The Card Catcher

 

Sega SG-1000 Card Catcher

                                             Catch! (Source)

 

I touched upon the Card Catcher briefly in my writeup on the SG-1000, but didn’t really delve into specifics. Since the majority of SG-1000 games yet to be reviewed were released on Sega’s MyCard format, I feel it wouldn’t hurt to go into some detail on perhaps the most important peripheral for Sega’s first system.

The Card Catcher is a device that plugs into the cartridge slot of the SG-1000, SG-1000 II, SC-3000, and the Othello Multivision, and allows the systems to play Sega MyCards. Sega MyCards hold games, just like regular cartridges, but they’re tinier and only have a capacity of 32K of data; needless to say, you wouldn’t see a game like Phantasy Star on a MyCard. Cards were also much more cost-effective for Sega to produce than cartridges. Indeed, once the Card Catcher was released in 1985, Sega effectively said “Screw you” to traditional cartridge releases for the SG-1000. Only nine titles were released on cartridge in 1985 and 1986. The remaining two dozen or so games released for the SG-1000 were on MyCard.

 

Bank Panic MyCard

                                     An original MyCard (Source)

 

Forcing the consumer to buy an additional pricey upgrade in order to prolong the life of the system. Sounds like something Sega would do, right? Well, according to SegaRetro, the Card Catcher only cost 1,000 yen or about ten dollars at the time. I don’t care where you’re from, that’s a smokin’ deal, even for 1985.

Sega’s MyCard legacy transcended the SG-1000. When the Sega Mark III was released in Japan in October 1985, the system came with both a cartridge and a card slot built in.The new hardware could play its own Mark III cards and cartridges and was also backwards compatible with SG-1000 cards and cartridges; the SG-1000, of course, could not play Mark III Cards. When the Master System was released in the United States and Europe, the console received its own card games called Sega Cards. Japanese MyCards were not compatible with the Western Master System, but if one owned a Card Catcher and a Japanese Mark III or Master System, one could play Western Sega Cards through the Card Catcher, which was region-free.

 

Teddy Boy

“You’re gonna go far, Teddy Boy! Hahahaha! Kidding, of course! Take a joke, kid.”

 

As games became bigger, larger cartridges were once again required. Sega’s MyCard/Sega Card format was retired in 1987, leaving the original Card Catcher without a purpose. The peripheral had a couple good years, though, which is more than even the 32X can boast. The Card Catcher’s greatest achievement by far was extending the lifespan of the ailing SG-1000 by another year. No way that console would have survived past 1985 and the release of the Mark III if Sega hadn’t taken an unwitting precautionary measure.

Thanks to SegaRetro.org and Wikipedia’s entry on Sega Cards. If anyone sees any wrong information, please let me know in the comments.

 

Space Invaders

SpaceInvaders

Is it the aliens’ integrity during war that keeps them from squashing the laser cannon?

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Taito (port by Sega)

GENRE: Shooter

RELEASE DATE: 1985

 

Billions of dollars in quarters spent. Yen shortages. Single-handedly kick-started the golden era of arcade games. Quadrupled the Atari 2600’s sales when released for the console. Space Invaders is one of the most successful and iconic video games of all time. And until I was forced to play the game for this review, I had never played it before. Ever.

I was born in the mid-80s and started seriously gaming in the late 80s/early 90s, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Space Invaders was never on my radar to play. I saw it around, of course. Arcades, bowling alleys, grungy Greyhound bus stops. I knew what the game entailed: rows of alien creatures are “invading” your laser cannon’s turf, one horizontal movement at a time. Shoot ‘em before they land or shoot you, then do it again until you run out of lives. All for the biggest high score ’cause that’s what gamers cared about in those days. Simple, potentially addicting stuff, but by the time I got to the arcades, I was too obsessed with The Simpsons and Street Fighter II to care. Space Invaders may have been great, I reasoned, but these other games are greater because they’re newer. I was young, inexperienced with life, and stubborn in my point-of-view: there was no way I was going to play some silly arcade game from my parents’ time.

 

Space Invaders (Japan)000

                                      Ted Turner would be proud.

