Little Things: Archon

I wonder why Archon: The Light and the Dark wasn’t a bigger deal. It was a success on home computers in the mid-1980s, of course, but it invited much more with its version of fantasy combat chess. Perhaps the less-esteemed sequel was just that disappointing. Or perhaps the video game market wasn’t yet a place where every modest hit might become action figures, tie-in novels, syndicated cartoons, beach towels, or the board games that Archon in a sense already was.

Archon remains interesting no matter its limited reputation. It’s a chess playfield broadened considerably: the two sides vie to occupy power points, half the squares shift auras with each turn to favor the light or the dark, and the non-pawn pieces all have unique attacks and gimmicks. Most importantly, confrontations are decided by two characters battling to the death in an arena whenever they meet on the same square. It beats the staid parameters and unfounded aggrandizement of traditional chess, and I maintain that society would only improve if Deep Blue and similar computers devoted themselves to besting human opponents at Archon

The characters in Archon’s world also help. They don’t have names, but they capture traditional fantasy icons in their simple sprites and sounds: the amorphous shapeshifters, the galloping unicorns, the slinking basilisks, the soaring Valkyries, and the exploding, re-forming phoenixes. They’re led by a wizard on the light side and a sorceress on the dark one. While I wouldn’t immediately ascribe that design choice to sexism, I note that Archon II cast its new factions under the Master of Order and the Mistress of Chaos.

I played Archon in various incarnations from the Commodore 64 onward, but my favorite version is for the NES. And it’s not because of the lingering blind loyalty of a Nintendo-fed childhood. It’s because of the goblins. 

The goblins are the pawns of the darkness, mere minions with little attack range and little value beyond occupying power points. They’re rendered as squat, pointy-eared gremlins wielding clubs, and in the Commodore 64 version their cudgels look a little like giant hotdogs. In the NES port, however, the spritework makes the goblins look like they’re holding mirrors.

That’s what I see, anyway. These goblins, disposable grunts in this brutal war between good and evil, are hefting large hand mirrors and primping themselves before they march out into the gruesome fray. It makes the whole battle just a little more amusing, as though the front lines of the host of darkness are all just Vanity Smurf.

Archon wasn’t entirely forgotten. It had some remakes over the years, and it was no doubt an influence on a lot of later games that mixed strategy and arena dueling (such as The Unholy War). Its latest revival was planned for the disastrous Intellivision Amico, though it’s likely as doomed as the rest of the console. I can't even find screenshots of this alleged new Archon, and so I may never know what sort of household objects the goblins might wield this time around.