Middle Aged Gamers Collection #43 - #51 "Chess Set"

davyK's picture

Star Chess (Videomaster)Star Chess (Videomaster)

Chessmaster II - PS1
Virtual Kasparov - PS1
Checkmate - PS1
Virtual Chess 64 - N64
Chessmaster - PS2
Wii Chess - Wii
CXG Computachess - dedicated
Mephisto Atlanta - dedicated
Videomaster Star Chess - dedicated

In 1968, international chess master, computer programmer and author David Levy made a bet that he would not lose a chess match to a computer program within 10 years. In 1978 he collected his winnings of £1,250. A tidy sum - but he didn't make another bet. Maybe Mr Levy saw the writing on the wall for chess as the ultimate challenge to computer programmers at the time. Now in 2011, chess games can be bought at an impulse purchase price that will trounce all but those at the very top of the chess playing fraternity.

In the early days of computer gaming, having a chess game for your chosen computer was a given. Even the humble Atari 2600 had a chess cartridge which even with its limitations (the screen went blank when the computer was thinking) gave me a decent game. I'm by no means a good player but I wasn't bad when I was quite young - I pushed adults at the age of 12 - but I haven't played it seriously in a long time. I've often thought about how good I could have got had I stuck at it or found a chess club to join. I still find a chess game for a console a tempting proposition mainly because I enjoy seeing how the presentation has been done. Lets face it - now that the playing level can be assumed to be sufficiently strong its the only thing that you can use to differentiate between games. The games do not require any powerful display (I remember Sargon II for the Apple IIe showing a nice 2D board and pieces). Its the options and extras that matter.

I have in my possession a handful of chess games spread over the last few years. I have long discarded by Atari 2600 cartridge but have 3 PS1 games and one each for the N64, PS2 and Wii. I also have a few dedicated chess playing devices which I'll describe too.

All of these games have selectable difficulty levels, the lowest is usually called some sort of training mode with the computer making lots of mistakes which is really allowing the player to learn the moves - but you will find a pretty steep difficulty curve once you move up a couple of levels.

There will also be a set up position mode - allowing you to place the pieces to a position as given in chess puzzles. You will also for the most part be able to save games for continuing later on.

Virtual Chess 64 for the N64 from Titus has a few novel features worth mentioning. First of all though I want to dispense with the animations that come with this game that thankfully can be switched off. These are a call back to the days of Battle Chess on the PC which showed the pieces actually moving and morphing on the board and fighting as part of the gameplay. In the N64 game there are some crude animated sequences in old jagged 3D of characters representing the pieces fighting each other when a piece is captured. They aren't very good and they get old really fast - don't get the game because of this feature.

You can select between 3D and 2D boards and as usual I always play in 2D. In 2D mode 4 players can take the computer on simultaneously. This is a really nice feature and I suppose a single player could use this to create a branch in a game at a key move for example and play 2 games at the same time.

There are a few play aids for beginners such as highlighting valid moves when a piece is selected and a comprehensive tutorial mode that starts with the basics and ends up commenting on games between grandmasters that are stored on the cartridge. Worth picking up this one. The graphics are fine too if, as I always recommend, you use an RGB or s-video cable which cleans up a lot of the N64 blur.

Two of the PS1 offerings haven't aged well at all. The budget release Checkmate II can be dismissed straight away - the display is poor even in 2D and there are next to no features outside the basic game. Chessmaster 2 also doesn't manage a clear display. The 3D display looks OK but I find it hard to play the game in 3D. This may be a matter of personal taste but while there are lots of options for board colours and piece types - there aren't many that actually make things clear enough to comfortably play. Picking the 2D pieces makes for a clearer display but even then the outlines of the pieces aren't as clear as they should be which is disappointing.

You can create a player profile with a default rating score and competitive games will either raise or lower this. There are loads of options such as chess clocks with different time constraints and teaching aids and display options that can be twiddled with. You can select what personality your CPU opponent has (attacking, defensive etc.) and you can even set how valuable the CPU considers different pieces - quite a powerful feature. The tutorial mode is nicely presented with video clips and clear speech - however there are no demonstration games as those offered by the N64's Virtua Chess. Overall though this is a very good chess game - just a pity about the display issues.

