The Zaxxon fortress would have been a cool Lego set.
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.
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.
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.
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.