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Chuck's Challenge 3D (PC) artwork

Chuck's Challenge 3D (PC) review

"Life is easy when you consider things from another point of view."

If “nerdy” Chip McCallahan hadn’t suddenly stopped eating his lunch one afternoon in 1989 and hadn’t paid Melinda “the mental marvel” any attention, then Chuck’s Challenge 3D may never have come to exist.

Chip’s Challenge, Chuck Sommerville’s late-80s Atari Lynx puzzler classic, saw its eponymous hero journey through 148 levels of mind-bending puzzlery in order to gain admission to the Bit Busters computer club, all as a result of a lunchtime request from Melinda. Thanks to the lack of any plot whatsoever aside from a short intro, it’s impossible to say if Chip’s objective was worth the arduous journey required to achieve it. If nothing else, though, the original adventure paved the way for Chuck’s Challenge, a grid-based top-down puzzle game released on iOS in 2012 that has now been reinterpreted as Chuck’s Challenge 3D and released for Windows, OSX and Android devices.

Chuck's Challenge 3D (PC) image

Much like its predecessor, Chuck’s Challenge 3D features a wafer-thin storyline. Whilst relaxing on an exotic beach, Chuck is whisked away by a distinctly mild-mannered extra-terrestrial kidnapper named Woop. An obvious fan of Chuck’s previous work, Woop negotiates a deal wherein Chuck must design new puzzles for the alien to solve in exchange for his freedom. An inordinate amount of spelling and grammatical errors have somehow found their way into the game’s final (and often skippable) lines of dialogue, which makes some of the lackluster tongue-in-cheek humour more amusing and leaves a person to wonder if perhaps developer Niffler peppered the text with errors on purpose.

As with all puzzle games of this nature, you’re not even playing for the story. The real draw is the selection of puzzles, and on that score, Chuck’s Challenge 3D rarely disappoints. By focusing its attention on pacing, a progressive learning curve and perspective--and by executing these three areas of design ever so well--the game’s developers were able to deliver challenging puzzles whilst also providing enough variety to hold the player’s interest. As such, the game inflicts just about the right amount of mindful head scratching moments to balance out the “HOW THE **** DO I DO THIS?!” ones.

The 125 levels featured in Chuck’s Challenge 3D are split into five groups of 25, with each one helpfully identified by a difficulty descriptor (1x easy, 3x medium and 1x hard). As you’d expect, the puzzles in each category become progressively more challenging as you go, but in a way which for the most part feels fair. Combine this with a handy rewind function that allows the player to go back one move at a time instead of constantly having to restart and you’ve got the ingredients for a great puzzle adventure.

Chuck's Challenge 3D (PC) image

One point worth discussing at this point is the aforementioned perspective. I lost of count of the amount of times I was left perplexed and completely stumped by a certain puzzle, only to flip things round and almost immediately realise where I was going wrong. With a quick tap of X, each level can be rotated 90 degrees so that you can see it from another point of view. That sounds remarkably simple, but I was astounded by how many times taking a step back and looking at things differently - the same layout, but from a different angle - led to a joyous Eureka moment. Of course, not every puzzle turns rudimentary the minute you alter angles; some of them are just genuinely really bloody difficult.

Considering the game consists of a generous 125 levels, very few of them are repetitive. Points of interest include rounds which require the player to navigate one-way treadmills, avoid roaming monsters or airborne fireballs, skate across ice planes, collect keys and operating switches, or push blocks, to name but a few of the intricate tests Chuck devises for Woop. Most levels work well, also, but there are some instances when the design is too confusing for its own good. For example, one level requires the player to collect a set amount of keys before unlocking a barrier protecting the end square. It’s standard stuff, but the catch is that most of the keys are hidden under movable rocks and the majority of the level is made up of ice that, once stepped on, can only be abandoned by way of the next adjacent patch of dry land. The game clearly expects a certain level of planning from the player here, but since you initially have no idea where the keys are located, reaching the end of the stage feels like an absolute fluke.

A similar scenario again cropped up during later levels, rendering the stages in question unwinnable unless they were reset. This could of course be chalked up to poor player choices (after all, this is a puzzle game). However, it feels as though the game is actually making the errors and not the player, and that just seems unfair. This is compounded by the “tilt-shift” feature, where each level’s periphery is presented out of focus. It’s a strange design choice, indeed.

Chuck's Challenge 3D (PC) image

In addition to the 125 included puzzles, Chuck’s Challenge 3D also includes a level editor which allows players to share, play and rate each other’s designs. The player base is quite limited thus far, but there already are a fair number of samples available to test. Although it’s never an issue in other cases, Chuck’s Challenge 3D betrays its roots as a mobile game when you are working with the level editor. The interface feels incredibly awkward and some PC features--ones we now take for granted--are completely missing. One example is the omission of tooltips whilst the cursor is hovering over unmarked and therefore sometimes unidentifiable icons. It seems as though Niffler has grand plans for this feature, given that a sizable amount of the game’s achievements hinge on whether or not you engage with other players’ levels, but at this stage it feels a touch broken.

Because it offers so much variety, Chuck’s Challenge 3D should entertain both puzzle novices and veterans alike. Granted, it has its moments of frustration, but they are few and far between. As far as recent retro remakes go, Chuck’s Challenge is perhaps one of the most obscure. However, that’s not to say it doesn’t achieve what it had set out to accomplish. It’s a very good top-down puzzler game, with a smattering of flaws that prevent it from being a great one. I’m glad Chip McCallahan didn’t skip lunch on that fateful day in 1989...


deaco2000's avatar
Freelance review by Joe Donnelly (March 14, 2014)

Joe Donnelly likes writing about games whilst wondering who introduced the whole 'talking about yourself in the third person' thing. Perhaps one day I'll, ahem, he'll find out.

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