It’s fun to occasionally step back in time to play vintage video games. Without complex HD graphics and 20.4 surround sound, gameplay and story were what kept us coming back for more. Some modern games try to emulate that experience, and while they can be fun, they’re still modern games with only a thin veneer of nostalgia to awaken dormant neural pathways. Chip’s Challenge 2, a puzzler by Chuck Sommerville available on Steam, is the rare game that actually captures the true vintage spirit because, well, it was made over two decades ago and has finally been given the chance to see the light of day.
You see, Sommerville created the original Chip’s Challenge for the Atari Lynx in less than 3 months (it was later ported to other platforms), and then spent two years creating Chip’s Challenge 2. However, upon completion he found that the trademark had been sold, and the new owners wanted him to fund the publishing of the game. Unable to afford the cost, Sommerville made the decision not to publish his labour of love. Now twenty-five years later (including five years of negotiations), Chip’s Challenge 2 has been released on Steam for everyone to enjoy.
In Chip’s Challenge 2, you take on the roles of Chip McCallahan and Melinda the Mental Marvel (both wearers of smarty pants and members of the Bit Buster Club), answering a challenge from the International Brain Game Club to best puzzles created by Puzzle Master Vladimir Gerajkee. The goal of each stage is to find and use the exit socket, which can only be unlocked after gathering microchips scattered about the level. To attain these chips, players must complete a series of puzzles made up of lock-and-key mechanisms, sliding elements, and hazards (both stationary and moving). Points are awarded for speedy completion, and there is always an ideal sequence that will allow you to complete each stage and collect the maximum number of points.
Of course, finding that sequence and attaining the best high score is Chip’s greatest challenge. Each two-dimensional puzzle is viewed from a top-down perspective, but only a limited portion of the area is revealed, forcing you to move around to see the whole picture. The one-way elements are equally confounding. Some of the squares contain gateways that only let you pass in one direction, while colour-coded keys (which can only be used with the same-coloured door) disappear after they are used. Other “doors” will block you if you happen to be holding a particular item (which can be doffed using a “thief” square) or if you happen to be a particular gender (you can switch between Chip and Melinda if the “gender-bender” square is available).
Some surfaces, like dirt, can be trod upon to create solid tiles. Ice, on the other hand, sends Chip and Melinda careening uncontrollably until they hit a solid wall (or fall into water or fire, which kills them instantly). Monsters of all types offer other ways to die. There are mechanisms made to counter some of these pitfalls (spiked shoes for ice; flippers for water; etc.), but they have to be attained to be of any use.
There’s not much of a difficulty curve to speak of, mostly because different designers worked on different levels so difficulty can feel a bit random as you progress. It introduces a repetitive trial-and-error approach in most scenarios. And so, Chip’s Challenge 2 is a fun test of patience, pushing players to try and anticipate their own mistakes so as to avoid pressing the ‘restart’ button (and undoing all of their hard work). Nothing is so frustrating as making your way through a complicated level only to stumble at the exit thanks to poor planning, but when everything works, there is nothing quite like that feeling of elation, either.
Chip’s Challenge 2 is addictive – no less addictive than its predecessor. When I was given the assignment, I couldn’t recall if I had played Chip’s Challenge, but the first is also newly available on Steam so I was able to revisit it to attain a frame of reference. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I did, in fact, play the original in Windows many, many moons ago. Eventually I had to tear myself away from the goodness that is Chip’s Challenge to engage the sequel, which offered the same problem: the dreaded affliction known as “well, maybe just one more try won’t hurt”. Even though they are not modern games, both Chip’s Challenge and Chip’s Challenge 2 appeal to something deep inside those of us that like to puzzle. The character trait is timeless, and feeds that part of our brain that experiences happiness each time we finish a level, allowing us to forgive cheesy graphics and sound.
Those graphics and sound would not have been out of place twenty years ago, and are charming in the present. Bleepy and bloopy sound effects accompany block-ish pixelly sprites and the midi piano soundtrack, while Chip’s exclamations whenever he kicks the bucket (“Bummer!”) often give the player a wry reason to smile.
With 200 levels and a number of different game elements and abilities (plus a generous smattering of tutorial levels to bring novices into the fold and stoke the fires in the minds of the vets), Chip’s Challenge 2 hearkens back to a time when games were a little less forgiving than titles are now. Players may not be able to burn through the levels very quickly, which may lead to some frustration. However, playing this $5 Steam title in shorter bursts will make for a more enjoyable experience.