Let’s kick the board game format up a notch with Archon.
To Beat: Win a match
To Complete: Win as both the Light team and Dark team
What I Did: Completed the game
My Difficulty: 3/10
Video: Archon Longplay
Today is a big day for Take On The NES Library! I am finally incorporating game play videos for some games going forward, and we are kicking off this momentous occasion by talking about the first strategy game covered on this site.
Archon: The Light and the Dark was originally released in 1983 for Atari 8-bit computers. It was developed by Free Fall Associates and published by Electronic Arts. The game is notable both for being among the first titles published by EA and a huge hit for Free Fall Associates. The game was so popular that EA wanted a sequel quickly, so the developers released Archon II: Adept the following year in 1984. The original Archon was ported to many home computer systems and was a success on pretty much every one. The NES would receive a port of this game all the way in December 1989 published by Activision and Bullet-Proof Software.
Archon can be adequately summarized as an action chess game. There are two sides, light and dark, composed of fantasy creatures that duke it out for control of a 9×9 grid. Each side takes turns moving a creature from one space to another. If a character is placed on a square occupied by a member of the opposite team, the gameplay switches to the combat arena. Here you take direct control of your creature as you attempt to defeat the opponent by thumping or shooting them enough to deplete their life bar. Defeated creatures are removed from the board and the winner occupies the square. There are also five power spots on the board: One in the middle of each of the four edges of the board and one in the center. You can win by either destroying all of the enemy creatures on the other team or by occupying all five power spots at the same time.
The game board consists of light squares, dark squares, and shifting squares called Lumina squares. Light squares and dark squares always stay the same, but the Lumina squares change color throughout the game after every other turn. There are five different shades of Lumina square: light, light blue, blue, dark blue, and dark. All the Lumina squares start off blue and shift toward dark, then reverse and shift toward light. This cycle repeats through the course of the game. The color of these squares is important because light characters are stronger on lighter squares and dark characters are stronger on darker squares. It is to your advantage to engage in combat on those squares when they match your color.
There are several types of creatures in the game and they can be separated into two groups. There are ground creatures and flying creatures. Ground creatures cannot move through squares occupied by other characters and must have a direct walking path to the desired square. Flying creatures can go over units and land on any square within flying range. Each character has a range of squares they are allowed to travel during a move ranging from three squares to five. If a ground character can walk four squares, then it gets a combination of four horizontal or vertical steps and that’s all for that turn. If a flying character can move four squares, then it gets up to four squares of horizontal movement and up to four squares of vertical movement. As a result, flying creatures can cover significantly more ground per turn than ground creatures.
Ground characters on each side match up against each other on the board for the most part. The leaders are the light Wizard and dark Sorceress. They are the only characters capable of spell casting which I will get to in a little bit, and they also move via teleporting which evidently is exactly the same as flying but with a different animation. The light Knights and dark Goblins are the pawns of this game with short range attacks and weak stamina. The light Unicorns and dark Basilisks are quick and reasonably strong. The light Archers and dark Manticores are a tad on the weaker side but have long range attacks. The light Golems and dark Trolls are very slow but very strong.
The remaining matchups demonstrate the differences between the two teams. The light Valkyrie is a bit stronger than the similar Archer. On the other side, the dark Banshee has a scream attack that drains the enemy health when in close range, and it is the only attack in the game that allows the character to move while the attack is in action. The light Djinni is the best light attacker though only a little better than the Valkyrie. Opposite it, the dark Shapeshifter turns into whichever enemy opposes it in combat, matching its stats exactly. The light Phoenix can explode dealing massive damage when touching an opponent while doubling as a defensive move that nulls any attack during the move’s duration. The dark Dragon has both the strongest long-range attack in the game as well as the most health.
Combat is pretty straightforward. The arena contains the two combatants and a seemingly random arrangement of objects. You can move in eight directions and attack with the A button. When you or an opponent fires off an attack, there is a delay before the next attack is allowed. This recharge time varies per character. A noise will sound whenever the next attack is ready to go. The tone is a higher pitch for the light character and a lower pitch for the dark character so you can easily distinguish the two. The objects in the arena are stationary but shift state frequently enough that there’s no real way to determine how those spaces will behave. Sometimes attacks will go right through them and sometimes they get blocked. Character movement through these obstacles may or may not be permitted or it might be allowed at a slow, plodding pace. It adds enough randomness to the battles so that combat is tense and exciting.
Both the Wizard and Sorceress have access to the same complement of spells. Each spell may only be used once per game, and the spell may not target a character stationed on one of the power spots. If the Wizard or Sorceress is defeated then no spells may be cast by that side. Another interesting wrinkle is that using a spell drains a bit of health from the spellcaster. To use a spell, press A when selecting the caster and a spell dialog will appear at the bottom of the screen. You may cycle through the spells with Up and Down and cast the spell by pressing A. You can also select the Cancel option if you don’t want to use a spell.
There are seven spells in Archon. The Teleport spell moves any character on your team to any square not already occupied by another team member. You can move a character onto an opponent to engage them in battle directly. The Heal spell restores the health of any one of your characters. The Shift Time spell reverses the flow of the Lumina squares. The Exchange spell swaps any two creatures on the board no matter which team they belong. The Summon Elemental spell calls a temporary elemental to attack any opponent on the board. It could be an earth, air, water, or fire elemental that is chosen at random and each has different characteristics in combat. Either win or lose, the elemental is removed from play after the battle is over. The Revive spell brings a defeated creature back into play. The revived character must be placed on a square adjacent to the spellcaster. The Imprison spell can be cast on any creature locking them to the board. The affected creature is not able to move on the board until the Lumina squares match the team color, though opponents may engage an imprisoned creature in battle at any time.
One more interesting thing to mention is that there is the possibility of a tie game. If there are few characters remaining on each side and no combat or spellcasting occurs in a set number of turns, the game will be called a draw. This was implemented to encourage combat. The other more straightforward stalemate happens when the last two characters on the board kill each other at the same time.
This was my first time playing Archon but I had great success for a beginner. I started playing as the Light team and I got beat down pretty quickly. I was losing characters left and right as I got used to the combat and characters. About halfway through the match the game clicked with me and I started mounting a comeback, but despite that it started to look like it was too little to late. The best character I had remaining was my Wizard and I decide to go for broke and try to take out the Sorceress. She had not moved the entire game and her square is always dark, but despite the disadvantage I managed to win that fight. After that I picked off all the remaining enemies for a win by brute force.
Since it didn’t take me very long to win the game and the dark team plays differently from the light team, I wanted to get a win from the other side. This was the run I recorded for YouTube. It did not start out particularly well but I ended up winning in half the moves required for my first victory. I also won the match by occupying all five of the power spots instead of defeating all the enemies.
Archon is a fun, short game that might be worth a look if you are interested in chess or light strategy games. The graphics and music are adequate and don’t get in the way of the action at all, but the gameplay is solid and that’s what’s important in a game like this. I didn’t even mention yet that the game has a 2-player mode that is sure to be a lot of fun once both players get a few matches under their belt. For myself, I enjoyed playing the game but unless I get another player involved I don’t see myself playing very much more Archon in the future.