“Without evil there can be no good, so it must be good to be evil sometimes.”
- Satan, “Up There” from South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut
There were a few downsides to pirated games on the Commodore 64. Among those downsides was a complete lack of documentation, manuals or simple game instructions. Sometimes, you would get a floppy with 8-10 new games on it, and some of them might take you a while to figure out. Many times, that was part of the fun.
Enter Archon, a terrific little game that offered superior replayability when compared to many of the C64 games of the time. What was it? Well, picture that weird holographic chess game that Chewbacca played against the droids on the Millennium Falcon, but with all the monsters and aliens replaced with creatures from Dungeons & Dragons. In a nutshell, that was Archon.
Knights, valkyries, unicorns and other “good” mythical creatures faced off against dragons, golems and goblins on the “evil” side, across a modified chessboard. Taking an opponent’s piece was the fun part. Whenever two creatures encountered one another on the same space, they would square off and fight to determine who would win the space, with the victor’s skill with the joystick and fire button determining who moved on.
The chessboard did some interesting things, too. After a bit of trial and error with the game, I found that you could win the game by taking and holding five strategic control points – no small feat considering three of them were in the middle of the board and one was right under the starting point of your enemy’s most powerful piece. This was the smart way to win. The more fun way, of course, was to completely annihilate your opponent’s army.
Squares on the board shifted from light to dark to neutral at times, and the state of the square you encountered an enemy upon was very important. If light, the light piece got an advantage against the dark piece, and vice versa.
I started playing the game as the noble and heroic light side. Who would choose otherwise when commanding an army of mythical creatures? Of course, I wanted to command the noble phoenix and skilled archer, defending my wizened old Gandalf-like wizard against onslaughts from the forces of evil.
And the light side sucked.
I noticed something when creatures that were ostensibly evenly-matched faced off against one another. For instance, the unicorn and the basilisk had the same movement and shot speeds. But the basilisk had an almost imperceptible advantage in that his range weapon was a gaze attack with two projectiles, while the unicorn had only one. Not a big deal, but if your goal was to snipe an opponent all the way across the board, it helped.
Same deal for the manticore (dark) versus the archer (light). Same movement and weapon speeds, but the manticore hurled three projectiles from its tail, compare to the single arrow coming off the archer’s bow.
Meanwhile, one of the light side’s most powerful creatures was the Phoenix, which could turn into a ball of flame and damage nearby enemies when you pressed the fire button. Problem was, you needed to get in close to do damage, which was difficult with a dark side roster dominated by creatures that had ranged attacks. The corresponding creature on the dark side? The shapeshifter, which took on the attributes of whatever it was fighting, completely negating any advantages it might have. The shapeshifter was really cool. The phoenix was really ineffective.
Could it be that the game designer worked these subtle advantages in deliberately?
I decided the light side was lame, switched to the dark side, and set the goal of becoming the best evil bastard I could be.
In playing my bud Ed from down the street, I discovered the one cardinal rule of Archon: The basilisk will deliver you. You can see that rule in action in the following gameplay video:
Whoever designed this game had a little evil streak in him. The advantages were subtle, but they were there. It left me wondering whether he rooted for Darth Vader to crush the rebellion, or for the Joker to finally kill off Batman.
Whatever the motivation, I would rule the board playing the dark side. Nobody could touch my basilisk. And yes, it was good to be evil sometimes.