My first experiences in guiding Q*Bert were on the Commodore 64, one of the few "cartoony" games my brothers owned, and thus, one of the only games I was interested in playing. The graphics were crude, but the paper materials and game box proved Q*Bert to be a cute, cuddly little object of affection that, at least to me, was far more worthy of on-the-ride-home daydreams than Frogger and the faceless dudes from Summer Olympics.
I couldn't have been more than five-years-old, but even so, the game was simple enough. All I had to do was maneuver this tiny orange bug around a pyramid of squares. Nothing more to it than that. Avoiding the various purple monsters grew more difficult in the later stages, but grace be to me, I was usually bored of playing by that point anyway. Q*Bert's games were very popular. He was one of the original icons, so of course, his cruel masters sought to move him out of the video games and into pretty much everywhere else money could be made: toys, plush dolls, puzzles, stationary, cartoon shows, and today's big orange focus: storybooks. Welcome to another X-Entertainment book report, starring one of my most often read pieces of childhood literature, The Adventures of Q*Bert. If books had lips, I'd tongue this thing till Tuesday.
Of all the video game characters to pluck from the pixel and put into print, Q*Bert was certainly one of the bigger challenges. What world could they weave around this game? What stories were left untold up on those big piles of color-changing cubes? Not many, obviously, but the esteemed team of writers actually turned Q*Bert's world into a fairly interesting place -- at least, it's more interesting than the dumb high school and the hip varsity jackets seen in Q*Bert's animated shorts during Saturday Supercade. More on that in a minute...
All of the best children's books have a gimmick, whether it's popup pages, own-adventure-choosing, scratch-and-sniff elements, whatever. The Adventures of Q*Bert isn't without its own little Happy Meal toy: Q*Bert can talk English good, but he prefers to convey the important stuff through a series of codeworded gibberish, like so: @***!(@)!#*!&. A guide on the inside cover reveals the meaning behind Q*Bert's various bouts of verbal diarrhea: "%#!!%X" means "I know I am brave. I will triumph!" Wow. Not that the book really needed the gimmick (it's perfectly serviceable for a kiddy story, with a start, middle and end, and lots of purdy pictures), but the fact that Q*Bert used shift keys to express his deepest thoughts made thumbing through the pages a heck of a lot more fun. **!!*** indeed!
Since all Q*Bert ever did in his video games was jump on a bunch of cubes, it stood to reason that his entire life revolved around cubes. He's a cube nut, that Q*Bert, and sure enough, he lives in "Q-burg," a town where virtually everything is "qube" shaped! Just barely twenty words into the book, and already the writers mention how all of the chickens in Q-burg lay square eggs, a painful thought that makes me feel for the fowl of this strange little orange storybook. The illustrations also paint a strange phenomenon regarding square things: they all look really, really edible. I used to crawl under my parents' kitchen table to read this thing, and by the time I caught a glimpse of the square pink balloons, I was crawling back out to get fed. If nothing else, the book succeeds in making people hungry.
Yes, it's a beautiful day in Q-burg, but just as Q*Bert's humming himself into the wrong-monthed holiday spirit, he notices the symbolic oppression of "Qube" towering in the distance. With dark blocks and haphazard construction, this terrible mountain of madness is the only roadblock keeping Q-burg from ever becoming Q-babylon...
In case you haven't caught on, you idiot, "Qube" is indeed the pile of bricks seen in all of Q*Bert's video games. Ruled with a purple tail by Coily and his band of demonic shitbeasts, Q*Bert has only heard legends of this mythical place. As the stories go, the brave soul who manages to hop across every last brick (turning them from stone gray to lemony yellow in the process) will bring peace and prosperity to Q-burg forever and ever. I find it pretty disgusting that not a single alien wildebeest in Q*Bert's city would swallow their fear to take on the challenge -- it's not like there's massively serious risks involved. A couple of bee bop hops, and bam, heaven is a place on earth. In any event, that's the situation we're facing, and Q*Bert decides that he should be the town hero. The Orange Avenger has no idea how he'll get the job done, or at least, I'm pretty sure that's what he's trying to say when the word bubbles degenerate into strings of !(@*!*@(!(@(@!(.
I wish I could say that Q*Bert's intentions were entirely chivalrous, but the reality is, he just wants all of the townsfolk to throw him a big parade and carry around signs celebrating how awesome he is. It brings up all of those age old questions about whether one should be judged on their actions or intentions, their surface traits or their inner indecencies. I'm willing to give Q*Bert a pass because he's so cute, but had the snout been an antennae and the shade of orange been more brown, fuck no, he's a big jerk.