 

It took my desire to play every Sega game on every console to force me to play Space Invaders for the first time. To Sega’s credit, the SG-1000 port is solid. The aliens, shields, and the laser cannon have been rendered in glorious Technicolor (well… SG-1000 color, anyway). The laser cannon glides smoothly across the bottom of the screen. The music, such as it is, remains tense and ominous. And the game is hard. The lasers the aliens shoot travel fast to your laser cannon’s brain. I had to train myself to move the cannon every time I saw a laser fall from the aliens’ centers, regardless of if the laser was close to me or not. Also, when that last alien came high-tailing it down in my direction, it took all my self-control not to throw the controller at the screen. Buggers move fast.

I’m not ashamed to say I only reached the second level. I’m sure I could get better with time and practice, but I have no desire. Space Invaders, as well-made as it is, doesn’t feel like my game. I didn’t grow up with it. I have absolutely no memories of it. I’m coming into the game after its initial release, as an almost-thirty-year-old with about twenty five years of gaming behind me. This is not the mindset in which one loves Space Invaders. I respect Space Invaders for breaking new ground and inspiring legions of people to get into gaming as a hobby or a career, but the game was for a different generation, a different place and time.

 

Space Invaders (Japan)001

Prince makes a cameo in his custom ship. He’s worth a lot of bonus points.

 

I imagine being in a dark arcade as a child in 1980. Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd are playing full-blast on the overhead speakers. Teenagers are smoking and playing games and looking cool. Crowds are gathered around various machines, including Space Invaders. I watch as someone dominates wave after wave of aliens and I think, Yes, I want to do this too. I want to be as good as this person. So I try and I fail because I’ve never played the game before, but I want to get better because Space Invaders is what’s happening. This is the type of environment I would have needed to be in to appreciate Space Invaders as an adult. The scene, the mood, and the moment in time lend itself to a deeper union with the game. It isn’t Space Invaders‘ fault that I’m a couple decades late to its party, nor is it my fault for not making an effort to get here sooner. I just got caught up, is all.

B-

Episode 8 of the Sega Does Podcast is ALIVE

For those who take their podcasts like they take their lattes – light and frothy with a hint of cinnamon – beware of Episode 8.

 

This episode is pure unbridled chunk: Hustle Chumy (flaming mouse in the sewers with ninja robots), Flicky (Sonic’s bird friend which everyone seems to hate but me), Girl’s Garden (Yuji Naka’s girlfriend simulator), The 1984 Othello Multivision Games (there were no survivors)

AND

Zaxxon (revolutionary or something), Champion Pro Wrestling (Champion Boxer 2 with luchadors), GP World (top-notch racing), and Shinnyuushain Tooru-kun (alternate revision of Konami’s Mikie for angry young business associates).

 

And now,  it’s time to listen.

Othello

Othello

                     That double-crossing creamy center…

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega (1985), Tsukuda Original (1983)

DEVELOPER: Tsukuda Original (port by Sega)

GENRE: Board game

RELEASE DATE: 1985 (1983 within the Othello Multivision)

 

When Tsukuda Original took the board game Reversi and trademarked it under the name “Othello,” they did so because of the colors of the game’s pieces. They felt that the interaction between the black and white pieces reflected the bitter relationship between two of the characters from Shakespeare’s infamous play of the same name: Othello, who is black, and Iago, who is white. I didn’t know about the game’s connection to the play prior to playing Othello, but upon learning this information, I can’t say I’m surprised. I chose black in every game I played, and white was always a sneaky vicious bastard.

 

Othello (Japan)000

                                 Black player waits for no machine!

 

In Othello, you transform your opponent’s black/white pieces into the opposite color. Each game starts with two white pieces and two black pieces laying next to each other in diagonal formations. Let’s say your opponent is white and you’re black (because black is the color of coffee and a moonless sky and dark chocolate and is therefore superior – also I’m aware that black and white aren’t really “colors,” but for the sake of this review and my mind, they are). You effectively trap white pieces between black pieces, and the white becomes black. Of course, white can do the same to your black, so you gotta be careful where you place your pieces. Just because a move intially overturns a dozen pieces and looks like it will win you the game doesn’t mean it will. Take note of where the computer might lay their piece after you’ve laid your piece, and you’ll stand a better chance than if you let the pieces fly where they may.

