Archon from React Games is a faithful remake of the absolutely iconic 1983 8-bit classic from that bygone era when Atari and Commodore computers were bonafide ’high end’ gaming machines.  I played Archon and Archon II obsessively on my beloved Commodore 64 and the reward today is vivid memories of solidly trouncing my friends that’s simply priceless…truly the Golden Age of game design back in the old 80’s.  Archon’s foundation is the ancient game of Chess but really it takes the concept into some wild space far beyond.  In fact, Archon is so cool, another of it’s influences was the scene from Star Wars where R2-D2 and Chewie are playing a holographic chess-like battle game on the Falcon and what kid didn’t just love that scene back in ‘77???

Anyway, the game is a classic light vs dark matchup on a 9×9 square gameboard where each side’s pieces are approximate dopplegangers of each other (with a couple notable exceptions).  For example, the light ‘pawn’ is the Knight while the dark pawn is the Goblin, each having unique graphics and animation but otherwise identical characteristics.  On the other hand, the Djinni and its counterpart the Shapeshifter have completely different attacks  that totally change how they’re used.  Don’t even think about screaming ‘Battle Chess’ either as #1 this game came out first and #2 once 2 pieces occupy the same square it’s not just ‘higher rank takes the square’, it’s freakin’ GO TIME.  In other words, at that point gameplay immediately shifts to a combat arena where you engage in a realtime battle to the death (using D-pad or accelerometer and touching the screen to attack) for victory and control of the square.  It was this simple mechanic that catapulted Archon into the gaming stratosphere as now the lowly pawn was no longer just a chump; one could potentially defeat even the most powerful opponent with adept joysticking and let me tell you, the mental effect of that when playing a friend and having just slain their <insert powerful piece here> with your Knight/Goblin was soul-crushingly frustrating and often could turn the tide of a game completely (more on this in a moment as at present there is no multiplayer in this release version).

On the main gameboard, there are static light and dark squares as expected but also a series of squares that cycle in several shades of grey from light to dark and vice versa throughout the game.  This is critically important as a hit point and damage advantage in the combat arena is granted to the piece that corresponds to the square’s current light/dark cycle.  Furthermore, there are 5 power points equally set around the board which represent a victory condition if you can control each one; the other being simply destroying all the enemy’s pieces in combat.  As far as the pieces themselves, special mention here goes to the the Wizard/Sorceress which can cast some very important spells such as Revive (a dead piece),  Teleport, Heal and so on.  For a rundown of all the pieces, their abilities, movement, spells and other neat tidbits, it’s easier to just check out this Wikipedia page.  The goal then is to reach a victory condition as fast as you can to earn the highest possible rank,  mighty Archon being the ultimate achievement.

So I’ve established already how much I adore Archon and what it represents historically, now it’s time for gripes and suggestions specific to the iPhone.

  • Controls; in a word only ’satisfactory’.  I wish I could rank it higher than that but the reality here is a virtual D-pad on a touchscreen can only get you so close to an actual analog joystick, especially in the area of attacks on the diagonal.  Honestly I could rank the controls higher but for the one specific yet extremely important example above regarding the potential for a Knight/Goblin to best any other unit in the game.  In the original Archon, this was a ‘holy grail’ achievement and a testament to mad joystick skills but on the iPhone eh…not so much and I found the pawns were well, kinda just pawns now which really blows (but is not the fault of the developer at all).  Also forget about the accelerometer control option unless you dig frustration in dumptruck-size doses.
  • Multiplayer…um there isn’t any.  The soul of Archon is the multiplayer; playing the AI for me back in the day was never anything more than practice for meatspace opponents.  On top of that, like any AI, the one present here is just as flawed.  For example I had a few battles where the AI got caught up on obstacles so that all I had to do was stand in 1 spot with the Phoenix and keep firing as it recharged; something you’d never see with a human.   All is not lost however!  According to the developer site multiplayer is being worked on as I write this so we can expect it in an update soon, OOORAH!
  • Gameboard and pieces; way too small.  So small that it’s hard to even appreciate all the detail in the art and animation plus it can get very frustrating trying to move pieces if you have large fingers, resulting in accidental moves that can cost you the game (there’s no oops-type undo feature).  This really needs to be tweaked; in fact I’d like to see the entire UI done away with somehow (or at least the option to hide it) so the full iPhone display can be used for the gameboard and subsequent increase in zoom.  Speaking of zoom, the dev website does mention plans to implement that specifically so if I can’t have my fullscreen option I guess I’ll have to be satisifed with that in an update.
To the best of my knowledge, this version of Archon is not a port but in fact a ground-up remake completely unique to the iPhone which is always a good thing.  The developer is clearly a fan and took the development of this title seriously.  The graphics and sound have been updated nicely but the all-important feel of the original was left lovingly intact.  For veteran Archon players it’s hard for me to say ‘OMG rush out and buy this right now’ as there is no multiplayer (yet) and you’d probably grow bored with the AI quickly; call it a recommendation with reservation in that case.  However, new players who have never heard of Archon should pick this up immediately as it’s as superb a game today as it was in 1983.  Beyond that, once the update is out with multiplayer and hopefully a couple other issues addressed, it gets my full recommendation to everyone who enjoys action strategy games.
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version reviewed – 1.0
reviewed on – iPhone 3GS 16GB 3.0
screen flip support – no
iTunes music support – no

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