As we have established, I am a helpless mark for Terminator merchandise. I had way too many of the toys. I’ve played way too many of the video games. I can neither confirm nor deny that I even had a T2 Trapper Keeper in 4th or 5th grade, despite not being able to even see the movie until a censored version finally showed on TV. If you took a box of ball bearings and marked it “Terminator Turds,” I’d likely buy it.
Luckily, the height of my obsession was when the movie was freshly released. I was a preteen and had even less money than I do today. Also luckily, my family had one 386 computer and my Dad used it for taxes and budgeting, so it was very much on lockdown. No opportunities for pointless franchised reskins of centuries old board games. Thus, while I remember this game on the stores of Software Etc, and absolutely would have bought it if left unsupervised, I haven’t actually had the privilege until now.
In the early 90s, the Chessmaster series by The Software Toolworks was the gold standard for home computer chess. Apparently wanting to get a piece of this market for themselves, Capstone released Grandmaster Chess in 1992. The Software Toolworks then released Star Wars Chess in 1993, featuring animated pieces based off of series notables. Never one to miss a licensing chance, Capstone followed up with this game. Taking its cues from the original Battle Chess, you’ll be marching T2 characters around the board and watching animated battles when they make a capture.
Under the hood, Chess Wars seems like a reskin of Grandmaster Chess – so much so that a later release bundled the two together on the same CD. Both games build on routines designed by John Stanback, most known for his work on the open source GNU Chess. I’m assuming he did additional work based on his listing in the credits, but it’s equally possible that Capstone went with this chess engine because it was free.
However, this means Chess Wars actually plays a pretty competent game of chess. You can select AI difficulty and aggression. You can set clock targets like “60 moves in 30 minutes” to reduce the time the AI takes for selecting a move. You can log multiple games along your career to track your Elo rating. You can use the mouse to select squares, or type commands in traditional chess format (e.g. F2F4), though the board isn’t marked and what you’re typing isn’t displayed. You can review a list of moves tracking the entire game, and export your games to an external format readable by other chess programs.
It’s more than just the expected basics, and that rating option especially works to encourage play over time. You can also play as either side, though the board is only drawn from the perspective of the Resistance player. Likewise, you can set both sides to be controlled by players, letting you duel someone sitting next to you for the fate of humanity.
Then, of course, there are the battles.
Like Star Wars Chess, the pieces have been assigned to characters from the franchise in ways that don’t always make sense. Sarah Connor as the Resistance Queen? Natch. The big Skynet tank as a Rook? I can see it. But a pair of T-800s are SkyNet’s King and Queen, with the Queen getting different coloring and metal boobs. John Connor is duplicated as the Bishops so Arnold can be the Resistance King. It’s… a little unsatisfying, but ultimately, everyone who should be here gets an appearance in some form. Some authentic sounding effects (such as when the T-1000 melts to move around the board) are nice touches as well, and the whole show looks pretty good in Super VGA.
Like Battle Chess, the appeal here is entirely in seeing the capture animations. When pieces would move to capture, the board fades and a cutscene plays. The outcome is predetermined by the rules of chess, but the excitement and anticipation comes from how the pieces will meet their end. Miles Dyson evades a T-1000, only to have it skewer him through some elevator doors. Sarah Connor knocks the Terminator Queen into an industrial compactor, before casually pressing a button to crush it. Like Mortal Kombat fatalities, you’re working to see the creative destruction.
Unfortunately, while Star Wars Chess makes efforts to have every matchup be unique, Chess Wars reuses as much of its animation as it can. Most capture animations are the same routine with the correct model swapped in – a tank shoots wildly and vaporizes someone. The T-1000 runs downfield and gets blasted into goo. A flying HK makes its target disappear in a fiery flash.
Some don’t even go that far. Any SkyNet King capture is the same generic clip of a T-800 shooting in the dark. Any piece that captures a SkyNet tank shows the same animation of a bridge being blown up under it. Pawn and Rook soldiers run into frame and swing their guns around. The point of a Battle Chess style game is variety in these animations. Instead, Capstone cuts corners frequently.
And when those animations do play, well, this is some dodgy CGI. Granted, this was the early 90s and everyone was still learning. They probably did the best they could knocking out multi-day renders on an Amiga. Regardless, the results have not aged well. Marionette humans, who run with their limbs fully extended, look goofy. The Terminator King’s almost C-3PO face looks cringey. The insistence on having the spider walker’s “eyes” fall out and dangle every time it dies is… odd? And throughout, you’re going to see a lot of sharp polygons and unconvincing chrome effects. If early CG makes you roll your eyes, this isn’t the game for you.
Also like Mortal Kombat, once you’ve seen all the fatalities, the novelty wears off quickly. The chess engine is competent and speedy enough – about 20 seconds to “decide” a move – but the presentation drags the gameplay down if you’re not here to watch pieces fight. The most common move animation is a “time bubble” replicating the effect from the film. You can turn this off, but it gets hard to track what opponent piece actually moved. You have five different background environments, but you can only ever view the board in 3D. Without a top-down 2D option, it can get hard to tell what square a piece is on when others are stacked up in front of it.
While the engine plays decent chess, most of the advanced options from Grandmaster Chess are removed. Beginners can’t choose for valid moves to be shown. You cannot edit the board to set up specific scenarios. There’s no modem play option. You cannot create a custom book of opening moves. You can’t show the computer’s analysis, and the decisions it makes are essentially a black box. You won’t get the same features to help you learn or improve your game.
Basically, if you’re not here explicitly to watch battles against Terminators, there were much better contemporary chess products to choose from. Even if you were, the significant lack of variety in capture animations is a pretty huge disappointment. Those animations also haven’t aged well, so you need to have a real appreciation for vintage CG to get anything out of them now. To no one’s surprise, this is a cash-in, saved only because it’s based on a reasonably competent (and more featured) chess game Capstone already made.
Sounds the part. All the characters you’d expect are here. Some battles are reasonably creative. Competent chess engine under the hood. Tracking your rating across multiple games is appreciated.
Too many reused battle animations. Options for either new or advanced chess players are stripped out. Other than difficulty selections, not a lot of options here. Just about any of the major chess releases will be better than this one, and any of the “battle” releases will be more satisfying.