Sega’s SG-1000 version is actually a re-worked version of Tsukuda Original’s Othello, included in the hardware of their SC-3000 clone, the Othello Multivision. While I wasn’t able to find the BIOS of the Multivision to compare the two versions, the SG-1000 version is clean, fast, frustrating, and simultaneously playable with a friend. In other words, it’s everything I expect and want from a video game port of Othello. The only complaint I have is the lack of increased challenge within the five difficulty levels. Level 1 was no more or less challenging than Level 5, which doesn’t make a lick of sense.

 

Othello (Japan)001

                                                        I am slain…

 

Curious difficulty levels aside, extended sessions of Othello are guaranteed to sharpen the mind and clench (clenchen?) the buttocks. And now that you know the white pieces represent Iago, you kinda have to pick black, lest your moral sensibilities crumble like so many Shakespearean corpses.

 

B

Star Force

StarForce

                 Would you just look at all that force?

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Tekhan (SG-1000 port by Sega)

GENRE: Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 1985

 

The Famicom version of Star Force is one of my favorite vertical shoot-em-ups of all time. While the game is a traditional one-ship-against-all-of-space affair, it distinguishes itself in the details. Star Force has the perfect cruising speed (not Warp 9, not chugging in space), waves of enemies with interesting and varied patterns, the right amount of explosive distractions on the surface of the planets, excellent difficulty progression with mid-level and end-level bosses that break up the otherwise straight shooting, and a single power-up that lets your ship go HAM just by holding down the ‘A’ button. Star Force doesn’t call attention to itself with flashy graphics or a killer metal soundtrack, but its steady pace and addictive gameplay have had me coming back for more some two decades after first playing it.

 

Star Force (Japan)000

       Star Force is brought to you by the letter ‘A.’

 

Understandably, the SG-1000 version doesn’t have the horsepower behind it to compete with the Famicom version, but I’m still surprised at what Sega’s technical wizards achieved with their ailing console. The background scrolling is choppy, but not as choppy as it could be. The background movement combined with your ship, the waves of enemies, and the scores of pointy bullets – all of which are in the foreground, usually at the same time – the game runs smoother than one might expect.

Of course, smooth scrolling doesn’t allay Star Force‘s egregious difficulty. The SG-1000 version, like the inferior NES port, is much harder than the Famicom version (which was challenging enough), thanks to the all-encompassing spray of bullets the enemies spew at you. The enemies shot lots of bullets in the Famicom version also, but never to the point where you couldn’t navigate around them. Once you get the game’s lone power-up, you’ll be able to shoot bullets faster, thus allowing you to destroy the enemies before they can surround you with their bullets. If you die, however, your power-up disappears and you’re back to surviving badly.

 

Star Force (Japan)001

                This Gamma area is a real butt-nutter.

 

All told, I was impressed with Sega’s perfectly playable port of Star Force, but compared to the Famicom version (which was released in 1985 as well), the game feels like a relic. Choppy scrolling and overwhelming difficulty are nowhere to be found on the Famicom. Also, the latter just looks better, sounds better, plays better. In light of Nintendo’s superior machine, Star Force is, if nothing else, a grim reminder of the SG-1000’s limited abilities.

 

C+

Hyper Sports

HyperSports

            What makes a sport more hyper than others?

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Konami (ported by Sega)

GENRE: Sports

RELEASE DATE: 1985

 

Hyper Sports might be a part of Konami’s semi-hallowed Track & Field series, but thanks to the game’s unforgiving mechanics, I couldn’t tell.

