Nobody loves Seta.
In the annals of gaming history, Seta is one of those easily-forgotten little guys. They never published a timeless classic, but neither do any of their games sit perched on some Internet critic’s snarky “worst games ever” list. Their most infamous creation, Bio Force Ape, earned its reputation for nearly never existing. Seta published dozens of workmanlike titles through the 8-, 16-, and 32-bit eras before quietly disappearing at the end of the PlayStation 2’s lifetime. Seta primarily served the Japanese market, churning out a steady stream of mahjong and pachinko, along with fishing titles, golf, and other of the usual low-interest releases that choke Japanese retailer shelves the way American sports and licensed cartoon titles do here.
So it’s little wonder, then, that few remember the company’s first Game Boy release, despite the fact that it numbers among the minority of Seta creations to have seen an international release: Q Billion.
And, you know, it’s fair. Q Billion is fairly forgettable. It plays like a combination of two previous Game Boy puzzle releases, Boxxle and Shanghai — you’re pushing blocks around, dealing with variances in height… I suppose there’s a bit of Tetris here, too, since four blocks of like type vanish when placed into adjacent squares.
If Q Billion is notable for anything, I suppose, it’s probably the fact that it was the first of many, many nondescript puzzle games to come for Nintendo. Previous puzzlers on the system have been firsts of their kind, often with a considerable legacy behind them. Not so Q Billion; it has no direct predecessors that I can determine, and it doesn’t really do anything particularly new or notable. It’s a jumble of other people’s ideas. And it’s not bad — it’s just kind of there, lacking the addictive quality of Tetris or the obvious love and effort that made Kwirk so fantastic.
None of this really explains what Q Billion is about, which is basically a match-four puzzler combined with Soukoban and a hint of three dimensionality. I assume the title is meant to play on the concept of the third dimension — spoken aloud, it sounds like “Cube Billion” — though thankfully the design doesn’t take the Z-axis too far. Basically, your little mouse protagonist can push blocks in any of the cardinal directions, provided the target space is empty. Often, you’ll find blocks stacked atop one another, and as in Shanghai this creates a tiered effect. Basically, you can only push a block that sits on the level you’re currently standing, and the little mouse guy can only jump up a single level.
Much of Q Billion’s strategy comes down to maximizing your use of stacked blocks, knowing when to push them around their current level in order to reach other elevated blocks and when to shove them to a lower level. After the initial tutorial stage, blocks begin to bear symbolic marks that have to be matched in order to clear them away — four adjacent hearts will vanish, for example, provided they connect along any edge in any configuration.
Interestingly, only four blocks will vanish at any given time. So Q Billion doesn’t play like a Columns or Bejeweled style puzzler, in which connecting more than the minimum number of blocks results in huge bonuses. Instead, this becomes part of the challenge: When more than four blocks of the same type connect, you’re given the power to select which ones will vanish. Choosing the correct blocks to remove plays an important role in completing a stage — pick the wrong ones and the level may become impossible to complete as a result.
Well, “impossible” isn’t really the right word. Q Billion features a very helpful undo ability in the free mode (Game B), allowing you to step back and approach a puzzle in a different way if you bungle a choice. The free mode is presented as a competition based in part on time, so the penalty for this sort of screw-up and redo mainly comes in the form of a loss of time.
The game’s main mode (Game A) is its real meat, a series of pre-designed challenges rather than the random pile of tiles that you have to organize in the free mode. The difficulty on the main mode ramps up frightfully fast, though, with the puzzles going from “hand-holding tutorial” to “how the hell do I do this” in about five levels. It’s challenging, sure, but it lacks the compelling hook a Kwirk or even a Shanghai; there’s no real satisfaction in solving Q Billion’s puzzles. Even the competitive mode isn’t all that it could be, framed by a drawn-out tic-tac-toe battle that takes too long to resolve for its own good.
Between its unremarkable design, its unbelievably ugly box art, and the fact that its name is barely legible — the font Seta chose for the U.S. release reads more like “4 Billion” — Q Billion is neither a lost or forgotten classic… it’s simply forgotten. A mildly amusing diversion at best and hardly worth tracking down considering how many better puzzlers the Game Boy would see in its lifetime.
Nobody loves Seta, and nobody loves Q Billion. So it goes.
Japanese title: Q Billion • キュービィオン
Developer: Seta Corporation
Publisher: Seta Corporation
Release date: 12.22.1989 [JP]
Genre: Puzzle (soukoban)
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: None
Next in series: None
Similar titles: Boxxle [FCI, 1989], Shanghai [HAL/Activision, 1989]