Saturday Crapshoot: Chess Maniac Five Billion And One
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, a sexier take on the game of kings that stops somewhat short of descending into hardcore pawn. (Though the king, in check, can get a little matey)
What's the funniest game ever made? If you're thinking Twister in a poorly maintained nitrous oxide bottling plant, you're wrong. Strip Tickle Jenga? Uh. Pretty sure that doesn't exist. You might want to consider whether you're more gullible than you think, and prove you're not by sending me all your money.
As far as National Lampoon was concerned in the 90s though, no game had more potential for fun and frolics than chess. And they'd know! After all, they only put their names on the finest interactive comedy products. Like... uh... this! And, uh, Blind Date, which we may be getting to next Valentine's Day. And absolutely nothing else I'm aware of, which surely almost probably guarantees they brought their A material. Right? I see no reason to be a Doubting Debbie about this. None whatsoever!
Essentially, this is of course Battle Chess, only played more for laughs. Battle Chess, first released in 1988, probably wasn't the first game to wonder what Chess would be like if the little pieces were actual people fighting for dominance in a cruel, unforgiving checkerboard nightmare, but was the first PC game to try and bring the game to life. All the rules remained the same, and it was still turn based. When one unit took another though, we got to see exactly how pawn took bishop and king took queen, the answer in both cases being 'roughly'. Knights would get bombs thrown into their armour, Queens would deploy sorcerous power, and so on and so forth. Both waiting for the animations and watching them play out made play a billion, zillion times slower than regular chess, but if you wanted regular chess, you probably weren't playing Battle Chess and trying to find a way to make a pawn take a queen. So that was okay!
Since Battle Chess, there were a couple of updates, and people are still making this kind of game today - up to and including the porny Love Chess, which promises "an exciting combination of sex and chess" in post-apocalyptic wasteland and Egyptian flavours. Chess Maniac Five Billion And One pretended to land somewhere in the middle, shamelessly ripping off Battle Chess in "Bawdy" style, though in fact without much bawdiness, as well as parodying the long-running Chessmaster series that was up to Chessmaster 5000 at the time. I'd joke that this is quite a large number, but Chess Maniac already has. In the title.
Still, 4999 sequels presumably left plenty of stuff to parody, right?
While I can't say that Chess Maniac is exactly hilarious, or most of the time, really even 'funny', it does at least try hard - and that's more than you can say for most parody games. The chess engine is, I'm told, okay, though I have no way of confirming this with my pitiful skills. The main reason I never went into the evil overlord business is that at some point you're guaranteed to be expected to play chess with a rival to prove your intellectual dominance, and I'm told it's rude to either a) cheat with your iPhone while pretending you're just getting a lot of very complicated texts, or b) demonstrate that chess as a method of warfare simulation is predicated on both sides being willing to follow the rules by simply shooting your opponent and taking their stuff while they drown in both indignation and their own blood. I can say that Chess Maniac is apparently immune to Kasparov's "Sod It" gambit, based on throwing units cack-handedly into the meat grinder in the hope that it will be seen as unpredictable and persuade the opponent to just give up rather than mentally process the stupidity. So, that's a point against it.
As a parody though, it starts early, in the manual, by promising customer support on America Online. Hilarious! You're also warned outright "So, you bought the ad copy. You bought the hype. And now you done screwed up and bought the game. It's too late, you know." (Little could Chess Maniac know that it was inadvertently predicting American McGee's family crest, translated from the original Latin.) It then steps through a slightly sarcastic explanation of classic chess problems, like how castling works, with tongue in cheek and a fair amount of its own terminology like "playmating" - the King being taken by the Queen and so being legally forced to switch to Playmate magazine instead. Stuff like that. It also lists a powerful set of potential openings, including the Bird Opening - moving the pawn of Queen's Bishop while giving the finger to your opponent. "Bobby Fischer was able to gain an advantage over the Soviets who were confused as to the meaning of the Bird. The Chess Maniac has used this opening with big effects, especially when wearing the full body costume of a large yellow canary," it informs.
