Up until sometime in the ‘90s, the arcade held the gold standard for video game quality, and this was especially true in the early days of video games. Even the most powerful game consoles were often hard-pressed to accurately emulate arcade games that had come out many years before. I’ve never been completely sure of the technical reason for this, but I’ve always figured it had something to do with arcade game processors only having one job to do: play one game and one game only. As a result, the arcade originals were almost always more challenging, had better graphics and audio and were usually – but not always – more fun than the home ports that followed.
In recent months I’ve published features comparing the NES and Atari 2600 versions of Burgertime and Joust. However, to me those pieces seemed incomplete without a few words on the arcade originals, so that’s why I’m throwing that in my mix in my comparison piece on Q*Bert.
Now, comparing arcade graphics to the Atari 2600 – and even the NES – put both at a disadvantage in that respect. However, they can be compared in terms of their challenge, enjoyability and how many elements of the original the ports were able to capture.
The facts. The Q*Bert arcade game was released by Gottlieb in 1982 and quickly became a gamer favourite. It remains one of the most recognizable games of its area, incorporating the kind of action puzzle-solving in a lushly-animated cartoon setting that made Pac-Man and Donkey Kong so popular.
Q*Bert is almost as ubiquitous in popular culture as those two games so you probably already know how it’s played, but in case you don’t know, the goal of Q*Bert is to change the colours on a pyramid of 28 blocks by hopping on them. A variety of nuisances are on hand to challenge this goal, including Coily the snake, red balls that rain down on the pyramid, Ugg and Wrongway and Slick and Sam. The first four kill you on contact (causing Q*Bert to unleash his familiar comic book censored profanity) while the last two undo your work by changing your recoloured cubes back to their original colour.
You have recourse against your enemies in three ways: you can catch a platform at the side of the pyramid, causing the bad guys to fall off, land on a green ball to make them immobile, and land on Slick or Sam to stop them in their tracks. As the game progresses it introduces new challenges, including having to jump on each cube twice and undoing your own colour changes.
The Atari 2600 version of Q*Bert was released by Parker Brothers (along with a number of contemporary consoles and computers) in 1983. Q*Bert was released by Ultra Games for the NES in 1989 and has continued to be released for a number of platforms to this very day.
The challenge. Arcade Q*Bert – not surprisingly – wins in this category (arcade operators had to make money somehow), although the NES version is not far behind. As an average Q*Bert player, I can generally get further – and score higher – in the NES version (without hitting “continue”) by at least a couple of levels and a few thousand points.
Despite not being as fluid as either the arcade or NES versions, Parker Brothers did a pretty good job with 2600 Q*Bert. In its “A” game difficulty it’s comparable speedwise to both of those versions. However, it features only 21 cubes per pyramid compared to 28 in the other two, making it considerably easier to finish the pyramids (Ugg and Wrongway are also missing, but I didn’t find their absence to make much difference). You get more points for completing a pyramid in the VCS version, making high scores easier to attain. Finally, you get four lives as compared to three and it makes a difference.
Sizing them up. Not surprisingly, the NES version has all the features and creatures of arcade Q*Bert. It’s about as close to the original as you could get at the time – just a little blockier. The only thing that bugs me about the port is an unavoidable selection screen in which you have to cycle through the D-pad to ensure the controls are “OK.” The NES D-pad only has four-way direction – why would I want to switch the controls around unless I wanted to point the controller at the TV like a remote control? The Atari 2600 has its standard graphical issues, but Q*Bert is recognizably Q*Bert and Coily is recognizably Coily. As I mentioned in my original review, the enemy sprites do not move very fluidly, which can make the trick of hopping over the red balls a little tricky.
The fun factor. All three of these versions of Q*Bert are remarkably enjoyable, which just goes to show that as long as you have strong source material and stick to what made the original work, you shouldn’t have a problem developing a quality port (for an example of the opposite, see Atari’s Pac-Man for the VCS). Having said that (and this might be sacrilege to some), the NES version has a slight advantage over both the arcade and the 2600 in the fun department, if for no other reason than it has a “continue” feature, making it easier to get to the higher levels where things get really crazy.
If you have any suggestions for games for future entries of this feature, please feel free to let me know.
((Addendum January 22, 2018: I didn’t mention anything about Q*Bert controls in this entry, and I should have because they can be tricky for a beginner. Whether you’re playing on the Atari 2600 or the NES, your best bet might be to position your joystick or D-pad by turning it to the left so it looks like the controls are set diagonally. I don’t use this method anymore because I’ve been playing home Q*Bert long enough to know which directions are which and that’s probably why I was negligent in offering this advice. My apologies.))