I first heard of Kickle Cubicle a few years ago when Mike McCabe included it on his list of favorite games. I was surprised that A. an NES game with alliteration in its title had eluded me for so long and B. that there was an Irem NES game released in North America that I had never played.
Irem, known for their R-Type horizontal space shooters, had a small output of excellent NES games, including Deadly Towers (1986), The Guardian Legend (1988), Metal Storm (1991), and apparently action-puzzler Kickle Cubicle.
From what I can gauge, Kickle Cubicle is based on a Japanese arcade game called Meikyūjima, or “Labyrinth Island,” which is also its Japanese Famicom name. The game looks a good deal like HAL’s Adventure of Lolo (1989), a series Nintendo should revisit one of these years (Lolo confirmed for Brawl?), with its tile grid-based, block-pushing puzzle action.
Though instead of the brick-lined labyrinth of Lolo (such a great name), Kickle Cubicle is submerged in a layer of ice. The whole game is International Klein Blue, and even though there are four different worlds (Garden Land, Fruit Land, Cake Land, Toy Land), each one looks pretty much the same, covered in ice and arctic water.
This is Kickle Cubicle’s biggest weakness, its sameyness, its lack of ambition to show the player new things as the quest progresses. There’s a single level theme, which is an alright track, but it would be nice if the developers distinguished each world more (or at all). There is a different track that plays during boss fights, which is pretty good, and the endgame music is really nice, despite only getting to hear it once in the entire game.
The game actually has dialogue, a good amount of it, which is surprising for an NES action-puzzle game. Lolo, at least the first one, has a good number of words, but no real dialogue. The plot follows Kickle, the titular hero, as he attempts to stop the Wicked Wizard King (who is a snowman with a bucket on his head, I’m fairly certain) from freezing Fantasy Kingdom.
Kickle has to collect “Dream Bags” in each stage to free these princesses who were captured and put to sleep (?) by the Wizard. Each princess wears a different outfit and the last princess the player saves shows up on the game over screen. Good stuff.
After each stage, Kickle releases these floating objects from the ice, usually food, and every once in a while, one of the pieces of food will fly up into Kickle’s face and say something insane. It took me several levels to realize the floating food was supposed to be animate, but once I did realize this, it made me like the game a lot more. It gives the game a weird charm, almost like in Great Greed (1992), which is all about weird food, or something less obscure.
My love of world maps is pretty extensive. Kickle Cubicle shows a little world map, usually a tiled iceberg with random objects floating in the water, in between each stage, sort of like Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988). It would be nice if players could actually move around on the world map instead of the game just auto-selecting the next stage (this would be a huge difference spatially), but the maps are still a nice addition. They give the game a grander sense of space, which sounds weird considering the game’s genre.
As much as the game falters in having dynamic levels, its cutscenes and world maps save its narrative. Some of the cutscenes are pretty insane, my favorite being when Kickle saves a tribe of Santa boots and one of them speaks to him and has the personality of a crotchety elderly man.
Kickle Cubicle plays a lot like a more action-oriented Lolo, and will feel familiar to most contemporary players from the growing number of “flash” puzzle games on the internet that are similar. In many ways, Kickle Cubicle is akin to a well-designed Newgrounds game with a high production value.
For all you NES control whores, Kickle Cubicle feels tight and precise, which makes sense considering its development studio. Kickle can turn around in a single tile without taking a step, which is rarely necessary, but gives additional freedom to the player in terms of movement.
Players have two abilities, an ice beam to freeze enemies and to push ice blocks, and the ability to summon an icicle out of the ground to act as a barrier. Kickle must freeze enemies and push their frozen corpses into the water to create bridges. This is the core of the gameplay, creating ice bridges out of dead enemies, and its pretty satisfying. The game complicates this by introducing tiles that Kickle cannot produce icicles from and tiles that enemies cannot move over, limiting the areas the ice blocks can be moved.
As the player progresses, additional elements are added to the gameplay, including these awful swinging hammers which can be confusing to work out. There are also bomb enemies and possessed cannons that release Zelda-looking bombs that can destroy Kickle’s blocks, and levels with them can be annoying for no other reason.
The game isn’t necessarily difficult, though some of the later puzzles can be stumpers. The game features thirty (30!) extra hidden levels once players complete the main game, which adds up to be a lot of content, and a password feature that gives the game easy replayability. It seems to have infinite continues.
No level in Kickle Cubicle requires a large amount of setup the way most levels in Lolo do. A level in Lolo usually requires players to push several blocks around the area before attempting to collect the heart pieces, and if they get hit and die, have to push all those blocks all over again. Kickle Cubicle usually centers around a single, swift action, and has a quicker, more refreshing pace.
The game never suffers from slowdown, but when a large number of moving sprites are on screen, the sprites flicker and sometimes the music even stops. I could never hold this against the game (that’s just the kind of guy I am), but some players might.
My favorite level is one where Kickle starts on a tiny iceberg and must slowly create several bridges to other small icebergs in order to eventually get to the Dream Bag in the center of the stage. There’s a real sense of progress and adventure, especially considering it all takes place on a single screen. It’s a shame the designers didn’t create more levels in this vein.
Kickle Cubicle has its fair share of weird enemy sprites, something I always look for in NES titles. Authoritative chickens wearing sunglasses and Pharrell hats, zombified ninja turtles, and annoying clowns that release too many balls are some of the highlights.
But even with the pumpkin castle, the grouchy talking boot, and the large, weird boss sprites, the game never reaches the ecstatic level of strangeness that something like Monster Party (1989), of which a new unreleased prototype has just resurfaced (!!!), has. At times, the game has potential to be memorably weird, but it usually feels like a missed opportunity, never quite reaching the surreality and creativity of something like a Mario game.
Kickle Cubicle is an entirely solid game, though. It has a high fun factor, is rarely frustrating but not too simple, and boasts one hundred puzzles (that’s a lot of content).
Even if it does not live up to my unrealistic Monster Party-standards, the game has a ton of charm and character, and it should be revered as a classic NES puzzler alongside the likes of Lolo and Fire ‘N Ice (1993).
-Nilson Thomas Carroll