Why didn't we play this at Chess Club?

Archon. Archon? Archon. It sounds like I should know about Archon whether I've played it or not, but nothing sprang to mind. The title doesn't exactly sum the game up, and the vast majority of players won't speak enough to Greek to know what it translates into. Even if they did there's not much chance they'd land on Archon being a game of Chess. Sort of. Because it isn't really. Chess and then some. Come to think of it, it's more Chess Boxing.

Chess is fine for me. Haven't tried Chess Boxing. I don't claim to be a Grand Master though (and I'm regularly outclassed by P2, whose aggressive strategies have thankfully quietened down, after I cottoned onto them) but against a computer, a games console... I think I can manage.


Famous. Last. Words.

Archon isn't actually Chess, nor is it quite Boxing. It's not Chess Boxing at all, basically, but go with that analogy because it's the easiest to grasp.

You play as either the Light side or the Dark side, each with their own themed chess-like pieces, facing off against each other on a 9x9 board. That part is more or less chess. Some pieces can only move if unimpeded, others can fly over pieces... still sounds like chess too. The spell caster, be he a Wizard or an evil Sorcerer, can cast seven different spells during a game each having an effect on the state of play. Starting to get less like chess. The board changes colour so that sometimes a square favours the light side, and other times favours the dark. And why does it favour one or the other? So the fights that take place between pieces aren't so straight forward.

Yes, that's where the boxing comes in. Like we've probably all imagined with chess pieces, when a piece moves onto a square already occupied by the opposing force, they get into a bit of a scrap, fighting for who claims the square. In chess, the winner is always whichever piece landed on that square last - it has taken the piece that was their before it. But in Archon, the pieces are dropped into an arena to square off against each other, fighting to the death in order to cement their claim.

Archon stops being chess and becomes a side scrolling beat 'em up at this point, where you hope for a few things to happen. Firstly, that you picked the right piece. You don't want a weedy little fighter going up against a dragon, do you? Secondly, that you have home court advantage of sorts, and by that I mean don't go picking fights with dragons when you take more damage simply by turning up, all because of the colour of the square that turn. Thirdly, after all that, you still need some video game skill. Move, dodge, shoot. Don't have a ranged attack? Move, dodge, move, dodge, stab. You get the idea.

It's not chess. You can't take a victory for granted. If you forget that and think 'aha, I'll just move there, take that and be in a good position for next time', then you're asking for trouble.

Keeping all of this in your head makes Archon pretty damn difficult sometimes. I'll just go here, kill this guy, nope he got me much easier than I thought, I've lost a piece. Damn...

Fun Times

I get what it's going for though, and so you persist through some awful rounds before getting the hang of it. Do you go for all out attack and just get rid of all the oppositions forces for the win? Do you go for the flashing power point squares, and attempt to hold control over all of them? Do you risk trying to capture your last remaining opponent? I don't even know the rules for that, but having multiple ways to win is welcome, because at least if your chess game is weak, your arena combat skills come in handy.

Slowly I got better and wasn't as frustrated with what was essentially my stupidity at not getting it earlier (it's really not chess, play it differently). Sadly I made the mistake of reading Wikipedia afterwards, where I learned that Archon's adaptive difficulty was probably in play - you keep losing, the computer gets dumber, you hopefully start winning. Thanks.

Perhaps multiplayer is where the fun ramps up. I've not yet tried, but can imagine that two humans trying to figure it out while each having different winning strategies makes Archon the kind of game with lasting value.

Final Word

It won't be immediately obvious to you, Archon. It needs to be played slow, like chess, and quick, like boxing. That sliding difficulty might give you a false sense of accomplishment, but a reward is still a reward, even if the difficulty is lowered without you noticing (ahem...).

When nothing I tried worked for me, I was irked with Archon - I thought 'I'm better than this' - but given a bit of time you can make a game of it, and if you wish to do so you can find it on the Internet Archive.

If you can't quite get into it, just remember the words of Emo Philips - "A computer once beat me at Chess, but it was no match for me at Kickboxing."

Fun Facts

Much joy can be had reading the original Archon manual, especially it's Q&A section, which includes such highlights as suggesting the purchase of a new TV if you've trouble seeing the different character icons, getting new friends if yours don't allow you time to think, and complaining to the Troll union if you don't like how they're represented in game. 

Archon, developed by Free Fall Associates, first released in 1983.
Version played: NES, 1989, via emulation.