Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Videogame Classics - Virtual Kasparov

Virtual Kasparov
Titus Interactive
Gameboy Advance

April 14, 2003

Video chess is one of those novelty ideas that never really panned out. It reminds me of the Atari 2600 days, when designers experimented with video versions of Checkers, Backgammon, Tic-Tac-Toe, hide-and-seek (seriously), and chess. These games were needlessly awful, and functional at best. Pretty much the only chess program worth playing has been the Chessmaster series. There just isn't much point to playing against a computer when you can play against, well, real people. Maybe I'm still burned at how Atari's Video Chess cheated (it stole your pieces between moves).

If there's going to be a good video chess program, especially in this day and age, there has to be some pizzazz. Chess may be the greatest game ever invented, but, believe me, it does not have pizzazz. Watching people play chess is slightly more exciting than watching people sleep.

Thank goodness for Titus. I have to say, the Gameboy Advance has surprised me a lot so far, and among those pleasant surprises is Virtual Kasparov. Finally, here is a chess game that is actually geared towards gamers, without insulting their intelligence or boring them to death.

My favorite feature is the tutorial mode, which offers a wealth of knowledge about the game. Beginners start off by learning the rules, the pieces, and their functions. Then you progress to the opening game, various tactics and strategies, different mate schemes, and endings. For more advanced lessons, you study several games, learn about Queen Sacrifices, and even watch three famous grandmaster-level games.

The title is, of course, a giveaway, as Garry Kasparov walks players through each step; not only showing, but asking feedback as well. This approach works wonderfully; you learn better when you're asked to provide the answers, instead of just taking notes. It certainly helps to gain the insights of the greatest living chess player.

The meat and potatoes of Virtual Kasparov is Story Mode. Here, you square off against a succession of opponents around the world. Your first matches are embarrassingly easy, but as you travel across the globe, unlocking more continents to visit, the computer challengers become increasingly difficult. Unless you happen to be a master of the game already, you won't be finishing Story Mode anytime soon. Thank goodness chess isn't one of those games that need to be updated every year; you could be coming back and playing matches for years. The final challenger is, of course, Kasparov himself, and, no, I am nowhere near him yet. Ask me in 2008.

Titus Interactive Studio is the French software house responsible for this game, ad it ranks among their best. There is always a certain devotion to style in all the French gaming studios, and Virtual Kasparov is no exception. I enjoyed the many portraits of your different opponents, from housewives to school nerds to businessmen to world-weary travelers. There are also a dozen different chessboards to choose from: two boards in 3D, ten in 2D. The boards show a wide range of colors and styles, from the conventional to the abstract; a couple boards have an almost cubist feel to them. And yet, it is still easy to make out the pieces. Even the game's default black-and-white chessboard looks great, classical in its simplicity.

This is the perfect game for a handheld like the Advance. I can also see this as the perfect solution for anyone who wants to learn the game, from your friends or your spouse or your kids. Anything to get them off Fox News and start using their brain.

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