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Chessmaster, The

Genre: Board Game Developer: Nova Logic Publisher: Sega Ent. Players:Released: 1991

“Welcome… to The Chessmaster.” He greets his opponent arrogantly at the title screen, smirking over his glowing chess set, and referring to himself in the third-person sense, as if he were a king! I imagine him sitting in his apartment with his glass chess set, just waiting for chumps to visit him and get destroyed! Is the arrogant old bastard really as good as he thinks he is?

His clear speech is impressive, especially for Game Gear, which is not known for speech samples at all (aside from that “Sega” chorus in the Sonic games). The Chessmaster has voice samples for every single move, which might sound like a bad idea, but it actually works pretty well here. His voice always sounds clear, and it mostly sounds like a real human. He announces the color of the side making each move, and anything that happens as a result. For example, typical gameplay audio sounds like “white… black… white: capture.” He announces “castle” if someone does that defensive-positioning, and for checkmate, he says, “…and mate.” He sounds like he says it with a shrug, as if he couldn’t care less, that checkmate just happened! His comments really add little to the gameplay, but they do add the sense of a human presence! The audio clarity also helps give the impression that this is a polished, high-quality title. There is practically no audio other than the old rake’s running commentary, but this is okay, because chess is essentially a silent game, and the addition of vocal commentary is impressive.

Graphically, I have to complain that there really should be more choices of colors for the chessboard. This is a unique version of The Chessmaster for Game Gear with its 4,096 colors, but somehow we are stuck with only one board: Faded pink-and-purple! It might be gentle on the eyes, but this is not at all a normal color scheme! Most chessboards are either black-and-white plastic, or wood tones of dark-and-light brown. Those color schemes would have made sense for an only option, but not pink-and-purple, which really begs for more choices!

There is also the lost opportunity of showing off the Game Gear’s thousands of colors to create some nice unique chessboard options. In addition to a few different shades of wood grain, those colors could have been used to attempt some marble-patterned chess sets, of all different colors: Green marble, blue marble, red, etc. (While it might be difficult to get a strong resemblance, it could have been attempted, and I’d expect that a decent effect would have been possible, even if the “marble” pattern was just, say, dark green with a few lighter-green pixels swirled across it!) A glass chess set could have been attempted, with no lack of colors or shades available, plus it would have been consistent with the title screen! And there could have easily been the choice of red-and-black squares, like a cheap plastic travel set. The lack of color options is my single biggest complaint with this title! Otherwise, the graphics are fine, with each piece always clearly visible, which is the most important thing.

Gameplay works nicely, controlling a hand that floats smoothly over the board, picking up pieces and dropping them for each move. The degree of challenge depends on the 16 difficulty settings, with each making the The Chessmaster play better, but he will also take longer to think about all his moves! The default setting is easiest, meaning that he plays at his worst, but makes his moves almost instantly. This setting works for a quick match, in which the old geezer is guaranteed to make a few really bad moves, and ruin his own game! I suppose this default would appeal to people who are completely new to chess. To translate the default difficulty into human terms: It’s like playing against an absolute beginner, who barely knows how to play chess at all!

The opposite end of The Chessmaster’s skill settings is Infinite, meaning he will now spend unlimited time thinking about each move, so he should theoretically always make the absolute best moves possible! This setting guarantees that he will spend ages thinking about every single move, even the opening moves, in a way that a human never would! The saving grace is that he can always be forced to move immediately by just pressing buttons 1 and 2 together, and I’m always curious to see how far he has gotten in his thinking, before being forced to go! For example, he might move a piece for no reason, while failing to move a different piece that was clearly in danger – as if he just didn’t get around to looking at that section of the board yet! If I take back his bad move (which is a standard option in chess video games), and if I then give him more time to think about it, he will make a better move instead!
This little cartridge contains a lot of chess knowledge for The Chessmaster to comb through before making his moves, but it is unfortunately a slow process! I assume this is due to hardware challenges of the 8-bit Game Gear in performing such a task, so I can’t hold this against The Chessmaster. To translate Infinite to human terms: It’s like playing against someone who spends an absurd length of time thinking about every single move, but he can also still be rushed and distracted to make bad moves! In effect, The Chessmaster’s maximum skill level just depends on how much time he is given to think! But given a lot of time, he does play well, and would probably provide a healthy challenge for most chess players!

The value of this cartridge to me personally, as an active chess player, is mostly to keep practicing and staying sharp, in between live matches! I play on Infinite, often rushing him to go, but if he is rushed and makes a bad move, I let him re-do it with more time to think, so that his moves stay intelligent and challenging! I like to keep a match going while doing other things, like watching a good movie, and I just make a move every few minutes, so he has plenty of time to think over his moves!

