22/04/2010

INTELLIGENT QUBE / KURUSHI

Existential despair in cube form! No, not a box set of Chris de Burgh albums: it's Sony's excellent PS1 puzzle game, Intelligent Qube.

Released in 1997 in Japan as I.Q., it was renamed to Intelligent Qube for the US release and, in possibly the only ever example of a game having its name changed to sound more Japanese, it was released as Kurushi in Europe in late '97. I vividly remember playing a demo of Kurushi when I was around 14 and absolutely loving it, as well having the announcer's stern cry of "Again!" so indelibly etched into my brain that I never forgot it in the twelve-or-so years since I played that demo. For some reason or other, I never owned IQ: Possibly I couldn't find a copy, or possibly because on the rare occasions I received a new game, there were other titles ahead of it in the queue. Either way, I recently got to play it again, and it's still as much fun as ever. So let's have a look!
Mostly, this is a game about cubes. Many, many cubes. Right-angles as far as the eye can see. Cubes of all colours and sizes. Well, okay, one size. In fact, this game is so cube-centric that I started to wonder if it didn't start out as some kind of desensitization therapy for people with a severe fear of cubes (Hexahedrophobes?) until someone realised it would make a damn fine videogame.


As with all good puzzle games, IQ plays well because it works on a simple idea, with a few added complications. The gameplay goes like this: you control a tiny, faceless (literally) man in a shirt and tie called Eliot. Eliot stands on a long, flat floor of cubes. Some cubes rise from the floor at one and and then start to roll toward the other end one row at a time. Eliot has to "capture" (destroy) the cubes before they either a) fall off the other end or b) horribly crush him to death beneath their relentless march. To capture a cube, Eliot marks one of the squares on the floor: when a cube lands on a marked square, pressing the button again captures the cube and makes it disappear. Get rid of all the cubes and the next wave starts, get rid of enough waves and the next stage begins, finish all nine stages and the game ends. Simple enough, but the game has a couple of complications. Along with the regular cubes, there are black Forbidden Cubes and green Advantage cubes. Forbidden Cubes must not be destroyed and instead must be left to roll peacefully into oblivion. If you accidentally destroy a Forbidden Cube, one row of the floor falls away. This is a Bad Thing. As for Advantage Cubes, when you capture them, a green marker is left on that square. Pressing triangle then captures any cubes in that square and the eight squares surrounding it. There's gameplay footage on YouTube if that description doesn't make much sense, anway. So, it has good, honest, simple puzzle gameplay. That's great, and as it is it stands up well when compared to any puzzle game, but IQ has a few things up it's sleeve that makes it just that little bit special.
First of all, the music really is exceptional. Instead of going down the mindless plinky-plonk route of most puzzle game music (seriously, try and remember a tune from a puzzle game that isn't Tetris,) IQ went for a full-on orchestral score that is both bombastic and melancholy and frankly, it sounds like the soundtrack to a Hollywood adventure film from the '80's that never existed, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Doom-Cubes or some crazy thing. The music for the fourth stage especially may well be the theme music for some parallel universe's version of the Superman movies. John Williams would probably give up a testicle to have written some of these. You can get the soundtrack at Galabdia Hotel, and I recommend you do so.
Another strong point is the presentation. Everything is very stark, with black and white text and plain fonts with the occasional wire-frame map which gives the whole experience an almost Cold War feel, and it boy does it feel different from other puzzle games. The announcer should get special credit: from the now-legendary (to me, at least) way he says "Again!" when Eliot is crushed to his sober tones when announcing the start of a new level, he matches up with the mood perfectly.
And mood is the final thing which really sets IQ apart for me. Where most puzzlers are bright and cheerful, IQ is sterile, official-seeming and claustrophobic. There's an almost Kafkaesque feel to the whole thing, with the player trapped in a black void, forced to constantly fight against the relentless tide of the cubes with no chance of escape. Even when you finish the final stage, poor old Eliot gets no relief: the level gradually falls away until he is standing on a single cube, which then falls into the darkness. Now that I think about it, that's one hell of a depressing ending. Imagine if Yoshi's Cookie ended with the cookies forming an impregnable vault around Yoshi from which he could never escape. Actually that's quite funny, but then I'm not a big Yoshi fan. Maybe IQ is a metaphor for life itself - The cubes rolling towards the player represent life's inexorable crawl towards the grave, Forbidden cubes are society's rules that must not be broken, and the Advantage cubes are rare moments of good fortune which even then can backfire on you. Or maybe I shouldn't have drunk so much coffee before writing this article at two-thirty in the morning. Either way, I'd like to see more puzzle games where the main character is constantly in mortal danger. Perhaps a Dr. Mario clone where you force-feed your "patient" experimental hallucinogens, or a crossover between Professor Layton and the Saw movies. Look professor, I found a puzz-aarrrghble!
So that's IQ / Intelligent Qube / Kurushi. It has a few more features, including unlockable characters who move around a little faster, adjustable difficulty levels (playing IQ on the top speed is so stressful most doctors won't let you do it,) and even an editor mode that becomes avaliable when you complete it once. Most of all though, it has great gameplay in a unique setting. Sometimes it goes for as little as £10 on eBay, so try and pick it up: you won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent write-up :) I had the Kurushi demo as well, and as one of the first things I played on the Playstation, it was so different from anything I'd seen before... a puzzle game with atmosphere, like a particularly devious room from Knightmare in playable form.

    Like you, it took me a long time to get around to actually getting the full game - but when I eventually did, I was actually disappointed that there was music at all! Hours of playing the demo had got me used to the silence that emphasized the game's bleakness, and gave it a chance to show off the sound design, which is some of the best I've heard in any game... there's the announcer, yes ("Peeeer-fect!") but even besides him, I can still remember the continual thump of the cubes as they advanced relentlessly towards you, and the reassuring "zoosh" sound as you cleared one of them and avoided certain death for another couple of seconds. Conversely, the massively over-the-top bass boom as you mistakenly captured a Forbidden Cube combined with the crumbling sound of the end of the stage being sheared off behind you, and the tense string effect that played when the blocks you were meant to clear tumbled over the edge. However, given your praise of the music, I might have to dust it off and give it another chance :)

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