Review of Feral Interactive's "ChessMaster 9000"

When I first saw that Feral Interactive (http://www.feral.co.uk/) was releasing a chess game for OSi X, I thought "that's interesting, but there is already a chess game that comes with OS X..." To compare Apple's Chess with Feral's "ChessMaster 9000" would be like putting TextEdit up against Office! Actually, that sounds like it could be fun!

While Apple's Chess game is pre-installed with OS X, meaning its essentially "free," it fades to nothingness after you have seen ChessMaster 9000. OK, I know what you're thinking, the name sounds a little cheesy... Once you get past the name, however, you won't be disappointed! ChessMaster's $40 price tag is easily worth the price of admission, as it offers limitless entertainment value!

Installing ChessMaster takes just a few minutes, and a small amount of disk space. Most of the game remains stored on the DVD, which must be mounted when playing the game... At a minimum, you need to be running OS X 10.2 or later, with at least 256MB of RAMi, and a DVD drive... Feral suggests at least a 700MHz G3, but some of the multimedia features may be disappointing on an older machine. For best performance, Feral recommends at least a 1GHz machine with 512MB of memory or more. Although its not a "Universal Binary" it runs just fine on my Intel MacBook Pro. Feral's website says they promise to release Universal Binaries in the near future...

After launching the installed application, with the DVD in place, ChessMaster lets you create a "login" for your personal profile. You can create multiple profiles, which store your preferences, progress and ranking. More on these later...

Once you are through the login, ChessMaster shows icons for seven different "rooms" or modes that you can choose from.

Classroom

Whether you are a beginner at chess, an occasional player who is a bit "rusty," or a longtime player looking to sharpen your skills, there is plenty to learn in the Classroom. The interactive tutorials use a combination of text, speech and animation to cover everything from the basic rules of play, through opening moves and advanced strategies...

Game Room

Here you are able to play practice games to hone your skills. You can pick from a wide selection of boards and pieces. You can show a log of moves, timers, get advice, see an analysis of the game, and much more! These games are just for practice, and don't affect your ranking score, which is what the Tournament room is for.

Tournament

The Tournament mode works much like the Game room, only without all of the kibitzing... You are on your own now! These matches are used to determine your level of play, and count toward your ranking. Your ranking is used to match you against players near your skill level.

Library

The Library contains a number of reference materials, including classic chess matches. Want to watch the moves from Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky in the World Championship from 1972? Or perhaps their rematch in 1992? There is also a glossary of chess terms, and a set of commentaries on opening move strategies.

Database

The Database room has more than a half-million games recorded, move by move, that you can study. You can search by opening or end game, layout, or for a particular position. This allows you to study the options you have with each position.

ChessMaster Live (Online play)

ChessMaster is able to do interactive, multi-player chess games online, either with another ChessMaster on your own local network, or over the internet.

Kid's Room

The Kid's room draws on many of the elements from the other rooms, but scaled to fit a younger audience. If you have a child who is interested in learning to play chess, this is the place to start. Geared for younger players, it includes much of the training, practice games and tournament play as the rest of the game.

Documentation

The DVD case contains a small booklet to help with the installation, and also covers the basic operations of the game. Once you have done the installation, there is also a more detailed manual as a PDFi inside the ChessMaster folder, which can also be opened from inside the application by choosing "Chessmaster Help" from the Help menu.

My Experience

I was quite impressed with the range of features in ChessMaster. I'm one of those occasional players that is a bit rusty, so I was interested in reviewing the basics, and sharpening up my skills some. I had tried this with Apple's Chess game, but never progressed much. The only adjustment in Apple's Chess is the amount of time that the computer opponent gets to "think" about its move, so it wasn't easy to match to my skill level. Apple's Chess also doesn't do much to teach you, so its not much help when you're trying to learn.

ChessMaster has an enormous selection of boards, pieces and backgrounds that you can pick from. Apple's Chess only offers four choices for board, and four for pieces -- ChessMaster must have at least 25-30 of each! The set you pick are saved in your "Profile" along with your Classroom progress, and your "Ranking" from Tournament play. After taking a few minutes to play with various combinations of boards and pieces, I found one that looks similar to my real set of light and dark wood.

I spent some time in the Classroom, reviewing the basic moves. I found that the interactive tutorials were easy to follow, and kept my interest for several hours. Some of the lessons cover basics for beginners (or as a refresher) while others in the Intermediate level deal with more advanced opening move sequences and game tactics. For more highly skilled players, in the Advanced section there are "Match the Masters" lessons, drills, and puzzles that are certain to both entertain and educate.

I spent most of my time in the Game Room, where you can get lots of practice, and loads of advice! There are several options that you can choose from for help. Quick Hints or more detailed Advice can help lead you through a game. There is even a "blunder alert" in case you start to make a bad move! ChessMaster can explain why its a bad move, and then allows you to take back the move so that you can take a different course. The Chess Coach is like having an experienced player looking over your shoulder! It can show you the moves any piece could make, point out pieces that are vulnerable (of either color), and analysis each player's coverage of the board. The advice and analysis is prepared by a number of recognized Grand Masters of Chess, and in many cases offer very detailed explanations of the reasoning behind the advice, so that you can learn a great deal from your practice time.

Small Troubles

I only had one issue with ChessMaster, which may be an anomaly with the Intel Macs. I found that if I switched to another application when ChessMaster was running that I wasn't able to switch back to ChessMaster by clicking on its window. I had to go down to the Dock and click on its icon to get it to respond again. I haven't had a chance to try installing on another machine that is PowerPC to see if the same thing happens there or not.

Conclusion

Whether you are a novice player wanting to learn, or an experienced player looking for new challenges, ChessMaster 9000 has something for everyone. I think it $40 price is quite reasonable for such a full-featured game. Its sure to offer plenty of educational and entertainment value. For more information, visit Feral's website at http://www.feral.co.uk/ or http://www.feralinteractive.com.

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Brad Tombaugh
mailto:Brad@Tombaugh.org
http://www.Tombaugh.org