Q*bert /ˈkjuːbərt/ is an arcade game developed and published for the North American market by Gottlieb in 1982. It is a 2D action game with puzzle elements that uses isometric graphics to create a pseudo-3D effect. The objective of each level in the game is to change every cube in a pyramid to a target color by making Q*bert, the on-screen character, hop on top of the cube while avoiding obstacles and enemies. Players use a joystick to control the character.
The game was conceived by Warren Davis and Jeff Lee. Lee designed the title character and original concept, which was further developed and implemented by Davis. Q*bert was developed under the project name Cubes.
Q*bert was well-received in arcades and among critics. The game was Gottlieb's most successful video game, and is among the most recognized brands from the golden age of arcade games. It has been ported to numerous platforms. The game's success resulted in sequels and the use of the character's likeness in merchandising, such as appearances on lunch boxes, toys, and an animated television show. The Q*bert character became known for his "swearing" – an incoherent phrase made of synthesized speech generated by the sound chip and a speech balloon of nonsensical characters that appear when he collides with an enemy.
Because the game was developed during the period when Columbia Pictures owned Gottlieb, the intellectual rights to Q*bert remained with Columbia, even after they divested themselves of Gottlieb's assets in 1984. Therefore, the rights have been owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment since its parent, Sony, acquired Columbia in 1989. Q*bert appeared in Disney's computer-animated film Wreck-It Ralph under license from Sony, and later appeared in Columbia's live-action film Pixels in 2015.
Q*bert is an action game with puzzle elements played from an axonometric third-person perspective to convey a three-dimensional look. The game is played using a single, diagonally mounted four-way joystick. The player controls Q*bert, who starts each game at the top of a pyramid made of 28 cubes, and moves by hopping diagonally from cube to cube. Landing on a cube causes it to change color, and changing every cube to the target color allows the player to progress to the next stage.
At the beginning, jumping on every cube once is enough to advance. In later stages, each cube must be hit twice to reach the target color. Other times, cubes change color every time Q*bert lands on them, instead of remaining on the target color once they reach it. Both elements are then combined in subsequent stages. Jumping off the pyramid results in the character's death.
The player is impeded by several enemies, introduced gradually to the game:
- Coily – Coily first appears as a purple egg that bounces to the bottom of the pyramid and then transforms into a snake that chases after Q*bert.
- Ugg and Wrongway – Two purple creatures that hop along the sides of the cubes in an Escheresque manner. Starting at either the bottom left or bottom right corner, they keep moving toward the top right or top left side of the pyramid respectively, and fall off the pyramid when they reach the end.
- Slick and Sam – Two green creatures that descend down the pyramid and revert cubes whose color has already been changed.
A collision with purple enemies is fatal to the character, whereas the green enemies are removed from the board upon contact. Colored balls occasionally appear at the second row of cubes and bounce downward; contact with a red ball is lethal to Q*bert, while contact with a green one immobilizes the on-screen enemies for a limited time. Multicolored floating discs on either side of the pyramid serve as an escape from danger, particularly Coily. When Q*bert jumps on a disc, it transports him to the top of the pyramid. If Coily is in close pursuit of the character, he will jump after Q*bert and fall to his death, awarding bonus points. This causes all enemies and balls on the screen to disappear, though they start to return after a few seconds.
Points are awarded for each color change (25), defeating Coily with a flying disc (500), remaining discs at the end of a stage (at higher stages, 50 or 100) and catching green balls (100) or Slick and Sam (300 each). Bonus points are also awarded for completing a screen, starting at 1,000 for the first screen of Level 1 and increasing by 250 for each subsequent completion, up to 5,000 after Level 4. Extra lives are granted for reaching certain scores, which are set by the machine operator.
Programmer Warren Davis wrote that he was inspired by a pattern of hexagons implemented by fellow Gottlieb developer and Mad Planets designer Kan Yabumoto.
