Chuck’s Challenge 3D isn’t so much a puzzle game as it is the puzzle game—a title that draws so fully from a classic design philosophy (this being a spiritual/actual sequel, of sorts, to 1989′s Chip’s Challenge) that it’s difficult to describe it as though it were an iteration on or rethinking of “puzzle” as a genre. We’re used to that sort of mission statement from modern releases, the need for every new game to position itself as somehow novel, but Chuck’s Challenge doesn’t shoot for that. It’s a puzzle game in all the familiar, downright integral ways one expects it to be, and nothing else; a fact which, in turn, means it actually is unlike many other games out there. But, you know, accidentally.
Also: it’s in 3D! Isn’t that just the cutest?
Here’s your one-sentence “plot” set-up: game designer Chuck (as in, Chuck Sommerville, the fella who designed Chip’s Challenge and, of course, Chuck’s Challenge 3D) gets roped into building real-life puzzle stages for a time-and-space-bending purple alien creature named Woop. (Ever see The Three Amigos/Galaxy Quest/Tropic Thunder? It’s sort of like that.) For Chuck, this (probably) necessitates a dramatic reevaluation of his notions of life, divinity, and free will. But forget that noise; for the player this necessitates guiding Woop through countless tricksy stages ranging from the head-scratchingly obtuse to the finger-numbingly dextrous, levels which test both one’s mind and one’s reaction-time.
So begins the comprehensive run-through of puzzle gaming tropes. Blocks? Check. Keys? Check. Colored blocks, and equally garish keys? Check, and check, with checks all around for icy floors, gates which can only be opened by acquiring all of a certain collectible, panels which disintegrate after you walk over them, teleporters, water hazards, lava, pressure switches, conveyor belts and, of course, twisted alien monstrosities cursed to march in predictable patterns for all eternity. (One assumes these latter creatures are the mad god Woop’s failed efforts at creating sentient life.)
The furthest Chuck’s Challenge 3D strays from this catalog of tried-and-true mechanics is in its use of power-ups that can completely circumvent certain types of hazards. Collect a spiky-looking orb, for example, and Woop’s feet morph into a crusher which can convey him across ice without slipping. There’s a magnet to counteract conveyor belts (wouldn’t that just make things worse, though?), a jetpack to fly over certain hazards, and so on. There’s no one schtick you could saddle Chuck’s Challenge 3D with, no unifying “aha” gimmick that colors the proceedings. Given X blocks and Y power-ups, can you navigate obstacles A, B, and C? That’s it.
But damn if all those aforementioned bits and bobs aren’t exhaustively combined and recombined over the course of the game’s 100-plus stages. The variety of puzzles, and their increasingly complexity, is consistently surprising, as is the fact that all these interlocking systems still feel manageable even as levels spread out—in all directions—and your opportunities to completely bork something up grow exponentially. There’s never a question of how a certain puzzle element operates—you can push blocks, of course, and you can float them in water, of course, and if you push an ice block onto a water panel it freezes, of course. Rather, the question is how to do the clever things you already know how to do in the cleverest order, so that you feel, well, clever, and not like an omnipotent extraterrestrial that’s allowed itself to be captured by a balding, Hawaiian shirt-wearing game designer turned half-assed Jack O’ Lantern. The game—for all its garishness—does a good job communicating what’s possible, and what needs to be done, with just a few bold strokes of color.
Equally nice is the inclusion of quick, more action-oriented stages between the sometimes drawn-out puzzle segments. Sometimes, Chuck’s Challenge 3D simply asks you to move quickly and avoid deadly hazards (like, again, those absolutely bonkers alien mutants) to beat a level. These stages are, usually, a welcome palate cleanser between those levels where you sit, staring, at a row of boxes for minutes on end, afraid to make your move less you lose track of the nebulous solution half-formed in your head, or those where you manage to trap yourself four times in four completely different ways, which should be some sort of anti-achievement. Luckily, it’s easy enough to undo your last move—with the game even pausing as Woop flits back to his (its?) previous position—or to even reset an entire level with the press of a key.
There’s also a robust level editor here, along with easy access to fan-made stages and daily challenges—the former being a perfect way to grasp just how sadistic your fellows are. And, despite a few niggling layout issues which reek of touch-screen aspirations, this version of Chuck’s Challenge 3D feels like it’s been solidly built with the PC in mind.
If there’s anything to dislike about the game, it’s that the challenge of it doesn’t really change once you’ve seen the majority of obstacles—blocks, belts, bombs and so on—that can pop-up in a level. The game gets bigger, the puzzles requiring more planning and a longer memory, but barring a few examples (and barring the nefarious public-at-large cranking out stages with the level editor) you’re not really going to have to play smarter, later on, as much as you’ll need to play smart for more moves in a row. The notion of pushing blocks to activate switches is so simple, and singular, that there’s no room in the framework of Chuck’s Challenge 3D to drastically recast that mechanic as the game progresses. Instead it adds more, and more complicated, block-pushing, and tangles that block-pushing up with as many other mechanics as will fit—that is what the game excels at.
But still, there’s so much to like here. There’s an innocence to Chuck’s Challenge 3D, the way it feels compelled to make so much out of such simple ingredients. It’s smart, but never in a way where it feels like it’s pointing at its own cleverness. Rather, when you’re on the cusp of unraveling some icy, fluctuating jigsaw labyrinth of a stumper, you can feel “Chuck” leaning in, expectant. The game wants you to be the smart one, and not just by proxy. Its is a world built for Woop, and for wooping at the conclusion of a difficult, but never out-and-out mean puzzle.
Also: it’s in 3D. That’s a plus.