Excalibur LCD Chess vs. GameBoy ChessMaster

by Chris Kantack

Purpose of this web page

This web page compares the LCD Computer Chess handheld chess game system with ChessMaster for the Nintendo GameBoy.  Excalibur Electronics manufactured the LCD Computer Chess unit. The ChessMaster franchise is now owned by a company called UbiSoft.  

Note, this web page does not attempt to do a full feature by feature comparison of each product.  However, you can learn more about the features for the LCD Computer Chess product by visiting my web page that discusses Touch Chess.   (Nearly all of the chess playing features found on the Touch Chess product are also present in the Excalibur LCD Computer Chess unit.)  Also available is the Excalibur LCD Chess Operating Manual in Adobe Acrobat Reader (PDF) format. 

In addition to LCD Chess, Excalibur manufactured similar models such as Talking LCD Chess

 

About ChessMaster on the GameBoy

Two different ChessMaster game cartridges have been released for the Nintendo GameBoy.   The first cartridge was designed around the original (black-and-white) GameBoy architecture.  The second version (ChessMaster for GameBoy Color) added slightly improved graphics and a few additional cosmetic features accessible for those who own GameBoy Color or Advance units.    (Either cartridge will run fine on the original black-and-white GameBoy and Gameboy Pocket units.)

My review is based on running the "ChessMaster for GameBoy Color" cartridge on the older black-and-white GameBoy Pocket system. 

Overall, the GameBoy Pocket unit, pictured here measures 5 inches long by 3 inches wide.  The thickness of the GameBoy Pocket unit is nearly 1 inch.    The GameBoy screen has a diagonal measurement of just over 2.5 inches.  (Screen dimensions are 1 15/16” wide by 1 3/4” high).  Interestingly enough, the GameBoy Pocket system features a slightly larger screen than what you find on the GameBoy Color units.  GameBoy Pocket also features a contrast control that is not available on GameBoy Color or Advance.  In my own testing, I find playing ChessMaster on the GameBoy Pocket screen preferable to using a GameBoy Color or Advance unless you are outdoors in bright sunlight.  Only under very bright conditions do the GameBoy Color and Advance screens provide a more readable display.  In any case, all the GameBoy units leave a lot to be desired in terms of screen size and contrast.

Beginning in 2001, it became extremely difficult to find the GameBoy ChessMaster game cartridge.  Neither the black-and-white nor color versions are readily available.  You may still be able to dig up a cartridge on the web but you will likely have to do a lot of searching.  Many sites still list the cartridge but few actually have it in stock anymore.  Some people are having good results by shopping on Ebay.   The color version of ChessMaster seems to be the one most commonly available (when you can find it).  It can vary widely in price. 

 

Note Regarding The GameBoy Advance

The Advance contained a newer 32 bit processor in addition to an 8 bit Z80 processor for compatibility with older games.  It also featured a wider screen that could be utilized by those games written specifically for the GameBoy Advance.   Unfortunately "non-Advance" games cannot take advantage of the 32bit processor.  Thus the GameBoy Advance will play the standard ChessMaster cartridge at the exact same speed as the GameBoy Color unit.  Also, the default screen presentation of the older games is even a bit smaller on the Advance than on the GameBoy Color unit.   The Advance does offer a feature where you can "stretch the image" of an older game so that it will fill the wider screen that is used on the Advance.   While this works well for many GameBoy games, the ChessMaster program was designed with a square presentation in mind.   In short, ChessMaster will run on the Advance but don't expect it to be any better than it is on the GameBoy Color unit.

If searching for a chess program for an old Gameboy Advance, try looking for Virtual Kasparov that was released by a company called "Titus".  UbiSoft  also released an updated ChessMaster cartridge for the Advance that may be available.  I have neither of these versions but I have posted a letter on my Handheld Chess Overview page that summarizes the difference between Virtual Kasparov and the Advance version of ChessMaster. 