There are four events – diving, long horse, trampoline, and horizontal bar – and I completed exactly none of them, due to the game’s rigorous qualification standards. Diving is the first event, and it’s also where my progress stopped. You jump three times on the diving board with the hopes of getting greater air with each successive jump. Then, as you’re falling, somersault as much as you can by pressing Button II repeatedly before straightening out for the landing with Button I. To move on to the next round, I had to get a qualification score of 7.60. As Alucard as my witness, I could not get more than a 7.40 from the five anal-retentive judges. Pray tell, judges, what was it about my quadruple somersault and perfect no-splash landing that made it deserve a 6? My athlete’s promising Hyper Sports career came to an end before it could begin, thanks to his inability to impress five judges who’ve never dipped their toes into a pool.

 

Hyper Sports (Japan)000

                               The diver and I are of one accord.

 

Hyper Sports is an arcade port, but this isn’t surprising since 95 percent of the SG-1000 library stems from Sega arcade games. What is surprising are the differences between arcade and port. None of the arcade events, save for the long horse, made the transition to the SG-1000. Diving, trampoline, and horizontal bar are brand new events made for the port. Why this is remains a mystery. Sega, not Konami, are responsible for the SG-1000 port – but could the latter really be considered a port when all Sega used was Konami’s template, not the actual arcade events? Does it really friggin’ matter? Probably not. I’m just trying to make sense of a game where you can’t progress, regardless of how well you do. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

 

F

Shinnyuushain Tooru-kun

Mikie JP

Tooru-kun is a rising business tycoon in love. But will love be his downfall?

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Konami (SG-1000 port by Sega)

GENRE: Arcade

RELEASE DATE: 1985

 

Bump your fellow employees from their desks with your butt. Head-butt your superiors onto the ground with little-to-no repercussions. Collect hearts to form secret mash notes from your office sweetie pie. Listen to a digitized version of “A Hard Day’s Night” on infinite repeat. These are the ludicrous events of Shinnyuushain Tooru-kun, in no particular order.

You play a new business employee named Tooru-kun who runs throughout the business, collecting hearts and avoiding the violent outbursts of his superiors. The way you collect the hearts varies from level to level. In the first stage, the “office room,” you knock peers out of their desks with your rear, then sit in their chairs to get the hearts. If you’re not sitting down, your manager will come for you, and if he catches you, you lose a life. Sit down quickly, and he’ll go back to the front of the office and teach. The goal then becomes knocking your peers out of their chairs quickly, collecting the hearts, and sitting down. Should you find yourself cornered by the manager, head-butt him into submission and he’ll get dizzy for a moment, buying you some time. You’re not penalized extra for head-butting, though the manager will literally “throw the book” at you at random intervals.

 

Shinnyushain Tooru Kun (Japan)000

                           Everyone loves an Office Room.

 

After the first stage, the difficulty increases dramatically. The second level is a locker room where you’re chased by the manager from the first stage, the office janitor, and for some reason, a chef. The hearts are kept in glass containers which take three head-butts to break (Tooru-kun will probably have a few concussions after all his freewheeling noggin activity), but you’ll have to break them little bits at a time as you run from authority. In the office, you could sit down and the manager would leave you be, but in the locker room, you have no such option. The close quarters of the room combined with the adults’ varied movement patterns will not allow you to rest.

Shinnyushain Tooru Kun (Japan)001

                                        It’s normal to be afraid.

 

Should you survive the locker room, you’ll race over to level three, the restaurant. Here, Tooru-kun will be chased by the chef, janitor, and manager and will have to avoid flying meat products from the stationary chef located at the top portion of the stage. Thanks to the restaurant’s open layout, the hearts are somewhat easier to collect here – they’re just lying on the floor – but this is still as far as I could get. After the non-stop chasing of the locker room (a level I attempted for more than thirty minutes before I beat it), my desire to keep Tooru-kun alive had waned somewhat. Plus, I never made it to the restaurant with more than one life, and there are no continues. The remaining two levels are the dance studio (?!) and the garden, both of which seem no less exhausting. In the studio, legions of dancers, the dance teacher, and the manager from the first level chase poor Tooru-kun, and in the garden, security guards prevent you from absconding to love paradise with your girlfriend. She better be worth it.

Shinnyushain Tooru Kun (Japan)002

I’ll just have an order of “Leave me the hell alone.”