In a different telling, the initial concept began when artist Jeff Lee drew a pyramid of cubes inspired by M. C. Escher. Lee believed a game could be derived from the artwork, and created an orange, armless main character. The character jumped along the cubes and shot projectiles, called "mucus bombs", from a tubular nose at enemies. Enemies included a blue creature, later changed purple and named Wrong Way, and an orange creature, later changed green and named Sam. Lee had drawn similar characters since childhood, inspired by characters from comics, cartoons, Mad magazine and by artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Q*bert's design later included a speech balloon with a string of nonsensical characters, "@!#?@!", which Lee originally presented as a joke.
Warren Davis, who was hired to work on the game Protector, noticed Lee's ideas, and asked if he could use them to practice programming randomness and gravity as game mechanics. Thus, he added balls that bounce from the pyramid's top to bottom. Because Davis was still learning how to program game mechanics, he wanted to keep the design simple. He also believed games with complex control schemes were frustrating and wanted something that could be played with one hand. To accomplish this, Davis removed the shooting and changed the objective to saving the protagonist from danger. As Davis worked on the game one night, Gottlieb's vice president of engineering, Ron Waxman, noticed him and suggested to change the color of the cubes after the game's character has landed on them. Davis implemented a unique control scheme; a four-way joystick was rotated 45° to match the directions of Q*bert's jumping. Staff members at Gottlieb urged for a more conventional orientation, but Davis stuck to his decision. Davis remembered to have started programming in April 1982, but the project was only put on schedule as an actual product several months later.
David Thiel on the creation of Q*bert's incoherent swearing.
A MOS Technology 6502 chip that operates at 894 kHz generates the sound effects, and a speech synthesizer by Votrax generates Q*bert's incoherent expressions. The audio system uses 128 B of random-access memory and 4 KB of erasable programmable read only memory to store the sound data and code to implement it. Like other Gottlieb games, the sound system was thoroughly tested to ensure it would handle daily usage. In retrospect, audio engineer David Thiel commented that such testing minimized time available for creative designing.
Thiel was tasked with using the synthesizer to produce English phrases for the game. However, he was unable to create coherent phrases and eventually chose to string together random phonemes instead. Thiel also believed the incoherent speech was a good fit for the "@!#?@!" in Q*bert's speech balloon. Following a suggestion from technician Rick Tighe, a pinball machine component was included to make a loud sound when a character falls off the pyramid. The sound is generated by an internal coil that hits the interior of a cabinet wall. Foam padding was added to the area of contact on the cabinet; the developers decided the softer sound better matched a fall rather than a loud knocking sound. The cost of installing foam, however, was too expensive and the padding was omitted.
The Gottlieb staff had difficulty naming the game. Aside from the project name "Cubes", it was untitled for most of the development process. The staff agreed the game should be named after the main character, but disagreed on the name. Lee's title for the initial concept—Snots And Boogers—was rejected, as was a list of suggestions compiled from company employees. According to Davis, vice president of marketing Howie Rubin championed @!#?@! as the title. Although staff members argued it was silly and would be impossible to pronounce, a few early test models were produced with @!#?@! as the title on the units' artwork. During a meeting, "Hubert" was suggested, and a staff member thought of combining "Cubes" and "Hubert" into "Cubert". Art director Richard Tracy changed the name to "Q-bert", and the hyphen was later changed to an asterisk. In retrospect, Davis expressed regret for the asterisk, because it prevented the name from becoming a common crossword term and it is a wildcard character for search engines.
As development neared the production stage, Q*bert underwent location tests in local arcades under its preliminary title @!#?@!, before being widely distributed. According to Jeff Lee, his oldest written record attesting to the game being playable as @!#?@! in a public location, a Brunswick bowling alley, dates back to September 11, 1982. Gottlieb also conducted focus groups, in which the designers observed players through a one-way mirror. The control scheme received a mixed reaction during play testing; some players adapted quickly while others found it frustrating. Initially, Davis was worried players would not adjust to the different controls; some players would unintentionally jump off the pyramid several times, reaching a game over in about ten seconds. Players, however, became accustomed to the controls after playing several rounds of the game. The different responses to the controls prompted Davis to reduce the game's level of difficulty—a decision that he would later regret.
