Side by Side is a video series on local multiplayer games. This is the second series, episode 4 of 10.

Before there was The Unholy War, before there was Battle Chess, there was Archon! Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance and Gregg Burnell of Tap-Repeatedly battle it out as the forces of light and dark in a game of chess crossed with stress.

  • Archon was a big deal in 1983 and one of the Electronic Arts’ first titles; it’s success led to a sequel the following year
  • We’re playing the original Atari 8-bit version on the Altirra emulator
  • Archon was developed by Free Fall Associates which was husband-and-wife team Jon Freeman, Anne Westfall together with Paul Reiche III. Freeman and Westfall left Epyx to start Free Fall; Freeman had co-founded Epyx as Automated Simulations in 1978.
  • Free Fall Associates were also responsible for a procedurally-generated murder mystery Murder on the Zinderneuf, which was overshadowed by the success of Archon.
  • In the sequel, Archon II: Adept, pieces were conjured at will, power points moved and strategy was based on contesting power across different elemental planes. Adept is more innovative, but it has some flaws (I like to single out the Apocalypse spell which is an attempt to skip the war of attrition strategy games can descend into).
  • Paul Reiche III went on to found Toys for Bob in 1989 with Fred Ford. Toys for Bob were behind Star Control and Archon-like The Unholy War.
  • Closing music is the theme from the 2010 remake, Archon Classic

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23 thoughts on “Side by Side: Archon

  1. Oh wow. Okay, so I had no idea that one of the developers of Archon went on to found Toys for Bob who made The Unholy War. That makes total sense. The circle is complete.

  2. Neither did I until yesterday, Gregg, when I started writing this post! I checked where Paul Reiche III had ended up and saw “Toys for Bob”. And it was a big ohhhhhhhh moment.

  3. It really does. Hailey commented on the concentration etched into my face in a lot of the shots.

    And I take back my comment about ‘What do points make?’ being my favourite moment. It’s ‘Hot red bacon’.

  4. Archon was always a stressful game. The fights are real adrenaline pumpers. It’s amazing how much fear-of-God you can put into an opponent with a fast little runt like a Knight or Goblin. Honestly, I couldn’t take too much more of your Goblins.

  5. Wonderful. Just wonderful. This is one of my favorite games from childhood and a perfect choice for this series. It’s great to see how well it seems to hold up after all these years!

  6. I’ve never played Archon despite being aware that it was something Paul Reiche III worked on before making my favourite game. I’m really pleased to hear it holds up so well. I wonder if my girlfriend’s Atari collection includes a copy…?

  7. I’m guessing you mean Star Control Shaun? I really should play that. I did download Ur Quan Masters some time ago and it looked really interesting but I got distracted and never fired it up again.

  8. Me too! I think what originally happened is that I got somewhat confused in the early game–like, there’s an early conversation where they tell you not to go somewhere, and I didn’t go there, which was a mistake, and then maybe I kept trying to warp somewhere and getting instantly obliterated in combat, and eventually I figured out that there was other stuff to do but now I’ve forgotten what it was. I should restart it though! It’s not like I have enough progress for it to sting if I have to start from scratch.

  9. Aww, don’t hate on leveling mechanics Joel. Leveling goes back to long before the original Archon, with the likes of D&D and Chainmail having it in the mid-70s, and I presume plenty of war games (similar to Archon) having it before then. The reason the original Archon and similar games didn’t have it was technical limitations rather than a desire by devs to keep the game strictly flat planed in that area. Well, that and things like D&D weren’t wide-spread enough for that many people to know about such systems, or to have figured out it can be incorporated in more than just pen and paper games.

    A good leveling system is a method to introduce new tools into a player’s kit, allowing for characters to grow and evolve, subtly changing the way in which they operate and work, and requiring greater levels of mastery from the player to make the most out of their character. Instead of perfecting 1-3 starting attacks, the player needs to juggle a growing list of abilities which they need master and learn to make the most out of their character and its potential. It’s also a good gating tool to prevent the introduction of too varied a list of game mechanics from overwhelming the player.

