Thursday, March 3, 2011

At Random: Intelligent Qube (PSX, 1997)

One of the great things about the Sony Playstation back in the day was that, with the move to inexpensive CD-ROM media, quite a few low-budget, indie-style games made it to the platform.  My random pick from the collection this time around came up with one of those titles: Intelligent Qube, published by Sony in 1997 and designed primarily by Masahiko Sato, a professor at Tokyo University of the Arts.

It's an action/puzzle game, but it has a more atmospheric style than the norm, with an orchestral score by Takayuki Hattori and a spare, existentialist look -- a pile of gray cubes surrounded by an infinite black void.

It also has a more immediate feel than the usual Tetris imitators, because the player is actually cast onto the playing field, lending a sense of danger to the game.  Sections of giant blocks appear and roll inexorably toward the player character; we must mark an empty square, then capture the block that lands there to clear it.  The goal is to clear each section of blocks completely, but sometimes it's all we can do to stay alive on the playfield.  If even one block gets past us, we lose a row of breathing room.  We are in immediate danger of being crushed or dropped off the end of the board at any moment. 

The standard gray blocks are augmented by two special types: the Forbidden Cubes, black blocks which must not be captured, lest we lose another row of the playfield, and Advantage Cubes, green blocks which can be used to set up chain reactions.  Once we have captured a green cube, hitting a different button will capture a 9-block region surrounding that spot.  We can build up an array of green markers to clear huge swaths of blocks; of course, as the game progresses, more of those annoying Forbidden Cubes are in the mix, making it much harder to use the Advantage markers effectively.

It took me quite a while to get a handle on the rules, in part because I initially ignored the handy tutorials and demo rounds included on the Options menu, leading me to make a lot of bad decisions as I tried to figure out how the game played.  I saw this final assessment screen pretty consistently, my pathetic score hovering in the air high above my crushed and lifeless body:

Once I got the hang of the basic mechanics, I did finally manage to clear the first of eight stages:

Level 2 ups the ante significantly, with more black cubes and larger sections of tumbling blocks -- three or four rows of granite death to contend with, instead of the two we started out with.  And, I imagine, Intelligent Qube continues to get more complex and challenging, with tougher block patterns and faster tumbling.  But the basic gameplay doesn't really change -- the first level is tricky, and the second one demands faster thinking and more agile reflexes.  The game certainly delivers a level of tension -- it becomes easy to panic and mark the wrong block, or get out of synch with one's intended strategy, marking when one means to capture and vice-versa.  And after several retries on Level 2, ending with my surrogate tumbling off the end or being crushed by the cubes, I decided I'd had enough of a sample.

Intelligent Qube is an acquired taste, to be sure, and not an easy game; I gave up before I got frustrated, but I can imagine quite a few dented controllers lie in this one's wake.  But it's certainly one of the more unique titles to grace the Playstation, with an artistically-driven look and feel, and I enjoyed spending a little time with it.

This one's apparently rare enough to have retained its value as a collectible -- there are plenty of copies online, but they don't come particularly cheap.

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