Friday, October 16, 2009

Twenty Years of Chip and Chuck

I loved Chip's Challenge as a kid, so I decided to learn more about it. This was the result -- originally published on Bitmob.


Chip’s Challenge is a tile-based puzzle game written by videogame industry veteran Chuck Sommerville. Originally released in 1989 for the Atari Lynx and ported to many other platforms, the game’s story revolves around high school student Chip McCallahan. In order to prove himself worthy of entry into the Bit Buster Club and get closer to the gorgeous Melinda the Mental Marvel, Chip must steer himself through Melinda’s clubhouse, which consists of 144 levels.

The basic gameplay of Chip’s Challenge involves navigating Chip from the start point to the end point of each level while collecting all of the microchips and overcoming numerous obstacles. The early levels are fairly straightforward, presenting obstacles like locked doors requiring specific keys, blocks that need to be moved around to create pathways, and generally unintelligent monsters.

As Chip progresses through levels, the game evolves and becomes increasingly more difficult. The number and complexity of obstacles continue to intensify, and levels increasingly test critical thinking, timing, reflexes, and keyboard durability. Whereas early levels may only take a few minutes to complete, later levels require hours of work to solve.


First Impression
I first encountered Chip’s Challenge as a part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows. During a summer between my early high school years, I was fortunate enough to get a position working in a medical research laboratory. Unfortunately, the job proved to be less than stimulating. During boring stints of waiting for experiments to run their course, I would hop onto a nearby computer and tackle my way through Chip’s Challenge puzzles.


The game proved to be extremely addictive, making me feel terribly dense on some occasions and extremely intelligent during others. I was astounded by the level of thought behind each puzzle.

Unfortunately, as the summer came to an end, so did my job, and my experience with Chip was left unfinished. The new school year began and I eventually forgot all about the game.

Still Strong
Ten years later, I realized that Chip’s Challenge was the best puzzle game I ever experienced.

In an effort to recapture those maddeningly frustrating and immensely satisfying moments, I discovered an active community surrounding the game. Aficionados at The Chip’s Challenge Corridor are still perfecting puzzle solutions, sharing high scores, and creating new levels, 20 years after the game was originally released.

Even more fascinating, I discovered that Sommerville created a sequel to Chip’s Challenge many years ago and it remains unreleased today.


I recently had the privilege of “sitting down” with Sommerville. He very kindly endured my barrage of questions, revealing details on the development of Chip’s Challenge, his struggles with Chip’s Challenge 2, and some thoughts on modern gaming.

Davneet Minhas: To begin, what originally drew you to the videogame industry? How did you get your start?

ChuckChuck Sommerville: I had written some stuff for fun in high school and got a little cash from a small time garage based publisher. In college, I met another freshman that was making thousands for an Asteroids clone. I knew I could do something at least that good, so I wrote Snake Byte and got it published by Sirius Software. My second game, Gruds in Space, brought me to the West Coast, and then I was in the industry. This was all around 1983-1984.

DM: How did the idea for Chip’s Challenge originate? What inspired the game design?

CS: We needed another game for the release of the handheld game system that Epyx was developing called Lynx. Since the game I was working on was canceled, I asked for some time to do a game of my own design and was granted the freedom to do it. I was always interested in grid map-based games, so I borrowed ideas from many of my favorites and built a mix of elements.

Some inspirations were Soko-Ban, Boulder Dash, and Lode Runner.

DM: Videogames today require millions of dollars, hundreds of people, and years of development time. How did the development process for Chip’s Challenge proceed?

CS: Chip's Challenge was done in the impossibly short time of 10 weeks. I was lucky that I had about 10 people in the company that agreed to do level designs, plus I hired one very talented puzzle designer, Bill Darrah. By the time Chip's Challenge was ready for testing, I had the entire test department available, because the other Lynx games were finished.

DM: How was the game initially received?

CS: I think originally, most of the company didn't get it. It wasn't designed to fit any demographic, and it didn't have a license; it was just a game that Chuck wanted to play. It really became popular after people in the real world started playing it. I guess it was spread by word of mouth.

I was very lucky that Microsoft noticed and had a Windows version written for the Microsoft Entertainment Pack.

DM: It’s been 20 years since Chip’s Challenge was originally released. Why do you think the game continues to maintain such a staunch community?

CS: Aside from the fact that the game is fun, some very clever programmers decoded the level-set file format and wrote level editors. The game moved beyond a "playthrough once game" and became a game-construction set.

DM: As I understand it, you began development on Chip’s Challenge 2 after leaving the videogame industry. Why did you decide to start a career elsewhere?

CS: I left for a couple reasons. First, the industry had changed so much since I started. I only had the creative freedom to do what someone else designed.

Second, a friend of mine, Kevin Furry, and I were making headway building a business selling lighting products made out of LEDs. Years before, I had told him that if he ever started his own company, I wanted to be part of it. Fourteen years later, we are a respected name in the LED business. We even got to build the Times Square ball -- twice.

DM: In terms of gameplay, how does Chip’s Challenge 2 differ from its predecessor? What elements have been added?

CS: I can't remember every difference, but here are some that come to mind. You can drop inventory items if you want to. There are four types of teleporters. There are logic gates, switches, wires, and generally really hard stuff. There is a remote-control tank, fire jets, and ghosts. Oh, yeah, it also includes a level editor and replay system.

DM: Even though Chip’s Challenge 2 has been complete for a number of years, the game has yet to see the light of day. Can you discuss some of the struggles that you’ve encountered in finding a publisher?

CS: The real problem is that I want Chip’s Challenge 2 to be a sequel and leverage off of the original game. I want it to include the original level set along with the new ones, use the same character names, and have the same feel. I really can't do that, because I don't own the rights to Chips Challenge. I only own the level designs to Chips Challenge 2, all the new element designs, and 99 percent of the code base.

Every few years, I’m approached by a team of programmers that says it’s going to get a publisher, port it to a new platform, and polish it up for the modern market. It never pans out.

DM: Beyond bigger budgets and larger development teams, how has the videogame industry changed in the past 25 years?

CS: I can only comment as an outside observer, but it seems the focus has shifted from "What can we do to visually amaze and dazzle the player?" to "What can we do to build a larger market share?".

DM: Do you ever have a desire to return to the videogame industry?

CS: I still like designing and playing games, even card games and board games. I might return if I retire from the lighting industry. If I did come back to videogames, I think I would want to be in a game design position, rather than work as a code monkey.

DM: Lastly, what games have you enjoyed recently?

CS: I really like the Deadly Rooms of Death (DROD) series from Caravel Games. I have also recently been playing a lot of Mafia Wars on Facebook and Wizard 101 with my son. In terms of card games, I like Zombie Fluxx, and in terms of board games, I like Carcassonne. As you can see, I have moved away from twitch games.


For those interested in giving Chip’s Challenge a try, it can be difficult to find a legal copy of the game. Fortunately, Brian Raiter wrote Tile World, a free platform-neutral emulation of Chip’s Challenge, which includes rulesets from both the Microsoft Windows and Atari Lynx implementations.


I’m currently stuck on level 88 of the original game and have yet to try any of the thousands of user-created levels.

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