The ultimate game: Archon

May 12th, 2014 4:41 PM
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In the Austin Grossman novel You, our hero is asked, "So what's your ultimate game?

"You know, the game you'd make if you could make any game at all," the long-haired designed explained.

"Forget about budget," the short guy added. "You're in charge. Just do anything! Greatest game ever!"

"The Ultimate Game," I said, "I can do just… anything?"

They nodded. I felt ridiculous. Was the Ultimate Game the one in which I ride a hundred-foot-tall pink rhino through the streets, driving my enemies before me? The one where the chess pieces come alive and talk in a strange poetry? Is it just a game where I always win?

"So… okay, okay. You're playing chess, right, but all the pieces are actual monsters, and when you take one you have to… actually fight… it?" Why were they looking at me that way?

"You mean like in Archon? For the C64?"

"Um. Right."

Archon, a Greek word that means "ruler" or "lord"1 — also a monster in Dungeons & Dragons2 — was a multiplatform action-strategy game distributed by Electronic Arts in 1983. I played it on the NES, but it was also available for the Apple II. Players took turns moving pieces across a board that fluctuated through a spectrum of light and dark, with each extreme favoring a different team. The game pieces had different strengths and capabilities, from shapeshifting to spellcasting, that they brought into combat. I loved playing Archon with my older brothers, as its mix of fast-paced battle with more thoughtful tactics played to my jack-of-all-trades nature. Some of my brothers were faster than me, and others were smarter, but needing having to be both leveled the playing field more than other games did. (The Super NES game Actraiser would later take a similar approach, to great — and inimitable — success.)

A 1984 sequel, Archon II: Adept, was also published for home computers but never got ported to game consoles, thus escaping my notice.

But I did get to revisit the concept almost two decades later. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2003, my last year attending the still-ongoing event, I visited the LucasArts booth, which had more than just Star Wars games:

I briefly left a galaxy far, far away to observe Wrath Unleashed, an action-strategy game. It struck me as bearing a slight resemblance to another game, but the more I saw of Wrath Unleashed, the less slight the resemblance became, until I had to ask the LucasArts rep, "Have you ever played an old game called 'Archon'?" Rather than profess ignorance or extort the differences, he simply nodded and said, "Exactly."

But somehow, the core mechanics hadn't aged well. Perhaps it was because my brothers had grown up, leaving video games (and their gaming sibling) behind. But I didn't find the same engagement and tension in Wrath Unleashed that I did in Archon. (Sibling rivalry was likely a factor in Austin Grossman's affair with Archon, too: his brother Lev included it in his list of the ten greatest games for the Apple II.)

Is Archon the ultimate game? No. That title would likely belong to Zork, or The Legend of Zelda, or something equally revolutionary and genre-defining. But what Archon has in common with those games is timelessness: even today, playing the ruler of a shifting battlefield is still fun.

For a more thorough review of Archon, including a "Where are they now?" of the game's programmers, read The 8-Bit Game: Digesting Archon | 8bitrocket, by Jeff Fulton. (Hat tip to Blake Patterson)

Warring Battle Chess reactions

September 27th, 2010 12:33 PM
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There's a new game being released tomorrow that should seem familiar to Apple II users. Here's a preview trailer:

Battle vs. Chess is, as many games have been over the years, inspired by Battle Chess, Interplay's first-ever computer game, for which there was an Apple IIGS version. This new take will be released on Sept. 28, and will cost $40 for Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3; $30 for Nintendo Wii; and $20 for the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) handhelds, as well as for Mac OS X and Windows.

When I first saw those prices, I was disappointed — and then confused at my own disappointment. Battle Chess is one of my favorite incarnations of chess and was one of the few games I was able to play online against other gamers in the pre-Internet days. I was excited to discover Battle vs. Chess, which I could play online easily; offline, its AI would probably make its moves less ponderously than my 2.8 MHz Apple allowed. Shouldn't I be eager to pay at least as much for this experience as I did for the original in 1988?

And yet I'm not. As primarily a console gamer, I want to play Battle vs. Chess on my Xbox 360 — but no matter what I paid for Battle Chess back in the day, $40 now seems too much for a digital version of the board game in my closet. I expected Battle vs. Chess to be a $15 digital release, not a full-fledged retail product.

Why the change in reception? What could prompt me to pay full price for an animated chess game twenty years ago, but not today, despite the benefits of advances in technology that the interceding time affords this new game? I faced the same disparity six years ago when I played the Xbox game Wrath Unleashed, which was an almost perfect clone of another favorite Apple II strategy game, Archon. I still occasionally play Archon to this day, while LucasArts' spiritual successor for Xbox, which is both glitzier and more accessible, gathers dust.

If this were mere nostalgia, then, much like the Angry Video Game Nerd, I would be discovering that I'd been remembering the games of my youth more fondly than they deserved. But Battle Chess and Archon are still fun. How come their modern equivalents don't inspire similar enthusiasm?

My best guess is that, no matter what the presentation style or interface, the core gameplay of games like Battle Chess and Battle vs. Chess are identical, and the updated graphics and additional gameplay features aren't enough for me to spend money on a game I already own. These timeless experiences would benefit little from a mere a visual upgrade.

So yes, Battle vs. Chess is worth $40 — which is why I already bought it twenty years ago. But $20 for a new Mac version? That I might be able to swing, just for old times' sake.

(Hat tip to Joystiq)

UPDATE: Release of this game has been pushed back to Spring 2011, per an email to me of from James Seaman, Managing Director of Topware Interactive.

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