Midway through the daydream, or maybe a little closer to the end of it, Q*Bert walks right into Slick and Sam, the friendly green teardrops from the video games who made an otherwise bleak existence a bit more social for our hero. In a rare bout of complete honesty, I admit that I can't for the life of me remember the purpose of Slick and Sam in the games. I know that they hobbled along the cubes, but what were they? Bonus points? Aids in destroying the enemy purple things? I realize that this may seem like an invitation for those in the know to e-mail and go into great detail, but please don't -- if I ever get the urge, I'll just plug in the ol' C64 and curse at a window when it won't boot up.
In literary form, Slick and Sam (Slick wears the glasses, see) are good natured, but totally clumsy. Q*Bert marvels at how his pals think they're soooo cool, but they're really not, because they keep bumping into things and because they keep being naked. The chemistry between these three jumps right off the page. Okay no it doesn't.
In his own special way, Q*Bert details his mountain climbing plans to the Brothers Green, who happily sign on for the adventure, and make a few bad Sammy Davis Jr. impressions along the way to boot! For those who fear the art of scrolling upward, that little bit of poetry pouring from Q*Bert's snout in the first picture roughly translates to "you are good friends." If I was taking a walk with Q*Bert and he said "***+" to me, I'd ask him to stop pluralizing singulars. If he didn't understand what I meant, I'd tell him again, louder. Then we'd stop being friends entirely because everything got so uninteresting. The science involved with having a relationship with Q*Bert isn't easy to master. Give the green candy monsters some credit for pulling it off.
The fearless trio heads off for the magic mountain of Qube, unaware of the dangers that wait, but aware that there will be dangers, if that makes sense. These underscored trials are things I only notice now, at age 47. When I was 3, all I cared about was how the apples on page eight were squares. I always wondered if one of those appetizer tools that turn hard-boiled eggs into hard-boiled egg cubes could do the same to apples. Never tested this particular theory, because I have windows and people might see.
Okay, now we're getting up to the good stuff. The writers (more honestly, the illustrators) did a fantastic job of creating an aura of mythology around that pile of squares we so frequently tap danced all over in the video games, at least to the point where I'm still genuinely excited when Q*Bert and friends finally get to the foot of the mountain. Characterized by an omnipresent thunderstorm, the shaky tower can barely support itself under the constant lightning and soaking downpour of square raindrops that look all too much like deeeelicious marshmallows. No wonder Q*Bert was so drawn in.
A peculiar wooden sign warns any would-be climbers that the "Quarrelsome Quorum" will NOT be having it. Yes, Coily, Ugg and Wrongway have firmly planted their purple flag atop Mount Something, and if Q*Bert plans to make the pointy hill shine, he'll have to go through them. Slick and Sam kinda lose interest in the entire plan at this point, apparently having thought that this would be one of those easy mountain climbing missions, the kind that didn't include fighting giant snakes or outwitting pigs. Q*Bert lays down the law with a stern "*$#cc/*," defined on the inside cover as "help me climb this mountain or I'll beat you bloody with a rock and crap in your ears." Q*Bert says a lot with a little, and it's enough to once again enlist the aid of Slick and Sam.
Q*Bert pretty much spends the next few pages continuing to rip Slick and Sam new assholes, because they're smaller, without arms and completely incapable of doing anything about it. It gets to the point where you almost don't want to see the dude succeed in making the hill yellow -- of the many oddly shaped heroes of children's literature, Q*Bert ain't winning any congeniality contests. Slowly, the good guys make their way up the trembling blocks, which indeed turn from brick to bright with each passing hippity hop. It'd be so cool if sidewalks did that. Think of how much exercise you'd get if the floor turned different colors as you walked over it. You'd be super fit.
Look, nobody said it was going to be easy. Q*Bert certainly never said that. Even if he did, it'd be all "*!@*!*@!*," and that could mean anything from "this is going to be easy" to "this is going to be us canoeing in the sky." Climbing loose mountains in the middle of Q-burg's worst thunderstorm in years lowers our heroes' spirits, punctuated by Slick and Sam's argument in that small wee little area of text nobody reads. Slick is doubtful, Sam is feigning hope, and Q*Bert is shouting expletives. This book was the obvious inspiration and precursor to The Blair Witch Project, so much so that I'm surprised Sam's tongue hasn't turned up in a coin purse alongside a piece of parchment with Mary Brown's phone number scribbled on it over and over again in dragon's blood. I can't wait for Q*Bert's snotty snout to get all up in the camera's grill.
The gang put aside their misgivings for the sake of not having the absolute worst day of their lives, and it's a good thing, because LOOK! There's that purple thing! It's coming to bite and hurt! "Wrongway" is his name, foul play is his game. The least offensive of the three monsters, or at least the most easily evaded, fighting Wrongway in the video games was nearly a pleasure when compared to the tortuous perils of Coily and Plum Bacon. Still, the friend of my enemy is my enemy, so how will Q*Bert thwart this fearsome foe?
