Chess is one of the world's oldest and most finely crafted games. Its strategies and complexities have fascinated players for decades (centuries, even), and at a professional level commands extraordinary dedication and expertise. For the majority of us it's an engaging game that is nevertheless quite casual, as we leave 'Grandmaster' strategies to the finest of minds.
Its grand old allure suits gaming systems rather well. Yes, you can play chess for free in web browsers and mobile apps, but a bit of prestige around the experience can also be rather appealing. Pure Chess (developed by VooFoo Studios but published by Ripstone) tapped into that on Wii U and 3DS, and now Ripstone has released Chess Ultra on Switch, developed by its own team and seemingly aiming to right the relatively few wrongs of its Pure predecessor.
At its core the idea is the same - matches are presented across beautifully rendered and stylish settings, four of them in this case, with variations in piece styles and material also available. From a grand manor house to trendy public spaces and the rather eerie 'Gomorrah' setting, you have pleasing options to add visual pizzazz to your game. You can choose between camera angles and even move it to a limited degree with the right analogue stick, while there's a lovely soundtrack to add to the ambience. It's an attractive and classy way to play chess either on the TV or portable screen.
It's a familiar approach, then, so what matters - and justifies spending money on a game like this - is the feature set. Chess is a complex game, and this title makes a decent effort at embracing that while giving players the flexibility to enjoy it in their own way.
For beginners we have Tutorials, which go through the most elementary of basics - such as how each piece moves - to a few more complex openings and scenarios. It's a decent set of lessons for those new to chess, though anyone quite familiar and experienced in the game will likely skip through most of this section. The lessons are concise and require active participation, however, so they are indeed ideal for those keen to get into chess but unsure of how to start.
Skilled players have the Challenges to consider, of which there are 80 in total. There are sets of 'checkmate' challenges, ranging from 1 move up to 7, in which you need to figure out how to win in each scenario. Particularly fascinating and indeed challenging are Historic alternatives; these give history lessons on legendary matches and then task you with recreating their closing moves. These are definitely there for those ready to really push themselves, as you're essentially trying to mimic the strategies of some of the game's greatest ever players.
What matters, of course, is the flexibility on offer for online and offline games, which is where Chess Ultra delivers well, most of the time. Playing offline offers similar opportunities to the aforementioned Pure Chess from Wii U / 3DS - you can play on the TV or with the Switch flat on the table in portable mode. Strangely, playing on the TV won't allow one player to use a Pro Controller and another use two Joy-Con in a grip, for example - you pass a controller back and forth if you opt for a dual stick option. It's a silly oversight, albeit not exactly a deal breaker.
The game is also fussy in terms of how you play locally in the portable mode. It makes clear that you should detach the Joy-Con and take one each, and sticks to its guns. The effect is decent, in any case - with the screen flat on a table you position yourselves as you would with a real board, and when the turn changes hands it flips the UI to face the moving player. It's a simple effect, but a nice one.
Playing solo you can naturally use any controller you want, and if playing the computer AI you can take on one of ten difficulty levels, from 'Novice' to 'Grandmaster', another feature pretty much lifted from Pure Chess. All of the customisation options can be applied in AI games, and these matches also count towards your Elo rating. This rating is applied across your profile; when you fire up the game you log in with one of the Switch console's users, and this is automatically your ID and account in the game. It's a smart implementation of the system-level setup to get you straight into the action. The Elo rating you earn is most relevant, naturally, once you take the game online.
Although this title shares a flaw or two with Pure Chess, it serves up a much improved online experience. It offers cross-platform play like its spiritual successor, boosting your odds of finding opponents, but adds one key thing - real-time games. You can still have matches with no time limits or 24 hours per move, but you can also play a live match. Options include a Blitz timer (5 minutes each), the Fischer timer (30 minutes each with an extra 30 seconds for each move) or the Standard timer typically employed in real world tournaments (45 minutes each). You can choose your settings and then search for opponents, with the game trying to match players with similar ratings. There can be a bit of a wait and in one session we were consistently matched with the same high ranking player, but it's also possible to be patient and get an even game.
The player base needs to grow, no doubt about it, but when you find a well-matched opponent you can have an enjoyable real-time game of chess. In addition you can set your rules and invite players from your friend list or those you played recently; you can see who's online but there's no in-app communication, nevertheless you can send the request and see if they join in. When sending speculative invites 24 hours per move is likely the best choice, but if you have online buddies that you chat with in forums / Discord etc you can easily agree a time and get into a game.
Overall you can, with a bit of patience or organisation, enjoy online chess games at whatever tempo suits you, a clear upgrade over the equivalent options on Wii U and 3DS. On top of that Chess Ultra features Tournaments; you can take part in up to three at a time. You set your preferred play style and timer choice and the game immediately tries to match you up with another 31 players (or less, if you choose) for a bracket format; you can also invite friends and recent opponents, too. Jumping into a tournament with strict time clocks isn't ideal against random players, as initiating the game is hit or miss. As you can have Tournaments of as little as four players, however, it wouldn't be too difficult to arrange a competition with some friends for that extra edge. When playing with random opponents in a Tournament the 72 hour moves are almost certainly the way to go for a slower but reliable contest.
All told what we have with Chess Ultra is a polished and well constructed title. It falls short of true excellence due to controller quirks in local multiplayer and a few missing conveniences in online play, such as a notification system or means by which to communicate more directly. Nevertheless it offers plenty of play options in addition to tutorials and challenges to flesh out the experience. As an extra note, too, you can work your way around and play using nothing but the touchscreen, meaning you can just about play it on the Switch as if it were a tablet. Flexibility like that adds to this one's appeal.
Chess Ultra is a welcome arrival on the Nintendo Switch; it's a visual treat, while also soothing you with pleasant music as you engage in a tough match. There are plenty of options and variety for online and offline matches, with the former being particularly enjoyable if you're able to get into a real-time contest. With Tournament play and some well constructed Challenges on board, along with Tutorials for newcomers, it ticks most boxes. It's another checkmate for the Switch eShop.