Remember the Atari Lynx? The handheld that was so big it wouldn't even fit into the pocket of the most cavernous pants? Well, one of its standout games -- Chuck Sommerville's puzzler Chip's Challenge -- has just got itself a follow-up.
Chip's Challenge originated on the Lynx but proved popular enough to spawn ports to numerous platforms, ranging from the Commodore 64 to DOS- and Windows-based PCs. Chuck's Challenge 3D is actually the third follow-up to the original game -- Chip's Challenge 2 never saw public release due to a legal dispute between Sommerville and the original copyright holder, and the original Chuck's Challenge was an iOS exclusive that came out back in 2012 from Sommerville's new company Niffler. Chuck's Challenge 3D is a reimagining of the latter, this time for Windows, OSX and Linux plus Android mobile devices.
But what is this curious little game? Well, it's a fairly straightforward top-down puzzle game at heart -- one in which some solid level design and good pacing gives it a sensible difficulty curve that eases more casual players in gently while offering a stiff challenge to even the most grizzled old puzzle game veterans in its later stages.
The plot, as is obligatory for puzzle games, is utter nonsense, badly written and riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, but provides at least some rudimentary context and justification for the game: extradimensional alien Woop enjoyed Sommerville's past games so much that he summoned the game designer into his own reality and asked him to make a series of challenges to complete. It's clearly something of a vanity project for Sommerville, but the atrocious writing, cringeworthy jokes and poor proofreading make the plot sequences something best skipped past -- and thankfully, for the most part, they're optional, triggered by stepping on a space marked with Sommerville's Hawaiian shirt.
But the plot, such as it is, is not the reason to play Chuck's Challenge 3D; it's the puzzles. And, much as in Chip's Challenge, the level designs run the entire gamut from twitch-based action sequences where you'll have to time your moves carefully to brainteasers where one wrong move can leave you in an unwinnable situation. Thankfully, you can restart the level without penalty at any time, or use the "rewind" function to step back a move at a time if you accidentally do something.
It has to be said at this point: you might find yourself accidentally doing things a little too often for my liking -- at least when playing with a gamepad. Twitchy controller support can sometimes see Woop careening off in one direction when you don't want him to, often to his untimely death -- particularly if you're attempting to use an analog thumbstick. The game fares a little better when played with a D-pad, but at the time of writing -- it's possible the gamepad issues will be patched in the near future -- the most accurate controls are the cursor keys. It's a bit of a barrier to enjoyment of the game, particularly for those of us working with a Steambox-like setup connected to our TV -- the game is the sort of thing that lends itself nicely to flopping back on the couch with a gamepad rather than huddling over a keyboard, but it is what it is.
Outside of the control issues, there's an interesting amount of variety in the objects you'll encounter in the levels and, once you're passed the initial, almost insultingly easy tutorial levels, you're left to your own devices to determine what everything does and how you can exploit it to your advantage. More often than not this involves stepping on it to see if it kills you -- with the rewind function a button press away death is a non-issue -- and then attempting to figure out how things relate to one another. Do you push a block into it? Do you need to collect a powerup? Do you need to flip a switch? It's fun to experiment, and the game never punishes you for doing so.
For the most part, solutions are sensible and clear, if not necessarily easy to actually accomplish. There are, however, a few cases where the requirements for success are less than obvious. In some levels, for example, you're tasked with collecting a certain number of items in order to unlock blue energy barriers. Early in the game, you're given the expectation that you need to collect glowing blue objects to achieve this, but there are several levels in which there's an on-screen counter for these items visible, but no items in sight. In one case, it transpired that what I actually had to do was push blocks into specific places -- I eventually stumbled across the solution for myself as will, I imagine, most other players, but this just felt like the game was being a little too obtuse for its own good; like it was breaking its own rules somewhat.
You're not limited to playing just the 125 Sommerville-designed levels; there's also a level editor and the facility to upload your creations online, then download, play and rate those that others have put together. This is clearly intended as a core part of the experience, since a significant number of the game's achievements revolve around playing a certain number of user-created levels. There's already a decent mix online, many of which make highly inventive use of the game's core mechanics -- but at the time of writing the rating function isn't that useful due to the relative lack of players. This is something that will hopefully improve over time as the player base increases in number.
As for the level editor itself, it's reasonably intuitive but its roots as a mobile game are clear -- it is icon-heavy and doesn't include tooltips when you hover your pointer over things, making determining exactly what some of the parts you can add to your levels do a bit of a guessing game. Things like the level resize function are a bit clunky, too; clicking the "increase X size" button on the left side of the playfield actually adds a block to the far right, for example, which isn't necessarily what you want to do. The interface here needs a bit of work if Niffler wants to attract a dedicated community of level creators -- while some will tolerate and learn to deal with or work around the editor's idiosyncrasies, others will likely be put off quickly.
On the whole, then, Chuck's Challenge 3D is a solid little puzzle game with a few rough edges that could do with cleaning up. It's a fun little diversion for the moment, but it's hard to give it an unreserved recommendation while its few flaws are so glaring.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Pleasant but inoffensive -- though the "tilt-shift" out-of-focus effect on the visuals is headache-inducing and could do with toning down significantly.
- Music and Sound: Some quirky but unmemorable music accompanies the action.
- Interface: Its mobile roots regularly show through with unclear iconography and somewhat clunky navigation.
- Lasting Appeal: 125 levels in the base game plus a ton of user-generated content will keep you busy for a long time.
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