Intelligent Qube

A colleague of mine has on his desk a book titled 1001 Videogames You Must Play Before You Die. The main purpose of this book seems to be to provoke disagreement. (Why else would it, for example, list Silent Hill but not Silent Hill 2? I think that most fans of the series would agree that if you’re going to play only one of those before you die, it should be the latter.) In the course of flipping through its pages and arguing, someone noticed a listing for Intelligent Qube (aka Kurushi) and recommended it specifically to me. I had never heard of it before, but was intrigued enough to seek out a copy. Apparently, despite a loyal following, IQ didn’t sell well outside Japan. Consequently, it’s now one of those games described as “rare” and “hard to find”, although in the age of eBay all this really means is that used copies sell for more online than you’d expect of a Playstation game from 1997.

IQ is in the “puzzle game” genre, but not in the sense that I was expecting from the way it was described to me: it’s not a “Think!” game, but a “Think fast!” game. In other words, it’s in the broader school of Tetris, down to the inexorable descent of groups of blocks that you have to deal with before they reach the bottom, except that, this being designed for the Playstation, it’s all in 3D and instead of falling downward, the blocks are coming at you.

Also unlike the usual sort of falling-block game, you play it from the inside, kind of like the Royal Puzzle from Zork III: you control a little man who runs around trying not to get steamrolled by the blocks. Getting run over doesn’t end the game, but it does prevent you from taking any more actions until the current wave of blocks has completed its journey, and that’s often enough to make losing inevitable. As such, getting run over always feels like a cheap shot. The movement of the blocks isn’t constant in this game: they take discrete steps, rolling from face to face like in Edge, and they often pause for a little while to give you a chance to do something. But sometimes they don’t pause as long as you think they’re going to. Presumably there are rules governing this, but I have yet to figure them out.

And what does your little man run around doing? Setting traps! Pressing the X button sets a blue marker on the floor tile you’re currently standing on; pressing it again detonates it, destroying any block currently on that spot. This is a big source of confusion during panicked moments: losing track of whether you’ve pressed that button an odd or even number of times. There are three sorts of blocks. First, there are the normal ones that you want to destroy before they reach the end of the track. Then there are “advantage” blocks that leave green marks behind when destroyed, which you can detonate at the press of another button, either immediately or after letting the blocks advance more, destroying any blocks in a 3×3 area. (But not your avatar, fortunately.) Finally, there are the “forbidden” ones, which you aren’t supposed to destroy. The punishment for making mistakes is always the same: the playfield is shortened by one row, making the game harder, and ending the game if you’re standing on the row that got deleted. But you can miss several normal blocks before this happens (there’s a counter on the screen keeping track of how close you are to this penalty), whereas deleting a forbidden block always incurs the penalty immediately. Thus, avoiding deleting forbidden blocks is more urgent than getting all of the normal ones — although if you can do both, clearing a wave perfectly, the reward is that the playfield lengthens by one row, giving you a little extra breathing room. Thus, this is very much a positive-feedback game: the reward for doing well is that it becomes easier to continue doing well, the punishment for doing badly is that it becomes harder. This too is very Tetris-like, but the dynamic is different: where Tetris starts off feeling easy and turns desperate once you’ve crossed a certain threshold, I felt like the tipping point in each level of IQ was the point where I acquired enough skill to stop failing.

As the levels advance and the difficulty increases (mainly by increasing the number of blocks in each wave), the game becomes all about planning out when to use the advantage blocks. You want to use them when they won’t catch any forbidden blocks, and that takes some planning. Just about the worst thing you can do is have two green-marked tiles in inopportune positions relative to each other, because you can’t detonate them individually. I’ve generally tried to avoid this by destroying the advantage blocks one by one, but this means taking more time and letting the blocks get uncomfortably close to the end of the track, and possibly even trapping your little man behind a fence of forbidden blocks. For as the waves grow larger, the game takes on aspects of a maze game, with the forbidden blocks defining where you can go, unless you accept the penalty and blast one.

In short, there is a substantial amount of gameplay here, and I’m more satisfied with the game now than I was when I first realized that there was such a strong time element, although I’m not convinced that the experience is worth what I paid for it. I have by now completed the game by dint of copious use of the continue feature, which starts you over from the start of the current level. This took two sessions, although I probably would have continued playing in my first if I had realized that the game doesn’t save your progress at all. I was fooled by a “save” option in the “options” menu, which I think just saves the high score list. It’s the arcade sensibility, really. The whole thing is meant to be played in a single session, using multiple quarters.

So, why is this a game that You Must Play Before You Die? If I recall correctly, the writeup in that book was mostly impressed with the feel of the thing, that unlike most Tetris-influenced puzzle games, it felt like it “mattered”. And, having played it, I now think this mostly has to do with the music. The game has a stirring, epic soundtrack, like John Williams movie score.