Q*Bert: A Player’s Guide

332 208 Pinball Land

This article was written by William Brohaugh and originally published in Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games magazine, Vol. 1, No. 2 in 1983. Not only does it contain some excellent tips and tricks for playing Q*Bert, it’s a great read, truly bringing you back to that magical era when the excitement of arcade games was still new to the world. Not a word has been changed from the original article, however we took the liberty of adding some more photos to clarify some descriptions. Enjoy taking a trip back in time and learning some essential tips and tricks in the process!

For years, Gottlieb Amusement Games was the king of pinball. The company so dominated the pinball industry, that pinball dominated the company. When Gottlieb’s competitors began producing video games, Gottlieb was very slow to follow along. The company didn’t produce its first video game until 1980, and that was a lackluster tank game called No Man’s Land. New York! New York! wasn’t much better. Reactor, the first Gottlieb game to be designed by the company itself rather than being licensed from someone else, was better. But it never caught on.

Gottlieb’s fourth video game is different. Q*bert is an all-round winner, primarily because it features all the inventiveness and player appeal that made the Gottlieb pinball machines so challenging and popular.

QBert video arcade game

Overall, Q*bert is one of the best video game packages to come along in recent years. The object of the game is unique and interesting. Colors are vibrant and arresting, as are the sounds–a variety of grumblings, mumblings, grunts, screams, squishes and bops. Besides, the little orange Q*bert is even cuter than Pac-Man.

Qbert from Qbert arcade game

Q*bert is a long-nosed character who roams the 28 squares that form the face of a three-dimensional pyramid. Each time he jumps from one square to the next, the square he lands on changes color. The purpose of the game is to maneuver Q*bert so that he jumps on each of the 28 squares at least once; when all those squares have been changed to the target color, you have completed the rack. As in almost all video games, play difficulty increases with each rack.

Conspiring to prevent Q*bert from completing his task are villainous creatures that squash our hero when they meet up with him. Meanwhile, a constant barrage of red balls drops from the sky and bounces around the pyramid, threatening to give Q*bert a fatal bop on the head. And just to keep things hopping (literally), two of Q*bert’s enemies show up later in the game and undo his work by changing squares back to their original colors.

Q*bert must stay on the pyramid. If he should hop over the edge, he plummets to a very loud death–with one exception: Notice the spinning disks that hover in space next to the pyramid. Q*bert can hop over the edge and onto those disks, which then carry him back to the top of the pyramid.

You maneuver Q*bert with a single control: a joystick that moves bert in one of four directions. To play well, you must get used to the joystick. Unlike the Pac-Man joystick, which moves you north, west, south and east, the Q*bert joystick moves you northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest. More on how to move Q*bert across the playfield grid in a moment. First, some notes about the bad guys you’re trying to avoid.


The Red Balls

Red Ball from QBert arcade game

Dropping randomly from the sky and onto the playfield are red balls. They are at the mercy of gravity, and bounce down the face of the pyramid until they drop off the edge. Touching a ball kills Q*bert. The most predictable thing about the movement of the balls is that they rarely continue to bounce in one direction for long. For instance, instead of bouncing southwest down the face of the pyramid for six straight bounces, a ball will more likely bounce southwest once, southeast twice, southwest twice, southeast once. And the balls almost never bounce straight down along the edge of the pyramid and onto the corner squares. That means that they most often bounce around the center of the playfield, so you are usually safe from them in or near the lower corners.

The Purple Ball/CoilyPurple Ball from Qbert arcade gameCoily from Qbert arcade game

The purple ball is larger than the red balls, but is no more dangerous than is red cousins–until it gets to the bottom row of the pyramid, that is. There it turns into a coiled snake that bounces from one square to the next like a malevolent bedspring. Coily is your worst enemy, because unlike your other adversaries, he follows you.

Coily is also one of the few characters you can destroy. When he chases you, head for a disk. If Coily is close enough to you when you hop onto the disk, he will try to follow you over the edge, where he plummets to his death (with a pitiful scream and a loud smack when he hits the ground–the smacking sound is made electromechanically, with a type of “knocker unit” that you used to hear when you won a free game on a pinball machine).