The third game for the PS1, called Virtual Kasparov, is the best of the bunch for this platform. The 3D view isn't as good as in Chessmaster 2 but the 2D view is really nice and clear - or at least it can be if you pick the right combination of board and pieces. There are plenty of options re the gameplay with clocks, opening books, opponents etc.

The tutorial mode is very good and is interactive - asking you to make the right move before getting either praise or comment from a dodgy looking 3D model of Gary Kasparov's face. There is also quite an extensive video interview with Kasparov, player profiles, and a large selection of famous games that can be played out with text-based commentary. The text on screen is displayed in an unusual font which some may find difficult to read - especially if you aren't using an RGB cable but if you are looking for a PS1 chess game I'd choose this one over Chessmaster 2.

Chessmaster for the PS2 may not have the "II" suffix of its PS1 stablemate but it is a far superior game. In fact this is a quite brilliant game and is in all liklihood definitive - surpassed only perhaps by a hardcore PC title. The 3D view is of sufficient quality as to allow you to actually use it in my opinion - though I still prefer the excellent 2D view offered.

There are loads of options - way more than most of us will ever need. As with the PS1 game you create a profile with a rating and take part in competitive games or quick games that don't affect your profile. This title takes it further by offering tournaments for you to play in and unlock others. There are over 800 famous games with text-based notes to watch.

Perhaps the most impressive feature is the Pandolfini chess school which is an excellent training mode - which will teach you how to play but also give you exercises to improve your game if you already know how to play - they certainly provide a challenge for me (though that may not be saying much!). There are drills (with records saved) and exams and the school covers all phases of game play - this feature alone would be worth the money as a stand-alone game. There is also a puzzle mode that seems to generate basic single move puzzles for you of the classic style.

Presentation throughout is excellent with well though out menus and you will be able to find every setting quite easily unlike some of the other games discussed.

Finally there is a chess battlefield mode which has its own entirely separate fantasy inspired presentation style. This is much like the battle chess games of old that were released on the PC. There is a 2 player mode and a CPU mode with selectable warlords to fight. By necessity this is a 3D game but the board rotation and zoom features should let you find a playable setting. The animations aren't overly complex and so happen quickly and won't grow old - it is a really nice option to have to play.

Overall this is the finest chess game I've had the pleasure to encounter and I recommend this strongly. Apart from an online mode that would be offered by more modern console or a PC version this really couldn't be bettered.

Speaking of online modes, Wii Chess offers this. Wii Chess is a very basic chess game that offers 2 player local, online (friend codes or anonymous) and vs CPU modes. Its a budget title and was a WiiWare downloadable game in some regions - its disc borne in PAL. A nice enough game though it only has a few options that match its minimalist look and feel. Online games are time limited "blitz" chess games but unfortunately I haven't found anyone online to give me a game.

The control scheme uses the Wii remote sideways - no pointing option here which is odd - I would have at least expected the option to use it even though using the dpad and buttons is probably better.

Its a bit of a missed opportunity and doesn't have any of the presentational charm that I would associate with a Nintendo game - no clever tutorial mode or Mario themed chess set for example - though some would say that's a blessing. It's an odd little addition to the Wii library and to be honest that's why I own it. There are other WiiWare chess games but you are probably best sticking to this one if you really want to play chess on the Wii.

So much for console chess games - it's time to get physical. Over the years I have acquired a couple of dedicated chess computers. These were all the rage in the 80s and early 90s and have since passed out of favour though they can still be picked up. Nowadays they tend to be either very cheap or very luxurious and expensive featuring high quality boards and pieces, integrated displays and options to connect to a PC for extra features. The Computachess II from CXG is a basic model but offers 8 levels of play, a set up mode, battery backup for saving a game and a touch sensitive board. The board is flanked on two perpindicular sides by 2 arrays of 8 LEDS which allow the computer to point to a square by lighting an LED on each side of the board.

