Review: Chess Challenge! (DSiWare)

Chuck, mate

Chess is over two thousand years old and still hasn't gone out of style. It's arguably the perfect game of strategy, enjoyed the world over by countless bright adults, reflective retirees and nerdy youths. Just about every city has a hub, a certain coffee shop or public park, at which one can go to watch two competitors going at it, the tension mounting with each second during which they contemplate their next move. One can only wonder what intricate strategies play out in such minds, how many unimaginable blueprints their unfathomable geniuses generate with every second.

No one, of course, would think the same of a computerized opponent as it runs down its mathematical strategy. Yet Chess Challenge! (at least in its intermediate and expert difficulty levels) forces players to wait as it "puzzles out" its next play. What's more likely, of course, is that the game is simply programmed to pause for a variable amount of time between each move. This sometimes interminable interval is in turns frustrating or boring enough to severely diminish any fun that might be otherwise garnered from the game.

Why, one might ask, does this waiting period exist? Is it to create the illusion of a thoughtful human opponent? More likely, we suspect that it's to balance the game's clock function. Instead of just measuring one's speed, Chess Challenge! forces upon its players a countdown timer. That's right – once time's up, it's game over, and whoever's ahead at that moment is the victor. Just imagine, for example, the tension rising as you and a friend face off, locked in a desperate struggle of wits, and... whoops! Time's up! Oh well! Luckily, one can increase the clock's limit until it's no longer a factor, but it would be so much faster to just turn it off with the press of a button instead of click click clicking ad infinitum. Also included is an incremental variation, which rewards players with extra time for each move.

The only way to turn the time limit off is by switching to practice mode. This means that its outcome will not affect your statistics, the inclusion of which is one of the game's redemptive factors. (It's also only available in single player mode, so the ticker's a requirement against other humans. Bizarre.) Games won, lost, and drawn are recorded as well as one's Elo rating, the result of an equation calculated to determine one's skill. It's neat that it's there, but one will have to play a great many games before noting a difference in the count. One can also save their progress in four different matches at a time and come back later if they so desire.

Novice mode, on the other hand, is a little bit harder than it ought to be. This turns out to actually be a blessing, as the lack of wait time between the computer's moves make it just about the only playable part of Chess Challenge! It provides a bit of difficulty, though it's not enough to give more advanced players anything to worry about. Intermediate and expert modes are about as hard as they ought to be, though the hardest test will be to your patience. This leaves two-player mode (either on the same DSi or via a wireless connection), which is quite self-explanatory, though one can only play on an individual profile rather than pitting two profiles against each other and affecting the statistics of both. This limitation just feels like a missed opportunity.

The presentation is quite basic. The music is jazzy and quiet... weirdly quiet... just another odd aspect of this title. Visually it's nothing out of the ordinary: one selects a goofy avatar at the start, every menu is an inoffensive combination of blue and brown, and five generic boards and six piece color schemes are available for the choosing.

There is one vital point, however, at which the graphics strike a blow to the gameplay, and to such an integral area that no match escapes it unscathed: the queen and the bishop are almost identical. It's more work than it's worth to keep track of both and far too easy to confuse the two, resulting in a vast potential for misjudgment and annoyance. It's enough to really ruin a match and eviscerate any remaining chance of a recommendation.

Conclusion

Why put yourself through the frustration of a forced timer, a computer that takes too long to compute and bishops and queens that are practically indistinguishable from one another? Even taking a real chess board on the train with you would cause less frustration than waiting for the CPU to make up its mind or bringing a friend along for the adventure of repeatedly figuring out which piece is which. If you're an extremely novice player, the corresponding mode is somewhat worthwhile, but more than likely you're better off saving your cash.

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