Archon: The Light and the Dark
Overall Rating: 3/5 Stars
Activision is among the most prolific video game developers in history, spanning several decades of production for retro and modern systems alike, responsible for titles like the infamously atrocious Ghostbusters cartridge for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) yet also for the explosively popular Call Of Duty series. Somewhere in between, in terms of quality, lies the 1989 video board game Archon.
Archon is a unique game. It is like chess, in the sense that it is played on a similar grid of a board, and strategy heavily lies on most advantageously using pieces with different abilities. However, there is one enormous difference: Rather than instantly taking an opposing space when you move your piece onto a square occupied by an opponent, you must fight to earn it.
Yes, every single time a player moved into a space that is already occupied, the screen shifts to an arena, and the two pieces then fight to the death. It is even possible for both pieces to die in battle. Either way, the lack of a guaranteed takeover makes every skirmish of tantamount importance.
This also adds to the depth of the variety of pieces; not only do they move in certain ways, but they are also different in their battle mechanics, sporting health meters of different sizes, melee or projectile attacks, even differing in the speed, strength, and rate of reload per those projectile attacks.
If that were not enough to make the game interesting, the pieces are divided into the Light side and the Dark side. They are stronger if on a square of their side; for example, if a Dark piece is on a dark space, its health meter is longer. But rather than simply have a grid with every other space sporting an allegiance to Light or Dark, there is also a swath of spaces that fluctuate their coloration. After the second player’s turn, they turn a shade darker or lighter, cycling through four shades until reaching the maximum saturation, then going back toward the other extreme. Being in one of these spaces, then, means constantly shifting between a position of power and that of weakness.
There is no concept of “check” or “kinging” in this board game. The victory condition is to either obliterate every opposing piece, or occupy the five special Lumina spaces on the board. Of course, these five spaces are all of the color type that shifts from darkness to lightness, forever back and forth.
One other quirk applies. Each side has a magician; for the Light side, a wizard, and for the Dark, a sorcerer. Not only are they powerful in combat, with a very strong projectile attack, but they can also cast a spell on the player’s turn instead of moving a piece. These spells range from Teleport, which moves a piece (of either allegiance) to a different space on the board; to Revive, which brings a previously defeated piece back onto the playing field; to Heal, which recovers a piece’s health, since drops in health do stay in play, unless the piece is allowed a few turns to heal naturally; Summon Elemental, which basically attacks an opposing piece with a one-use powerful being in hopes of earning the kill; and a couple others, all of which are good for one use.
The directional pad obviously moves the cursor from space to space and the pieces once selected with the A button, with the B button canceling an unwanted or accidental selection. Also useful to know is that the Down button is what is used to scroll through available spells, and the Up button speeds up the opening scene of piece-placement and any in-game text. Combat is handled by pressing the A button to attack and using the d-pad to maneuver.
Archon exists within a medieval fantasy motif, with the Light side commanding a phoenix, knights, and unicorns, while the Dark side commands a dragon, trolls, and even manticores, among other fiends. The battlegrounds may appear as a slimy dungeon, or a fiery hellhole, or a spooky graveyard set. It truly manages its own distinctive experience for a video board game, and with the option to play either against the computer or against a human opponent, a couple decent chunks of replay value present themselves.
The battle scenes look darn good, with enough 8-bit graphical quality to appropriately fit in to another genre if it ever tried. The board itself looks alright, though the flickering of the five power spaces is a little off-putting. The pieces look alright, rendered as two-tone icons, and slightly enlarge during battle. The playscreen is cast onto an odd purple-brick background, though manages to not massively offend the senses. The animations are smooth, action proceeds at a satisfactory clip, the menus are legible; really, overall the game looks fine, its only “flaw” being that it never really takes it up a notch in its visuals, since the vast majority of the video game takes place on either the board screen or the battle screen. Also, one complaint is that the tones of blue used for the Lumina spaces are, honestly, difficult to discern in terms of which is darker than another. Grayscale may have been preferable. Speaking of grayscale, the title screen looks sweet, split into black and white, with two serpentine dragons hissing and claying at each other over a strange geometric figure.
The strange, dual-layer background music that comprises the gameplay gets old fast, and it may be preferable to play this game muted. Or, rather, it would be, except that the game makes the sound absolutely essential: During battle, a chime lets the player know when their projectile is reloaded and ready to fire again, using a lower tone for the Dark side and a higher tone for the Light. The more upbeat battle track is solid; though, again, gets repetitive. The tones, at least, are delivered with solid fidelity and clarity. Fire attack buzz like cackling flame, arrows slash through the air – those are the auditory highlights. The music is the worst part, in listening terms.
One thing Archon can certainly say is that it is a one-of-a-kind video game for the NES. There were plenty of other board games to choose from, whether classics like Monopoly and Othello, or hybrid-genre titles like Anticipation and Bible Buffet. By inherently linking battle attributes to its pieces, Archon adds a unique layer of tactics.
Unfortunately, enjoying those tactics may be difficult, because this game has one big deficiency: There is no choice for computer difficulty level. Yep, the same computer that seems to have masterful control over their weakest pieces will always relentlessly hound human opponents in battle, while having the same projectile-timing weaknesses every single fight. Perhaps obviously, Archon is best played with another player, yet decades later, can an interested player find a second?
The concept is sound, and not executed badly, but the lack of gameplay depth, beyond the foundational rules, is a big hindrance to replay appeal. At least the pieces in battle can both move and fire in eight different directions, which is cool. In fact, “cool” may be the perfect word to describe a neither-hot-nor-cold rating score of three stars out of five.