It had to happen eventually. The only thing LucasArts loved more than pimping out its Star Wars franchise, was staying on the cutting edge of technology. So when chess became the new buzzword…. Wait a minute. Chess? Star Wars chess? Oh, now you’re just being silly.
Well, it’s chess, identical rules and all, but with characters from the film acting as the pieces. When one piece captures another, the game breaks for a cutscene as the two characters “battle.” The outcome is always predetermined, per the rules of chess, but it makes the game a little more interesting than simply picking up your opponents piece, stacking it next to the others on your side of the board, and smacking the timer clock to end your turn.
Before we really begin, I should point out that I’m a terrible choice for reviewing a chess game. I have never won a game of chess in my life. There’s no punchline, it’s truly never happened. I don’t even remember where I learned how to play, or when I thought it would be a good idea to start trying, I just know that every single time I’ve played, I’ve lost. It’s probably because I’m not very good, but I prefer the more dramatic excuse that I’m simply fated to lose chess. I have some compelling evidence to back it up. I played one round of this game entirely using computer hints and never making a single decision myself. I still lost. So if you want to know what winning Star Wars Chess is like, go ask someone else.
After setting some initial options, like what team you want to play for and the color of your board tiles, you’re looking out at a standard 8×8 chess board floating out in space. Your pieces are familiar Star Wars characters standing at attention, with some minor logic in their assignment. Luke and Leia as the Rebel King and Queen makes sense. Stormtroopers as the Empire’s pawns does as well. Tusken Raiders as the Empire’s knights does not, nor does having C-3PO play your bishops. A number of favorite characters don’t appear at all, like where the fuck is my man Lando? And I would much prefer sending Ewok pawns to their death instead of R2-D2. But at least there’s a variety of characters, and at least one favorite for every fan has likely made it in.
However, one flaw to this system is that it’s a little hard to recall what piece the more haphazardly-assigned characters are supposed to be representing. There’s nothing about Chewbacca that screams “Knight!” for example. And why couldn’t Han Solo have been the bishop instead of, you know, not being in the game at all?
If you get confused, you can switch to a generic overhead view of the board with the B button. Standard chess icons now replace the characters, and movement is a little faster from not having to draw the animations. You can play the entire game from this view, if you desire a more straightforward version of chess, or can switch between the views as needed. The B view also provides you with a few expanded options in a menu on the right. Replay and Undo are quite nice, as is the ability to arbitrarily switch sides in the middle of a game. I guess that’s one way to ensure that you’re always going to win, and if turning to the Dark Side is what it takes to make you happy, then enjoy.
The battle scenes are the focal point of the game, and the animation here is on a 1970’s Filmation level. That’s more quality than I was expecting, likely made possible because the actual battles last about 4-5 seconds each. There’s still an impressive amount, as every combination of match-ups has two unique animations for the victory of each piece. Some you will see more often than others, like the stormtrooper fighting R2-D2 (both pawns). Some you’ll have to put some effort into seeing, like Luke and the Emperor fighting (both kings) or R2-D2 capturing Vader (pawn capturing a queen). It helps that the animations are both of good quality and imaginative. They’re worth seeing at least once, if just to see how R2-D2 manages to dispatch Boba Fett, or to really work at trying to get some of the uncommon chess captures. It is worth noting that they’re all cheeky and fairly improbable, and most unapologetically break canon. Watching Yoda mind-trick a stormtrooper into blowing his own head off is probably the best example of something George Lucas wouldn’t have come up with.
These animations do make load times a bit of an issue, and most assuredly drag the game out. There are unnatural pauses between selecting a move and having the piece actually start walking there, as well as a 2-second fly-thru of a star field before each battle movie. I presume this is the animation loading, and it stacks on top of the existing delays for calculating piece movement. There’s also only one animation per matchup, so watching a Stormtrooper capture R2-D2 for the ninth time gets a little old. You have the option of turning off the capture movies in the initial options screen, and can negate the frills of animated pieces by playing through the B button menu, but either one does sort of defeat the purpose of playing this title at all. The fact that its main draw gets old a little too quickly should also give you an idea of the game’s total longevity.
The game is controlled through moving a highlight around the board squares with the D-Pad and pressing C to select a piece. That piece then highlights blue while you move to the desired square and press C again to make the move. There are no indicators for valid movement, so you will need to know the rules of chess before playing. Illegal moves show a warning notification and require you to try again. The A button will have the computer make a recommendation for you. It automatically selects the piece and highlights the square to move to – if you like what you see, you press C to accept it, or deselect the piece and make your own choice. The hint mode is a nice way for beginners to get a feel for the game, or for anyone to get a second opinion of how to get out of a jam. As I’ve already pointed out though, it is not a guarantee for a win.
Graphics look quite good for the Sega CD, owing to using hand animation over FMV. Pixelation is most apparent in the outlines of characters as they move, and in dancing background pixels during animation, but neither are particularly distracting. Details for all characters are good for the system, and you’ll never confuse pieces or have trouble understanding what Star Wars character they’re supposed to be. The only unpleasant parts are CG intros and victory screens that look dark, pixelated, and generally nasty. Victory for the Empire, for example, treats you to a dim movie of poorly-rendered TIE Fighters flying around the Death Star, followed by a few movie stills of Vader looking up stitched together as animation. Awesome.
The introductory text crawl is equally laughable, both in production quality and in the suggestion that the Rebels and the Empire actually are playing chess to settle their differences. The audio consists of sections of the movie themes, often based on the characters, that play for movements or battle sequences. Effects are really only heard during the battles, and aside from some brief speech clips, sound as if they are taken from the films.
I admit, I rolled my eyes when I saw this game existed. It seemed like a cash-in at its worst, and a sad change of direction for Software Toolworks. After playing it, I still think it’s a cash-in, but the production values are nice and this is a decent game for anyone who is excited about the concept. The battle animations are pure gimmick, but they actually do encourage replayablity or different tactics just to see all the possible outcomes. The game overall even manages to be more exciting and fun that just plain vanilla chess. It’s still a fairly silly idea though, and if you’re not interested in Star Wars Chess, you won’t be missing anything. If you are, this game might turn out a little better than you expected.
Competent chess simulator with numerous options and quality battle movies for capturing pieces.
Gimmicky concept with lengthy load times. Not a lot of staying power past the initial amusement.