A copyright claim registered with the United States Copyright Office by Gottlieb on February 10, 1983 cites the date of publication of Q*bert as October 18, 1982. Video Games reported that the game was sold directly to arcade operators at its public showing at the AMOA show held November 18–20, 1982. Gottlieb offered the machines for $2600 per unit. Q*bert is Gottlieb's fourth video game.
Q*bert is Gottlieb's only video game that gathered huge critical and commercial success, selling around 25,000 arcade cabinets. Cabaret and cocktail versions of the game were later produced. The machines have since become collector's items; the rarest of them are the cocktail versions.
When the game was first introduced to a wider industry audience at the November 1982 AMOA show, it was immediately received favorably by the press. Video Games magazine placed Q*bert first in its list of Top Ten Hits, describing it as "the most unusual and exciting game of the show" and stating that "no operator dared to walk away without buying at least one". The Coin Slot reported "Gottlieb's game, Q*BERT, was one of the stars of the show", and predicted that "The game should do very well".
Contemporaneous reviews were equally enthusiastic, and focused on the uniqueness of the gameplay and audiovisual presentation. Roger C. Sharpe of Electronic Games considered it "a potential Arcade Award winner for coin-op game of the year", praising innovative gameplay and outstanding graphics. William Brohaugh of Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games described the game as an "all-round winner" that had many strong points. He praised the variety of sound effects and the graphics, calling the colors vibrant. Brohaugh lauded Q*bert's inventiveness and appeal, stating that the objective was interesting and unique. Michael Blanchet of Electronic Fun suggested the game might push Pac-Man out of the spotlight in 1983. Neil Tesser of Video Games also likened Q*bert to Japanese games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, due to the focus on characters, animation and story lines, as well as the "absence of violence". Computer and Video Games magazine praised the game's graphics and colors.
Electronic Games awarded Q*bert "Most Innovative Coin-op Game" of the year. Video Games Player called it the "Funniest Game of the Year" among arcade games in 1983.
Q*bert continues to be recognized as a significant part of video game history. Author Steven Kent and GameSpy's William Cassidy considered Q*bert one of the more memorable games of its time. Author David Ellis echoed similar statements, calling it a "classic favorite". 1UP.com's Jeremy Parish and Kim Wild of Retro Gamer magazine described the game as difficult yet addictive. Author John Sellers also called Q*bert addictive, and praised the sound effects and three-dimensional appearance of the graphics. Cassidy called the game unique and challenging; he attributed the challenge in part to the control scheme. IGN's Jeremy Dunham believed the controls were poorly designed, describing them as "unresponsive" and "a struggle". He nonetheless considered the game addictive.
Edge magazine attributed the success of the game to the title character. They stated that players could easily relate to Q*bert, particularly because he swore. Computer and Video Games, however, considered the swearing a negative but the character appealing. Cassidy believed the game's appeal lay in the main character. He described Q*bert as cute and having a personality that made him stand out in comparison to other popular video game characters. The authors of High Score! referred to Q*bert as "ultra-endearing alien hopmeister", and the cutest game character of 1982.
At the 1982 AMOA Show, Parker Brothers secured the license to publish home conversions of the Q*bert arcade game. Parker Brothers first published a port to the Atari 2600, and by the end of 1983, the company also advertised versions for Atari 5200, Intellivision, ColecoVision, the Atari 8-bit computer family, Commodore VIC-20, Texas Instruments TI-99/4A and Commodore 64. The release of the Commodore 64 version was noted to lag behind the others but appeared in 1984. Parker Brothers also translated the game into a standalone tabletop electronic game. It uses a VFD screen, and has since become a rare collector's item. Q*bert was also published by Parker Brothers for the Philips Videopac in Europe, by Tsukuda Original for the Othello Multivision in Japan, and by Ultra Games for the NES in North America.
