Chess Challenge! Review
Posted by Spencer McIlvaine
The “challenge” must lie in making a good chess game
From the makers of Sudoku Challenge comes Chess Challenge in all of its public domain glory. In our earlier review of Silver Star Chess, the first chess game on Wiiware, we advised to wait “until a better version of the game comes along later.” Is Chess Challenge that gold star chess game we’ve been waiting for?
At Nintendo Life towers, our collection of magnetic piece moving chess boards and chess board bed sheets attest to the well-known fact that whenever a new technology is invented someone will figure out a way to play chess on it. But along with the repetition, each version of the game will bring different strengths to the playing field. And Chess Challenge does remedy some of what we found lacking in Silver Star Chess. Unfortunately, its strengths are balanced out by some new weaknesses.
As a single player game, Chess Challenge has a lot in common with Silver Star Chess. Both games have barebones AI options, with only skill levels ranging from novice to expert and no specific play style to practice against. If you are looking for an in-depth chess simulator, or even just simple options to customize the basic rules of play, you’re out of luck here.
What’s worse is that while Silver Star Chess seemed to have a steep difficulty curve, here the curve is more like a cliff. The novice computer AI is pretty good…too good for a beginner. If this is your first game of Chess, it will likely be your last unless you enjoy losing. After that you can look forward to an expert skill level that seems to tax the Wii’s memory to the point that it takes a very long time in between each move, probably to accommodate the game's ever-present timer. Long enough that only serious chess players will stick around to see if it’s still working or if the system is crashed.
And not only is the AI too hard for beginners, but there is no tutorial or training guide of any kind. In fact, even the operations manual is skimpy on details and neglects to teach players how to actually play chess, focusing instead on discussing the interface. The only help a new player receives is that, like most computerized chess games, when a player selects a piece to move, the available movement options will be shown on the screen. Considering the game in no way explains what the pieces are or how they move, this is the only hint you will get as to how to use your pieces.
Some common features in computerized chess games, such as the ability to take back your last move or even to see what move the computer player last made (it can happen fast when you’re not looking) are not present. About the biggest customization setting the player has is the choice of venue, type of playing pieces, and whether to play in 2D or 3D. But the 3D screen provides only awkward viewpoints that make it difficult to distinguish your pieces or to see what your available movement options are upon selecting each piece. So most players will prefer the simplicity of the traditional flat 2D screen. And as for the choice of venue and pieces, the distinctions are meaningless and for the most part non-existent. The crisp and glossy graphics from Sudoku Challenge are gone and in their place is a blurry chessboard with some drab color border, regardless of the choice you make. Although the playing pieces are at least distinguishable from one another (which is more than we can say for the DSiWare version of the game), there is nothing pretty about them to make them worth looking at in the first place.
Despite the modern trend in casual games, Chess Challenge has no story or campaign of any kind. This is just straight Chess with no frills or individuality of any kind. At least Silver Star Chess had some inexplicable anime characters hanging around uselessly. Perhaps it is too much to ask for something such as a Puzzle Quest-style story line interspersed with the occasional game of chess for purposes of ‘battle’. But without some kind of single player campaign, this mode seems rather like a waste of time when there are real people to play against online. Although there are win/loss stats to be earned in single player rankings, that seems rather pointless when there are online rankings to be earned instead.
One of our biggest complaints with Silver Star Chess was that it had no online multiplayer. That complaint is answered by one of Chess Challenge’s biggest selling points…not one but three online multiplayer options. Online play adds tremendous value to a game like this because its difficult to justify playing a game of chess on the Wii locally when you could just play on a real chess board. With online play comes the ability to play with your friends who aren’t already in your living room. But more than that, Digital Leisure has set up an online ranking system where players earn a ranking based on their success in online play, which adds a layer of depth and purpose to online play that is lacking in ordinary one-off games. Lastly, if sitting around and playing a dedicated game of chess is not your thing, there is a turn-based "play by email" style through Wiiconnect 24, which allows players to send their moves to each other at any time. As a result, online options run the gamut from competitive to casual.
These options are exciting. But in practice online still falls short of its promise. For one, as is usually the case with online Wii games, there are too few people currently playing to reliably get in on a random online match. Results may vary, of course, but we had a hard time ever connecting with anyone. A bigger problem is that our complaints with the single player mode all apply to the multiplayer mode as well, especially the problem with not being able to see what the last move was. If your opponent takes more than a minute to take his turn and you look away from the screen while waiting for your opponent to make up his mind, you may miss seeing what his move is. And there’s no way to go back to find out. When playing for online rankings, this means you must stare at the screen with an OCD-like intensity for fear of missing anything, or else have a really spectacular memory that we are not all gifted with.
Speaking of obsessive behavior, regardless of whether you are playing a high-stakes game of chess for rankings or a casual game among friends, a timer is always present. It can never be turned off, nor concealed, except possibly with a piece of tape over that corner of your television set. For some people, the presence of a timer makes casual play physically impossible. But for those who are obsessively fanatical about chess to the point where they play with the special timer that players slap at the end of each move, they will be happy to know that Chess Challenge includes not only a simple timer but also a chess clock option as well.
Unfortunately, the chess clock option is about the only real option available in Chess Challenge. The rest is barebones to the point of being as straight of a no-frills chess game imaginable. Even the single-player AI is basic to the point of only offering three options…hard, very hard, and so hard that the Wii seems to lack the processing power to handle it. But the biggest feature on display here is the online play. And if you do have a friend to play with then Chess Challenge will certainly provide a passable, and affordable means of facilitating chess between the two of you. But players looking to play a single player game or to go head to head against random opponents online will most likely be disappointed by the presentation found here.