 

Shinnyuushain Tooru-kun (literally “New Employee Tooru-kun”) is also known as Mikie or High School Graffiti: Mikie in Europe and America. While the gameplay remains the same between versions, Tooru-kun’s name is Mikie and he’s a high school student instead of a first-year employee at a business. The high school angle – student runs amok for love – makes far more sense from my Western perspective. Instead of head-butting a manger, you head-butt a teacher (still sociopathic behavior, but it’s feasible in today’s violent school system). The “office room” is a classroom in Mikie because of course it is, just look at the screenshot. The “restaurant” is a cafeteria and so on. I don’t know much about Japan, but it seems that first-year employees fresh out of college would want to do everything they could to keep their new jobs, torrid office romances notwithstanding. Perhaps Shinnyuushain Tooru-kun would have been a guilty fantasy for this demographic?

 

Mikie

                         I abhor stealing, Konami.

 

The SG-1000 port’s graphics are embarrassing, even by the console’s standards (the demonic Muppet sprites are particularly offensive), but I’ll take ghoulish graphics over the arcade version’s ludicrous difficulty any day. In the arcade, the authorities are all faster than Tooru-kun, making the second stage impossible to overcome. There are more hearts to collect in the SG-1000 version compared to the arcade, but even with additional hearts, the authorities’ loss of speed makes the console version more fair.

While the relentlessness of Shinnyuushain Tooru-Kun can be overwhelming, the feverish pace and the absurd mechanics proved charming to me in the long run. The gameplay amounts to nothing more than an extended “Benny Hill” chase scene, but Konami adds enough flourishes to keep the game interesting in spite of the non-stop momentum. And unlike the arcade version, the SG-1000 port can be conquered with enough time and effort. Eventually, Tooru-kun does find love. But, like any good love, he has to work for it.

 

B

GP World

GP World

                      Proudly sponsored by hubris.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Racing

RELEASE DATE: 1984 (arcade); 1985 (SG-1000)

 

Speeding around the globe in a F-1 Formula car is a vagabond’s pursuit. You don’t drive for euro-sign bags full of money, glamour shots, or command of supermodels. You drive for the sharp turns, the squeal of the brakes, the visions of heaven as you narrowly escape death. No game can embody the recklessness of traveling around courses at 300 km/hr, but GP World – for all its technical limitations – comes close. The threat of death as you drift around a dangerous corner won’t be real, but the sweat dripping from your furrowed brow will be.

Naturally, Canada has the easiest course layout, so you’ll begin your world-encompassing mega race there. The goal in GP World isn’t to take first place, but to beat the qualifying time listed at the top of the screen. Race two laps around the course before your timer reaches the qualifying time limit, and you’ll move on to the next course. Other F-1 drivers are present to give you grief, as well. Many will know their place and allow you to pass, but some will try to bump you off the road, like some common wastrel. Pay the fools no mind: they are jealous of your luscious jet-black wavy hair and expensive Italian sneakers.

GP World (Japan)002

               I never knew France had so many factories.

 

The races continue through America, Brazil, Spain, France, and others, with each successive country’s courses increasing in difficulty. Luckily, controlling your car is as smooth as a bathtub full of luxury oils. Accelerate with button II, brake with button I, and shift gears with the joystick. Most races, it’s possible to accelerate with abandon, but braking is imperative as you caress tight turns; particularly since other drivers tend to linger directly in front of your car as you turn. If you crash into them at full speed, you’ll explode, but if you ease off the gas, you’ll only bump their car. There is no penalty for crashing, however, other than lost time and perhaps your ego. Run your fingers through your hair and get back on track.

GP World (Japan)000

These screenshots may not show it, but trust me, there are other drivers on these courses.

 

The level editor is GP World‘s one minor revelation, even if it is restricted. Custom levels are constructed atop a grid where you can add and subtract pieces of the course at any given point. However, you are limited to the pieces the editor gives you, and those pieces are always based on the curvature of the last piece you placed. For example, if you place a straight line, you’re then given the choice of another straight line, a curve to the left, and a curve to the right. Certain pieces when placed, however, give you only one option to build upon, leaving your course design relatively limited. Your level is forced to stay within the grid, so there’s no building outside of it. I had to constantly rethink the level I made to stay within the narrow parameters of the editor. In the end, the level just wouldn’t work. If you’re playing along with these games (something I encourage all readers to do), let me know if you had better luck than I did with the editor.

