Chess: the timeless game of intellect, logic and psychological sparring that for some reason people still play despite the availability of, you know, videogames. I kid, I kid, chess is fine. I have no issue with chess, aside from bitter memories of being forced to participate in my school’s house chess competitions. I was already low enough on the coolness spectrum without mandatory chess club involvement, thanks. Plus, video and computer games have surely done their part to keep chess relevant, since every computer system and games console ever released features multiple chess titles, giving players AI opponents to compete against, tutorial systems to improve their games and easy access to long-distance internet-based matches. So, am I actually going to play a chess game today? Don’t be daft, did you not see the bit about intellect and logic? No, I’m going to be looking a some of the many, many chess game covers out there. Some of them have robots, so that’s fun.

Chess, ZX Spectrum, Psion

Obviously you’re going to get a lot of chess game covers that look like this. The pieces of a chess set provide a group of immediately recognisable images, but arranging them into a picture that isn’t just a photo of a chess board requires some imagination and, quite often, an abstract background. In this case you’ve got a space setting, so if you’re not into chess then at least you can imagine the story of a race of intergalactic conquerors that just happen to look like colossal chess pieces. Was that an episode of the original Star Trek series? It must have been. Spock tries to defeat the Chessians at their own game with his logic and reasoning, but the problem is only solved when Captain Kirk makes love to the White Queen and teaches the Chessians that they can never flourish as a species while they cling to their rigid caste system.

Chess 7.0, Commodore 64, Larry Atkin

“Chess in space” definitely seems to be a common theme, especially amongst the home computer games of the eighties. No lasers or exploding supernovas, though, so what’s the point? This one just looks like they had the astral game board all set up and then someone bashed the underside of the table with their knee, propelling the pieces into the air. Well, not air, they’re in space. You know what I mean.

16K Superchess, ZX Spectrum, CP Software

One thing you get when looking at home computer game covers are the charmingly amateurishly ones, the ones drawn by the nearest person with felt tip pens and a free lunch break, and the chess genre is no exception. That’s the path 16K Superchess took, and I always like to see these, ahem, less polished covers, even if that red bishop looks more like a sad Muppet balancing a ball on its head than ever before.

Master Chess, ZX Spectrum, Mikro-Gen

Here’s another cover with a home-made feel, and the decision to mix regular chess pieces with humanised versions of other pieces makes it look as though the king and his retinue are pretending not to notice the black knight in the hopes it will just go away. That pawn at the back knows full well he’s going to be sweeping up some horse droppings in the near future.

Master Chess, Commodore 64 / 128, Mastertronic

You know when you were a kid and you made your action figures “fight” by picking them up and smashing them together? Yeah, that’s what’s happening here, except it’s chess pieces instead of He-Man and GI Joe. In space. And you’re fighting against Tron.

Cyrus IS Chess, ZX Spectrum, Intelligent Software

“Cyrus IS Chess”? That’s a bold claim, isn’t it? There is no other iteration of chess more complete, more perfect, than this 1983 ZX Spectrum game that was (presumably) named after Cyrus the Great, ancient king of Persia, and not Billy Ray. Well, by all accounts there might be some truth to that, and from what I’ve read Cyrus was considered one of the best chess programs of the time.
It was in an interesting decision to use realistic figures on this cover, particularly the inclusion of Henry VIII – a king best known for having six queens. You might think having six queens would give Henry an unfair advantage in chess, but let’s not forget he only ever had one queen at a time. Somewhere just outside the border of the picture, there’s a pile of discarded queens, some of them missing their heads.

Video Chess, TI-99/4A, Texas Instruments

“You came to the wrong rank and file, motherfucker.”

Sega Chess, Master System, Sega

Sega tried to make things a little fancier with Sega Chess, but all they’ve accomplished is a drawing of a horse that seems to be recoiling in disgust from its own extremely ugly necklace.

The Chess Player, ZX Spectrum, Quicksilva

More robots in space – it really is a prevalent theme, presumably to communicate the cold, unfeeling nature of your computer opponent, a foe who will not be distracted when you say things like “I’m gonna move my little horsie over here” and “I thought ‘checkmate’ was just a figure of speech?” during the match. This particular robot’s head is like a cross between a teaspoon and a gimp mask, with additional brain-tubes that pump performance-enhancing nanobots through its circuitry. It also appears to have indicators on its shoulders, so you know when it’s going to change lanes.
If the artwork looks familiar, that might be because it was painted by prolific videogame illustrator David Rowe, who provided the cover art for such famous games as Speedball, Way of the Exploding Fist and, erm, Chubby Gristle. I have to say, I don’t think this is his strongest work, mostly because those green clouds make it look like the robot is farting up a storm.

