The Game: As the pilot of a lone fighter infiltrating a spaceborne fortress (vaguely inspired by the Death Star trench scenes in Star Wars), your mission is simple – survive long enough to vanquish the evil Zaxxon robot hidden deep within the fortress, and take out as much of the defenses as you can in the meantime. (Sega, 1982)
Memories: Zaxxon drastically changed the nature of side-scrolling shooter games by introducing a somewhat 3-D perspective to the game. Not only were altitude and forward motion taken into account, but you could also move side to side, banking, diving, and gaining altitude. Bearing in mind that Zaxxon was the first game to feature this kind of movement, its experimental nature and great graphics occasionally got in the way of the player’s attempt to ascertain exactly where he was in the playing field. Also, some of the actual obstacles in your path were indistinguishable from the harmless scrolling background.
Zaxxon inspired the spinoff Super Zaxxon, which seemed to add little to the play of the game but mainly offered changes to the graphics set – including the incomprehensible transformation of Zaxxon itself from a fearsome robot to an animÃ¨-like dragon character. Super Zaxxon did offer one cool addition, however – the elimination of Zaxxon’s almost-impossible-to-master space battle in favor of an equally challenging but less irritating tunnel fight sequence. Some graphics were improved, though the clutter of harmless background objects was increased to the game’s detriment. It still looked like a cross between a Frank Lloyd Wright design and the flying fortress from the movie Krull.
Zaxxon was indisputably the most difficult game to translate for home systems in 1982. Its 3-D graphics were integrated into its game play, and to strip that third dimension out of the game would have left a game virtually identical to Vanguard and other 2-D side-scrolling shooters. The ColecoVision adaptation was passable, but the cartridge version for the Atari 2600 was an unplayable abomination of a game. Zaxxon was later adapted much more faithfully on home computer systems such as the Apple II.
Coleco also manufactured a larger-than-usual Zaxxon battery-operated tabletop game, but even though it was better than some of the home console versions, it suffered from a number of problems – an LED matrix could never hope to match the smooth flow of the arcade game’s forward momentum, and the game was further hampered by the unprecedented use of two LED displays, accomplished by the use of mirrors inside the game’s miniature arcade housing. But if you weren’t looking at it from just the right angle, you’d wind up eating a missile.
I’m always amazed that, unlike Pac-Man, Frogger or Tempest, Zaxxon has never been dusted off and updated for the home computer market of today. It’s a natural, Sega! Furthermore, the non-sequitur hangars, gun turrets and unfollowable pathways of the original game’s scrolling wallpaper could be turned into actual parts of the game. Zaxxon is just waiting to be reborn.