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Kickle Cubicle (NES) artwork

Kickle Cubicle (NES) review

"Demented, terroristic clowns? "

Demented, terroristic clowns?

Pugnacious and deadly puddles of water?

A monstrous palace carved from a hollowed-out pumpkin, surely a pulpy nightmare for the Puerto Rican single mother who cleans up each week?

These are just the mundane things I see on my way to work every morning. But somehow, developer Irem -- creator of the cult-popular R-Type series -- manages to take these everyday things and inject them with a new degree of interest and vitality.

Alright, seriously now. Forget Tetris -- in the world of puzzle games, Irem’s NES offering Kickle Cubicle takes the cake for sheer wackiness. In fact, Cake Land is one of four far-off locales you’ll visit in Cubicle’s Fantasy Kingdom -- the others being Fruit Land and Vegetable Land, twin oases of nutrition always in an uneasy alliance against the cavity-causing forces of Cake, and Toy Land, known for its broad savannahs where Geoffrey the Giraffe frolicks playfully. But there’s no time to explore the varied culture of these lands, nor a moment to sit down and sample their exquisite foods and ingenious playthings. No sir, no time at all -- this is WAR!

Such is the scene we encounter when we fire up Cubicle: The evil Wizard King has invaded the peaceful Fantasy Kingdom, leading even Cake and Fruit to abandon their years of bitter enmity in a syncretic union against a common foe. But his thaumaturgical might was just too much. The conquering Wizard King has given the Atlantis treatment to the Royal Palaces of the four lands, leaving their once-dignified residents trapped under the sea. He’s also kidnapped the fair Princesses of the Kingdoms. Up to that point, he was pretty much okay -- you won’t find too many folks eager to challenge an omnipotent prince of darkness -- but he soon learns the lesson that kidnapping a fine piece of ass will only bring down a lot of horny rescuers seeking retribution.

Our hero in this quest is such a one, the eponymous Kickle. But he is an unlikely savior. In our world, his people come and go unnoticed beneath the upturned noses of we who consider ourselves so superior -- simply because we don’t melt at the first sign of sun. Well, I’ll tell you, if there’s one thing that symbolizes “forces of good” in my mind, it’s inability to withstand sunlight. In the Fantasy Kingdom, this is recognized, and snowmen like Kickle are revered for their simple wisdom and their cosmic superpowers. Now if I were a snowman, I would spend most of my time nailing chicks with my gargantuan ice penis. It’s only natural. But Kickle has dedicated himself to a nobler cause -- saving the world! To do so he’ll have to call upon those very cosmic superpowers that draw the ladies to his bed.

Kickle’s got two big gifts. First, he can cause a towering pillar of ice -- reminiscent, in fact, of the majestic appendage that literally leaves his lovers shivering -- to arise from the ground virtually anywhere he goes, swiftly entrapping enemies within a prison of frozen water -- and note that those are the same enemies who sent the kings of the four lands to an undersea “water prison” of their own. A subtle irony Irem! I commend you for it.

The gods have not left Kickle bereft of offensive firepower, either. He can puff a burst of glacial air ahead of him, an assault that can momentarily freeze many enemies -- giving Kickle time to run up and shatter them to pieces like they’d been dipped in liquid nitrogen. But one enemy in particular -- the aforementioned pugnacious puddle -- can be frozen for a longer period into a pane of sheet ice. Kickle can kick such a pane along the ground, where it slides until it reaches an obstacle or falls into the sea. Enemies struck by the sharp edges of these ice plates will be dashed to pieces, which makes them a handy weapon, but what’s really great is that when they fall into the water, they’ll form a bridge of sorts. You’ll be happy to know, given the handiness of these panes, that the puddles you must defeat to create them abound on every level.

Much like Asians crossing over to the new world at the Alaska ice bridge, after a few well-planned kicks Kickle can find passage to previously inaccessible areas -- but his motives in doing so are less Asian than they are European: he makes the trek not to settle a new continent but in order to rape and pillage. For in crossing to new areas he can achieve his goal of acquiring magic bags. Grabbing all the bags will result in a victory for the ages, but touch an enemy or run out of time and Kickle’s through. Our hero faces knights with impenetrable shields, flying sky urchins covered with deadly spikes, and those angry clowns tossing beach balls at Kickle with crushing force -- all this in addition to a clock that stops for no one but the pause button. At times, this extensive opposition can be fearsome.

On the puzzle levels that make up the bulk of the game, killing enemies isn’t always necessary, although you’ll surely rack up a healthy head count. But at the climax of your journey through each world, you’ll face a boss battle -- more of an action event than a puzzle, as you must kick assorted debris into a giant boss who’s moving aggressively and quickly to strike you and lobbing enormous objects in your direction. Boss battles will often cost you a life or two, but 1-Ups are scattered plentifully throughout the game and you’ll hardly need them in the puzzle stages. The boss stages come out of left-field a bit by abandoning any semblance of puzzle-solving, but they actually represent a pleasant diversion.

So. We’ve got a healthy cast of enemies, puzzle-solving action, and a story so epic that Brad “Achilles” Pitt is probably yearning for the chance to play Kickle. But things aren’t all good. Cubicle’s big problem is that it grows boring. This is perhaps startling -- after all, the game features four unique worlds to provide variety and excitement! With the cakes and the snowmen and the fruits and vegetables -- with the general Japanese craziness at work here -- the game’s dullness requires explanation.

Part of the problem is that just one short loop of forgettable audio plays through the entire game, but that’s mostly excusable. In fact, here are two key concerns. One is that despite the supposed variety of locations, every screen in this game looks pretty much the same. Sure, it’s all colorful and friendly, but shouldn’t Cake Land and Fruit Land be distinguished somehow? They’re not -- looking at a level from the game, there’s nothing at all to suggest what world you’re in. Consequently, the game’s visual style is pretty much a constant, and unlike Tetris, Cubicle is hardly fast-moving. In fact, except for a few sprites running around, the game is visually static. While your mind is engaged, your senses are drifting into oblivion.

The other big fault is that most of the puzzles are just like your Prom date -- easy as easy gets, that slut. With the initial puzzles being intellectual featherweights, the game doesn’t become fun to grapple with until about halfway through -- the point where some of the levels become challenging, although quick-witted folk will still face few problems. Moreover, once you’ve beaten a level, there’s no real value in replaying it -- it won’t be any different the second time around. Unlike classic puzzlers Tetris and Dr. Mario, Cubicle can’t increase in difficulty to match your increased skill. Your time with Kickle Cubicle, you should realize from the start, is a one-night stand -- you’re gonna finish it quickly and you probably won’t want to play it again.

For those who really love puzzle games, Cubicle is well worth a try: it requires some mental gymnastics and requires a bit more hand-eye coordination and practiced speed than most thinking man’s games. Yet unlike many puzzle-action hybrids –- Tetris and Dr. Mario once again being the classic examples -– this title appeals more to your sense of intellectual dignity than to your sense of competitive “practice makes perfect.” Eventually, you will be able to put this cartridge away forever -- its puzzles will be perplexing no more and its mystery will be shattered. An entertaining plot and huge array of puzzles makes Kickle’s adventure more worthwhile than similar games (Adventures of Lolo being the most alike) but its relative simplicity militates against it being any different than a book of crossword puzzles you take to the beach and then abandon at the hotel -- the fun of Kickle Cubicle is only temporary.

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Featured community review by denouement (May 02, 2004)

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