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Chess is among the oldest games in existence and still played by millions worldwide. Its simple mandate and generations of strategic gameplay have made it a favorite for casual and serious players alike, and even in our current technological age, chess is a staple of gaming of all stripes, from the tabletop to the digital realm.

Chess video games are pretty self-explanatory but are often overshadowed by practically every other genre out there. After all, why pay for the virtual experience of a board game? Over the years, developers have tried to find ways to answer that question with hundreds of variations on digital chess being made to try and entice enthusiasts to pay for that virtual board. Indie developer RipStone has thrown their hat into the ring with Chess Ultra, a small but appealing product that not only captures the essence of chess but attempts to marry it with gameplay and visual backings to make, in effect, one of the best modern chess games in the online gaming market.

The first thing you notice about Chess Ultra is its graphical aesthetics. The game is eye-catching enough to warrant some attention, thanks in part to the HD resolutions. More importantly, the visual style is elegant in its presentation. The environments are simplistic in their design – they’re basically glorified chessboards in the end – but feature little bits of in-world character.

chess ultra screenshot normal game

The presentation of Chess Ultra is eye-catching, to say the least.

From books and passports to eyeglasses and dollar bills, these touches give everything an appealing graphical look. It’s busy enough to be eye-catching, but not distracting to the game of chess being played. The chess pieces themselves come in four different varieties, with several color schemes utilize for your own personal experience. The detail is again simple, but Chess Ultra is as visually charming as a virtual chess game can get.

In terms of the sound design, developer Ripstone injected some relaxing, orchestral music into Chess Ultra. It is a fitting touch, listening to a classical operatic performance or a serenading viola quartet in the menu screens and during matches. Sometimes the music is a bit overbearing, but for the most part, it has its place in accenting the more “relaxed” feel that Chess Ultra often provides.

There is little to really say about chess as a game, of course; it is the same strategy game that we have all come across before in our lifetimes. RipStone doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here either – there are no odd chess variants found in the game to play – it is pure chess at its core. That all said, the overall package of Chess Ultra is more than just the game of chess, but a measurement of various features that attempt to keep the game feeling fresh for potential players. Here, RipStone mostly succeeds; providing enough content to keep players interested in their product.

chess ultra challenge complete screen

The puzzle challenges are a good distraction, but once completed there is little reason to try them again.

The biggest feature of the game would be the number of options to tweak your experience and how it links with online play. There are five different timer modes to select from, including the standard tournament style clock to a brutal blitz mode where you have five minutes to complete a match. You also have the choice of playing locally, with friends or trying your hand at a random stranger online. Since Chess Ultra also features cross-play between the PC, mobile and the Switch version of the game, there is also no shortage of players by platform to challenge, and the ELO ranking system is set up to make random online matches as fair as possible.

What is perhaps the biggest strength of Chess Ultra on the Nintendo Switch is the pick up and play style the game offers in conjunction with the console. You have essentially a digital Chessboard in your back pocket, and allowing local play with the two joy-con controllers gives the Switch version a serious advantage in terms of portable playability. Another added feature is the ability to save six active games of chess at once, allowing the player to not even be directly in front of their Switch screen to play the game. This turns some online matches into a technologically advanced “play by mail” style of game, which can get frustrating If you are waiting days for your opponent to make a move. Still, it compliments the other advantages of the Switch by being a more “on-the-go” styled game than the PC or PlayStation 4 versions ever could.

There is a high amount of single player content found in Chess Ultra, but it pales in comparison to the benefits of online and local play. For novices, the game does supply tutorials that showcase piece movements, basic strategies and more. You also have ten different difficulties against the games A.I, all the way up to Grandmaster if you are feeling lucky to take them on. Historical matches have you play famous chess matches that allow you to change history if you are able, and there is even a puzzle challenge mode that will have you figure out how to force a checkmate in a certain number of moves.

chess ultra historic challenges

The Historic Challenges are also a good diversion, and you can learn a thing or two playing them at least.

The slew of offline content helps fatten out the features of Chess Ultra, but once most of it is beaten there is little to do afterward. You have close to 80 puzzle challenges and over 20 historical matches to go through, but once those are complete all that is left is offline play against the A.I. Ripstone has tried to augment the online play by adding more features and functionality; notably occasional online tournaments and portable game notation features, but these features are more time-sensitive or go unused for the casual chess fan.

Still, the features of Chess Ultra are robust enough to justify a buying price. Chess Ultra doesn’t need to reinvent chess to be an appealing product, it just needs to provide a full-fledged experience for players looking to play some chess. Gambling on its features and online cross-play was a wise move as well; providing Chess Ultra with perhaps the most complete experience out there today.

Chess is still chess, regardless of whether it is played online or in person. This has always been the hardest selling point, but the case made by Ripstone is a good one, in the end. Why worry about a physical board when you can trade it for a digital one? Chess Ultra is about as perfect of a digital recreation you can get; it’s visually appealing, provides numerous features to tailor-make your experience and at its heart, relies on few gimmicks to sell chess as a video game. It is well worth the play for a variety of players too, making it a welcome addition to the Nintendo Switch’s library.

Our Chess Ultra review was conducted on Nintendo Switch with a copy purchased by the reviewer. It’s also available on PC via Steam, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, and Xbox One.

More About This Game

7.0
 

Very Good

Summary

Chess Ultra is an almost perfect digital recreation of the classic game. It's visually appealing, provides numerous features to tailor-make your experience and relies on few gimmicks to sell Chess as a video game.

Pros

  • It's Pure Chess in Digital Form...
  • Tons of Extra Content...
  • Excellent Online Play
  • Portable Local Play For The Switch Version
  • Elegant Aesthetics and Musical Score

Cons

  • ...Still Chess in the End
  • ...Some Of It Doesn't Hold Up In The Long Run

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.