Learn how close Coily must be before he follows you over the edge. If he is three squares or more away from you, he generally won’t follow. It is best to pause then–if it’s safe–before jumping onto the disk to assure that Coily is close enough for this ploy to work.

You move faster than Coily, so don’t use the disk until he appears to be closing in. You can be changing square colors at the same time that you are running away from the snake.

Ugg and Wrong-Way

Ugg from Qbert arcade gameWrong Way from Qbert arcade game

Prepare for some confusion on the third round. That is when Ugg and Wrong-way appear. They also roam the pyramid, and kill Q*bert simply by touching him. That’s simple enough, except that they are governed by a different law of gravity. Their floors are Q*bert’s walls. Ugg and Wrong-way’s movements are random. They don’t hunt Q*bert as Coily does, and they are not nearly as dangerous as you think they are when you first start playing the game. Once you get used to their odd movements, you will see that their true purpose is to confuse you.

Notice that the red balls don’t appear during the third round. In general, if Ugg and Wrong-way are on the screen, you don’t have to worry about the balls, and vice versa. You don’t have to deal with both sets of dangers at the same time until much later in the game.

Also notice that several Uggs and several Wrong-ways can patrol the pyramid simultaneously.

Sam and Slick

Sam from Qbert arcade gameSlick from Qbert arcade game

You’ll learn to hate these raindrop-shaped devils. They seem to appear when you are about two squares away from completing a rack. That’s bad news, because as they hop down the pyramid, they change the squares they touch back to their original color, meaning more work for Q*bert. Luckily, they don’t hop back up again. Also lucky is the fact that they present no danger to Q*bert. Stop them by jumping on them.

Even though you are slightly faster than they are, Sam and Slick are slippery. If you try to jump on them from below, while they are jumping toward you, you can “jump through” them, and miss them entirely. I mention this because you might later think that you can evade the other enemies in the same way if you get in a tight spot. It won’t work.

The Only Good Guy

Green Ball from Qbert

The green ball isn’t a character, but it sure helps you. Jump on the green ball, and all action on the screen freezes. You can jump anywhere you want (except over the edge) without harm. You can even jump onto a square that is already occupied by one of your enemies.

The freeze effect wears off shortly, though, so don’t get caught near an enemy or under a ball when things return to normal.

Green VS Red/Purple

Note that you can (and want to) capture anything that is green. Avoid anything purple or red.

However, don’t scramble after the green ball or Sam and Slick without first checking to see what else is in the area. These attractive green things often lead you straight to Coily or some other enemy. Sometimes you are far more wise just to let them go. And if you have a choice between nabbing the green ball and completing a rack right away, go for the rack.

All of the characters and obstacles in the game except Q*bert, Ugg and Wrong-way land on the second level of the pyramid when they first appear on the screen. Remember that. It is important for two reasons.

First, the very top square is Q*bert’s only real sanctuary. Ugg and Wrongway can rarely get there, so only Coily poses a real threat to Q*bert when he is at the top of the pyramid. Of course, you don’t want to stay there for too long, because you aren’t getting anything done while you pause there. However, if a disk hovers next to that very top square, you may want to wait there safely while you lure Coily toward you and eventually over the edge.

More important is the second reason: the balls give you very little warning when they first appear. If you are on or heading toward those two squares on the second level, you will probably be surprised with a bop on the head by a ball. Stay away from those two squares, and try to clear them by jumping on a disk and jumping down on them instead of hopping on them from below.

Q*bert first appears on the top square at the beginning of the game. Should he fall off the pyramid, he reappears at the top. But if he gets squashed or bopped on the playfield, he reappears on the square on which he was caught.

Ugg and Wrong-way appear from the bottom corners of the pyramid and work their way up or across or both. Remember: when Ugg and Wrong-way are on the screen, it is fairly safe to patrol near the top of the pyramid–though you must still watch out for the purple ball.