The game itself plays out a little like a war between whoever wrote the serious chess engine, and whoever had to try and make it funny. Chess Maniac starts early, with a fake crash to DOS and comedy copy protection that soon enough ends with "No, seriously, get your manual," questions, and a few throw-in gags. Difficulties for instance range from "Beginner's Luck" to "Tie Me Up And Whip Me", along with the option to play Strip Chess instead. This being a PC game from 1996 though, you can probably guess the result of that one...
The game itself is a battle between Medieval and Persian forces, which doesn't seem desperately bawdy if you discount that it was a relatively shelf-friendly way to have the facing pawns be busty ladies in their bras and call culture if anyone complained. Convincing harem girls, they are not. Their Medieval equivalents are jesters, which doesn't seem desperately bawdy, because it's not. Some of the capture moves are however very slightly rude, including the harem girls dancing around a knight until they get an erection in their armour, and around a jester until they get... an erection in their soft slacks. Far more often, pieces are dealt with using distinctly unbawdy methods, including the Queen bonking someone on the head with a frying pan, or just straight up violent ones. The Grim Reaper for instance, standing in for the Rook, just straight up stabs people. The King, faced with a seductive pawn, reacts to her dance rather differently to most, pulling out a golf-club and hitting a ball into her mouth. An experience not entirely unknown to her, no doubt, and depending on his choice of club, possibly he did get wood. Still, not exactly super-bawdy, even in comparison to... oh... let's say Prince of Persia 3D's gratuitous jigglybutt intro.
It does at least look quite good though, for the time, with digitised sprites and all the custom animations you'd expect. In fact, more. Part of Chess Maniac's charm was that it blatantly cheated - and not by complicated computer tricks, but with things like having a giant hand randomly steal pieces, wobbling in a sexy opponent on the other side of the board as a distraction, sending dancers across the front while you play, running sharks through the board - who will eat your pieces if not stopped - and deploying the most cutting sarcasm since the last time a computer voice gravelled out "That move really sucked." Looking back, it sounds a bit like the Lexx having a sarcastic day. It's rare for these to really get in the way though, since even the distractions that steal your pieces take forever to actually do it. You just can't walk away from the game while it runs without getting back to find that your Rook has been spirited away - at least unless you pause or deploy the Boss Key.
What's a Boss Key? Before Windows, there was no multitasking, so a number of games offered a way for sneaky employees playing games on their company PCs to quickly hide all evidence of the fact when they saw their boss coming. At least, in theory. In practice, maybe three games ever actually did that, doing something like throwing up a basic C:> prompt. 99.9% however just did a gag, usually popping up something like this.
A game called Chess Maniac is probably not the best choice of confidante in any event though, given how much it loathes, hates and despises you. Or at least, how much it pretends to. In practice, while actually playing it soon becomes fairly torturous, it was a surprisingly decent attempt to do the Battle Chess thing that knew when to take itself seriously. The fact that you were only likely to get a few games out of it before at least moving away from the digitised people to a chessboard where it's possible to actually see where everything is hardly matters. Anyone who wanted a serious chess game bought Chessmaster anyway, safe in the knowledge that this was a short-term distraction for publisher Microprose, traditionally known for extremely serious simulations, and that their reputation for maturity and quality game design would never be tarnished by a brief jaunt into silliness and mild sleaze. At least until 2013, when for no apparent reason the name was dusted off and put on bloody Girl Fight. Still confused about that.
While you'd probably expect this 'make chess more marketable' approach to be stuck in the 80s and 90s though, it's actually not. Ignoring the Love Chess thing, Interplay was bothered enough by the idea of someone ripping off its concept to try stomping on the oddly named "Battle vs. Chess", which ended in a settlement, and there at least was a modern version in development called Battle Chess: Game Of Kings, though nothing's been heard of it for ages. What of other games though? Why should chess have all the fun? Why not extend the same concept to a game of Tiddlywinks where each counter has a deep backstory and lists its charitable donations proudly. You may score a point, but at what cost? Or how about a version of Ludo that explores issues of segregation through the adventures of its little pieces?
Well, because it would be stupid. Obviously. But in a universe where actually sentient people sit down and make a Saturday morning cartoon about Frogger, it's probably doable. Scary, really. Very scary.