Glitches may happen if a match is kept running for an extremely long time (with the Game Gear plugged into the wall), like if it’s just sitting there for an entire day, and it seems to happen especially when a lot of moves are taken back and replayed: A piece might suddenly change into a different piece for no reason, so the match is broken! Thankfully it never happens unless it’s left on for an extreme stretch, so it doesn’t reflect badly on The Chessmaster. The developers probably never imagined that people would have matches running for days at a time!

This senior citizen is open-minded so his options are extensive, and have already been mentioned: 16 skill settings, plus a couple other options related to that: “Deep Thinking” and “Opening Book” (for him to comb through a book’s amount of opening moves). Rush him to move immediately, take back moves, and replay moves. “Teaching Mode” involves no teaching, but when grabbing a piece, it marks all the squares that the piece can move to. While this could be used to learn chess, it also just serves as a nice visual aid for anyone to examine the board thoroughly, before each move!

The pause-screen nicely shows all the pieces captured, a list of the moves made so far, plus a Hint or two, although these Hints only indicate possible moves, which are not necessarily good moves! Hints are generated instantly, without The Chessmaster spending any time thinking about it! As he often needs several minutes to figure out a good move for himself, we just can’t expect his real-time hints to be anything more than pointing out a possible move or two. The lameness of Hints is not a criticism, though, because this is presumably all that the hardware is capable of doing in real-time. Plus, the ancient game of chess really does not need hints in the first place, so it doesn’t matter that the Game Gear can’t provide them! (One solution could have been for The Chessmaster to keep thinking about these hints during the player’s turn, and then to update the hints as the minutes go by. But again, chess doesn’t need hints!) Beyond that, the elderly gentleman offers options for practically anything that could be asked for: Choose whether to show the coordinates of the board, or whether to show a timer. Choose which color to play as, of course, and which side of the screen to play on.

The board can be set up in custom situations and then played, with the pieces able to be placed almost anywhere, regardless how unlikely or impossible their placement! The Chessmaster does make sure that the right number of pieces are on the custom board. For example, each side can only have two bishops. However, he also lets all pawns get instantly swapped for queens, so that each side suddenly has nine queens! Customization mode could be used as a tool for studying and recreating different scenarios, but really, most people will just use it to mess around with different crazy board arrangements, and with 18 queens flooding the board!

There is a two-player option, and also a zero-player option, meaning that The Chessmaster plays chess against himself! This could be helpful to learn chess, maybe, but it’s more likely to just be slightly entertaining. Prop up the Game Gear and watch a little 3.2-inch chess match playing out! It might not be thrilling, but it can be nice to have some live chess action happening in the background of a room, while doing something completely different, and just occasionally glancing at the little screen!

There are options for The Chessmaster to solve for mate in up to five moves, meaning he is supposed to see if checkmate is possible in the next five moves, and if so, then he would show the moves that would get there. While this idea is great, it really has no practical value, as far as I can tell! Checkmate is usually not possible within only five moves, and if it does happen to be imminent, then it should be obvious already! Still, the concept of this feature is great, and there is always the small chance that it could help, in the extremely unlikely case of having surrounded the opposing king, and then having no idea how to finish the checkmate! For such a feature to really be helpful, he would need to be able to solve for mate in much more than five moves, but I assume the hardware is doing all that it can!
If someone is in the middle of a match and wants to return to it later: The Game Gear should be plugged into a wall, ideally, so it can just stay powered on, and be returned to anytime! But if someone really wants to turn it off: There is a password feature to bring up the same exact board arrangement. The passwords are long and complicated, so they would be a hassle to write down and use, but it’s just good that there’s a way to save! (It was always cost-prohibitive for cartridge games to contain a battery for saving, so a password feature was always acceptable as the no-cost alternative!)

There are so many options that they start to get silly: Either side can be turned invisible, and then visible again, anytime! Both sides can even be invisible at the same time, so the chessboard looks empty! While there might be a genius or two out there who could use this as a training tool somehow, most people will never find a use for this! There is also an optional “touching rule” meaning that a player has to use a piece once he touches it, which is an extreme way to play chess in real life, and it just seems silly when applied to the tiny pixelated hand floating over the board. Still, more options are always a good thing, and here there are more options than anyone could want!

Chess is known as the greatest game in the world, a sentiment I agree with, and chess is perfect for Game Gear, assuming it’s plugged into the wall instead of using batteries! I still use this cartridge today, in 2016, as I like to keep a match going continuously and revisit it anytime, without using my computer or home video game consoles. In fact, I love watching a favorite DVD like The Godfather on my flatscreen, with a chess match on Game Gear sitting comfortably in my hands, for any chance that I glance at it! While chess can be similarly played today on a smart phone or tablet, their flatness can’t compare to these smooth, heavy curves!

Extensive options, solid gameplay, clear audio, and clear graphics: Anyone who loves chess and also loves Game Gear should pick up this cartridge, and spend some time with the lonely old man. He is arrogant, but he would love to help you practice chess and keep your skills sharp!

SCORE: 9 out of 10

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