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15Sep/110

The 8-Bit Game: Digesting Archon

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 9x9 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.

Verdict
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

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

 

21Aug/110

The 8bit Game: Digesting Bruce Lee By Datasoft Software (1984)

Bruce Lee is an 8-bit computer platformer / beat-em-up that is fondly remembered by owners of almost any 8-bit computer system from the early 1980's. The first version was programmed by Ron Fortier (with visuals by Kelly Day) in 1983 for the Atari 8-bit computer line (400, 800, XL and then forthcoming XE lines). The game was quickly ported to the C64, Apple II, and DOS machines. It would be released by US Gold in the UK for the Spectrum, BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC and MSX machines a year later.

The basic goal of the game is to control your Bruce Lee character through 20 screens of increasing puzzle and difficultly while collecting paper lanterns on each. To foil the player's progress, a black-clad Ninja and Green Sumo wrestler ("Yamo") chase him and attempt to kick, punch and make him fall to his death. Like Zeppelin , Bruce Lee has unique multi=player features that allow a second player to assume the role of Yamo to thwart Bruce Lee on his mission. This was a game that Steve and I picked up at Gemco, I remember the C64 version was in demo mode with the Atari 800 version ready for anyone to play. It didn't take much time for us to figure that this cool game was worth the $24.95 it would separate from the combined cash stash in our two O.P. "ripper" wallets.

Here is a new video of the game being played (by me) in the Atari 800 Win Emulator:

During game-play, the player has a number of moves he can employ to try and knock-out the Ninja and Yamo. The best is a two-foot flying kick that is initiated by running in a direction and pressing the fire button. This devastating move will stun the baddie. Two hits and the Ninja or three to Yamo and they must re-spawn and try all over again to down our joystick controlled hero. The player can also chop (hit with his hand while standing, jump, lean, climb and duck. It sounds pretty standard by today's measures, but the fluidity and freedom of motion (climb up a fence and leap to the next ledge) were very unique to computer (and video) games at this point in time. It my not have been the first to employ these types of actions, but it simply perfected them in such a way that made all other platformers we played before this pale in comparison.

The player must collect all (or most of the lanterns) in each room to open the door to the next chamber. All of this collecting has a purpose, which is to gain infinite wealth and immortality (not bad) from a Wizard that is supposed to be in one of the chambers. There are vines to climb, ladders and lattice to negotiate, and even a strange magical wave of particles that needs to be ridden. Also, more dangers than just just the Ninja or Yamo await the intrepid Mr. Lee. as explosions, gaps in the floor, electrical shocks, and strange panning lights all start to show up in later levels to add serious challenges. The fight against the illusive Wizard, who has the ability to shoot fire balls pretty rapidly, is the final battle in the game.

I don't remember being able to finish this one until we found a "trainer version" on-line (probably after the game was released in the UK). I do remember Steve, and I, along with our buddy, Mike Jackson playing this one a lot in 8th grade. It was definitely one of our favorite games top play with a group of people because of the various ways in which 2 or three people could combine efforts to play with and against each other (only two could actually control the action at the same time with a third taking turns as Bruce Lee).

Ron Fortier went on to create both Conan and the Zaxxon port for the Atari 8-bit computers. I fondly remember both as very good games.  It would take quite a long article to describe all of the great titles that DataSoft released for the Atari and other 8-bit machines in the 80's.  Like Synapse, they were a prolific developer of great 8-bit games but they are sadly almost completely forgotten today.

Further Reading / Exploring
The Atari Mania Bruce Lee Page
The Atari Cave Bruce Lee Page (with some platform graphic comparisons).
The Strategy Wiki Bruce Lee Page
The Lemon 64 Bruce Lee Page

15Aug/110

The 8bit Game: Digesting Zeppelin By Synapse Software

Zeppelin was released for the Atari 400/800/XL computers in 1983 by Synapse Software. Synapse was a premier developer/publisher at the time for Atari Computers. Zeppelin was programmed by William Mataga, who was also responsible for such Atari 8-bit classics as Shamus, Shamus Case II, and Mindwheel. Synapse also released a version of Zeppelin for the C64 in 1984.

