reviews\ Sep 25, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Chessmaster - GBA - Review

Several years ago, Chessmaster came out for the Game Boy. Now, it is back for the Game Boy Advance. This is a much more detailed version, though it is not much different where it counts: Challenging Game play.

To be fair, Chess is a straight-forward game. There is not a lot of room for enhancements. As in this version, you can add fancy pieces and sounds, but the game is always the same. I found the fancy pieces to be distracting and confusing on the small screen. Sure, your pieces can be aliens, dogs or folded origami newspaper pieces (to name but a few), but in a game where knowing your pieces is critical, who wants to lose a piece because which dog represented your Knight?

There is a tutor (Teaching Mode) in the game, which is valuable for novice players. It will show what pieces are, and how to move them. The basics with a bit more. There is also a "Hint" option for helping you along, but more on that later. Just know that there are several means of getting help if you are new to the complex world of chess. 

In addition to the piece selection, you can opt to set a board up to practice moves and defenses. Want to stack the strategic deck in your favor for some easy satisfaction? Set up a scenario where you have MANY pieces left against your opponent's King and another piece or two. To challenge yourself, do the opposite. The scenarios are endless. This feature was amusing for a little while, but I do prefer to play full games, personally. There is also a way to watch some of the world's most famous matches. That is very interesting for the connoisseurs of chess.

In lieu of levels of ease, you can choose your opponent to determine how hard the match up will be. The choices run from "Ryan", a complete beginner, to playing against some of the best Grand Masters in the world. There are a LOT of choices, and the game even lets you know certain player's strengths and preferences. I chose to play against the Chessmaster right from the start, as I am a glutton for punishment, and find that my skills are best honed when playing at the toughest level before moving down where "humans" dwell. I have played a lot of electronic opponents and have beaten some with ease. Not this one!! This Chessmaster is a beast of a player. Way too difficult for this gamer. Using the HINT feature doesn't even help. Just for kicks, I played an entire game with the AI helping me for every single move. More or less, it was the AI playing the AI. I still lost. 

After suffering dozens of defeats over many days of playing the Master, I decided to move down to some of the other, less amazing, players. I still struggled. Did I mention I have beaten many electronic opponents?? Even at the very low levels, the game challenges you. Somewhere near the bottom is "Novice"-- a step up from beginner. My first game in that level ended in defeat. That is not fair! The game played way too aggressive for a "novice". It was unrealistic. I am embarrassed to say that my first bout against the lowest player, Ryan, ended in a stalemate (a draw). I adjusted my (lax?) attitude and then was able to defeat these lesser levels with ease, but I still maintain that they are WAY too hard for their intended audience. I can not imagine a new chess player being able to get anywhere against Ryan for a very long time. There are so many opponents, and they just get worse. 

You can link with another GBA and play head-to-head, which I would love to try. I like playing machines when no humans are around, but prefer matching against realistic opponents. As it was, I stuck with getting a black eye from various opponents from all kinds of skill levels. My victories were rarely easy ones. I was 'Mated in less than 5 moves in some (Chessmaster) games as I tried to think like a machine. I recommend everyone learn to play this game regardless. Chess is an excellent workout for the mind. Though extremely difficult and loaded with useless features, Chessmaster is a good game to have for your GBA collection.  

Gameplay: 8
Plays loyal to it's centuries-old board versions. There are tweaks to make it appealing to you mood, but I found it most effective left in "classic" mode. The fancy cartoon pieces are way too distracting on this small screen. The AI is aggressive and difficult to battle. Victories are made sweeter by this level of challenge.

Graphics: 7.5 
The fancy pieces are too difficult to discern and associate with their classic counterpart. That is fatal in chess. Otherwise the colors were nice and they did a decent job of the 2-D setup.

Sound: 7
The sounds were subtle to the point of being almost lame. While you do not want scary noises distracting you, the moving and piece capture sounds were less than "clever". 

Difficulty: Hard
Very hard to play. Even the low levels will challenge players. I would be curious to see a human beginner play against the Chessmaster beginner. I can not imagine it would be pretty-- for a while. 

Concept: 8 
The game itself is centuries old and has been the start of battles, in World History. The concept is reproduced here, but not enhanced in some ways that could have made it easier (visually?) to play. Still, it is faithful and does not stray from the original game played in castles by Kings.

Multiplayer: 2
You can play head-to-head against another GBA-wielding human. Otherwise, you're stuck with the computer.

Overall: 8
While chess is a passion of mine, I have not played it much in years. I like playing humans, but this is a nice game to have when no one is available. I do think the levels of opponents are skewed. Unfairly so. The sounds and graphics are good, though not stunning. That works for a game like this, where concentration is key. It may the one time low-key is good for a game. My love for the Game of Kings is so great that I think everyone should play it. This is a good way to keep it with you when the mood strikes for a true cerebral workout.


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