New Gottlieb programmer Warren Davis was looking for ways to practice his craft; particularly randomness and gravity mechanics. He came across artist Jeff Lee’s doodles of characters and concepts he had been drawing since childhood and asked if he could use them in his efforts.
The resulting game is what would eventually be known as Q*bert. The player controlled the titular character, a round creature with no arms and a long nose, as they moved him diagonally around various pyramids comprised of cubes designed to give the illusion of being in 3-D, inspired by the works of M.C. Escher. The player was tasked with changing each cube to a target color by jumping on them—a suggestion from vice president of engineering Ron Waxman—while avoiding enemies and jumping off of the pyramid into the black void that filled up the rest of the screen.
Those enemies included Coily, a purple snake that hatched from an egg that bounced down the pyramid and actively pursued Q*bert; Ugg and Wrongway, two purple creatures that moved up the sides of the pyramid to the top until they fell off; and Slick and Sam (a play on “spick and span”), two green creatures that descended on the pyramid and reverted the colors of blocks Q*bert already changed. Additionally, there were bouncing balls: a red one that would kill Q*bert on contact, and a green one that would immobilize enemies for a brief period. Additional help came in the form of multi-colored discs located near the bottom of the pyramids that could bring Q*bert quickly back to the top in order to escape enemies (if Coily was close enough, this would cause him to leap off the pyramid in pursuit). Whenever Q*bert ran into something that hurt him, a word balloon would appear with “@!#?@!” in it accompanied by a gibberish voice sample designed by audio engineer David Thiel when he was unable to create coherent English phrases on the synthesizer he was using (meant to be gibberish, not swearing). Falling deaths were accompanied by a thud created by a pinball machine spring hitting the inside of the game cabinet; a contribution from technician Rick Tighe.
Davis began working on the game in April of 1982, and several months later it became an official Gottlieb project. Most of the decisions in the crafting of the game came from Davis’ desire to keep it simple for himself, as well as try to keep it simple for players. He championed his unusual directional controls against strong opposition, feeling players would appreciate their simplicity. While initial test audiences did find it difficult at first, many were able to adapt. The battle Davis lost, however, was in the game’s challenge level as Gottlieb had him make it slower and easier. The biggest hurdle, however, was the game’s name. Throughout its development it was given the unofficial title “Cubes”. Lee wanted to call it Snots and Boogers after the original concept of Q*bert firing “mucus bombs” from his nose, which Davis did away with because of its complexity to program. It, along with a list of suggestions from various employees, was discarded. Vice president of marketing Howie Rubin pushed for @!#?@! to become the official name, with some test cabinets being released emblazoned with it. This was rejected as a silly notion as nobody could pronounce it. Eventually, it was decided to name it after the character, with “Hubert” becoming a strong contender. The name was ultimately combined with “Cubes” to become “Cubert”, and art director Richard Tracy stylized it as “Q-Bert”, with the hyphen eventually giving way to the asterisk.
Q*bert was officially released between October and December of 1982, becoming Gottlieb’s fourth title and only critical and commercial success with the sale of around 25,000 cabinets. It was among the 13 highest-grossing arcade games of 1983, and was widely merchandised with the character appearing on coloring books, board games and toys. A flyer released by Gottlieb boasted that the game was included on over 125 different products. A variant version of the game cross-promoting Mello Yello, Mello Yello Presents Q*bert, was released as a sweepstakes prize; with Gottlieb hosting a competition that would net a player 5 cases of the soda if they finished the game 10 times and sent a picture of Q*bert drinking it in the new cutscene. Gottlieb, at the time, was owned by Columbia Pictures who in turn was owned by Coca-Cola, the makers of Mello Yello. Gottlieb would also translate the game into a pinball machine called Q*bert’s Quest, but that only performed well in Japan.
Around this time, CBS was looking to get in on the video game craze and to combat ABC’s Pac-Man produced by Hanna-Barbera. Figuring to hedge their bets, they licensed several gaming properties and commissioned former Hanna-Barbera employees Joe Ruby and Ken Spears to handle it through their studio, Ruby-Spears Productions. The resulting series was Saturday Supercade. Making up the Supercade every week were segments based on Frogger, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., while Q*bert and Pitfall! rotated weekly.
Q*bert saw the titular character (Billy Bowles) as a high schooler—with arms!—in the town of Q*burg. It was a 1950’s-inspired world full of cube shapes (food, plates, records, even the buildings were cubes stacked on cubes) with names either containing the word “cube” or beginning with “Q*” (the asterisk was often replaced visually by the original hyphen). He was joined by a cast of new characters: his girlfriend, Q*tee (Robbie Lee); his little brother, Q*bit (Dick Beals); his laid-back and constantly hungry friend, Q*ball (Frank Welker); Valley girl Q*val (Lee); and monstrously-strong Q*mungus (Welker).
While the town was primarily populated by “nosers”, there were some that stood out; particularly snake Coily (Welker) and his gang of bullies: dim-witted Ugg and Wrongway (Welker) and his girlfriend, Viper (Julie McWhirter, impersonating Mae West). Coily and Ugg were dressed like greasers, while Wrongway wore tattered clothing and looked ferociously monstrous. Slick and Sam (both Welker) were also present, but they were more well-meaning troublemakers and friends of Q*bert’s rather than enemies (although, with friends like those…).