The initial home port for the Atari 2600, the most widespread system at the time, was met with mixed reactions. Video Games warned that buyers of the Atari 2600 version "may find themselves just a little disappointed." They criticized the lack of music, the removal of the characters Ugg and Wrongway, and the system's troubles handling the character sprites at a steady performance. Later, Mark Brownstein of the same magazine was more in favor of the game, but still cited the presence of fewer cubes in the game's pyramidal layout and "pretty poor control" as negatives. Will Richardson of Electronic Games noted a lack in audiovisual qualities and counter-intuitive controls, but commended the gameplay, stating that the game "comes much closer to its source of inspiration than a surface evaluation indicates." Randi Hacker of Electronic Fun with Computers & Games called it a "sterling adaption [sic]" However, in 2008 IGN's Levi Buchanan rated it the fourth-worst arcade port for the Atari 2600, mostly because of a lack of jumping animations for enemies, which instead appear instantly on the adjacent cube, making it impossible to know in which direction they are traveling before they land. Entertainment Weekly called Q*Bert one of the top ten games for the Atari 2600 in 2013, saying the port "lost the cool isometric perspective but none of the addictive gameplay."
Other home versions were well-received, with some exceptions. Of the ColecoVision version, Electronic Fun with Computers & Games noted that "Q*bert aficionados will not be disappointed." Brownstein called it one of the best of the authorized versions. Warren Davis also considered the ColecoVision version the most accurate port of the arcade. Brownstein judged the Atari 5200 version inferior to that for the ColecoVision because of the imprecision of the Atari 5200 controller, but noted that "it does tend to grow on you." Video Games identified the Intellivision version as the worst of the available ports, criticizing the system's controller as inadequate for the game. Antic magazine's David Duberman called the Atari 8-bit version "one of the finest translations of an arcade game for the home computer format", and Arthur Leyenberger of Creative Computing listed it as a runner-up for Best Arcade Adaptation to the system, praising its faithful graphics, sound, movement and playability. Softline was more critical, criticizing the Atari version's controls and lack of swearing. The magazine concluded that "the home computer game doesn't have the sense of style of the one in the arcades ... the execution just isn't there." In 1984, the magazine's readers named the game the fifth-worst Atari program of 1983. Computer Games called the C64 version an "absolutely terrific translation" that "almost totally duplicates the arcade game," aside from its lack of synthesized speech. The standalone tabletop was awarded Stand-Alone Game of the Year in Electronic Games.
In 2003, a version for Java-based mobile phones was announced by Sony Pictures Mobile. Reviewers generally acknowledged it as a faithful port of the arcade original, but criticized the controls. Modojo's Robert Falcon stated that the diagonal controls take time to adapt to on a cell phone with traditional directions. Michael French of Pocket Gamer concluded: "You can't escape the fact it doesn't exactly fit on mobile. The graphics certainly do, and the spruced-up sound effects are timeless ... but really, it's a little too perfect a conversion." Airgamer criticized the gameplay as monotonous and the difficulty as frustrating. By contrast, Wireless Gaming Review called it "one of the best of mobile's retro roundup."
On February 22, 2007, Q*bert was released on the PlayStation 3's PlayStation Network. It features upscaled and filtered graphics, an online leaderboard for players to post high scores, and Sixaxis motion controls. The game received a mixed reception. IGN's Jeremy Dunham and GameSpot's Jeff Gerstmann did not enjoy the motion controls and said that the game was a title only for nostalgic players. Eurogamer.net's Richard Leadbetter judged the game's elements "too simplistic and repetitive to make them worthwhile in 2007." In contrast, 1UP.com's Jeremy Parish considered the title worth purchasing, citing its addictive gameplay.
According to Jeremy Parish, Q*bert is "one of the higher-profile titles of the classic era". In describing Q*bert's legacy, Jeff Gerstmann of GameSpot referred to the game as a "rare arcade success". In 2008, Guinness World Records ranked it behind 16 other arcade games in terms of their technical, creative and cultural impact. Though successful, the creators of the game did not receive royalties, as Gottlieb had no such program in place at the time. Davis and Lee nonetheless expressed pride about the game continuing to be remembered fondly.
Q*bert became one of the most merchandised arcade games behind Pac-Man, although according to John Sellers it was not nearly as successful as that franchise or Donkey Kong. The character's likeness appears on various items including coloring books, sleeping bags, frisbees, board games, wind-up toys, and stuffed animals. In a flyer distributed in 1983, Gottlieb claimed over 125 licensed products. However, the North American video game crash of 1983 depressed the market, and the game's popularity began to decline by 1984.