Moving a piece is easy - just press down on your selected piece until you hear a beep and/or see the LEDs on the square's rank and file light up, move the piece to the selected square and then press down with the piece on that square until you hear a beep again. If it's an invalid move it will be rejected with a low buzz - otherwise all the LEDs start flashing indicating that the computer is thinking. The computer will indicate its response by using the LEDs to show which piece it wants to move. You press down on the piece and the LEDs will change to indicate which square to move the piece too Move the piece and press down on the indicated square to complete the computer's move. Very clever and simple. The pieces are magnetic to help prevent accidents and although its all very plastic and a bit cheap feeling it is still going after 20-odd years.

The Mephisto Atlanta is a more classy piece of plastic however - each square has an LED this time and there is also an LCD display used for chess clocks and also to ease use. It feels a great deal more solid and comes with a protective lid and a felt bag for the still plastic pieces. I have googled this model and it seems to be held in quite high regard for its age - giving more modern machines a run for their money. These machines are nice to have and I prefer using these to playing chess on a screen and it is unlikely that my limited skills will ever feel unchallenged by these units.

Finally I'll cover a old oddity I picked up on eBay called Star Chess. This is a dedicated console from the late Pong - early Atari 2600 era that offers 2 players (no CPU opponent) a chance to play a space themed game of chess. It plays a lot like chess but space craft have shields and you can fire at opponents with randomness having an effect of the outcome. I have to admit to not actually playing this yet but the web has several references to it with people remembering it with fondness. It has a great late 70's / early 80's look and is quite swish and minimilist looking - reminiscent of bargain basement Bang & Olufson. http://ultimateconsoledatabase.com/pongs/videomaster_star_chess.htm

Chess as the great challenge to game programmers has been well and truly toppled. The new challenge is the ancient game of Go http://senseis.xmp.net/?Go - a game that has stubbornly resisited attempts to create a worthy challenger. However I am now starting to hear of algorithms using quite different approaches to positional analysis that are starting to make breakthroughs and I wonder when this last stand of the humans in the arena of "brain games" will last. I don't hear David Levy looking to make another bet.

Comments

Mark Vergeer
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Thanks davy

I love chess, I think I am quite similar to you in this respect. Haven't played real chess images, lack the time. Do have a board and some pieces handy.

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Bill Loguidice
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I have the Star Chess

I have the Star Chess conversion for the Arcadia 2001. Here's a good link with some info from the author of the original version of the game: http://www.old-computers.com/MUSEUM/computer.asp?st=2&c=1116 . I definitely consider it an Archon forebearer.

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Matt Barton
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I went through a brief chess

I went through a brief chess phase in graduate school. I learned a few simple openings and was amazed at how quickly you could win the game if you knew them. Later on I went up against one of my friends, who at first refused to play me because he insisted he would beat me and there would be no challenge. This went on for several days and finally I got him to play. Naturally I beat him! He was so angry over that. He beat me the second round, though, and I figured I should quit then. :)

I tried playing chess on Yahoo! with strangers for awhile, but found it very frustrating. I lost every single game I played, regardless of the supposed level of the opponent. I figured they were either using a chess program set to max difficulty (which I've been told is very common on those sites), or simply know chess wayyyy better than I do. I find the latter unlikely, though, since I know I'm good enough to win occasionally against rank amateurs.

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Bill Loguidice
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Chess
Matt Barton wrote:

I went through a brief chess phase in graduate school. I learned a few simple openings and was amazed at how quickly you could win the game if you knew them. Later on I went up against one of my friends, who at first refused to play me because he insisted he would beat me and there would be no challenge. This went on for several days and finally I got him to play. Naturally I beat him! He was so angry over that. He beat me the second round, though, and I figured I should quit then. :)

I tried playing chess on Yahoo! with strangers for awhile, but found it very frustrating. I lost every single game I played, regardless of the supposed level of the opponent. I figured they were either using a chess program set to max difficulty (which I've been told is very common on those sites), or simply know chess wayyyy better than I do. I find the latter unlikely, though, since I know I'm good enough to win occasionally against rank amateurs.

