Star Wednesday: Star Wars Chess

2016-09-07 07.25.09

The first electronic version of Chess I ever saw was Video Chess, released for the Atari 2600 in 1979. It still amazes me that the code to Video Chess program was 4 kilobytes in size — that’s less characters than this post contains, and that includes all the graphics and eight difficulty levels contained within the cartridge. On the easiest setting, the console was limited to ten seconds of thinking between moves. On the most difficult level, the Atari could spend up to ten hours between moves. You could almost smell the smoke at that point.

As computers began invading people’s homes in the 1980s, hundreds of programmers tried their hand at creating electronic versions of classic games such as checkers, backgammon, and chess. As computers gained speed and memory, chess programs also became better, as their ability to weigh moves and their outcomes (to “think” — or at least simulate it) could be processed more quickly.

Sargon, originally released in 1979 for the TRS-80 and quickly ported to the Apple II, set the new standard for computers by playing a quick and challenging game of Chess. The next groundbreaking computer-based Chess game was Chessmaster 2000, released in 1986 by Software Toolworks.

As computer graphics improved, so did the graphics of chess programs. The first major breakthrough was Battle Chess. For the first time, chess pieces came alive and actually battled one another for position. The rules of chess remained the same (unlike games like Archon, in which players took control of pieces and physically battled for position), but new animations, sound and music introduced the world to what I refer to as “animated chess.”

Battle Chess inspired many impersonators (including MicroProse’s hilarious National Lampoon’s Chess Maniac 5 Billion and 1), and many companies learned that they could add updated graphics and sound to their already developed chess engine to effectively “reskin” their engine and create a new game.

All of that brings us to The Software Toolworks’ Star Wars Chess.

Under the hood, Star Wars Chess runs on the Chessmaster 3000 engine. The only difference between this game and that one is the Star Wars “skin” that has been applied.

2016-09-07 07.27.15

Although the front of the box says “486 Recommended,” the minimum system requirements were a 386/33 PC with 1 Megabyte of RAM, DOS 5.0, VGA, and 40 Megabytes of hard drive space. A mouse and sound card are highly recommended. The version I purchased came with 8 installation floppy disks (later versions were released on CD). I purchased the DOS version. It was re-released for Windows 3.x, with requirements boosted to 4MB of memory and SVGA, and it also appeared on the Sega CD. The back of the box boasts that Star Wars Chess “is the largest animated chess program ever,” with “over 5,000 frames of pain stakingly [sic] hand drawn cel animation” and “72 unique capture animations, twice the competition’s.”

The game’s graphics are undeniably Star Wars. As expected, the game pits members of the Rebellion against the evil Empire. One problem Star Wars Chess shares with all other chess games with custom pieces suffers from is that once the pieces begin to move about the board, you’ll spend lots of time trying to remember which character relates to which traditional chess piece. The easiest to forget is Darth Vader, who serves as the dark side’s Queen, but others, such as Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Tusken Raiders and Yoda, are easy to confuse, too.

The game’s audio also contains digitized sound and audio tracks from the movies — a big deal back then. As different pieces move, recognizable snippets from the film’s soundtrack play and add to the overall Star Wars theme.

The charm comes in the game’s hand drawn animation. Various characters from the Star Wars universe come alive as they shuffle, roll, and march around the board. When one piece takes another (again, following the traditional rules of chess), gamers are treated to an animated sequence. Some of them become repetitive quickly. Each time a Stormtrooper (dark pawn) takes R2-D2 (light pawn), an animation lasting between 15-20 seconds is displayed, and that happens a lot. Fortunately, most of the other animations are 5-10 seconds in length and don’t happen quite so frequently. And because there are so many possible combinations due to the fact that there different pieces for each side, it’s possible it will take you several games to see them all.

My copy of Star Wars Chess still has its original price tag on the bottom of the box of $14.97. The game was originally released in 1993, and during the time I worked at Best Buy (1994-1995) I purchased a lot of discount bargain bin software titles from both there and (our competitor and neighbor) CompUSA. It’s possible I didn’t pay the full $14.97 price, although it still would have been a good bargain; the game originally retailed for $69.99.

By the early-to-mid 90s, for many Star Wars collectors, it felt like the days of buying, collecting, and displaying toys were over (if only we knew!). It was around this time that I began expanding my interests to Star Wars books and games. Unlike toys, which often remain unopened and go straight to display shelves, I opened and played Star Wars Chess many times. Again, the graphics and sounds are movie-authentic and fun, but by recycling the Chessmaster 3000 chess engine, Software Toolworks managed to deliver a competent chess-playing game, too.

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