Reviewed: February 17, 2007
Released: November 1, 2006
Several years ago, I found myself in an interesting dilemma while watching a friend's five year old nephew. He had found his father's chessboard, and immediately recognized it as a board game. Even more intriguing, it was a board game that he had never played before. His eyes lit up as he ran towards me, lugging the big board behind him, excitedly pleading for me to teach him. I recognized the dilemma instantly: here was a hyperactive, bored, five year old insisting that I teach him how to play a complicated game of strategy requiring the forethought that most five year old brains have not yet developed.
I did my best, but the game ended with him deciding that the pieces on the board could move any which way he wanted them to, as long as they were his pieces, and my pieces were simply not privileged to do the same, naturally. He won with this method of course, and I'm not sure if he knows how to play chess today or not, but if he doesn't, it certainly wasn't for my lack of trying.
How does one go about explaining a complex game like chess to someone else, especially if that person is a child? Even if you can get further than I did with my friend's nephew and explain the individual movements of each piece, there is so much more that goes into chess than that. Enter the PC game Fritz and Chesster's Chess for Winners, a game that gives tips, reveals tactics, and explains the more advanced strategies and rules (such as castling) to a child audience through mini-games and puzzles. Sounds great right? If only Fritz and Chesster's Chess for Winners remembered that chess is also supposed to be fun!
There's a story to Fritz and Chesster. Something about an evil king who wanders around carrying a stuffed bear saying vaguely threatening things to children, stealing things called "chess chubbies" from other kings, who can no longer eat food at the fair because of their lack of chess chubbies, which makes them look dejected and frightened at all times. You must play as two poorly drawn children looking for the lost chess chubbies for the kings through mini-games at the fair. I'm sure there's more to the story than that...well, maybe not, but it certainly leaves much to be desired in the imagination department.
The only reason this completely uninteresting (and somewhat confusing) storyline exists is to be a vehicle to portray and describe certain chess tactics, such as interrupting a checkmate, removing pieces that are defending the king, recognizing mates, etc. There's nothing wrong with using a storyline as a vehicle for getting to the real core of the game. In fact, in a game aimed at younger kids, a storyline is a perfect way to explain the more technical stuff that would be boring otherwise. The key of course, is making your story engaging in the first place. Strike one, Fritz and Chesster.
The main dilemma with Fritz and Chesster however, isn't the whole mess with the chess chubbies, but the simple fact is that the interface that the mini-games are played on are poorly designed, to the point of mixing up the colors of the chess pieces. Yes, something as simple as differentiating black from white somehow got messed up in production and overlooked even as it was being released.
Often players will be asked to take a piece shown to them on a sideboard, and place it on the chessboard to complete a certain objective--but that piece is the wrong color entirely. This makes things not only confusing and counter productive, but displays just how sloppily a game can be put together and still see production. This isn't fair, especially for kids. Games are supposed to be fun, not dull, confusing, and carelessly put together.
There are other mini-games that have very little to do with chess, such as a space shooter, ping pong type game where your child will be exposed to ethnic stereotypes at an early age. Control a "Mexican" sheriff (who looks suspiciously Caucasian) at the bottom of the screen, and bounce ping pong "bullets" off of his large sombrero to clear the upper half of the screen of balloons before the bullet falls off screen. He'll even give you an encouraging, Speedy Gonzalez-esque, "Aiaiai!" as the ping pongs shoot off of his head! Enforcing stereotypes is fun, huh?
Still, not all of the mini-games are horrible, and while they certainly can be dull, at least some of them make sense, have the colors right and actually have something to do with chess. There is a helpful menu that players can check in the middle of playing that explains chess piece movements and other technicalities just in case. Beyond this helpful sub-screen, a few okay but ultimately dull mini-games, there just isn't whole lot else to do in Fritz and Chesster. Sure, there are boring, poorly designed mini-games, but after about fifteen minutes of playing them, any kid would will want to say, "Look, just forget it. Can't you just teach me all of this stuff?" And they'll have a good point. After playing these mind numbing games for a few minutes yourself, you'll be angry you ever wasted money on this game to begin with.
It would be a huge understatement to say that the graphics in Fritz and Chesster are really lousy. Downright awful would probably be closer to how one could accurately describe just how poor the graphic quality of this game is. The visual style is simple and looks very much like the illustrations of the beloved Arthur series of children's books. That in and of itself isn't necessarily bad; however, the difference with Arthur illustrations is that they look like two dimensional drawings because, hey, they're in a book on pieces of paper!
On a computer screen, it would be preferable that the characters had any sort of quality of depth to them, and since on the computer screen these illustrations are animated, it would also be preferable that they look, well, animated. Instea, characters only move their mouths statically as they speak. Facial expressions don't change in the slightest, which makes it rather awkward when they make exclamations of discontent, and yet still have their vacant, placid smiles plastered to their flat, little faces.
On top of all this, character design is really forgettable and generic. Even a very young kid would be underwhelmed by the completely boring and lifeless graphics that Fritz and Chesster possess.
As for how the game sounds? Surprise, surprise: it sucks. If nothing else, I suppose Fritz and Chesster is consistent in all methods of its gameplay in how poorly put together the whole package is. The voice acting is really, really bad. Two of the main characters (i.e. the two people we have to see and listen to in the game the most as they wonder around the fair) are young children, one boy and one girl. They are both voiced, very obviously, by adults trying to sound like children. Instead, they sound like preschool teachers trying to sound nice and pleasant for when they are talking to little kids.
Why not just get some child voice actors to play the parts? Why make children, who are presumably no older than nine, be voiced by adults? Did the developers think that we would just smile placidly at the sound of the nice lady's voice when we know that we're supposed to be hearing a child's voice instead? Even the youngest kid that could possibly be in the target audience of Fritz and Chesster would sense that something's off.
Some of the other voice actors are okay at best, but that's the most I can give them credit for. More or less, the other voices are just there and they add nothing to the game really, and you'll forget what they sounded like the moment they stop talking. Speaking of which, I'm trying to remember if this game has a soundtrack. I seem to remember something resembling music, but that may have been my imagination filling in the blanks that Fritz and Chesster manage to leave in its wake.
Fritz and Chesster has a decent amount to do in it, but the question is really, would you want to do any of it? More importantly, would your children want to do any of it? Given the painful, tedious task it took for me to even play enough to write a review, I find it difficult to believe that any child would be interested in the barely moving pictures on the screen for longer than a few minutes. You're much better off just teaching your children how to play chess one on one. Even a child with a severe case of ADHD should vastly prefer such a method to playing this game.
Children's games, no matter what the subject, no matter how educational they’re intended to be, should be fun. Taking into account of course, that I am not a child, I still cannot see any child being anything but bored with Fritz and Chesster's Chess for Winners. There are better chess simulators out there, even if you would be hard pressed to find one that is so totally aimed at younger kids.
Still, chess can be a very rewarding game that is intellectually stimulating for your kids and can follow them to the very end of their lives. Why ruin the experience for them early on with Fritz and Chesster's Chess for Winners?