The 8-Bit Game: Digesting Archon

(By 8bit Jeff Fulton)
The word “Archon” roughly translated from Greek means the ruler of a particular nation or state. The 8-bit computer game, Archon was the king or ruler of “real-time” strategy in the early 80’s well before the genre was actually “invented”. While it does not bare any exact similarities to Dune II or Hegzog Zwei, the concept of using turned based strategy while playing a “general” and then twitch using action to fight battles was quite unique when it was released. Actually, despite its’ popularity, very few games actually made any attempt to mimic it’s extraordinary combination of game-play styles. (there were various official sequels though)

(Archon being played in the Atari 800 Win Emulator by me)

The full original title of the game was “Archon The Light and The Dark”. It pitted two sets of forces in battle on a chess-like grid. One set of forces was powered by the “light” or good (let’s call them the Jedi for fun) and the other side was powered by the Dark (let’s call them the Sith for fun also). While the game had nothing to do with Star Wars, when we were playing it, I distictly remember pretending that the light were the Jedi and the dark the Vader led storm troopers (we really didn’t have any idea what the Sith was at that time…or at least I didn’t).  Remember, back then, we made up Star Wars games out of almost ANYTHING. The authors all name-check the Chess scene from the original Star Wars movie as an inspiration for Archon so were we not complete out of out minds.

The original version of Archon was designed and programmed for the Atari 800 by Free Fall Associates and released by Electronic Arts in one of their original “album-cover” style game disk holders. It was pretty easy to find Atari 800 games when it was released, an I distinctly remember owning the gate-fold version with a picture of John Freeman and his wife Anne Westfall donning the inside cover.


The game was also designed by Paul Reiche III, another founding member of Freefall Associates. At the time, EA games meant celebrate everything about the designer, programmer and game in ways that I only wish were continued today. The game was released in 1983 and was such a huge hit that it was quickly ported to the Apple II, Apple II, Commodore 64, Amiga, MS-DOS, Macintosh, NES, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, PC-88, and other systems.

Game Play
When you start Archon, you are given the choice of playing either the Light or Dark side and can choose either the computer or a second human player to play the opposing side. Rumor has it that the game was initially designed as a two-player only contest, but Electronic Arts insisted in adding in a single player mode. I personally find these more to be difficult, but ultimately very very useful for learning strategy to use against other human opponents.  Plus, can simply let the computer play both sides and see what happens in real-time.

The game board is a 9×9 grid with the light army on one side and the dark army on the opposite side (very chess-like). Also on the grid are 5 flashing red “power” points. Which-ever side (light or dark) controls all 5 of these points will win the game. This grid is called the ‘strategy’ screen and when two opposing pieces move to  occupy the same grid square on any turn-based round, the game switches to the “combat” screen. Here, the joystick controlled pieces must battle it out with what ever weapons and powers they have at their disposal.


On the “strategy screen”  you can see that three of the 5 power spots are free at the beginning of the game, while one each is controlled by each army.

Movement on the strategy screen.
Just as in chess, each of the various pieces can move in different ways. Some pieces must walk, some can fly and still other can teleport.   This limits the movement of the various pieces and allows for extra strategy when you begin to realize that “light” have extra fighting powers when they engageg in battle on light squares and opposite is true for the dark pieces.

To complicate matters even more, the shading of the pieces on the board will change as one side defeats the other side in battle or captures more of the 5 power squares.

If that was all there was to Archon, it would have still made quite a nice classic game to examine and digest, But, this is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg. We haven’t even touched on the combat screen yet.

In combat mode the two pieces must duke it out until with one or both (happens a lot actually) are destroyed.  Each of the sides (light and dark) have 18 game pieces made up of 8 various types for each side, Like chess some of the pieces have similar powers, but unlike chess each side has special abilities that the other does not possess.

The Knight on the Light Side and the Goblin on the Dark side are basically pawns who can only move on the ground on the strategy screen and must fight hand-hand on the battle screen. The Light side also has Unicorns, Phoenixes, Golems an other minions with devastating ordinance. The Dark has has an equivalent  number of power beatsies:  Dragons, Trollsm Ballistics, Shape Shape-shifters (my favorite)  and more .

Let’s add magic into the mix:
Each side (Wizard on the light and Sorceress on the dark) can cast seven magic spells. These spells can only be cast on the strategy screen and each can only be cast one time per game. Each time a spell is cast, the caster becomes weaker and easier to kill in a one on one battle. The spells cannot be cast onto on of the 5 power squares or any piece sitting on one of those 5 squares.

Here are the 7 spells in a nut shell:

  1. Teleport – move one of your own creatures to a new grid cell.
  2. Heal – Heals the wounds of a creature

  3. Reverse Time – Shifts the grid color shading back toward light or dark (depending on which side casts the spell)

  4. Exchange – causes any two pieces to swap places on the grid.

  5. Summon Elemental – Call in an Earth, Fire, Water or Air elemental to help do battle for a single game combat round.

  6. Revive – Basically heals a single dead creature from your army.

  7. Imprison – temporarily stops an opposing piece from moving from its square.

Needless to say, Archon was and is a classic example of combining together multiple game genre’s into an enjoyable and exciting mixture to create a masterpiece of a game. There were a few sequels and even NES and PC re-makes. Some of them do capture the original’s genius and even add to it, but it is this classic, completely original game design that we are celebrating and a “digesting” today.

The Developers
Anne Westfall went on goto create Archon II (as well as a Pac-man clone called Tax dodge a year before the original Archon). She was creating games all the way up until 1990 when she worked on a Chessmaster game for Software Toolworks.

John Freeman worked on many games with is wife (especially one of my favorites, Murder on the  Zinderneuf)  and Crush Crumble and Chomp.

Paul Reiche III continues to work on games, most notably, Tony Hawks Downhill Jam (2006).  He has is own site that describes all of his work and is a very interesting read.

There is also a very nice interview with the developers over at the Halcyon Days Book Site. It is interesting to note that Jon mentions both X-Com and Herzog Zwei  as two of his favorite games. I am sure Archon played at least some part in inspiring both of these games.

More reading and explorations:

The Atari Mania Page

The Lemon 64 Archon Page

Vintage Computing and Games Secrets of Archon

Archon was re-released in cartridge form for the Atari 65XE Game System.



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