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Virtual Chess 64 Review

Publisher - Titus
Developer - Titus
Platform - N64
Type - Strategy
Score - 8/10

While Japanese gamers have had a large selection of strategy games available for a while now (too many, actually), western N64 owners can now get their hands on the very first chess game for N64: Virtual Chess 64.

Chess games on consoles are admittedly a niche genre and will probably only interest a minority of gamers. Luckily, Titus has included a few interesting options in Virtual Chess 64 that could make the title accessible to larger audience -- if only in a limited sense. Face it, if you don't like chess, this game is not going to change your mind. Heck, if I had the choice between Banjo-Kazooie and Virtual Chess, it wouldn't take me more than five seconds to decide which game to get. But if chess is a passion of yours (or you are trying to get someone else interested in the game), Virtual Chess is an excellent choice.

I will spare you the details about how to play chess. Virtual Chess 64 does a much better job at explaining the ancient strategy game. Virtual Chess offers both pure chess on a 3D board and on four alternate 2D chess boards. You can either play against the computer or against a human opponent or even compete with up to four players in several games.

The control in Virtual Chess is either handled with the D-Pad or the analog stick. The analog control is a bit touchy and takes getting used to, but the D-Pad is as simple as can be. You move a hand around the field and pick up any figure you want to move by pressing A. Then move it and put it down with A. If the move is illegal, an audio clue will tell you so and lift the piece up.

Easily the game's best feature is the Tutorial Mode -- one of the reasons why we scored this game so highly. Rather than confusing beginning players with a lengthy manual, Titus' mascot, Titus the Fox will teach anyone chess while displaying text and moves on screen. It's ideal for children since it asks for direct involvement, like setting up the board by yourself after the computer shows the setup, moving the pieces, introducing the terminology, and so on. The tutorial also doesn't forget advanced rules, such as Castling, En Passant Capture, and Pawn's Promotion.

For more experienced players, the Tutorial Mode offers a wealth of tactics and strategy options, like different mate schemes (from Boxed Mate to Epaulette Mate), trapping, and endings. Chess buffs will appreciate the inclusion of preset classic games, ranging from Giocchino Greco's strategy (1625) to the grand-master games Lasker : Bauer, Botvinnik : Capablanca, and Spassky : Tal, as well as three Three-Queen's Sacrifices.

Which brings us to the AI (Artificial Intelligence). In one word: wicked. Virtual Chess 64 offers 12 levels of difficulty using Titus' award-winning Virtual Chess engine that won the '96 and '97 World Microcomputer Chess Championship Professional Category and the '95 Harvard Cup. Believe us, even the lower difficulties put up and incredible fight (and beat the hell out of us). For beginning players, Titus included two beginner levels (Beginner #1 and #2), where the game purposefully makes mistakes (Titus calls this Artificial Stupidity) based on the human player's game. Overall, Virtual Chess is smart and fast and won't disappoint players looking for a smart challenge.

In the visual department, Virtual Chess 64 offers a variety of views, such as the typical "chess computer overhead view" in 2D (the best out of the bunch) and a classic set, but also an appealing 3D polygonal board view that can be rotated. To bring the game closer to younger players, Titus also included a fantasy themed board and a cutesy version with animals. All the graphics are in hi-res, meaning very sharp and clear visuals, but also a bit of flicker in the alternate chess boards. We recommend sticking to the two standard sets (2D or 3D).

When playing the 3D mode, players are treated to funny 3D animation scenes that (if switched on) appear whenever a chess piece is taken. For example, if the Queen takes out a knight you are treated to a fat valkyrie of a Queen flattening a horse with less than graceful disregard for animal rights. The animations are a far cry from Battle Chess, but they manage to be funny for a while and kids will probably dig them. Purists will want to skip them from the start.

If you don't like to hear yourself thinking, you can select from four different "relaxing" tunes. The sound effects during the animation scenes are very cartooney and Titus the Fox even says a few sentences during the tutorial mode. It's a chess game -- what did you expect?

Virtual Chess 64 is a great chess game. The AI is excellent, the options are all there, and if you don't mind the lack of variety in boards (alternate 3D boards would have been nice), it's everything a chess player could hope for. If you think playing board games on a console or the PC is a waste of time and you rather play against a human opponent, Virtual Chess is not for you. While Titus has made considerable efforts to attract a broader audience, Virtual Chess 64 won't sway the opinions of those out for action and graphic splendor. But if you are looking for a strong chess computer for a low price or you have always wanted to learn chess and are looking for a patient teacher, Virtual Chess 64 is as good as it gets.