    A bad leveling system is your typical JRPG thing, where it’s just an increase in numbers that has little meaning since everything around you is increasing in the same manner. Good leveling adds further depth to a game. Don’t hate on that sort of thing just because “new fangled games these days with their leveling systems” rhetoric. That shit is more old school than you might have considered, and there is a reason it’s spread across so many gaming systems today.

    I’m not saying every game needs it (and they don’t all have it, thankfully), but more often than not, if done right, it adds more to a game than it takes away.

    Also, chess would totally benefit from a leveling system. Level 5 knight takes your crappy level 2 rook.

  10. Oh Armand, you troll me ๐Ÿ™‚

    First, I’d say D&D was already coursing through the veins of videogames in 1983. Jon Freeman, one of the designers of Archon, co-founded Automated Simulations which had many computerized RPGs such as Temple of Apshai (1979) and Star Warrior (1980; I played this last one quite a lot). He was an avid D&D player himself and Temple of Apshai was described as a “version of Dungeons and Dragons”. We were also already on Ultima III by 1983.

    I’d argue that Freeman was fully aware of levelling mechanics and felt that Archon, together with its sequel, required a more honest simplicity in the way chess does. It was easy to pick up. Although technically chess does offer a single layer of levelling – pawns can promote; Shogi (Japanese chess) has a broad scope for piece promotion.

    Now I love a good numbers game and figuring out risk/reward strategies around stats can be really interesting. Playing a roguelike such as 868-HACK can get your brain convulsing for hours.

    But my suspicion is that they’ve become pervasive for the wrong reasons. Levelling up is grafted onto all sorts of games now and that is primarily because players easily get sucked into the quest for higher numbers. Thus it seems an easy win for designers to throw in a level structure and voila they appear to have a “game”. And they’re rife in F2P titles because it challenges the player to face grind or pay up.

    I wrote last year how much I hated F2P title Alphabear because, in the end, you can only defeat the puzzles through a combination of super-powered bears – not through your intellect. As the game progresses, it’s not really about the puzzles getting harder – the point system simply moves against you. It’s the most *naked* RPG levelling system I’ve seen, where it’s patently obvious after a while that it’s more about the bears you play (with all their respective cooldown timers that you can pay to reset) than solving cool word puzzles. I hated that design and quite a few others did, too. But many, many people loved it. Alphabear is one of Spry Fox’s most popular games.

    So that’s where I’m coming from. It’s not about โ€œnew fangled games these days with their leveling systemsโ€ like I never saw D&D before ๐Ÿ™‚ I see designers throw levelling in all the time, assuming it makes it better. Since starting Electron Dance six years ago I’ve started to get sick of it because of its tendency to promote grind over interesting gameplay. Your “bad levelling system” is the default, out there ruining otherwise-great games (NOLF 2 is an older example that comes straight to mind). And fuck me I wanted to throw my mouse through the monitor when I had to grind in the GTA San Andreas gym for a beefy character.

    As you can tell, I’m really not that angry about it.

  11. The distinction between good leveling systems and bad ones is important though, and I was responding to your blanket statement against them. F2P games aren’t going to have good ones. They’re using the type of leveling that’s simply there to hook you and suck you in to the real money systems.

    What I was and am getting at ultimately is that you can’t just say leveling is bad because it’s used poorly more often than not.

    And I know you knew about D&D already, wasn’t assuming you didn’t. And I know about crpgs existing back then as well, but leveling systems were still strictly D&D like and inspired.

    A game like Archon on the Atari probably doesn’t have the remaining horse power to include leveling systems that might introduce new methods of play into the game, regardless of what the developer wanted. Those old systems couldn’t handle text half the time due to hardware limitations.

  12. We were only commenting on levelling up as a “disease of the modern age” that it has pervaded so much particularly where it is not welcome. If I were to emphasis words, it would be the phrases “everything has to have” rather than anything else.

  13. For RPGs a levelling system makes a lot of sense given their breadth and complexity (and roots in D&D). Introducing variety and depth to the player without overwhelming them is a good thing too, but a levelling system is one tool to that end and not always a great fit depending on the game. The big issue I have with them is when they’re arbitrarily added, because, as handy as they can be as a means of carefully gating the flow of new content, they can also be the very thing that gets in the way of, y’know, just playing and engaging with the core experience.