Chess, Playstation, Success

It seems that around the Playstation / Windows ‘98 time-frame, a lot of companies who were releasing chess games stopped bothering trying to make their covers eye-catching or interesting in the slightest. I think this is maybe because by this point a chess game would be seen as a “budget” title – no-one was going to pay full price for a board game simulation when they could be buying Final Fantasy VII or Quake, right? - so they spent as little money as possible on the covers. That’s how you end up with covers like this one for Chess. It’s a picture of some chess pieces, and hardly a creative tour de force… hang on, does that say Chess™? You can’t trademark chess, can you? Success, the Japanese developer of such hits as weirdo PS1 board-game-card-battle-treasure-hunt-thing Battle Hunter, did not invent chess. So, they’re trying to trademark the “Chess” logo they’ve used on this cover art, then? I wouldn’t have bothered if I were you, lads.

Chess, PC, GSP

It might just be because I’ve spent too long browsing a lot of very dull chess game covers and it’s starting to affect me mentally, but I feel like these two chess pieces are looking at me. I’m telling you, whenever I look at this cover I get the impression that the pieces are staring back, almost quizzically. Now you’re feeling it too. We’re marked, all of us. The creatures of the Chess Dimension have sensed our presence, giving them a portal to our universe. I’m sorry, I’ve doomed us all.

Grandmaster, Commodore 64, Kingsoft

If ever there was a computer game cover that made the phrase “smooth jazz” leap unbidden into my mind, it’s this one.

Battle Chess, PC, Interplay

One of the more famous games on this list is Interplay’s Battle Chess, which is known for the often comical animations that play each time one piece takes another. Rooks turn into stone golems and smash their opponents, pawns kick knights in the testicles, that kind of thing. It sounds like fun, and it is… for the first three or four matches. After that, you’ll have seen all the potential animations and the ponderous speed of the pieces’ movement drags the hardly lightning-paced game of chess down to a crawl. But I’m here to talk about cover art, not gameplay, and Battle Chess’s artworks is kinda great. A queen marauds across the board, zapping knights and pawns left and right while the king stands in the background and looks disinterested. A good representation of chess itself, then, plus it captures the game’s unique selling point too. The queen is great, but the highlight of this art for me is the bishop in the background, cheering the queen’s murderous rampage in a most irreligious manner. And hey, let’s be glad that slinky dresses with plunging ermine necklines aren’t the official regalia of all queens, because Elizabeth II just had her 91st birthday.

Battle Chess II: Chinese Chess, PC, Interplay

I deliberated about putting Battle Chess’s first sequel on this list, because it’s not actually a chess game – instead, it’s a version of the Chinese game xiangqi, but that game’s close enough to chess that I think it gets a pass. Plus, there was one specific reason I wanted to feature it: the joyous expression of that chariot rider.

“I’ve had the time of my life, and I owe it all to riding a dragon and whipping people!”

Battle Chess 4000, PC, Interplay

Even the Battle Chess series ended up with an outer space iteration, and this cover’s similar in spirit to the original. The queen’s still doing all the work, except now everyone’s claymation and the alien pawn appears to be in the middle of realising he kinda likes being electrocuted. Also featuring a guest appearance by Bruce Campbell’s chin on that knight in the background!

Grandmaster Chess, PC, Capstone

Well, this is a boring cover. Ooh, a shiny CG chess piece that could be either a king or a queen, sitting on a red and black chess board whose colour scheme and general low-rent dinginess is reminding me of the darts-based game show Bullseye. Has there ever been a chess-themed TV game show? Surely there must have been, and if there hasn’t then it’s only a matter of time. TV companies are clearly starting to run out of ideas for new game shows, if ITV making one based around matryoshka dolls is any indication.
So, yeah, a boring cover… until you look in the bottom-right corner and see that it comes bundled with Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Chess Wars. That’s the information I would have led with on the cover, personally, not have it tucked away in a box-out. I’m not advertising genius, but “Terminator Chess, including Regular, Non-Cybernetic-Killing-Machine Chess” seems like a combo that would shift more units.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Chess Wars, PC, Intracorp / Capstone

And here’s Terminator 2 Chess’ very own cover. “Terminator is back in a deadly game of chess,” huh? That’s all well and good but it doesn’t explain why those Terminator endoskeletons have Teletubbies-style stomach monitors now. Unless the Teletubbies are Skynet’s first step towards world domination, I think it’s a mystery that will go unanswered. That strangeness aside, it’s always nice to see the iconic skinless Terminator, even if their videogames are almost uniformly rubbish. At least you can’t go too far wrong with chess, because it’s just chess with Skynet robots and human resistance fighters replacing the usual pieces. This does lead to a couple of amusing oddities within T2JDCW, though: the king and queen of the Terminator side are just endoskeletons wearing crowns, which is absolutely adorable, but the king of the resistance side is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s good-guy Terminator. That’s right, you’ve got Arnie but he’s reduced to being the most useless, least dangerous piece on the board while Sarah Connor does all the hard work as the queen. Probably should have had the extremely important but vulnerable young John Connor as the king, really.