GP World (Japan)001

                                   Drive on that, sucka.

 

The SG-1000 GP World is not the end of the story. Originally, the game began life as a Laserdisc arcade game in 1984. Sega took real first-person road footage and placed pre-rendered Formula 1 sprites on top of it. As you can see in the screenshot below, Father Time has not been kind to these visual pyrotechnics. Perhaps the game looked breathtaking in 1984 when it was first released, but looking at screenshots of the game now brings confusion to one’s soul. Those car sprites don’t belong on that real road, and it’s hard to trick your brain otherwise.

GP World Arcade

Am I in driver’s ed again? What’s happening here?

 

Obviously, the arcade GP World couldn’t be ported to the SG-1000 as it was. A downgrade was necessary to even make the game work. Unlike many of Sega’s SG-1000 arcade ports, however, a downgrade was just what the road crew ordered. Even after almost three decades, GP World for the SG-1000 remains genuine class, while the arcade is now a minor novelty. Stay classy, readers. Vroom, I say. Vroom vroom.

B+

Champion Pro Wrestling

ChampionProWrestling

           How dare you insult the rich bold flavor of Dr. Pepper!

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Sports

RELEASE DATE: 1985

 

Champion Pro Wrestling is a jabroni, a loser of a wrestling title that makes its predecessor, Champion Boxing, look like the People’s Champ by comparison. You play an average gnarled face wrestler, while the computer plays a mighty luchador (already the game is unfair). Lower the luchador’s stamina bar by performing powerful moves on him, then pin him and advance to the next Challenge rank. Your moves are delivered not by complex button and joystick inputs, but from a move list – an element recycled from Champion Boxing. This move list is where Pro Wrestling takes a chair to the face. Once you select and execute a move, you will no longer have a move selected. Your move may have struck your opponent or you may have wiffed. Either way, the move list will turn blank, and you will not be able to execute a move unless you select it again. This forces you to constantly re-select your moves, when the move should be highlighted for as long as you want to use it. The computer has no trouble keeping the moves going, but trust me when I say re-selecting your moves feels awkward and takes precious seconds away from the match. Strangely, Champion Boxing never did this. If you selected an Uppercut, your boxer would Uppercut punch until you chose a different move.

Champion Pro Wrestling (Japan)000

                                Here’s a screenshot of me losing.

 

Some of your wrestling moves – particularly the simple ones like the chop and the kick – are worthless anyway unless you’re standing on top of the luchador. Your best bet for winning matches is to spam your two best moves, the drop kick and the pile-driver. This will be difficult, though, since the luchador is much stronger than you. He can take several drop kicks to the head and rise back up, no problem, but your boy will be dizzy on the ground for a few seconds after one similarly placed kick. Unless the luchador’s stamina is less than fifty percent, you won’t be able to pin him, but unless you pound excessively on the buttons, he’ll pin you after a few well-timed hits, regardless of how high your stamina is.

Champion Pro Wrestling (Japan)001

The ref’s face is priceless. But what’s with his orchid purple shirt?

 

The computer’s excessive strength combined with the unintuitive controls knocks Champion Pro Wrestling out cold. Like an obnoxious gimmicky wrestler whose premise should have never made it past the development stages, Pro Wrestling could benefit from a cold shower and a group re-think.

D

Zaxxon

Zaxxon

          The Zaxxon fortress would have been a cool Lego set.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 1982 (Arcade); 1985 (SG-1000)

OTHER ENTRIES: Super Zaxxon (Arcade, 1982); Zaxxon 3D (Master System, 1987); Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000 (32X, 1995); Zaxxon Escape (iOS and Android, 2012)

 

Zaxxon was a lot of “firsts,” both for the arcade industry and for Sega as a company. It was one of Sega’s first big worldwide successes ever – crazy, considering they’d been making games for about sixteen years at this point. Zaxxon was the first game to employ axonometric or isometric projection which gave it a pseudo three-dimensional look. Because isometric projection forced the player to view the game from a third-person diagonal angle, Zaxxon has also been labeled the first “diagonal” shoot-em-up. Finally, Zaxxon was the first arcade game to ever be advertised on television. Home video games had received commercials before, but many of them were bare-bones affairs, content only to show people playing the game at home. Thanks to Paramount Pictures stake in Sega at the time, the Zaxxon commercial had a healthy budget: $150,000, which today would be close to $370,000. The money was well worth it.