    Take Deus Ex: Human Revolution for example, hacking doors was more beneficial than using found keycards because it gave you more XP, and entering most rooms via vents gave you more XP too, even if you’d already entered the room through the door (because well done: you explored the vents!) In the original Deus Ex if you got into a room, you got into a room. That was the reward, not some pseudo-currency Praxis point pat on the augmented back. The lack of a levelling system meant that you just got on with things instead of gaming it.

    The worst problem with a levelling system is when the difficulty designed around it forces you into grinding, whether it’s Alphabear, Dungeon Defenders, Darkest Dungeon or the much loved (until recently) Payday games. Dungeon Defenders had enough variety that you could usually work your way around any walls you hit, but that’s another issue with levelling: it creates a weird geography of difficulty peaks and troughs to navigate instead of a flat plane, pitched perfectly with a very deliberate and considered flow. I can’t imagine balancing difficulty around a levelling system being an easy task. And to be fair, gear ties into a lot of this as well but that’s not for this comment!

    When I played Sanctum some years ago with friends, I realised how much I preferred the flat approach to Dungeon Defenders’ because if you couldn’t do a map, you knew it was on you and your ability with the tools you’d got, and very little else. You needed to knuckle down, engage and understand the mechanics more to progress. Ability was always your wall, not level or gear. This is one of the many reasons why L4D is still such a great design. In Payday or Dungeon Defenders, if was often difficult to gauge whether something was actually possible at your current level, or whether it was just down to you being a bit shit.

    Then you start looking at PvP multiplayer and how some games feature levelling that gives players persistent marked advantages over others, and that just fundamentally bothers me for competitive play. That said, there’s a glut of multiplayer games now that feature levelling systems that don’t actually give you an awful lot of anything (see Rocket League, Guns of Icarus Online, Evolve, Splatoon, Vermintide, Chivalry). It’s like they recognised the sweet, sweet irresistible nectar of numbers going up and wanted a part of it, but didn’t really know where to take it. “I guess it could be your ranking or something, I guess?” So it’s like a halfway house; a baitless hook, perhaps. You might get a few cosmetic items thrown in there but otherwise your rank is almost a substitute for your playtime, and mostly pointless. Natural Selection 2 gets a lot of points from me just for cutting all that crap.

    The flip side is that I read Pavlovian dribble like this all the time:

    “The problem is if you take away the progression of earning weps over time then the game has nothing left to hold people as they got access to everything, after 20ish hours people would be bored and move on which is a horrible way to do buisness [sic]”

    Man, I find that depressing. I suppose there’s your bait. Heaven forbid these folks cap out!

    What made me laugh with Archon Classic (the game that caused us to mention levelling in the first place) is that one of the bullet points on the store page says: “Pieces gain experience and level up” as if that’s a selling point in and of itself. Considering the quote above, it probably is! I mean, damn, you can gain experience and level up. Truthfully though, I’ve no idea what form the levelling system takes in Archon Classic, it could be alright, but both Joel and I bristled when we heard about it because of… well, the things above. F2P can’t be good for the good levelling.

    I wrote this comment in bits and pieces over the last couple of days so… apologies if it’s quite meandering and squishy in places. I’ll wrap it up.

    Overall my thoughts are that levelling has its place in some games but can be problematic in others if implemented poorly, or unnecessarily. For me, the apostrophe mantra applies here: ‘if in doubt, leave it out’, haha ๐Ÿ˜‰

  14. @Gregg: Star Control 2 / The Ur-Quan Masters, aye, that’s the one I mean.

    RPS featured it last month in their HYP series and I read the comments with interest. A number of people reporting bouncing off due to its initial pace, which I can understand 24 years on. Certainly were I to play it now I would have less patience with the initial period of searching many star systems before you find something resource-rich enough to get you started upgrading, and would experience less wonder at paying the Melnorme to slowly tell me the grand story of the game’s antagonists. But I hope I would still recognise why it is thought of as somewhat special.

    @matt w: I’m not sure what you mean, but it’s possible you missed the instruction to visit the star system where the Melnorme traders can be found. I think the game does allow for this possibility, and in any event they’re not too far from Sol, but certainly speaking with them reinforces your mission as outlined at the Sol starbase.