The Software Toolwork’s Star Wars Chess, PC, The Software Toolworks

More licensed chess tie-ins, this time with the heroes and villains of Star Wars. I’ve got no smart-arsed comments about this one, it’s just some nice Star Wars art that would definitely have made a young VGJunk take note had he passed it in a shop. I wouldn't have bought Star Wars Chess, of course, but I'd have stopped to read the back of the box, at least. Darth Vader looks ever-so-slightly like he’s expecting a cricket ball to be bowled at him, but apart from that it’s great.

The Chessmaster, NES, The Software Toolworks

No examination of chess game covers would be complete without an appearance by the Chessmaster, the mascot and host of Software Toolwork’s long-running chess franchise. The Chessmaster straddles the thin line between “avuncular old wizard” and “the bloke with the car covered in conspiracy theory stickers who shouts insults at kids who walk past his overgrown front garden,” but I’ll say this – he does look like he can play a mean game of chess. Sure, you’ll probably have to listen to him drone on about the superiority of real ale over lager while you’re playing, but that’s the price you pay to face off against the best in the business.

Chessmaster, PS2, Ubisoft

The Chessmaster isn’t the most prominent feature on every Chessmaster cover, mind you. He still appears on this PS2 version, but he’s faded away into the clouds as though he’s finally pegged it and ascended to Chess Heaven. Chess Heaven, coincidentally, is also NASCAR Fan Hell. Instead, this cover focusses on a bunch of extremely unappealing stretched heads that replace the usual chess piece shapes. Except the knight, of course, but that’s already a stretched-looking horses head. There’s something about that smug queen in particular that’s very unpleasant. I think maybe it’s bringing back upsetting memories of being terrified by shop mannequins, which (apparently) I was when I was very young. On the plus side, the bearded king looks a bit like Graham Chapman as King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Virtual Kasparov, Playstation, Titus

I’ve seen a lot of unforgettable scenes during my years of videogaming, and here’s another: the sight of Putin-hating chess legend Garry Kasparov headbutting an oversized wooden horse is going to live long in the memory.

Chess, MSX, Bug

Of all the chess covers I’ve seen this is probably the best (although not quite my favourite). I’m 99 percent sure it was illustrated by Susumu Matsushita, who is probably best know amongst gamers for his work with Famitsu magazine and on the Adventure Island and Maximo series. It’s just a fun, charming image that’s still clearly about chess without just being pictures of chess pieces. The best thing about it is definitely the bloke on the right slapping his head in frustration as his king makes yet another boneheaded move. There’s going to be a peasant’s revolt any day now.

Chess Mates, PC, Stepping Stone

I never thought I’d see a picture and have my first reaction to it be “that is definitely, one hundred percent an anthropomorphised version of a French novelty condom,” but here we are.

Majestic Chess, PC, Fluent

Here’s another ruler who will ruin his country with his vainglorious attempts to convince the world of his might. Imagine the roadway or sanitation improvements that could have been paid for with the money spent on erecting colossal golden chess pieces throughout the kingdom. It’s a real “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” situation waiting to happen. Even the king himself seems to have realised this, holding out a conciliatory hand as if to say “look, I know what you’re thinking, but once we open the gift shop and set up the revolving restaurant on top of the queen, Chess World is going to start raking in the tourist money.”

Wizard Chess, PC, Incagold

And finally for today, my favourite chess game cover of the lot. What else could motivate me to play chess more than some 2000s CG artwork that has aged very badly indeed? Not much, I’d even pick this over the Terminator version. It’s even got a skeleton! If I was completely certain that Wizard Chess included a skeleton-only mode, where all the pieces are represented by skeletons wearing different goofy hats, (or one of those rubber horse masks in the case of the skeleton knights,) I’d be scouring eBay for a copy right now. It probably doesn’t have that, sadly. This wizard had bloody well better make an appearance in this game, though, and with any luck he’ll keep the expression he wears on the cover – the pure and absolute realisation that he hasn’t got a goddamn clue what’s going on. Neither do I, Chess Gandalf. Neither do I.

VGJUNK Archive

Search This Blog