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Monday, April 15, 2013

NES Replay: Archon

Developer: Bulletproof Software
Publisher: Activision
Released: 1989
Yes: I'm really that bad at chess
I am legendarily bad at chess. It's not that I don't know the rules. I know the rules about as good as anyone else. It's not that I don't know that you're supposed to plan ahead, either. I read about chess and look up information about the best strategies, and yet, for some reason I just can't play chess no matter what I do.

Quick story: A friend of mind wanted to play chess against me. I warned him that I was really bad at chess, and his response was, "That's OK, I'm bad at it too." As the game dragged on, it got so bad that he actually said, with some annoyance, "Do you even know how to play this game?" I explained that, yes, I've been playing chess since fifth grade, and no, I have not improved in the intervening twenty years. He quit in disgust.

So that makes me uniquely unqualified to review Archon, a chess variant that was published by Electronic Arts for the PC in 1983 and then ported over the NES. It's clear that Archon was supposed to combine the best of chess and the best of video games into one package. Did it succeed?
Crap, don't revive that piece! It took me
forever to kill it!
In Archon, you're given several units that are laid out on the chessboard just like normal chess pieces. In the front row are your pawns, and in the back row are units with more special abilities, like the ability to call forth a fire elemental or teleport. However, here's the quirk: When a piece moves onto an opponents piece, a minigame begins where the two opposing pieces duke it out with magic and weapons. Whomever wins gets the square, and the other piece is dead.

It's an interesting combination of chess and video games, but Archon isn't perfect. For example, the interface in Archon is very clunky. Every time you need to select a piece to play, none of the pieces themselves are highlighted. Instead, the selector icon begins way off the board, and you have to move the selector over several spaces before you can even select a piece. That's kind of inexcusable, since there doesn't appear to be any specific reason that the selector needs to be off the board, at least from what I can tell.

Archon isn't very intuitive, either. It absolutely demands that you have the manual nearby, since it's really hard to figure out what each piece does, what its weaknesses and strengths are, and all of those details that are really important to a game like this. I suppose I can't judge Archon too harshly for that, since that was the way these games typically played back in the day.

A pitched battle between two water
elementals. I'm the one who's dying.
Also, playing against the computer is ridiculous. It's not that the computer makes really good moves. It doesn't. The problems start once combat begins. The microsecond that the computer player has you in its line of sight, it's like Liam Neeson in Taken: It will find you, and it will kill you. The computer immediately knows when it can take a shot at you, and frequently fires before you have a chance to move out of the way.

However, Archon is still a pretty good idea. It reminds me of the sport of chess boxing: Whomever wins by knockout or checkmate wins first. For someone as strategy-stunted like myself, it's nice that good strategy alone doesn't guarantee a win, and good action-game skills don't guarantee a win either.

If I was playing this game against a human opponent, I could see getting over Archon's quirks and having a lot of fun. There's a lot of depth to it, and it's the kind of game that would lend itself well to obsessive fans. It's actually the kind of game that would be perfect for a revival, but that's par for the course with a lot of these sort of games.

It takes guts to take a game as storied and steeped in tradition as chess, then ask, "How can we make it better?" I want to make it clear: Archon is not better than chess, and it has numerous flaws. However, it at least tries to meld two different types of game into one in a unique and exciting way. That at least counts for something.

Final Rating:


Next Week: Arkanoid