Over the years, rival software publishers have tried to steal the thunder from Mindscape's Chessmaster series in a lot of inventive ways. Electronic Arts turned to the hugely popular Garry Kasparov (Kasparov's Gambit); now-defunct Capstone focused on "neural network technology" and an AI that was supposed to learn from mistakes (Grandmaster Chess); Interplay tried everything from animated fantasy figures (Battle Chess) to getting the endorsement of the United States Chess Federation (USCF Chess); and even using the name of the most famous figure of modern chess didn't help Mission Studios (Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess).
But the Chessmaster shrugged off these parries and thrusts as easily as a grandmaster humbles an A-class player, until finally there was only one last opponent: himself. Once you've crammed everything you can think of into an interactive chess program and then wrapped it all in a clean, elegant interface, there just aren't too many ways to make the next version more attractive to the target market: chess players ranging from rank novices all the way up to low-level national masters.
Mindscape's answer to this dilemma wasn't simply to add more games to the program's already immense database (which it did) or create a better method for evaluating players' approximate ratings (which it also did). Instead, it chose to give the game a face-lift - and the results are at once satisfying and disquieting.
At first glance, it looks as though the cosmetic changes were pretty drastic. In place of the spartan pull-down menus of previous Chessmaster games is a "frames" interface featuring readily available icons along the left side of the screen that take you to the program's seven main components. At any point during play, you can immediately access the game room (for unrated games), the classroom (tutorials, drills, puzzles, ratings exam, and Josh Waitzkin's games), the tournament hall (rated games against computer and human opponents), the library (classic games, openings database, and chess glossary), kids room (with features for younger players), database (a mind-boggling array of move variations), and Chessmaster Live (for multiplayer games). Click on one of these icons, and in addition to the main window featuring a chessboard for play or a database for study, you also get a "shortcuts" menu to make it easier to access features within that particular component of the game.