 

About Excalibur LCD Chess

The handheld Excalibur LCD Computer Chess game was introduced in June of 2000.  This unit has proven to be more than a worthy competitor to GameBoy ChessMaster.  The LCD Chess unit fits very comfortably in one’s left hand.  Overall dimensions are 5 3/4” H by 2 1/2” W by 1” D.  The screen measures nearly 3” diagonally.   More details are provided in the paragraphs below.  But, to summarize, the Excalibur LCD Chess unit has become one of my favorite portable chess computers.  With a great screen, great features, smart brain, and extremely long battery life, the Excalibur LCD Chess unit does it job well.  The LCD Chess unit was also a tremendous value when it was introduced with a retail price of just under $30.  Later it was found at various retailers for as little as $14.95.   The original LCD Chess model featured on this page is now very difficult to find.  However, you still find some of its successors (LCD Chess Express and similar units) for around 15 to 25 (U.S.) dollars.  Shop around when looking for LCD chess handhelds on the internet.  I've seen some dealers charging considerably higher prices than even the suggested retail price for some Excalibur systems. 

 

 

What Both These Units Can Do

Both the Excalibur LCD Computer Chess unit and GameBoy ChessMaster game offer:

-    LCD screen technology (no pieces to lose)

-    a very challenging chess opponent  (unless you are a strong  “over 1600 Elo” rated player)

-    multiple computer playing levels and features for beginners to advanced players

-    a "human vs. human" mode that is also quite useful for entering and studying other chess games

-    the ability to set up specific positions for “solve for mate” purposes or other practice

-    the option to view the moves that the computer is considering for its move

The units differ widely though on feature selection and usability.  Depending on what you value in a portable chess gaming system, you may prefer one unit over the other.  Here are some key points to consider:

Scope of Function

1.  The Excalibur LCD Chess unit plays chess and only chess.  The Nintendo GameBoy plays hundreds of different games.  Of course you need to purchase a game cartridge for each GameBoy game you wish to play.   Typical cartridge prices range from 20 to 35 dollars.

Price and Availability

2.  Both of these units are no longer readily available.  But generally speaking, an Excalibur LCD Handheld is easier to find and usually less expensive. 

Battery Consumption

3.  The GameBoy unit loves to “eat batteries”.  If, like me, you often play long chess games under classical chess time controls, a set of 2 AA Alkaline batteries will only last you a few (maybe 3) long chess games.  Of course, I’ve long since gone to an AC adapter and a rechargeable battery pack for the GameBoy.  Still, I often make sure my GameBoy is plugged into a nearby AC outlet, when starting a long game. 

On the other hand, the Excalibur runs seemingly forever on a set of 3 AAA batteries.  Indeed, there is no option to plug the Excalibur into a wall outlet---but you won’t need to either.  I first received my Excalibur LCD Chess handheld in mid-November 2000.   Thus I've now owned my Excalibur LCD unit for nearly two years.   I no longer play it that often, as I now own a number of handhelds.  But I've certainly played a number of many long games.  It wasn't until July of this year (2002) that I had to change out my original set of batteries! 

Saving/Resuming a Game

4.  If you want the ability to easily adjourn a game (to resume later), forget the GameBoy and go with the Excalibur unit.  While the GameBoy unit does have “a method” of saving a game, it is extremely difficult and not at all practical.  Indeed, I’ve never bothered to try to reload a saved game as one must enter a cryptic password of many characters to retrieve a previously saved  GameBoy ChessMaster game.

To adjourn a game on the Excalibur, just turn the unit off.   When you later decide to resume the game, simply turn the unit on and continue.