Though gearing up to be a true battle for the ages, it played out a little more simply: Q*Bert hops out of Wrongway's path, and the damn idiot tumbles down the mountain like the spare grappling hook climbers always lose in the movies to illustrate how badly their bodies would've exploded if they too fell. I've always admired the sleek oval shape of Wrongway's body, and the fact that he's the least "real life" of the three monsters, but this admiration fortunately isn't strong enough to make me the least bit sad that we won't be seeing him again for the duration of The Adventures of Q*Bert. So long, old pal. May you turn up in a Trivial Pursuit question many moons from now.
Our friends barely have a chance to breathe, much less celebrate their victory with a toast and touchdown dance before the second member of the Quarrelsome Quorum turns up: it's Ugg, who "looked like a hog, smelled like a hog and talked like a hog." By gee golly willaka yo, it must be a hog! Rolling around in his own filth like a you-know-what, Ugg is the stout brawn of the Quorum: the guy Coily sends out to teach the nonbelievers a lesson whenever they go to church or make stained glass bluebirds. He's a total purple fiend, and even if he doesn't succeed in killing Q*Bert, we run the risk of seeing this book play out with the heroes covered in pig shit.
("Your nose breath takes the sail out of mine winds.")
Admit it, you were expecting Ugg's threatening repertoire to consist of mere grunts and oinks. Not so. Not so at all. If you squint just hard enough to read the pages up above, you'll be amazed at Ugg's command over Q-burg's dialect, surfacing with such home run lines as, "Hey there, you fur ball with the vacuum cleaner snout!" It's not that it's so surprising that Ugg knows how to string together coherent thoughts, but who could've predicted his vocabulariffic grasp to outclass everyone else in the book's verbosity combined? Ugg is like Beast from the X-Men comics, or the Thornberries ape, or Worf, or Janet. An unexpected treasure of reason, another reason to not judge books by their covers. The next time someone gets drunk and decides that it's a good time to get a tattoo but doesn't get Ugg, I'ma slap 'em.
During a white hot war of wits between Ugg and Q-Mang, Slick and Sam sneak around like thieves in the grass and tie the villain's tail into a knot. It's a powerful visual, but more importantly, it bugs the Hell out of Ugg and sends him yelping down the hill like a dog who just saw a terrible ghost. The Quarrelsome Quorum is down to qone, but the heroes shouldn't go counting their square chicken eggs just yet: the last of the beasties is the worst of all, and he's poisonous.
If you blur your eyes while staring at that picture of Slick and Sam dancing, they look like a pair of Venus Fly Traps who were tricked into believing that they didn't reproduce by supernatural alien fission after all. If you blur your eyes while starring at the picture of Coily and Q*Bert on the opposite page, it hurts. Coily's introduction is suitably regal -- he plunges from the dark clouds like something sent from the northern residences of the people down below, yeh, screaming bloody murder and hissing something vile. Don't knock Q*Bert for the shaking-legs-reaction -- if that was any of us facing the giant snake, we'd have to call upon a lot more than our inner Ice Cube to make it out of there with pants left unpissed. If anything, I'm completely in awe that Q*Bert got through this without even a spit take.
"SOOOO! YOU SILLY...SCRAMBLING...PEST!" While reading the book, it takes a lot longer to digest Coily's lines because you always have to picture them being spoken in that slow, ominous yelly voice that sounds like it's going to be followed up by gunshot or worse. Good thing Coily only has like, two lines or something.
HA! I AM SUPREMELY CONTENT JUST AS THINGS STAND!
Coily doesn't try to hide the fact that he doesn't want peace and prosperity to join the weird people of Q-burg, claiming he's content with things just as they are, using words so long and schmancy that you just know he's secretly putting a bid in to take Ugg's trophy in the supervocabulary contest. The competition goes right over Q*Bert's head, of course, who continues using simple words like "okay" and "!@&!&@&." The weight of Coily's threats are enough to make even the most Randy of Savages turn tail, but Q*Bert stands his ground. Q*Bert looks like a hedgehog when he cowers. Try to use that sentence in casual conversation today.
The payoff for the adventure isn't exactly worth it: Slick hops on Coily's head, Q*Bert finishes jumping on the blocks, viola, the end. We don't get to see the reaction of the townspeople, or whether they'll really dedicate a parade to the heroism of Q*Bert, nor do we get the usually requisite shot of the villains regrouping in a faraway cave, leaving the door open for a sequel illustrated storybook. All we get are golden blocks and a spiralbound full of "what could have beens?" You know what I think about that? !((@(!(@!)!)).
Q*Bert had other books, believe it or not -- some educational, some puzzle, some rife with lewd content. He doesn't make the book store rounds with new wares as frequently these days, because nobody loves him anymore and too many people have since claimed orange is tacky. I sincerely believe the true reason for the advent of the online petition is so that someday we the people can voice our protest and persuade the people who puppet Q*Bert to make him author more fine-wines-in-word. C'mon, Q -- there's gotta be more to word-life than the descriptions in Sharper Image catalogs. Free us.