I'm strictly self-taught with chess. I remember as a child putting the possible moves for each piece on index cards and learning that way. I learned, but didn't really LEARN. Though I've tried to study a bit, it hasn't really stuck and my passions have not particularly gravitated towards getting better. I can think maybe two or three moves ahead at any one time, which, if anyone knows chess, is not really good enough to beat anyone.

In terms of computerized chess, the ones I've enjoyed the most are the ones that mimick personalities. That's why I liked Sierra's old Power Chess series, because it was filled with personality, and that's why I like the latter Chessmaster games, which I tend to always purchase when a new version comes out (in fact, I'm dissapointed there's no iOS version!). I can usually beat the chimp and some of the kids and lower tier players in Chessmaster, which is not saying much, but at least it can be satisfying to sometimes win and feel like I've earned it.

In my back catalog of game designs, I still want to design a chess game that follows all the usual rules, but instead of automatic captures, you need to fight it out, with an advantage going to the piece that would normally have the automatic capture. Now THAT I would play a lot more.

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davyK
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Mortal Kombat Chess!!
Bill Loguidice wrote:

In my back catalog of game designs, I still want to design a chess game that follows all the usual rules, but instead of automatic captures, you need to fight it out, with an advantage going to the piece that would normally have the automatic capture. Now THAT I would play a lot more.

Bill, you have just reminded me of a version of Mortal Kombat I have for the PS2!!!!! Mortal Kombat Deception has a bonus chess game and when you go to capture a piece it jumps into a full-on MK fight to see which piece gets removed from the board. Can't believe I forgot about that....it is presented quite well if my memory serves me right but I haven't played a full game of it yet - I suspect it would take some time...

Bill Loguidice
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Archon-likes
davyK wrote:
Bill Loguidice wrote:

In my back catalog of game designs, I still want to design a chess game that follows all the usual rules, but instead of automatic captures, you need to fight it out, with an advantage going to the piece that would normally have the automatic capture. Now THAT I would play a lot more.

Bill, you have just reminded me of a version of Mortal Kombat I have for the PS2!!!!! Mortal Kombat Deception has a bonus chess game and when you go to capture a piece it jumps into a full-on MK fight to see which piece gets removed from the board. Can't believe I forgot about that....it is presented quite well if my memory serves me right but I haven't played a full game of it yet - I suspect it would take some time...

I have that version too, though it's the Xbox version. Interestingly, that presented the same problem I had with Wrath Unleashed, in that it uses a 3D game board. Whatever the reason, I can NEVER mentally/visually get a clear representation of where my pieces are on 3D game boards (something I've talked about a lot in the past), which is why I almost always keep a strict 2D view when playing chess games, for instance (and further with chess, real or virtual, I can usually only play with standard-style pieces--no The Simpsons chess for me!). If there's no 2D view, I usually pass, or, in the case of all the extras on Deception, consider the value of the overall package. For me, the clarity of a 2D board can't be matched in 3D, or at least I can't recall one where I thought it was better in that way.

I was planning on covering Archon-like games, both before and after, at some point. Some of the games that come to mind besides Star Chess and the Archon series games are Varloc, Beast War, and the Odyssey2 homebrew, Mr. Roboto!.

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davyK
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With you on the 2D thing when

With you on the 2D thing when playing on-screen....AND I stick to the Staunton pieces too.

Bill Loguidice
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PureChess on the PlayStation Vita

For the first time since I think maybe Sargon III on a 386 PC, I've been playing a chess game in its 3D (rather than 2D) mode, and its on a handheld of all things, the PlayStation Vita. The angle of the board is just right and the clarity is just sharp enough to make out all the pieces. Go figure.

Pure Chess looks super sharp on the PlayStation Vita and plays well to boot. (2 of 2)
Pure Chess looks super sharp on the PlayStation Vita and plays well to boot. (1 of 2)

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