Castling onto PC comes indie twin-stick shooter Chess Is Stupid. Developed by hwilson, this quirky title sees you play as a gamer who is sucked into a chess videogame and must fight for their life against giant chess pieces. Each piece moving as they would in the game, and each one more deadly than the last! In truth dear reader, I can’t say I know much about chess, but I do know how to play video games.
The title offers an interesting twist on the indie twin-stick shooter subgenre and adds subtle levels of depth to the gameplay. With an addicting core loop, this makes for a really fascinating title. One that has something for newcomers and veterans alike. But without further ado let’s get into the review!
Chess Is Stupid is available on PC via Itch.io.
STORY – CHESS IS STUPID-LY FUN
Chess Is Stupid‘s story is fairly straightforward. You play a guy who is trying to make it in the Chess E-Sports circuit. However, after a series of losses, their ELO score plummets causing them to declare that “Chess is Stupid!”. And then, due to some form of magic trickery, they are pulled into their computer and into a whole new world. A world with massive killer chess pieces which are out for revenge! Now, lost in this strange land, the player must defeat waves of chess pieces across several levels in order to return home.
Okay, I’ll grant you it isn’t the most conventional of stories ever told. And as you can tell, the story here is rather quirky and wacky. The writing of Chess Is Stupid is largely tongue-in-cheek; nothing deeper, nothing more subtextual, it’s just a bit of knockabout fun. The story is told in two cutscenes, one appearing at the start and the other at the end of the game. Said cutscenes are fairly well animated and convey the tone the developers are wanting to get across well.
As a whole, it’s a functional, traditionally told videogame story. Something that is an addition to the experience, rather than the primary focus. It’s flavour, garnish, and is a welcome bonus. The main focus of this particular videogame meal is the gameplay and that is where the quality resides.
GAMEPLAY – CULTURE
Chess is Stupid is a twin-stick shooter much in the style of Smash TV and titles of that ilk. You move about with your control stick and shoot using the face buttons on the controller of your choice. The controls are easy to learn and are very intuitive, even if you have never played a title like this before. In fact, I’d dare say Chess Is Stupid makes for a fine introduction to the indie twin-stick shooter subgenre.
This accessibility is aided by the fact that the title never overcomplicates itself by bringing in some needless gameplay twist. What you see in those opening levels is pretty much what you get throughout the entire adventure; there are no dodge rolls, shot deflection, or anything like that. “Run and gun” is the aim of the game here. And it is incredibly practical. It’s simple but effective, and after the first level or so you’ll have a full grasp of the controls for the entire feature. However, as easy to learn as the controls are, it isn’t to say the title is lacking depth. Chess Is Stupid isn’t your standard twin-tick shooter, and it isn’t without a few tricks up its sleeves to help it stand out.
“NOT MUCH OF A KNIGHT IS HE?”
The big twist for the gameplay in this particular indie twin-stick shooter is that every enemy chess piece moves as it would do in a standard game of chess; Bishops move diagonally, Rooks can move on straight lines, etc. This adds an extra layer of complexity into the mix, as you can’t just run around shooting anything that moves and expect a clean win. You need to make sure that you aren’t standing on a square that will put you in the direct path of any of the enemy pieces. If you get hit then you lose health, get hit three times, and it’s Game Over.
It makes each level feel almost like a puzzle. You need to think very carefully about where you stand and where you move to. As many pieces can easily run up and damage you in a matter of seconds. Due to this, you need to think almost think two steps ahead of your opponents. This adds a level of tactical finesse that is often missing in other twin-stick shooter titles and encourages you to think more long term.
For example, you might decide to leave the Pawns till last given that they are the weakest pieces and pose the least threat. However, if they get to the other side of the board, they become a Queen; a piece that can move in any direction and is incredibly durable. This can make things harder for you and give you a new threat to deal with. But you can use this to your advantage, as destroying Queens is your only source of health in the game. So, there is an element of risk and reward to be had if you are particularly daring.
Additionally, the pieces in Chess Is Stupid can damage the level you are playing on. When certain enemy pieces move, they can damage the square that they land on. The first time they land, it will crack the surface of it. If they damage a tile enough it will break and will reduce the amount of space the player has to fight in. And by extension change the direction that some pieces will be able to travel in. It’s an interesting feature. One that I wish was more present in the game. Aside from that and the presence of landmines, and giant unbreakable shields in later levels the boards you fight on can become rather similar after a while.
One issue I kept coming across in my playthrough for the review of Chess Is Stupid is that enemy pieces can be bullet sponges. I’d be willing to forgive this if that was just the case with the bosses, but it is the case with almost all the pieces regardless of rank. This isn’t helped by the fact that there are no power-ups to make the fights any quicker or easier. You get the one basic attack and have to use that on everything. This itself can make some levels drag, particularly if you are left with enemy pieces that are easy to avoid but take many hits to defeat.
As a whole, I do feel that Chess Is Stupid offers a decently nuanced and engaging experience given its length. And much of my criticism comes from the perspective of someone who has played a wealth of Twin-Stick Shooters over the years. As such someone who is less familiar with them might be a little more forgiving. Frankly, this isn’t a title you are going to invest hundreds of hours in learning the nuances and tricks of. But it is a fun challenge that will keep you entertained for an afternoon or two depending on how well it hooks you.
GRAPHICS & SOUND – ROOK ‘N’ ROLL
The art design for Chess Is Stupid has a distinct pixel art style that feels both modern and yet retro-inspired. It never seems to seek to evoke the look of a particular system or another, it is its own entity. And it looks good. Every piece is well designed and has been translated well to the game itself; you can easily tell which pieces are which. Action games like this live or die on how well they are able to clearly display and transmit information to the player. And in this title, they nail that aspect. Whenever an enemy piece is about to attack you know it. You know where they are going to land, and where their attacks will reach even if you don’t know much about chess.
If I am to be critical, however, the game doesn’t scale to full-screen all that well. When you do put it into full-screen, you’ll have the title bar and your taskbar visible which, whilst it isn’t a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination, can lessen the visual experience. But aside from that issue the pixel-art scales to larger resolutions well without any noticeable stretching or warping of the visuals. It’s just a minor gripe that could be easily patched out or even just ignored by you as you play.
ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK
Regrettably, the weakest aspect of Chess Is Stupid is the soundtrack. However, it’s not really the tracks themselves that are the issue, but more how they are presented in the game. The music sounds terribly compressed in some instances. I get the impression the soundtrack is trying to evoke a more ‘old school’ feel, but the way it’s executed here makes some tracks sound like they come from a Flash game from early to mid-’00s, more so than a nod to titles of yesteryear. Granted, if you are too young to remember that sound, or just never grew up with those titles it shouldn’t bother you.
Beyond the sound compression issue, the music itself is decent. As I say, the tracks in and of themselves are really great. They really convey a great sense of progression in the game, there are a decent number of them, and each track has a distinct feel to it. They are well-composed and are nice to listen to and really fit the tone of the gameplay. And they give a sense of mystery and urgency, as well as a sense of adventure and action to events. It’s just a shame however that the way in which they are presented takes something away from that for me. Of course, your mileage might well vary dear listener, as once again, outside of that complaint the soundtrack is great.
(This article features video by Itch.io)