I’m sick of talking to you guys about games that are either old, flawed, or old and flawed. If you hit the Quinns tag on RPS right now the site becomes some kind of miserable gaming emergency ward where I run around administering adrenaline to my dying loved ones before they disappear forever. Enough of that shit! Today I’m going to tell you about one of my favourite games that’s actually playable online, easy on your system, costs nothing and could easily end up starting a tiny fire in that dusty heart of yours. It’s called Armagetron and it’s about as perfect as freeware gets.
It’s pretty easy to explain, too. It’s the perfect evolution of a Tron Lightbikes sim. Course, that might mean nothing to you, in which case it all gets a little harder to explain. Here we go!
So every player controls a little coloured motorbike in a large walled grid. There are only five rules beyond this that make up the whole game. One, the players cannot stop going forward. Two, players can only turn at 90 degree angles, so everyone can only ever travel north, south, west or east, so to speak. Three, the motorbikes leave behind tall, permanent trails as they move. Four, contact with any trail (including your own) or the wall of the arena results in player death.
And finally we come to rule five, the masterstroke which I’m not sure was actually in the Tron movie: If you’re in close proximity to another player’s trail in Armagetron, you automatically accelerate. Distance yourself from any enemy trails and you slow back down.
That’s it. That’s the whole game. Last bike still driving wins, and it’s playable online with up to 16 players.
There’s a small chance that right now you’re thinking to yourself “Oh man! Oh man! That’s total genius! That’s spicy eggs and black coffee on a hungover Sunday! That’s the first and last chord of a rock concert you’ve been looking forward to for weeks, somehow combined!” But I reckon there’s a way bigger chance that you’re scratching your head, possibly your beard, maybe your balls, and wondering what on earth has me so excited. So I’m going to spend a few hundred more words explaining exactly why, even if you put the beautiful simplicity of Armagetron to one side, the design of this game is Bomberman-level good.
It’s all about speed, really. You might think driving in clever geometric patterns would win you the game, but speed is the real the alpha and the omega of Armagetron. See, if you can drive parallel to old enemy trails for long enough to get your speed up to two times, three times or even four times more than your starting speed then you become a hunter of men. It becomes within your power to dart off towards other players, overtake them, and take a couple of quick turns that mean your trail boxes them into a tiny space.
Course, that’s the clumsy and slow way of doing it. Far better is to take a single quick turn towards them at the exact second you overtake them, running them into your trail before they’ve even had a chance to turn. Smart opponents will see this coming and turn away from you before you overtake them, or they’ll try and throw you by turning towards you at the last second, therefore throwing a wall up in your path and making your speed a momentary disadvantage.
Which is the thing about speed. As much as it turns you into a monster to be feared, a spider weaving a neon web around the trundling flies, this is still a game where the one objective is not to crash. The faster you are the less time you’re giving yourself to maneuver away from unexpected walls, and of course the faster you’re going the harder it becomes to maneuver in parallel to yet more enemy trails for further speed boosts without crashing. Cowardly players might tie themselves inside loose knots of trails that a slow player could navigate in or out of but a fast one might have trouble with, forcing speedy bikes to seek out other prey.
Ridiculous speeds aren’t just the domain of those who seek them out, though. Another common way of getting them is in the same sorts of games of chicken you see in the Tron movie, where two players drive straight towards each other then turn at the last second, ending up side by side. Usually that’s close enough for you to get the bonuses off of one another’s trails, and the two of you will end up merrily locked together as you rocket towards a distant wall or trail. Sure, you can always turn away before you reach that obstacle, but unless you do it very, very close to that obstacle then you’re leaving an open invitation for The Other Guy to turn after you, sucking up all the speed bonuses from your trail and arriving back by your side, now fast enough to lock you down.
It’s dawning on me that I could rant on about the technicalities and tactics of this game forever. I haven’t even mentioned spark-sealed gaps yet, where someone basically welds you into a box by driving around you and then making their final turn (where the gap should be) so tight that they rub against another trail and their bike gives off sparks. As I found out in one unbelievable round you can actually squeeze through spark-sealed tunnels if you’re good enough, and the acceleration bonus from getting that close to two trails will have you blasting out of the other end like a bullet from a gun. Then again, savvy opponents will always anticipate successful escapes from any trail traps and might choose to spend some time building tight spirals or mazes outwards from the exit for desperate escapees to navigate. But then, the more spirals or mazes you build, the faster your prisoner will be if they actually manage to escape your web. So unless you risk your own bike by attempting to build an escape route that’s ridiculously tight, you could be dooming yourself to a jailbreak where your prisoner bursts free, now rocketing around like an electric hornet and absolutely furious with you.
Alright, that’s probably enough gibbering to give you an idea of the depth on offer here. Armagetron is a perfect combination of reflexes, cunning, bravery and puzzling, and its ability to characterise players so strongly in your head makes basically no sense at all. Every round you’ll pick out a new villain, a hero, an underdog, a coward or a scheming mastermind. Then the round will draw to a close, the winner will spend a few glorious seconds driving around on their own and then the pieces will be reset, giving everyone the chance to play a new role.
God. It’s so good. Just download it and play it and love it, in that order. And for the love of God make sure you remember to take it to any LAN parties. And if you’re playing with friends (and eat motion sickness for breakfast), try getting everyone to play in First Person mode. But mainly just get it and play it and love it.