Display Quality

5.  The GameBoy and Excalibur have very different qualities in their respective displays.  The GameBoy unit has more traditional looking pieces and can provide smooth motion with its bitmapped display.  But the Excalibur LCD Chess handheld has a larger display with better contrast. Since the Excalibur unit only plays chess, it has a permanent pre-printed chessboard on its screen.  This allows each piece (black or white) to stand out well against the playing board.  On the other hand, the GameBoy must use its screen pixels to both draw each piece and to draw the chessboard.   Looking at a black chess piece on a black square is extremely difficult on the black-and-white screen of the GameBoy Pocket.   The GameBoy Color and GameBoy Advance units do not have this exact problem as the board is colored differently from the pieces.  However, the GameBoy Color and Advance have no contrast control.  It requires a lot of light to see the board and pieces clearly on a GameBoy color screen.  Bright sunlight (or a nearby lamp) is almost mandatory for serious chess play if you have a GameBoy Color or Advance unit.  Indeed, since purchasing the Excalibur, I haven’t used my GameBoy ChessMaster much as I prefer the legibility and larger screen size of the Excalibur.  Note, the Excalibur screen also holds up very well in direct sunlight.

Note, the photos illustrated at the beginning of this web page will show a very bright and well-defined screen for the GameBoy.   However, these photos were taken under “ideal” flash photography lighting.  Under most circumstances, the GameBoy screen is much darker and murkier than what you’ll see here.   However, the Excalibur images shown are quite realistic and provide a good representation of how well that unit’s screen performs under normal lighting.  (Note, you may click on any of the images above for a larger view.)

One final note regarding Excalibur LCD displays: When one first receives the LCD Chess unit, you tend to hold the unit so as to directly face the chessboard.  That is, the plane of the chessboard is perpendicular  to your angle of vision.   (Lets call this point the 0 degree viewing angle.)  If you adjust the contrast control accordingly, you can get a good image at "0 degrees".  However, you may prefer to adjust the contrast control so that your optimum contrast occurs when looking at the chessboard at an angle of 30 degrees upward.   In other words you tilt the unit so that the top of the chessboard will be a bit further away from your eyes than the bottom of the chessboard.   It often works to your favor to have the optimum viewing angle done this way.  It can reduce nearby reflections and works well when the unit is on a desk or table lying flat in front of you.     

User Interface

6.   As for the “user interface” (a very critical part of any gaming system), both GameBoy ChessMaster and the Excalibur LCD Chess handheld will require somewhat more effort at selecting and moving the chess pieces than what you would find with a regular chessboard or on a full-fledge home computer graphical display.   Here’s one area where ChessMaster on the GameBoy does win out over the Excalibur LCD Chess unit.

With the GameBoy unit, one uses a 4 way directional control to guide a “hand” to the piece one wishes to move.   The A button is then press which grabs the piece.  Once again, using the 4 way directional control, one directs the hand to the desired square.  Again the A button is pushed, depositing the piece on the destination square.   I've done some "keystroke counting" in the past, the GameBoy averages around 5 to 6  keystrokes to enter a single move (1 ply) move.

The Excalibur has an 8 way directional control.  At the beginning of each turn, you use this control to highlight the piece you wish to move.  You then press a Move button to indicate that this is the piece you wish to move.  Once again the 8 way directional control is used to highlight the destination square.   The Move button is again pushed to confirm the desired destination and complete the move.  Unlike the GameBoy, where you can press and hold the directional control to slide your cursor across the board, the Excalibur requires a distinct pressing of the appropriate directional control in order to advance a piece across each square.  It's a little bit more work to enter a move on the Excalibur, but still quite reasonable.  The Excalibur averages around 6 to 8 keystrokes per move.

The best user interface for chess, in my opinion, is the PDA (stylus with touch sensitive screen) interface.  Excalibur's Touch Chess features such an interface along with the chess programs available for the Palm computer. 

Sound Control

7.  When it comes to sound and sound control, ChessMaster on the GameBoy, is certainly more sophisticated with voice output on the initial welcome message, captures, castling moves, checks and checkmates.  You can also, using the volume control, turn off the sound completely on the GameBoy.  The Excalibur provides the necessary beeps for game play and entry errors.  However, even with the sound control set to off, the Excalibur will still beep after each computer move.   It is possible to disconnect the Excalibur’s speaker if you’re willing to open the unit.  Of course, this will permanently disable all sounds unless you choose to reconnect the speaker.  

