as Q*Bert, an alien creature who has decided to change all the squares on a pyramid from one color to another.  Why?  Why not?  We're never given a reason to back story as far as I've heard, but then again, why is Pac-Man eating all those dots.  Because they are there.

Anyway, it's a six level pyramid, which means there are 21 blocks that Q*Bert must hit in order to advance to the next level.  All he has to do is jump on them.  Sounds easy enough, right?

Not so fast.  What kind of game would this be in all you had to do is jump from level to level?  You've got Coily, a snake that starts as a purple ball and becomes a snake when he hits the bottom of the pyramid.  As a ball, he just goes straight down, but as a snake, he follows you around the pyramid, trying to kill you.  Then there's Sam, another alien dude who changes the color of any square he lands on back to the original color.  Still not challenging enough?  The only game variation is with the game difficulty switches in the back of the Atari 2600 consul.  If you put the switch in A (always the more difficult position), you also get red balls that fall down on you and try to squash you.  They fall off the bottom of the pyramid, but they can make it easy for Coily to corner you.

Fortunately, you do have some ways to fight back.  There is a green ball that will freeze everyone for a few seconds, allowing you to get away if you watch it.  You can stop Sam in his tracks by landing on him.  And there are flying saucers on the edge of the pyramid that allow you to lure Coily off the pyramid (taking all the other characters with him) and deposit you back at the top.

Just when you think you've got the hang of things, they make it more complicated by giving you an intermediate color, so you have to hit every square twice.  Then, the squares don't stick with the final color but change every time you land on them.  That's when this game goes from being a fun challenge to a fast moving puzzle game.

You start with four lives, and the goal is to wrack up the highest level and point total you can before you lose them all.  And did I mention you can also lose a life by jumping off the pyramid?

Either way, it's highly addicting.  I sat down to play it to refresh my memory and wound up having to force myself to stop to get on with other things.  It's simple enough in concept that anyone will understand, but it's harder than it seems it should be.  Just one more round is an easy justification to make as you try to beat your last score/level total.

The game requires the basic Atari joystick.  The fire button only starts a new game.  The instructions recommend turning the joystick in your hand since you use nothing but the diagonal directions.  I did that, and I had absolutely no trouble controlling Q*Bert.  In fact, more often than not, my deaths were from my own stupidity.  They certainly weren't from the controls.

The graphics are decent enough for an Atari game.  They certainly aren't arcade quality or up to today's standards.  But you can follow who the various characters are and who to avoid.  That's all that really matters.

The colors are mostly okay.  The various characters are all distinct enough, which is important when it comes to recognizing the green ball versus the other balls.  A couple of times, the color you are turning blocks into is hard to tell from the color you are starting with.  In one case, you can only see the tops of the pyramid blocks.  I'm not sure why those color choices were made, but you can get through the levels even though they are harder than they need to be.

The sounds are pretty basic and repetitive.  You and Coily make noises every time you jump from block to block, and the various balls and Sam make noise as well.  There's some music when you finish and level and when you jump on the saucers.  Nothing exciting, but once you get concentrating on the game, you start to cue your movements off the noise without even thinking about it.  In fact, it was amazing to me how quickly I fell back into those habits even though I haven't played the game for years.

And I need to fix that because I've been reminded just how much fun this game is.  30 years out, and Q*Bert for the Atari 2600 is still an addicting game that is a blast to play.  This is one to definitely track down and add to your collection.

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