YesterGames #4: Battle Chess

March 8, 2008

FROM JASON’S STONE AGE YOUTH — Gather ’round, children, and hearken unto a tale of the deepest, darkest days of computer lore.

The year was 1988, and the world was young. The low-browed ancestors of modern Man were just learning how to use rude tools, like the AT386 processor. No longer did humankind struggle with crude 4-bit gaming — a new era had arrived and 8 bits were preparing us for the next evolutionary leap.

And then Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra suddenly started booming from every corner of the Earth. From the remotest corners of a 3.5-inch floppy disk came Battle Chess.

Look — back in the day, there were very few games worth your time. There was no WoW. There was no Unreal Tournament. There was no Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect. We were happy with Sopwith, 3Demon, and Paganitzu.

So when Battle Chess rolled onto the scene, it looked amazing. The gimmick: Full-fledged battle animations between every piece on the board. Knights bashed pawns with swords; rooks transformed into golems and swallowed adversaries whole; queens seduced kings and then betrayed them; and kings clubbed their victims to death with their scepters.

Bishops fought with holy pikes; knights lopped off each others’ arms a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail; if pushed the wrong way, a pawn could open up a bottomless pit; and sometimes — in a finishing move — a queen could be reduced to dragon form to be slain.

It was a surprisingly violent and clever game.

The chess wars were little more than flashy sprites, but in 1988 they were amazing feats of color and sound — especially when the game was updated from its DOS incarnation to run in that primitive claptrap known as Windows 3.1 — in no fewer than 16 amazing colors.

It’s been a long time since I’ve played chess on a computer. The whole concept is horribly outmoded when I have so many high-intensity, 3D-rendered, gigabyte-of-RAM-hogging masterpieces of interactive fiction to play (Half-Life 2).

But when I sat down to download Battle Chess for this post Thursday, I found myself sucked into two solid hours of nostalgia. The incredibly non-threatening AI didn’t hurt too much, either, and proved to be just the boost my self-esteem needed as I soundly thrashed the computer several times in a row.

I’m begging you — especially if you’re under the age of 20 — to please download the game, which has for quite some time been freeware. Give it a spin. If nothing else, just play until you’ve seen all the animations from both sides of the board. You can live a piece of gaming history.

The game was also released on several other platforms, including the Nintendo Entertainment System. That means you can play online at Virtual NES, too.

TIP: It’s in the readme, but the copy protection on the game has been (somewhat) disabled. To play, just hit Enter through the three dialog boxes that pop up when the game launches.