 

 

The 3-D might be laughable by today’s standards, but in 1982, it was so good Sega didn’t need to show the game. Watch the commercial again. The only time you even see Zaxxon in action is at the nine second mark when the camera briefly turns to face the arcade screen.

Brilliant marketing and technical trickery may have made Zaxxon a hit in 1982, but graphics aside, the game has not aged well at all. Your space craft is stiff and cumbersome to control, and your firepower is often too slow against the threats of the enemy fortress. Even with an altitude meter that allows you to adjust the ship’s height, navigating through the fortress – comprised of brick walls of varying heights, turrets, missiles, and electrical barriers – is a nightmare. Unless your ship is at the highest point it can go on the meter, or the ship’s shadow can be seen on the surface of the fortress, you won’t know how high or low your ship is flying. While you’re trying to survive the fortress’s contours, you also have to blow up fuel drums to re-fuel your gas-hungry spacecraft. As if flying through Satan’s convoluted space lair wasn’t enough! After you escape from the fortress, you have to attack groups of enemy space craft from varying altitudes. This portion of the game is pure luck, but you can’t pass on to the next section without defeating a certain number of craft. Eventually, the levels will just repeat with slightly different layouts and more fire power directed at you.

 

1049595534

So pretty and terrible (thanks to arcade-museum.com for the screenshot)

 

I expect older arcade games to have difficulty curves, but Zaxxon‘s difficulty stems less from its generic gameplay and more from its ground-breaking viewpoint. Had Zaxxon just been a standard horizontal or vertical shump like Sega’s earlier Star Jacker, the game would be a lot easier to control – and a lot less interesting.

The SG-1000 port of Zaxxon slightly improves upon the game’s foundation, even as it’s unable to replicate the graphical achievements of the arcade. Although the SG-1000 does an adequate job of recreating the isometric perspective (unlike the worthless Congo Bongo port from two years prior), the scrolling is choppy and might be considered atrocious, if it didn’t allow your ship to fly through the fortress with a greater amount of ease. Whereas Zaxxon arcade focused more on piloting your ship through a compact and tightly woven space fortress, Zaxxon SG-1000 is about destroying as many fuel drums as you can. The surface of the fortress isn’t filled with nearly as many elements as it was in the arcade. Homing missiles are gone, thank God. Turrets and electrical barriers remain, though they’re not as difficult to navigate through. Most importantly, you’re never left wondering what altitude your ship is in the SG-1000 version. Because of the sparse fortress surface, your ship only needs to be settled directly on the surface or high above the brick walls; only when you encounter an electrical barrier do you need to place your ship’s altitude in the middle.

 

Zaxxon (Japan)000

                  Now you’re playing with… power?

 

The problem with the SG-1000 port is that it becomes stale quickly. The levels are essentially the same, and the goal of destroying enemy space craft before advancing has been eliminated. Revel the prospect of blowing up legions of fuel drums and going through electrical barriers ’cause that’s all this version of Zaxxon has to offer. The port remains a marginally better take on the arcade, but without any significant challenge to frustrate or gee-whiz special effects to distract, Zaxxon is yet another example of how limited the SG-1000 actually was.

 

Zaxxon (Japan)001

     American Airlines takes a wrong turn into a space battle.

 

As the commercial foretold, Zaxxon remains an outstanding example of style over substance. Take away the arcade game’s colorful “three-dimensional” depths and there’s the SG-1000 port, infinitely more playable, but ultimately shallow. Play Zaxxon in the arcade, as intended, and you have a game that stuns your senses – even as it robs you of your quarters.

 

Arcade: D

SG:1000: D+