The ultimate game: Archon

May 12th, 2014 4:41 PM
by
Filed under Game trail;
1 comment.

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.

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)

The secret origin of John Madden

January 13th, 2014 12:48 PM
by
Filed under Game trail;
1 comment.

John Madden NFLMadden NFL is one of the most enduring franchises in video game history. For 25 years, annual installments of this game from publisher Electronic Arts have represented some of the best virtual football experiences on any console.

Such reflection may not interest the modern Apple II user, but it should: as detailed in Wayne Arthurton's KansasFest 2012 session, "The Apple II's Gaming Legacy", John Madden Football got its start on the Apple II. ("A surprising number of modern games can directly trace their heritage to games originating on our favorite machine.")

That heritage is now being marked on the occasion of the franchise's silver anniversary with an exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image of Astoria, New York:

The exhibition explores this landmark series, highlighting the game's focus on sports simulation, and its aesthetic evolution and enduring cultural legacy. In addition to the five playable games, from the original John Madden Football (1988) on Apple II to the latest release Madden NFL 25 (2013) on Xbox One, presented as a large-scale projection, the exhibition also features a dynamic timeline charting milestones in the series' development highlighted by gameplay footage from each year.

Take a look at how far the game has come from its Apple II origin:

to this past November's release of Madden 25:

See an evolution? Robin Antonick did. He was a key developer for the original Apple II version of the game, which he argued in an April 2011 lawsuit entitled him to 1.5% royalties for any subsequent version that relied upon his code. Last summer, a federal court jury agreed with him, "finding that Madden games published on consoles between 1990 and 1996 shared substantial similarities to the original PC game, from in-game playbooks and formations to virtually identical graphics and gameplay style." Antonick was awarded $11 million.

From courtrooms to museums, a single game published on the Apple II in 1988 has been one for not just the playbooks, but the history books.

UPDATE (Jan 24, 2014): The verdict in favor of Antonick has been overturned.

(Hat tip to Dave Tach)

Wasteland sequel to hit Kickstarter

February 20th, 2012 1:28 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage, Software showcase;
Comments Off

Back in September, I called Martin Haye on Juiced.GS business. In this day of Twitter, Facebook, IM, and IRC, it's unusual for me to make a phone call to an Apple II user, and I'm always cognizant of the likelihood for intrusion when I do. In this case, I knew Martin was soon leaving on a camping trip, and I didn't want to interrupt his packing. Nope! He was playing Wasteland, Interplay's post-apocalyptic spiritual precursor to Fallout. "Oh," I said, "so this is a bad time to be calling." "Well, it's not like it's the kind of game that demands uninterrupted attention," he laughed.

Here's something that does deserve your attention, Martin: having recently developed Choplifter HD, original Wasteland co-designer Brian Fargo of inXile Entertainment is looking to reboot the franchise with a new, Kickstarter-funded game. The possible Wasteland 2 would be faithful to its origins by "focusing on top-down, probably isometric, party based, skill based — where if you'd just finished playing Wasteland and moved onto this you'd feel comfortable." But it'll stray from its roots by being for PC only, though an iOS edition would be considered.

Wasteland box art

All this for the cool price of one million dollars — that's how much Fargo estimates it'll take to fund the project. That's ambitious but, as of last week, not unprecedented. Still, it's a ton of dough to pony up for a game that's known to modern gamers more by name than by experience. Is Fargo daydreaming? He revealed his intentions after only 48 hours of consideration, after all. Or will we put our money where his mouth is when the Kickstarter campaign supposedly launches next month?

Will you support such a campaign? What's a new Wasteland worth to you?

(Hat tip to Andy Chalk)

A chat with Bill Budge

October 13th, 2011 11:53 AM
by
Filed under Mainstream coverage;
Comments Off

If a wave of nostalgia and retrocomputing enthusiasm has led to a resurgence in the popularity of the Apple II, then it's natural that a spillover would effect the platform's past and present celebrities. Bill Budge, for one, was honored with the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences's Pioneer Award, concurrent with an in-depth profile by Wired magazine.

You'd think that the popular press might have forgotten Budge since then, but you'd be wrong. Gamasutra recently ran Brandon Sheffield's lengthy interview with the programmer. In it, Budge talks about his evolution from programming games to tools for Electronic Arts 3DO, Sony, and Google — the seeds of which can be seen in his Apple II landmarks, Raster Blaster and Pinball Construction Set. The four-page, 4,383-word interview is somewhat technical as he reviews his favorite languages and the aspects that appeal to him. Fortunately, Apple II users tend to be a technical lot that's likely to find much of interest in this piece.

As a programming peon, I most appreciated Budge's closing remark:

At the end of the day, I think all that matters is what have you done. It doesn't matter how smart you are, or how brilliant do you sound, or whether you sound like an academic paper when you talk. What really impresses me is people who have built things, who made things that really worked, who did something that nobody else thought would work, or followed their vision and made it real. That, to me, is very admirable; the only thing that counts.

By his own measure, I'd say Budge has earned our admiration.

Warring Battle Chess reactions

September 27th, 2010 12:33 PM
by
Filed under Software showcase;
Comments Off

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.