In the years following its release, Q*bert inspired many other games with similar concepts. The magazines Video Games and Computer Games both commented on the trend with features about Q*bert-like games in 1984. They listed Mr. Cool by Sierra On-Line, Frostbite by Activision, Q-Bopper by Accelerated Software, Juice by Tronix, Quick Step by Imagic, Flip & Flop and Boing by First Star Software, Pharaoh's Pyramid by Master Control Software, Pogo Joe by Screenplay, Rabbit Transit by Starpath, as games which had been inspired by Q*bert. Further titles that have been identified as Q*bert-like games include Cubit by Micromax, J-bird by Orion Software, and in the UK Bouncer by Acornsoft, Hubert by Blaby Computer Games, Pogo by Ocean, Spellbound by Beyond and Vector Hopper by Kristof Tuts.
In other media
In 1983, Q*bert was adapted into an animated cartoon as part of Saturday Supercade on CBS, which features segments based on video game characters from the golden age of video arcade games. Saturday Supercade was produced by Ruby-Spears Productions, the Q*bert segments between 1983 and 1984. The show is set in a United States, 1950s era town called "Q-Burg", and stars Q*bert as a high school student, altered to include arms, hands, jacket, and sneakers. He shoots black projectiles from his nose, what he calls "Slippy Dew", to make his enemies slip. Characters frequently say puns that add the letter "Q" to words.
Q*bert themes and characters appear are essential to the 2012 3D Disney computer-animated film Wreck-It Ralph and the 2015 Sony film Pixels.
In 2014, Q*bert makes a cameo appearance in the RadioShack Super Bowl XLVIII commercial "The '80s Called".
Q*bert is seen being played in the 1984 film Moscow on the Hudson starring Robin Williams. The 1993 IBM PC role-playing game Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds features a segment where the player has to solve a pyramid puzzle as a homage to Q*bert. In the 2009 action-adventure game Ghostbusters: The Video Game, a Q*bert arcade cabinet can be seen in the Ghostbusters headquarters.
The game has been referenced in several animated television series: Family Guy, Futurama, The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, Mad, and South Park.
Jacksepticeye portrays Q*bert in the 2020 film Free Guy.
High score records
On November 28, 1983, Rob Gerhardt reached a record score of 33,273,520 points in a Q*bert marathon. He held it for almost 30 years, until George Leutz from Brooklyn, New York played one game of Q*bert for eighty-four hours and forty-eight minutes on February 14–18, 2013 at Richie Knucklez' Arcade in Flemington, New Jersey. He scored 37,163,080 points.
Doris Self, credited by Guinness World Records as the "oldest competitive female gamer", set the tournament record score of 1,112,300 for Q*bert in 1984 at the age of 58. Her record was surpassed by Drew Goins on June 27, 1987 with a score of 2,222,220. Self continually attempted to regain the record until her death in 2006.
On November 18, 2012, George Leutz broke the Q*Bert tournament world record live at the Kong Off 2 event at The 1up Arcade and Bar in Denver, Colorado. Leutz scored 3,930,990 points in just under eight hours, earning 1.5 million points on his first life, beating Self's score using a single life. Leutz's score was verified by Twin Galaxies. The video ends at a score of 3.7 Million points, 1,500,000 points over the previous record.
Updates, remakes, and sequels
Faster Harder More Challenging Q*bert
Believing that the original game was too easy, Davis initiated development of Faster Harder More Challenging Q*bert (also known as FHMC Q*bert) in 1983, which increases the difficulty, introduces Q*bertha, and adds a bonus round. However, the project was canceled and the game never entered production so Davis released FHMC Q*bert's ROM image "sqbert.zip" onto the web in December 1996.
Gottlieb also released a pinball game, Q*bert's Quest, based on the arcade version. It features two pairs of flippers in an "X" formation and audio from the arcade. Gottlieb produced fewer than 900 units.
