The ultimate game: Archon

May 12th, 2014 4:41 PM
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Filed under Game trail;
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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)

Fictional references

May 5th, 2014 11:01 AM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage;
2 comments.

Books about Apple and the Apple II and its founders and inventors are innumerable — history has woken up to the importance of these industries and innovators. But the Apple II plays an important role not just in fact, but also in fiction. A voracious reader of sci-fi and fantasy, I've recently come across references to our favorite computer in a number of novels.

First was in Ready Player One, a novel by Ernest Cline and the best book I read in 2011. The main character spends most of his time plugged into a virtual-reality MMORPG designed by a "a god among geeks, a nerd ueber-deity on the level of Gygax, Garriott, and Gates." In his quest to unearth an Easter egg, our hero, having received a clue pertaining to Captain Crunch, researches interstellar maps for a relevant planet. "I found a few worlds named after famous hackers, like Woz and Mitnick, but none named after John Draper."

Any book with an entire celestial body named after Steve Wozniak is okay by me!

Last year, I read my second-ever e-book: These Days, a novel by Jack Cheng that I picked up through its Kickstarter. This book's main character, Connor, is a graphic designer for a company called Pseudo. At one point, he is asked: "Do you know who Doug Engelbart is?"

It took a moment for Connor to place the name. One of the few entertainment projects Pseudo had been able to land was a series called ArpaNet, a failed attempt at capitalizing on old-school detective shows and eighties nostalgia. Every episode, the show's protagonist, Frank Arpa, a university professor who moonlighted as a private investigator, would log on to the bulletin board systems of the early internet to hunt for new leads. Whenever progress on a case stalled, a mysterious informant who went by the handle of Lick would steer Arpa and his team in the right direction. The network had shelved the series after four episodes, but Connor had had a blast working on the project while it lasted. It was probably the most fun he'd had in all his years at the company. He'd been tasked with recreating the text-only interfaces of the era and spent hours upon hours digging into command prompts on old computer history websites. He watched YouTube videos of ancient operating systems. He bought a working Apple II off Craigslist and experimented with text-only ASCII banners and graphics on the green monochrome screen. In the course of his research, he'd come across a particular black-and-white video shot in the late sixties. In the video, a silver-haired man talked into an operator's headset as he stared at a monitor off camera. The text on the monitor was superimposed onto his own image as he spoke, and every once in a while the video would cut to a view of his hands. He operated a blocky wooden mouse and a keyboard, and a second pad that looked like a section of piano keys, and all the while the computer made strange, abrupt noises that sounded like bursts of a high-pitched electric razor, or the first half of a dog's bark. "The Mother of All Demos," said the caption beneath the video. And the man in it was Doug Engelbart, the head of a group of scientists at a Stanford research lab. In the video, Engelbart and his team publicly demonstrated for the first time NLS—an early ancestor of the internet—along with hyperlinks, the computer mouse, and videoconferencing, all in an hour and a half.

Now I'm amid a novel by Austin Grossman. I really enjoyed his 2007 debut novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, about the antagonist of a Justice League-like team of superheroes. His April 2013 novel is You, a book that is, inexplicably, set less than two miles from where I live outside of Boston. The main character was born in 1969 (the same year as the author, and a decade before me), and the book is set in 1997 as he enters the computer game industry as a designer. Several flashbacks to his childhood trace the path of his experiences with personal computers. On page 13:

One summer in middle school I finally got an Apple IIe, a beige plastic wedge with computer and keyboard in one piece, along with its own nine-inch monochrome monitor. I discovered the delinquent thrill of using copy programs like Locksmith to duplicate copy-protected games on a 5.25-inch floppy disk and the trick of double-siding a disk by clipping a half-moon out of it with a hole puncher.

Austin Grossman's YouOn page 66, digging through the archives of his employer, Black Arts, for their earlier titles: "I was sure a few dozen copies were out there lying in basements in cardboard boxes, filed away with cracked copies of The Bilestoad and Lode Runner… [but here] there wasn't much from 1983 apart from an incomplete set of blue-and-white Ultima III: Exodus floppies."

And on page 81, he lists more games he grew up playing: "Silly 2-D games, little guys jumping around on platforms — Sammy Lightfoot, Hard Hat Mack, cheap Mario Bros. rip-offs. Adventures — Escape from Rungistan, Mystery Mansion."

I've not yet finished You, but I'm sure there will be even more references to growing up digital. So far, I find myself agreeing with one review: "You is a brilliantly written piece of fiction from author Austin Grossman. If you enjoy video games, fantasy, science-fiction — grew up in the 70s, owned an Apple II and spent many nights lit by the glow of a monitor screen — if you don't know who you are or what you want to be, You is a book you can¬ít miss."

Since none of these books are about the Apple II, it makes it all the more fun to unexpectedly encounter our old friend in these new contexts.

What book would you write to feature the Apple II?