The last chess game, Combat Chess, was totally extreme and placed heavy emphasis on the blood that is shed, metaphorically, during an intense chess match. Today’s game, Virtual Chess, comes from a slightly earlier epoch (1995, if the copyright date is to be believed) and is rather pleased to show off its rotating chess board.
First thing’s first: Installation. The first question that this game’s installer throws my way (after inserting the CD-ROM) is something that I feel unqualified to answer, even though I hold a degree in computer science and distinctly remember learning about something called “hash” in school:
After that, there’s a minor bout of DLL Hell when I need to copy some DLL from windows\system -> windows\system32 (or maybe it was vice versa). Anyway, installation was mostly painless, with the right level of knowledge and patience.
What have I gathered from the 2 chess games over the last few days? That I’m still so bad at chess that I should be barred from participating in the game, for my own good:
The above shot demonstrates the look and feel of the game. By default, the window is large enough to accommodate the basic 2D chess board and the 3D virtual chess board. There are icon buttons above each board but they could use tooltip text. The forward/back arrows allow you to rewind and replay moves. The extra buttons above the “virtual” board are used for rotating the perspective. The creators were awfully proud of this feature, obviously, and felt that it’s how they could innovate in the chess sim genre. If you rotate at certain angles, you will even see some attempt at lighting on the board squares. Still, I appreciate that they have normal-looking chess pieces and allow you to select between several common sets.
Putting aside the gimmicky virtual feature, the remainder of the game is quite feature rich. I especially appreciate that the UI does not block when the computer is contemplating its next move, unlike certain other chess sims I could name. I could list the interesting features I found in the game. However, I suspect that — much like my (not very) revolutionary discovery that pinball games have a “nudge table” feature — these chess games all have these same features at a bare minimum. In fact, the first chess game that I ever played, Chessmaster for the original NES, had dozens of features I couldn’t make sense of. I was too busy trying to beat the computer on setting “beginner 2″ (the machine was a pushover on “beginner 1″).
The game disc contains a number (5, to be exact) of AVI animations. The first one is played when you start the game. It consists of several overblown logo animations for the various parties credited with production. Then it goes into a seemingly endless sequence of rotating chess boards and pieces, interspersed with the title “Virtual Chess”. This goes on for 3 minutes. I would upload the intro animation to YouTube but I don’t feel like competing for the least-watched video award on the service. However, I did upload this much shorter, and much stranger animation. It depicts the chess pieces melting onto the board and draining off into a container that is then covered up with a lid reading “Virtua Chess” (alternate title or typo?):
I love patterns. I enjoy finding common properties of particular genres of media and entertainment. To that end, I adore humorous compilations of cliches. For example, the chess category of this classic movie cliches list mentions, “Great Chess players are always honored to play on some rich guy’s fancy Philipino Art Set. (In reality, better players are almost always adament about playing on a plain, unadorned wood or plastic ‘Staunton’ set. No red or blue pieces, no ceramic or metal, no elephants for rooks.)” Thanks to today’s game, Combat Chess, I think I finally understand why this is the case– because chess is supposed to require concentration on the part of a human player. Sore video game losers often accuse video games of ‘cheating’ by somehow manipulating data factors under the cover of the running program. This game’s cheating is more flagrant: It just assaults your audio and visual senses constantly. It’s hard enough for me to remember the basics of chess and to think one move ahead without this level of sensory onslaught.
Combat Chess is easily the most X-treme variation of the timeless strategy game that I have personally experienced. As intimated above, I don’t necessarily consider that to be of benefit to a chess sim. The game’s intro kicks off with a splashy series of sharply rendered chess pieces slashing the guts out of each other before dropping the player into the above screen. Actually, the first game screen you see is not quite as pictured above. There are a whole bunch of windows open on the little 640×480 fullscreen canvas. One window shows the chess board with classic-style representations, another shows algebraic chess movement history, and there are 2 others whose functions escape me. The UI is, frankly, a mess. Fortunately, the windows can all be minimized as you can see in the screenshot, which still shapes up to be a distraction.
So it’s a basic chess game, only with gorgeously animated (by 1997 standards) characters who make a big production out of moving from square to square. Special notice goes to the knights who, despite their full armor, can perform a somersault from a standing position to their target squares. The characters make an even bigger deal out of knocking down a piece from the opposing side. For the squeamish, the game does allow you to configure for no gore. The above screenshot appears to have one of my dragon-pawns facing off against the computer’s mohawked, spike-bra-clad, punk dominatrix queen. It’s not pretty, not on any level.
The game can be viewed from any of 4 angles. The above screenshot is the south view. North, east, and west are also available. I think that perhaps a diagonal/isometric view would have been useful as none of the conventional views made it easy to see all of the overlapping pieces. Combat Chess offers networked human-human play and also has a mode for letting the computer play against itself. I did this when I got tired of trying to focus and just wanted to see if the computer could come up with anymore interesting animations. This is when another obnoxious characteristic of the game hit home in a big way: The UI seems to block whenever the computer is contemplating its next move. This can be problematic when the computer is playing against itself and you want to monkey with the assorted menus. There’s a little-known programming technique called multithreading– learn it!
One final nuisance that the game employs to divert your attention from the task at hand: The soundtrack. It consists of a neverending combination of drum beats, wind noises, and the occasional screaming, or creaky door, or other ambient sounds one might hear in a nominal medieval dungeon. Fortunately, all of these sounds are configurable via this dialog:
Until I saw the above dialog, I never knew that the word “bloody” could be considered inappropriate. This is actually my first clue that perhaps this game was not developed for the U.S. market. The disc is somewhat mysterious– I received it in a lot of 50 CD-ROMs I got off eBay and it was a plain CD-ROM that basically just had the words “Combat Chess” and “ValueSoft” (http://www.valuesoft.net/, which I believe may now be an unrelated company, or one that shifted focus).
To dig into the technical details, all of the animations are stored in a file format with the extension .seq. It’s interesting to note that the installer gives you 3 installation size options– small (~5 MB), medium (~25 MB), or large (~125 MB). Maybe it’s just coincidence that those quantities are 51, 52, and 53 MB, respectively. But, hey, some of us are always on the lookout for whatever patterns we can find.