Several video game sequels were released over the years, but did not reach the same level of success as the original. The first, titled Q*bert's Qubes, shows a copyright for 1983 on its title screen, whereas the instruction manual cites a 1984 copyright. It was manufactured by Mylstar Electronics, and uses the same hardware as the original. The game features Q*bert, but introduces new enemies: Meltniks, Shoobops, and Rat-A-Tat-Tat. The player navigates the protagonist around a plane of cubes while avoiding enemies. Jumping on a cube causes it to rotate, changing the color of the visible sides of the cube. The goal is to match a line of cubes to a target sample; later levels require multiple rows to match. Though part of a popular franchise, the game's release was hardly noticed. Parker Brothers showcased home versions of Q*bert's Qubes at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January 1985. Q*bert's Qubes was ported to the ColecoVision and Atari 2600. Version for Atari 8-bit computers and the Commodore 64 were referred to in the instructions of the released conversions. The Atari 8-bit version has not yet been found, but Games That Weren't tracked down a preview of the C64 version in 2017.
Konami, who had distributed the original Q*bert to Japanese arcades in 1983, produced a game with the title Q*bert for MSX computers in 1986, released in Japan and Europe. However, the main character is a little dragon, and the mechanics are based on Q*bert's Qubes. Contrary to Mylstar's arcade game, each of the 50 stages has a different pattern of cubes, in addition to the known rule extensions in later stages. The competitive 2-player mode assigns each side a different pattern, and the players can score points either by completing their pattern first, or by pushing the other off the board.
Q*bert for Game Boy
In 1992, this handheld game was developed by Realtime Associates and published by Jaleco in 1992. It features 64 boards in different shapes.
Q*bert 3 for the SNES was also developed by Realtime Associates and released in 1992. Jeff Lee, creator of the Q*bert character, also worked on the graphics for this game. Q*bert 3 features gameplay similar to the original, but like the Game Boy game, it has larger levels of varying shapes. In addition to enemies from the first game, it introduces several new enemies (Frogg, Top Hat, and Derby). Published by NTVIC, Q*bert is a playable character in the game. NTVIC started up a contest on the Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine, consisting of three questions about the game. The reader to answer the questions and mail them to EGM. The first winner to answer all questions correctly won first prize consisting of a SNES console, a copy of Q*bert 3, a copy of Strike Gunner S.T.G. (SNES) and an EGM T-Shirt. The first five contestants who came second place won the latter two prizes.
In 2004, Sony Pictures released a sequel for Adobe Flash titled Q*bert 2004, containing a faithful rendition of the original arcade game, along with 50 levels that use new board layouts and six new visual themes. Q*Bert Deluxe for iOS devices was initially released as a rendition of the arcade game, but later received updates with the themes and stages from Q*Bert 2004.
In 2005, Sony Pictures released Q*bert 2005 as a download for Windows and as a Flash browser applet, featuring 50 different levels.
On July 2, 2014, Gonzo Games and Sideline amusement announced Q*bert Rebooted to be released on Steam, iOS and Android. Versions for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita were released on February 17, 2015 in North America and February 18, 2015 in Europe. It was released on February 12, 2016 for the Xbox One. According to Mark Caplan, Vice President, Consumer Products, Worldwide Marketing & Distribution at Sony Pictures Entertainment, the release was motivated by "renewed interest in Q*bert, in part due to the cameo in the recent Wreck-It Ralph animated feature film".
Q*bert Rebooted contains a port of the classic arcade game alongside a new playing mode that uses hexagonal shapes, increasing the number of possible movement directions to six. Additionally, the 'Rebooted' mode features new enemy types, including a boxing glove that punches Q*bert off the levels and a treasure chest that tries to avoid him. The game has 5 different stage designs spread across 40 levels, which contain three rounds and a bonus round and have to be completed with 5 lives. Gems are collected to unlock different skins for the Q*bert character, and completing levels multiple times while reaching specific time and score goals is awarded with stars that enable access to more levels.
On October 11, 2019, a new installation of Q*bert developed by Lucky-Kat games in association with Sony Pictures debuted in the iOS app store.