    Combat can initially be punishing, especially the bloody Slylandro probes. There is no shame in fleeing until you have (1) upgraded your flagship a little, or (2) made some allies with good ships.

    @Gregg again: I don’t particularly disagree with any of your argument but I do feel that Darkest Dungeon is a poor example to illustrate thoughtlessly implemented levelling. I’ve only played far enough to hit level two with a few characters, but even so I’d observe that DD has only 6 levels for characters, and I’m unsure whether they involve stat upgrades or not. Whether I’m wrong or not their main purpose seems to be to gate ability and equipment upgrades (which allow you to push a character in certain direction as a build) and to establish whether a party (and the player) is ready for the nastier dungeon. I imagine that having this levelling system also increases the player’s sense of investment in specific characters, which is essential to maintaining this rather cruel game’s themes of constant loss and despair and exploitation, given the constant turnover as heroes die, go mad or become liabilities.

    But other than that, please carry on.

  15. You may be right Shaun. My general feeling after (checks Steam) 34 hours of Darkest Dungeon, week 32 in-game, is that, even with 6 levels it’s an awfully protracted and laborious experience. I believe Red Hook have tried to address this in a recent patch but I haven’t returned to check.

    So yeah, your progress is gated by your heroes’ levels. Levelling increases your heroes’ resolve, their resistances, allows them to use stronger equipment from the blacksmith and often gives them a trait or quirk. You have to increase your resolve to go into ‘darker’ dungeons in order to kill bosses and bag more loot, to invest in your hamlet and your heroes so you can keep them alive and keep them levelling until, hopefully, they’re ready for the darkest dungeon at level 6.

    The thing is, all that takes forever. I have twenty five heroes, only five of which are level 3, and I’ve only defeated four bosses. What a slog! Given the game’s themes, ‘what a slog’ sounds about right, and whether I can or should attribute my fatigue to the levelling system alone is indeed a fair point Shaun, but I can’t deny that the grind and glacially slow sense of progress killed Darkest Dungeon for me. Shame too because I was absolutely buzzing about it for the first 15-20 hours or so.

  16. Sounds like you’ve played a lot more of it than I have, Gregg!

    I have a friend who has put well in excess of 100 hours in – he’s obsessed with it. And certainly DD has generated some fantastic stories that he’s shared with me, as well as a number I’ve shared with him.

    It’s absolutely a slog but I think the game knows exactly what it wants to be and has been executed with great thought and miserabilist panache. I doubt I’ll ever finish it myself but I’m glad to have played it, and look forward to more horrible expeditions before I hang up my sinister estate owner’s hat.

  17. @Shaun: When I said “Early conversation” it was perhaps a bit misleading. If I remember correctly, what happened was in the very first conversation something big and scary-looking told me not to go to Earth. I said, “OK, I won’t go to Earth then,” spent some time wandering around pointlessly, maybe tried to go to another star system and got immediately obliterated. It turns out you’re supposed to ignore it and go to Earth where someone explains what’s up.

    One of the things that was up is you can mine stuff on Mercury, and that was about where I was last time I played. Pretty sure I still can’t get to Melnorme without getting wiped out. (My experience with this might be colored by the amount of time I spent playing around with the combat simulator–I would have some tough fights and usually lose, and then I checked the manual or something and it said “you’re playing on the difficulty level FOR LITTLE BABIES WHO HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY’RE DOING. The highest difficulty level is what you’ll see in the actual game.” So I figured, well, maybe I’m supposed to be going to other systems and I’m constantly getting wiped out because I suck.)

  18. Ohhh! Of course, the Ur-Quan probe. Yeah, that was an automated message from the guys Earth was at war with, so best ignored. It does tell you to not go to Earth/hand yourself in or some such though, so I can see why this happened.

    Many of the ships in Star Control are kind of dreadful, although really good players can win even with trash like, uh, the Umgah ship. Early on you can get a Spathi Eluder: try and keep that alive, because it’s a powerful ship, and a good defensive one (it fires homing missiles backwards and is quite fast).

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