If you’ve ever looked through the Games folder on a Windows PC from the early to mid-90s, pre-Internet, you had to to sort distraction – there’s a decent chance you would have tripped Chip challenge. The surprisingly deep, tile-based puzzle game was part of the fourth Microsoft Entertainment Pack and later the “Best of Microsoft Entertainment Pack”. For example, it came pre-installed on millions of pre-built systems made by OEMs, and the game was purchased by millions of early Windows gamers.
Late last month, that cult hit finally saw the release of a proper sequel, Chip challenge 2, which reached Steam more than 25 years after the first game’s release. But this isn’t the usual story of a developer revamping a long-neglected classic game property using today’s game design lessons. In fact, Chip challenge 2 has actually been complete for over 15 years; a lost classic stuck in limbo thanks to a protracted publishing battle that saw the loss of Atari, a dedicated modding community, and a religious software house.
A Windows 3.1 cult classic
To explain why Chip challenge 2 couldn’t be released when it was completed in 1999, we have to go back to the creation of the first game. The original Chip challenge actually started as a launch title for Atari’s failed handheld, the Lynx, in 1989. To fill an unexpected gap in the Lynx’s launch lineup, developer Chuck Somerville called in a team of idle programmers at Epyx (the company that originally designed the Lynx ) to collect the game in the 10-week period prior to system release.
“It was kind of a game I had always thought of,” Somerville told Ars. “It probably never would have been approved if I just went to the marketing department and said, ‘Hey, I want to do this game.’ But Epyx suddenly had the resources available and it was the game I wanted to do because I wanted to play it.”
While the Lynx and the original Chip challenge both failed to find a large audience, the game found a new life after being ported to Windows in 1991 and later widely distributed through those entertainment packs. On PC, the game gained a devoted following of players who wanted more than the nearly 150 levels in the original game.
“It was really one of the first experiments with modding, I think,” Somerville said. “The fans actually found the file with the level set for the Windows version and they reverse engineered it. They figured out exactly what was in the file and then started designing their own level editors… this was very early modding before it was possible.”
Joshua Bone was one of those early super fans. He used to play the game on his grandfather’s 386 when he visited. “I would pretty much walk in with the family, hug my grandparents and ask to play Chip challenge‘ he said to Ars. “When I got back home, I made levels on paper with little cut-out push blocks and bombs, and mazes on ice rinks. I was obsessed.”
Bone would rediscover the game when his family got their first 33K modem. “I found an early level editor that a guy designed for it and started making levels. When I made 50, I placed them on one Chip challenge fan site. I think this was the first custom level set to appear on the internet.”
With others, Bone helped build an online community of fans that has maintained “a serious but small following” over the years, he said. This Potato chips devotees continued to build and share increasingly complex new puzzles using the game’s variety of intricately connected setpieces. Shortly after its creation, members of that community began reaching out to Somerville to see if there was any chance of the real sequel they craved.
Somerville had gone to work in the LED lighting industry after Epyx failed along with the Lynx. He was surprised to find that there was still a devoted audience for his playing. So he got to work and devoted his free time to tinkering with new ideas for bigger levels, more complex puzzle interactions, and even a system of full in-game Boolean circuits that predated Minecraft‘s famous redstone through years (“I’m sure you could build a little computer in it, if you really wanted to,” he said). Somerville even recruited members of the fan community as testers and level builders.
After two years of work, Chip challenge 2 was finally completed in 1999. And then Somerville discovered that his creation was essentially being held by a company that had little to no interest in video games.
Go to Bridgestone Multimedia
By the time Chip challenge 2 was complete, the rights to the game and the name belonged to Bridgestone Multimedia Group, a Christian publishing company whose current product line includes DVD movies such as Heaven awaits And The light of freedom. Bridgestone had acquired those rights nearly a decade earlier when it purchased a struggling Epyx that had been badly affected by the Lynx’s failure. It was all an attempt to get the rights to a single project that had little to do with Epyx’s gaming properties.
“While Epyx was dying, one of the last projects one of the last programmers ever did was Bible BuilderSomerville recalled. “He was a religious fundamentalist and thought maybe we could stay in the game by making religious software. They’ve tried.”
although Bible Builder failed to impress, Bridgestone still held the rights to the entire Epyx catalog, which included successful titles like California Games, Impossible Mission, Jumpman, And… Chip challenge.
Somerville knew the legal situation when he started developing Chip challenge 2, but he says Bridgestone assured him they would work with him to release the game when it was completed. However, after two years of hard work, Somerville was in for a surprise. Bridgestone asked him to pay a six-figure fee upfront for the right to self-publish the game.
“The amount of money they were talking about would be consistent with the amount of money Bloomsbury would expect for the rights to Harry Potteror EA would pay for it Lord of the Ringssays Barnabas Cleave, director of ultimately Chip challenge 2 publisher Niffler. “That’s the kind of money they think they can charge a lone developer up front.”
This is not how game publishing usually works. Often, the publisher who controls the rights to a game property will pay to finance the development of a game, taking the lion’s share of the profits in exchange for the risk of that financing. In other cases, the titleholder may license the property to a developer for a small fee or under a sales-based royalty system.
But Bridgestone seemed attached to the idea of a big, upfront payment for a gaming IP it had never been interested in in the first place, in an industry it didn’t really have an interest in. industry,” said Somerville. “I think they had illusions about what it was because of what was in the popular press.”
A lone programmer outside the industry, Somerville had nothing close to the six-figure sum Bridgestone demanded. And while he could have changed the graphics and released the game under a different name, branding issues and possible liability for the original game’s source code made that a non-starter, he said.
“The whole thing died at that point.”