The forces of Light and Darkness square off in mortal combat in a quest to control an ever-changing playfield in this fascinating contest that borrows elements from sorcery, mythology and chess.
The ultimate object of Archon is to place a game icon (a character representing either the Dark or Light side) on each of the five power points symmetrically placed on a checkerboard-like playfield. The army of Light, under the guidance of the wizened old Wizard, consists of knights, amazon archers, unicorns, valkyries, golems, a phoenix and a djinni. The Sorceress commands the Dark Forces, an intimidating crew made up of goblins, banshees, trolls, manticores, basilisks, a shapeshifter, and a dragon. Each side is slightly different, but with equal might.
The innate skills of the individual "soldier" influences the way each icon moves across the black, white or gray squares (banshees can fly over occupied squares, while goblins are more earth-bound). The particular character's abilities influence how far it can move, which direction it moves in, and the sort of attack mode it uses when challenged for the rights to a square.
Unlike chess, having the "dominant" piece does not automatically guarantee possession of a square. The idea behind Archon is that even the lowliest of character types can win a battle, given a little luck and a lot of skill. In this game, whenever one character challenges another for squatting rights to a square, the territory in dispute enlarges to encompass the entire playing screen and the two "game pieces" pit their unique abilities against each other in a fight to the finish. The survivor keeps possession of the square - for the time being, anyway.
An example of the types of attack modes the characters use is the evil, wailing banshee. To damage an opponent, the spirit must get close enough to catch her enemy in a piercing cloud of sound. The virtuous knights depend on their trusty swords, while the unicorns hurl small missile weapons.
An important factor influences the actions of Light and Dark alike - the ever-shifting color of the squares beneath the armies' feet. While some of the black or white squares remain fixed in their original shades, many key squares cycle through hues of black, white and gray in a predictable, fixed pattern. The color of the square an icon stands on influences the outcome of any combat it engages in.
If a character stands on a square of its own color (Dark on dark or Light on light), the icon draws extra strength from the territory and has a longer lifeline in battle situations (the lifelines of respective combatants are shown at the sides of the screen during the battle sequence; the longer the lifeline, the more injury a character can sustain without dying). Characters forced to do battle for a square of the opposite hue have a distinct disadvantage. Gray squares offer varying degrees of protection. The color-shifting squares cycle slightly with each turn, a strategic challenge considering that three of the five power points are located on unstable territory.
The Wizard and the Sorceress begin each game standing on power points that match their own color (well, almost... the forces of Light are actually yellow, while the Dark side is blue). Each mage has the ability to cast up to seven different spells, each affecting the game in a different way. For example, magic can be used to "heal" a wounded icon, "revive" a dead one or "teleport" a character to a different square. Each spell can be used only once per game.
In its two-player variation, Archon is one of the most satisfying, innovative, mentally stimulating games available for the Atari computer. Its one-player option, which pits the gamer against a computer opponent, is a bit too hard for the average player, though. In this option, the only way to win is to convince the computer that you're an idiot by making stupid moves at the start of the game. Then, when it lets down its defenses, go in for the kill. To beat the computer, players have to learn to shoot diagonally.
Archon is a beautifully crafted game that pleases both the mind and the body. To win, both its strategy and its action elements must be mastered. The graphics and animation are good,
as are the sound effects that accompany each character's movement. And, as with all of Electronic Arts' releases, it's attractively packaged in a record album-box, with detailed, well-written instructions. Chalk up another winner for Electronic Arts - and Free Fall Associates.