As all the cool kids know chess is a centuries-old strategic board game for two players, played on a eight-by-eight grid. You have 16 pieces that move in different ways, and you may have to plan several moves ahead if you are to successfully checkmate your opponent’s king. The Chessmaster offers fans a portable version of the game to enjoy with the ability to play against another human player or CPU controlled opponent. If you’ve always steered clear of chess because you can never remember how the horsie moves, this could still be the game for you as it allows you to learn the ways of the board and become a master like the beardy bloke on the cover.
Visually, there’s little you can do with a chequered board, so using a minimal amount of the Game Boy’s graphical capabilities the action is presented in simple 2D. It’s quite unspectacular, but it offers a clear view as you play, each type of piece having a unique appearance.
On the audio side of things the game features sampled speech such as “capture” and “check” with little else aside from a triumphant fanfare when you make a move and an error noise when you make an illegal one.
If you are unsure what can move where, you can turn on Teaching Mode in the options menu, accessible at any point of the game. Once activated, grabbing a piece will show all the possible squares to which it can move. You could also just look at the instruction booklet, which explains piece movement as well as special moves such as castling or en passant. The Teaching Mode is still useful, however, as it may reveal a move that you hadn’t noticed. Although there is no proper in-game tutorial, by only allowing legal moves and showing your options if needed the game can quickly teach players the basics.
Controls are straightforward: the d-pad moves a hand which you use to manoeuvre your pieces, using the A button to pick up and place them. Get a pawn (those are the knobbly ones) to the other side of the board, and you can promote it to a queen by tapping select. Underpromotion is also possible, using the A and B buttons to cycle through the different pieces.
Having gotten used to the basics, you may find you still lack the ability to win a game, but help is available. If you make a move that you realise is a mistake as it has led to a capture (or will do shortly) you can undo it by tapping the B button. If you think you went wrong even earlier in the game you can keep rewinding the action, all the way to the beginning if necessary. It’s probably not a good idea to exercise this option when playing a human opponent, but the Chessmaster is happy for you to improve. If you find yourself completely stumped when it’s your turn to move, pressing start brings up the data screen, which in addition to a list of moves so far and captured pieces also suggests a move for you to try.
The more you play, the less you will rely on help as you get to know the game a bit better, and you may find yourself ignoring the suggested move in favour of something else. Chess newbies will probably be happy with The Chessmaster’s default difficulty for quite awhile, but as they improve as players they will want more of a challenge. The game is happy to oblige with 16 difficulty settings, catering to players of all abilities.
Further adjustments can be made to the gameplay, such as the ability to toggle Deep Thinking on or off, which determines if the Chessmaster will constantly think about his next move or just when it’s his turn. If you find he’s taking too long for your liking, there is an option to force a move. You can also apply the touching rule, so once you‘ve selected a piece, you have to move it. If you’d like the Chessmaster to make the first move of the game, this can be done in the Set Up Board options or by simply opting to control the black, rather than white, pieces, and the board can be rotated if you’d prefer to play from any of the four sides. There is an option to Solve for Mate, which will look for a checkmate solution in one to five moves; this is helpful, but often you will be presented with a “no solution” message.
Should you become engaged in a particularly drawn-out and strategic game, you may not be able to finish it in one go, but luckily you can save your progress with the use of passwords. These are made up of a combination of numbers, symbols and letters (both cases) so you have to be careful when jotting them down. Alternatively, you could offer the Chessmaster a draw, or note where all the pieces are and use the setup option when you next switch on your system. This latter is also handy if you want to have a quick game with less pieces or to set up a specific challenge for yourself.
It‘s chess. Aside from the sampled speech, there is nothing fancy. Not that it needs to be – it just needs to offer a good version of the game, and it does so with multiple difficulty settings, the easiest of which is not off-puttingly difficult for newcomers. It could benefit from an in-game tutorial, but novice players will find the ability to undo their actions and the hints helpful. Overall, The Chessmaster is a solid simulation of the board game.