The ultimate sound control solution, is to place a switch on the Excalibur handheld in order to mute the sound as needed.   Tobias Giesen has done just that.  Check out his page at: http://www.tobiasgiesen.de/excalibur.htm   (From his page you can easily email him for further instructions.)


Some features unique to each unit

A very nice feature on the Excalibur LCD Chess unit, is the SLEEP (automatic shut off) feature.  This is an adjustable feature that allows the unit to switch itself off if no move has been entered for a given period of time.  To resume a game, you simply turn the unit back on.

The Excalibur LCD unit also allows you to practice against 30 different book openings.  There are also 16 “Great Games” in its memory that can be replayed at any time.  

If you have a GameBoy Color unit, GameBoy ChessMaster provides 5 different board colors, 5 different piece colors, and 4 different piece types.  This flexibility is a nice plus as you may find one or more settings a bit easier to see than the default.  Unfortunately, these settings are not retained when the GameBoy is turned off.  (Any setting changes different from the default settings, must be made each time you turn your GameBoy unit back on.)

I do like the fact that regardless of what color I’m playing, in GameBoy ChessMaster, I can choose to have either color play from the bottom of the screen.  On the Excalibur, the human player always plays with his pieces initially positioned at the bottom of the screen.  Generally this is fine, but when doing computer versus computer comparisons, it’s nice to be able to select which player plays from the bottom so as to keep your screen perspectives consistent between systems.  The GameBoy even allows you to place either team on the left or right side of the screen.  (Definitely overkill and a feature I doubt used by anyone.)

A much more practical feature provided in GameBoy ChessMaster is the option of displaying algebraic coordinates and time clocks for each player.

 

Strength of Computer Opponent

Excalibur LCD Chess Levels

Both the Excalibur LCD handheld and GameBoy ChessMaster  provide multiple strength levels for the computer opponent.   Having multiple levels is a standard feature for any modern chess program as most programs, set at their maximum strength level, can easily defeat most human opponents virtually all the time. 

The Excalibur LCD handheld chess unit has a total of 73 levels of play.  Levels 1 thru 4 are beginner levels.  Level 5 is a fixed 1 ply (1 half-move) search.  Each increasing level will take slightly longer (1 to  2 seconds per level) for the computer to make its move.   As you move on to the higher levels the computer will look more deeply into each board position when calculating “the best move”.  Level 73 is an infinite level.  That is, on this level, the computer will usually “think” on the next move indefinitely until you press the MOVE key to force it to move.   (When you press the MOVE key on level 73, your telling Excalibur to make the best move it has found so far.)

The amount of time Excalibur spends thinking on a specific move will depend on the level you play at and the board position.  The first few opening moves may occur almost instantaneously regardless of level.   Complex middlegame positions will take the longest.  A lot depends on the options you select.  Generally at level 72, I find the Excalibur typically taking around 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes per move.

GameBoy ChessMaster Levels

ChessMaster on the GameBoy platform provides a total of 16 levels.  They are broken down in this way:

Level          

Move/Time unit

Newcomer #1 beginner level, moves are made under 1 second
Newcomer #2 beginner level, moves take about 1 second
  60 moves in 5 minutes
2 40 moves in 5 minutes
3 60 moves in 10 minutes
4 60 moves in 30 minutes
5 60 moves in 45 minutes
6 60 moves in 60 minutes
7 30 moves in 45 minutes
8 30 moves in 60 minutes
9 40 moves in 90 minutes
10 40 moves in 100 minutes
11 40 moves in 120 minutes
12 40 moves in 150 minutes
13 40 moves in 180 minutes
14 Infinite

Note, that the amount of time that ChessMaster GameBoy spends “thinking” about a move is not the same for each move.   For example, you might surmise that when playing at level 11, the GameBoy takes 3 minutes per move.  When playing at level 11, it will average 3 minutes per move--but, just like a human opponent, it will make some moves almost instantly (when it is still in an opening book for example, or if in a forced move situation).  When GameBoy has sufficient time on the clock, it may spend 5 minutes or more on a tricky middlegame board position.  Once again, not unlike what a human opponent might do.

