There are exceptions to everything, it seems. It’s possible to build a Chevy that’s better than a Ford (in theory), it’s possible to make a cartoon about ponies that men can enjoy, and Q*Bert has proven it’s possible for an isometric viewpoint not to muck up your enjoyment of a game.
Woe unto the developer who wanted to make a 3D game but was limited by the hardware of the early 80s. I can understand why axonometry was used back then–it allows the illusion of a 3D space without requiring any more hardware than a standard 2D profile view– but it fails whenever it’s used just for that purpose. Like Zaxxon, for example. The isometric view didn’t add anything to the gameplay; it just made it more complicated and difficult. The situation with Sonic 3D Blast was even more heartbreaking. What happened there is a long story, but suffice it to say that Sega’s office politics resulted in us losing this:
so we could have this instead:
But something wonderful happened with Q*Bert: its isometric viewpoint was implemented as a component of the gameplay, instead of being just for the sake of 3D! How novel!
Q*Bert was the brainchild of Jeff Lee, the original video artist at Gottleib, and Warren Davis, who later developed the video digitization system that was used in Mortal Kombat and other fighting games in the 90s. Jeff Lee conceptualized a game based on an M.C. Escher-inspired pyramid of cubes and envisioned an armless protagonists firing projectiles out of its nose at enemies–Davis scrapped the shooting mechanic for the sake of simplicity. He felt that complex games were frustrating and wanted to make a game that could be played with one hand like Frogger. Thus the challenge of the game changed from killing enemies to keeping the protagonist safe.To make the controls even easier, Davis had the engineers turn the joystick 45º so it would work with the isometric perspective (X-shaped instead of t-shaped). Most fast-paced isometric games have a standard t-shaped input and are inherently trickier to control (see the above .gif of Sonic 3D Blast, where the player has a hard time collecting those rings).
As Davis was programming the game one night, the VP of engineering suggested that he have the squares change color after the protagonist landed on them. This idea was later used in Miner 2049er, another game whose objective is to step on every bit of the floor.
(Note that this gameplay mechanic is ultimately derived from Pac-Man where you also have to touch every part of the maze, but there you had dots disappearing instead of floor being colored.) To add to the Escher influence, there was a creature called “Wrong Way” that jumped on the sides of the cubes rather than the tops. Whenever it’s on screen the effect is trippy. There are a few other neat graphical touches in the game, most notably QBert’s angry speech bubbles. QBert will occasionally shout “@!#?@”; this was originally included as a joke by Jeff Lee, but the others decided to go with it. @!#?@ was actually going to be the title, but as you can well imagine having an unpronounceable name is not conducive to word-of-mouth recommendations. A few marquees were manufactured with this name and those machines are considered collector’s items.
The code-name for this game was Cubes for the longest time. The staff at Gottlieb had a very difficult time coming up with a suitable name. Lee’s oh-so-witty Snots and Boogers was soon put to rest. Eventually someone decided to name the protagonist Hubert; this was combined with “cube” to make “Cubert,” and with a few slight modifications Q*Bert had his name.
QBert was a phenomenal success. I think that one of the reasons it was such a huge success is that it could not easily be copied. The basic formula of Space Invaders is pretty easy to build upon, but how do you make a spiritual successor to jumping on blocks? In 1985 Mark of the Unicorn made a strange little game called Hex, which can be thought of as QBert meets turn-based RPG (Role Playing Game). As far as I know it’s the only game based on QBert which isn’t a clone. The difficulty of following-up was apparent even to Gottlieb, who struggled to make successful sequels to QBert. Gottlieb assigned pinball designer John Trudeau to devise a Qbert pinball machine, called Qbert’s Quest. It was quite innovative, but it was a commercial flop. A very sad 884 machines dribbled out of the plant and proved that pinball was in such dire straits it couldn’t be saved even by QBert. It was all downhill from there. Columbia Pictures eventually sold off Gottlieb after its sequels failed to live up to the original. When the deal went through in 1984 Columbia retained the rights to QBert. Columbia Pictures was bought by Sony in 1989, but when Disney made “Wreck-It Ralph,” they credited the little guy’s appearance to “Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.”
“Wreck-It-Ralph,” by the way, is a terrific movie. It’s filled to the brim with references like this, as well as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods and allusions. I’mma go watch it right now. K, bye.