Most stories centered around Q*bert and his friends hanging out at school, Cube Pizza or the Sweet Shoppe (complete with a row of arcade games) and engaging in various activities with each other and around town while Coily and his gang always sought to disrupt their fun or show them up through underhanded means and pranks. Reintroduced was the original concept of Q*bert firing projectiles from his nose; in this case his “Slippy-Doos”, black balls that turned into oil slicks and tripped up enemies. In keeping with the games, the rainbow discs were present as the equivalent of skateboards (or, more accurately, the hoverboards eventually seen in Back to the Future Part II) and the surface of objects changing color when Q*bert bounced on them during a chase (although an explanation for the color change was ever given, nor acknowledged). Also, whenever Q*bert ended up hurt or annoyed, he would get his signature word balloon and the gibberish dialogue would be played.
Q*Bert made its Saturday Supercade debut on October 1, 1983 after two episodes of Pitfall! aired in a row. It was primarily written by story editor Gary Greenfield, with additional writing from Tony Benedict and Kayte Kuch. The Supercade theme was composed by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy, while the Q*bert theme was done by John Bahler and Rick Segall. When Supercade was renewed for a second season, Q*bert was the only returning feature along with Donkey Kong. The other three segments were replaced by adaptations of Kangaroo and Space Ace.
Despite the initial marketability of the original game, follow-up efforts hadn’t received as much fanfare. The reception of the home ports by Parker Brothers varied from system to system. Bowles would reprise his role in animated commercials for them. The sequel, Q*bert’s Qubes, was released under Gottlieb’s new name, Mylstar Electronics, in 1984 and utilized free-floating rotating cubes and new enemies. It went beneath the public’s notice. Konami, who handled Gottlieb’s international distribution, produced their own Q*bert in 1986 for MSX computers utilizing the Qubes mechanic with Q*bert replaced by a dragon. Future home releases of the original would update the game to include new levels and visuals, while a cancelled version more in line with Davis’ original vision called Faster Harder More Challenging Q*bert was released by him onto the internet in 1996.
To date, Saturday Supercade hasn’t seen any form of release on home media. Warner Archive announced via their Facebook page in 2010 that plans were underway to release Supercade to DVD, but because of rights issues with the various game properties the project needed extensive research before it could happen. However, unlike the other parts of Supercade, the rights to Q*bert remained with Columbia after they sold off Gottlieb, and came under the ownership of Sony with the rest of the studio. To coincide with the release of the Sony film Pixels in 2015, which featured an appearance by Q*bert (Billy West) along with a variety of other video game characters, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released The Best of Q*bert onto DVD. The title alluded to the fact that only 17 of the 19 episodes were available to transfer onto the disc for release, preventing it from being the complete series.
“The Great Q*tee Contest” (10/15/83) – Coily plots to spoil Q*tee’s chances to win a teen contest and make Viper the winner.
“Q*bowl Rigamarole” (10/29/83) – Coily plans to cheat his way into becoming a star quarterback.
“Crazy Camp Creature” (11/12/83) – After Q*bert makes Coily look like a coward, he plans to crash their campout and return the favor.
“Thanksgiving for the Memories” (11/26/83) – Q*bert’s class gets a history lesson about the first Thanksgiving in Q*Burg.
“Dog Day Dilemma” (12/10/83) – Q*bert and Coily intern at a dog groomer for the hopes of winning a permanent position.
“Noser P.I.” (9/15/84) – Q*bert and his friends have to find who took Q*Puppy before Q*Ball ends up expelled.
“Hook, Line and Mermaid” (9/22/84) – Q*bert accidentally hooks a mermaid on a cruise, and Coily plots to capture her and sell her to the zoo.
“Q*historic Days” (9/29/84) – Taking refuge from a storm in a cave, Q*bert translates some cave paintings for his friends to pass the time.
“Q*bert’s Monster Mix-Up” (10/6/84) – Q*ball is accidentally turned into a monster and joins Coily’s gang.
“Game Shoe Woe” (10/13/84) – NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.
“The Wacky Q*bot” (10/20/84) – Q*bert and his friends try to help a klutzy robot prove he’s useful to prevent his being sent back to the factory and dismantled.
“Q*beat It” (10/27/84) – Q*bert and his friends are making a music video to win a contest, and Coily plans to sabotage them so that his group’s video will win.
“Q*urf’s Up” (11/3/84) – A trip to Q*waii gets interrupted by bullies who challenge Q*bert to a surfing contest.
“Little Green Nosers” (11/10/84) – Q*bert and his friends accidentally get launched into space and encounter aliens that want them for scientific experiments.
“Rebel Without a Q*ause” (11/17/84) – Q*bert and Viper have to join forces with their friends to get their stuff back from Q*bully and his gang.
“Looking for Miss Q*right” (11/24/84) – The gang tries to help Q*ball get a date for the dance.
“The Goofy Ghostgetters” (12/1/84) – Q*bert and his friends set out to ensure three troublesome ghosts are sent back to the afterlife from whence they came.