Moving Around the Playfield

The Q*bert joystick has an excellent feel. When you move it, you can feel a “click,” so you know it has registered your instruction. This helps you plan ahead. Suppose you must make three moves to complete a rack–down left, down right, down left–and you must make them quickly. Move the joystick down left. When you feel the click and see Q*bert begin his move, move the joystick down right. As soon as bert lands, he will start to make the second move. As soon as he does, make your third move. This way you can stay “ahead” of Q*bert by a fraction of a second.

Qbert arcade game joystick

This presents dangers, though, because you must stop Q*bert in advance, too. If you want him to jump only once, you must learn to let up on the stick as soon as Q*bert begins his move. If you hold the stick too long, Q*bert will make an additional hop you don’t want him to make. Beginners dump many Q*berts over the edge that way.

You don’t have to make several individual moves to get Q*bert to move continuously in one direction; simply hold the joystick up or down.

One overall strategy that will serve you well: clear one corner, work your way along the bottom edge to the other corner, then clear that corner. Lure Coily over the sides when you have to, but you can integrate the luring into your strategy, since many of the disks are positioned next to corner squares. Then worry about the center. Take care of the upper levels on your way back down the pyramid after you have ridden the disk to the top.

Ugg and Wrong-way appear at the corners, so head for the corner that remains clear the longest. Generally, that means that you will be going for the corner on your left first. But you should memorize where Ugg and Wrong-way appear on the various rounds, because it varies.

Make every hop count by jumping on unchanged squares whenever possible. In a sense, you are working against time. The faster you complete the rack, the less danger there is of running out of disks–and of Sam and Slick appearing.

Q*bert features nine levels, with four rounds (or racks) on each level. The first five levels demonstrate your five basic goals:

  • Level 1: Hop on a square once to change it to its target color.
  • Level 2: Hop on a square once to change it to its intermediate color, hop off, and hop back on to change it to its target color.
  • Level 3: Hopping on a square once will change it to the proper color, but if you hop on that square again, it changes back to the original color.
  • Level 4: Like Level 2, you must hop on each square twice. But if you return to a completed square, it returns to the intermediate color.
  • Level 5: Again, this is like Level 2, but returning to a completed square changes the color back to the original color. That means that you must start all over on that square. (Levels 6, 7, 8 and 9 are like Level 5, only faster.)

On Level 2 and all levels that follow, take a quick look at the display in the upper left corner of the screen before you start each round. This display tells you what your target color is. More than once I have worked very hard to turn the pyramid blue when I was supposed to turn it yellow.

Developing Patterns

Gottlieb claims that you can’t develop patterns on Q*bert. Gottlieb is wrong. When you successfully complete a round, try to duplicate your exact movements on that round during your next game.

However, you must build the patterns from the very start, because what happens during one round depends on what happened the round before–this is how Gottlieb fights patterns. Establish a pattern on Level 1, Round 1. Once it is set, always use it during that particular round, because it is the foundation for the setup during the next round. Now, develop your pattern on Level 1, Round 2. Once it is set, stick with it on that particular round. If you slip up and stray from the pattern, the patterns you have established for later rounds won’t work.

Pictured here are my patterns for the entire first level of Q*bert.

Patterns for Qbert arcade game

Patterns for Qbert arcade game

The Future

Will we see a Q*bert sequel? The question has already been answered, because Q*bert joins an elite group comprising Space Invaders, Defender and Pac-Man: video games that have been translated into pinball games. Watch for Gottlieb’s Q*bert’s Quest pingame.

In the meantime, find yourself a Q*bert video and, well, get hoppin’.


Q*Bert Scoring Table

Square changed to target color: = 25
Square changed to intermediate color: = 15
Capturing green ball: = 100
Capturing Sam or Slick: = 300
Luring Coily over the edge: = 500
Unused disk at end of round: = 50
Bonus for completing round: 1000 for the first round, 1250 for the second, 1500 for the third, etc.–up to 5000 points per round

Most machines are set to award you an extra man after 8000 points, and then after additional 14,000 points.