Level Options

There are other options that affect the level of play.  Excalibur has a FAST mode that can be toggled on or off at any level.   It may miss some tactical moves with FAST on but it will also look more deeply into certain “promising lines”.

GameBoy ChessMaster has a mode called “Deep Thinking”.  It too can be turned on or off at any level.  With “Deep Thinking” on, GameBoy will think about a move even when it is your turn.  

So Which Program is Smarter?

Many people choose a chess computer based on how strong it is.  I believe this is a mistake unless you are a already established as a strong club player.   If you’re a frequent club player with an official USCF Elo rating much over 1600 then you probably would not be interested in either of these units as a serious computer opponent. 

I’d say either of these units will provide most players (including myself) with more than enough challenge.  The “fairest test” I’ve been able to come up with, when comparing the ChessMaster GameBoy against the Excalibur LCD Chess handheld is to provide both computers with an equal amount of think time, then have them play against one another.  This test is done by:

                        Setting both computers to “Infinite Time” level.

                        Ensuring that the “Deep Thinking” option is OFF for ChessMaster GameBoy.

                        Ensuring that “Fast Mode” is OFF for Excalibur.

                        Giving both computers exactly the same amount thinking time for each move.

Both units appeared to be equally strong when tested under the above conditions.   On the other hand, there is no reason not to have "Deep Thinking" turned on (if you want a stronger opponent) when running GameBoy ChessMaster.   With Deep Thinking off for GameBoy and "Fast" off for LCD Chess, the units both have a strength of around 1350 to 1450 Elo.   Turning on "Deep Thinking" definitely strengthens GameBoy ChessMaster's play.  My recent testing seems to show that (with Deep Thinking on), GameBoy ChessMaster plays with a strength of around 1700 Elo.   Newer versions of Excalibur's LCD Chess (like Talking LCD Chess), have about equal strength as the GameBoy ChessMaster cartridge with Deep Thinking turned on.

Summary

I bought the GameBoy ChessMaster cartridge before the Excalibur LCD Chess unit was available.   Had I bought the Excalibur unit first, I probably never would have purchased the GameBoy cartridge.  The Excalibur unit is truly portable.   In my opinion the GameBoy ChessMaster suffers from three major flaws. They are:

                        - relatively short battery life

                        - small murky screen (okay if using an Advance or GameBoy Color unit in a very bright environment)

                        - inability (at a practical level) to save and resume a game at a later time

Note that two of the major flaws listed above are not due to the ChessMaster program but are a criticism of the GameBoy itself.

On the other hand, the Excalibur LCD Chess handheld excels in the three areas listed above.   Battery life is phenomenal, the screen is very easy on the eyes, and saving a game to resume later involves nothing more than just turning the unit off.  The Excalibur isn’t perfect.  Its user interface does require more keystrokes than GameBoy ChessMaster when playing a game.   However, that is the only negative in what I see as a very fine and extremely economical and very portable chess computer.

If you already own a GameBoy and don’t care much about ultimate portability or saving your games, then the GameBoy ChessMaster cartridge may be a good choice for you--especially if you can get the cartridge very cheaply.  I purchased mine over the Internet, (from a company I had never heard of), for $15.  But that was nearly 12 years ago.  Since then, GameBoy ChessMaster has become very hard to find.  If you already own a GameBoy Advance, you may wish to consider looking for ChessMaster for the GameBoy Advance or  Virtual Kasparov which may be easier to find.  You can read a bit more about these two programs on my Handheld Chess Overview page.

Any Questions?

If you have further questions or comments, drop me a note!  My email address is: chessinfo@kantack.com or click on the envelope icon at the bottom of this page.

 

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My Computer Chess Pages

Handheld Chess Overview        LCD Chess vs. GameBoy ChessMaster

Talking LCD Chess        Touch Chess

Chess Station        Alexandra        King Arthur

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My Other Chess Reviews

GameTime II        Fancy Chess Set        A Parent's Guide to Chess

 

email chessinfo@kantack.com if you have any questions