[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Irem's Kickle Cubicle, released in the arcade in 1988 and for the NES in 1990.]

What was the first block-shoving puzzle game? Does Sega’s Pengo count? Probably not, but its 1982 debut helped lay the foundation for an entire genre of block-shoving that quickly matured in arcades, on computers and, of course, in the NES library.

The leader of this movement was perhaps HAL’s The Adventures of Lolo. With its blinking blue ball of a hero and morbidly cute style, it earned several sequels, gathered a cult following, scored its main characters spots in Nintendo’s Kirby franchise and, most recently, showed up on the Wii's Virtual Console.

But there existed another NES block-shoving puzzle game that deserved fans perhaps even more than Lolo. That game, the true successor to Pengo, began in 1988 as a winter-themed Irem arcade puzzler called Meikyu Jima, but it wasn’t brought to the West until 1990, when Irem ported it to the NES and gave it a title guaranteed to scare off adolescents insecure about the games they were seen playing. That title? Kickle Cubicle.

Not that 'Boxxle' is better

If the name didn’t dissuade buyers between the ages of 12 and 20, Kickle himself probably did. A smiling, spear-bald albino midget in overalls and earmuffs, he resembles some breeding of Capcom’s Snow Bros. and Mr. Clean. His story’s just as cute: the Fantasy Kingdom is conquered by the Wicked Wizard King, leaving Kickle to make his way through four puzzle-heavy lands (provinces? fiefdoms?). Along the way, he’ll rescue the captive citizenry and several princesses, one of whom resembles The Guardian Legend’s Alyssa and wears surprisingly revealing clothing for a happy little puzzle game set in a world of ice and hypothermia.

Following along where Pengo left off, Kickle Cubicle revolves around punting blocks of ice, which Kickle creates by freezing enemies with his rapid-fire breath. The cubes can be kicked to create bridges across water or squash foes (and, if you’re not careful, Kickle as well). The most basic attackers are lumbering bloblike “Noggles,” but Kickle soon faces block-kicking chickens, roaming penguins, and some less cute obstacles, including flak cannons and bouncing ninja stars.

More block-shoving than Resident Evil

Simple as it is, Kickle Cubicle’s flexible approach makes it far more unique than puzzlers like Lolo, Cratermaze or Chew Man Fu. Kicking ice blocks around expands the field of play, and Kickle can create and destroy squat ice pillars that alter the flow of enemies. Some stages also employ revolving hammers that bat ice around stages, and others have fields of springs that bounce cubes back and forth. Even when the solution’s obvious, it’s often fun just to play around with a level.

And there’s no lack of new challenges. Kickle Cubicle has far more levels than its arcade sire, and loses little in the translation. Some details were dropped (the enemies in the arcade game widen their eyes in shock just before blocks slam into them), and Kickle, upon clearing a level, no longer squeals “Yatta!” as “DREAM!” flashes on the screen, but that may be for the best. Sadly, the arcade game’s stage-select feature is preserved only in the Japanese release of Kickle’s 8-bit conversion.

Slippery Slopes

Kickle Cubicle’s one real failing is apparent in its first world, an overlong introduction in which most of the puzzles unravel as long as you stand still, freeze enemies, and kick them into place. Things don’t get justly challenging until the game’s “Toy Land,” where the designers play sadistic little contests with both reflexes and traditional puzzle-solving.

Another surprise comes at end of each of Kickle’s four worlds, when the game trots out a giant boss character. It’s a rare feature for a puzzle game (and one that Lolo 3 later borrowed), but the bosses are a bit lazy: all of them have the same basic methods of attack, and only the unimposing Wizard King, a snowman in a bucket hat, puts up any real fight.

But Kickle’s really about the puzzles, and it eventually delivers good ones. Even after you’ve gone through the main quest and rescued a very Peach-like princess, there’s a special mode with even tougher levels.

Image Fight

Had Kickle hit the NES shortly after its arcade debut, it could’ve caught on much as Lolo did. But it arrived in 1990, when Mega Man 3 and Castlevania III and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and other such sequels were dominating the system. It didn’t help that Irem’s lower-than-average production runs destined most of its catalog for obscurity; Metal Storm, the company’s best NES game, met a similar fate.

And while Metal Storm’s since gathered fans, Kickle Cubicle’s still largely unappreciated. Perhaps Kickle’s too cutesy. Perhaps the game’s too easy at first. But it’s one of the best puzzle games on the system, and it’s a prime candidate for GameTap or the Virtual Console. Even if it’s still just a minor cult hit, Kickle does Pengo proud, and the rest of the block-shoving world with it.