Game Play Video Of Zeppelin Via Atari 800 Win Emulation

Zeppelin was a game that Steve and I purchased at the Big Ben's in Van Nuys during a visit to my grand mother's old folks home in 1984. At the time, any game by Synapse was a must have for the Atari computers (if you were a fan of slightly derivative, but ultimately unique arcade games with adventure elements). We had purchased Fort Apocalypse at Gemco a few weeks earlier and while it was a little like the classic Choplifter, its' arcade action and use of the Atari computer's strengths made it a classic in its own right. Zeppelin, on the other hand, was a completely unique experience.

The point of the game is to pilot your Zepplin to safety thorough a gaseous filled cave-world, battling the "Time Lords" who are hell bent on dominating the entire planetary system. With joystick in-hand, you must blast your way through the 4-way scrolling world, exploring 250 rooms. Ultimately, you must find the dynamite and use it to destroy the Timelords caverns.

You are equipped with 4 Zeppelins to start the game, and will receive more at each 10,000 point mark and when you collect the "Life Markers" (Basically, a rectangle with the word"Life" in it). Your can fire in all 4 basic directions, and while you control the movement of the Zeppelin, the game will gently push you along in the correct direction to keep the game moving at a steady pace.

In the game you will find quite a few objects to aid you in your quest. These range from switches that can be shot to open doors, to keys that open key holes, and hamburgers that need to be fed to hamburger creatures (as a bribe I guess) that guard passageways. The most important items to find are the dynamite and the plunger used to destroy the cavern.

In the way of you completing your quest are a host of obstacles that must be avoided or destroyed: Balloons, enemy zeppelins, laser gates, falling rocks, towers/buildings, barriers, and the dreaded earthquake which will violently shake the game screen and stir up falling debris that mustc be navigated or destroyed.

Multiplayer: One of the very cool aspects of many early Atari 800 games was the liberal use of "same console" multi-player.  The Atari 800 had 4 joystick ports, and all 4 could be used in this game at the game time to allow multiple gunners as well as a pilot of the zeppelin.

 

Zepplelin makes very good use of the Atari computer hardware graphic and music wise, but leaves a little to be desired in the area of game sounds. The 4-way scrolling, shooting and multi-player action make it very fun to play and would very much be a game that I think could be updated and put out on the market today as a Flash web game or for one of the various hand-helds.

Playing Zeppelin now, I see why we liked the game so much. For the time it was quite unique with a completely destructible environment and 4-way scrolling and firing. The game is very very difficult though, and as designed I am sure we never finished  it completely (though there are cheat versions of the game rom out there to help get to the end).

Zeppelin comes from the pre-NES era where "bolt-on" weapons systems had not yet been added to many games. Arcade shooters like Zepplin were not just about how much ordinance could be blasted from the player ship, but were actually off-shoots of adventure games encased in Arcade game molds. This is one reason why I fondly remember and pay homage to the pre-NES classic games. They didn't have the luxury of throwing a store at you on each level-end to let you buy new weapons (they could have done it, but it was not a common practice yet), so they computer arcade games also had some adventure elements in them to take the game from a simple blaster to another level entirely.

You can try Zeppelin yourself by checking out Lemon64 or AtariMania. Both sites have game roms and an abundance of information to help you get started.

You can hear the great C64 SID music for the game here.

Also, there are some good hints on the game at the C64Wiki.

As an interesting side note, William Mataga has been programming games since 1984 (the most recent title listed is Grand Theft Auto Advance in 2004). He went through sexual reassignment surgery (like the late great Dani Bunten of Mule fame) and now goes by the name Cathryn Mataga.

   
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