Review by Ryan Harrison
"A great and unique shooter for the time, but now starting to show its age."
Zaxxon, released by Sega in arcades across the globe in 1982, is a space-themed shooter game that was one of the first of its kind, being one that utilised an isometric viewpoint, giving it a fresh feel on control and gameplay experience, and the graphics and animation in the game were also very good for an arcade game of the time, as well. A very original and unique game back in its day, Zaxxon has earned its place in arcade history as being the first shooter game to play with 3-dimensional isometric graphics and controls, as well as shadows and an altitude meter to give the game a feel of depth, which could also assist the player by indicating their height and position on the screen while flying a fighter vessel through four short stages full of various obstacles, while dodging gunfire and hazards that come your way from opposing fighter crafts, and quickly changing altitude so as not to hit walls or force fields located at various altitudes.
With this game preceding the birth of yours truly by a good five years, I was never able to play this game in its original form on an arcade cabinet, yet through the wonders of retroactive arcade games - including this one - now becoming available for download through many modern consoles, I have now played Zaxxon via the Wii's Virtual Console feature. My first impressions of Zaxxon were that, while having a theme that was pretty much just about everywhere back in the day, it was something different for a game of its time, and it still feels quite playable today, yet I did think that for a game that was out more than three decades ago, it is definitely showing its age.
While the overview of this game would therefore sound very simple, there is a good deal of challenge and getting the hang of the gameplay can prove initially tricky and frustrating. Once you can come to grips with the control, challenge and mechanics of this game, which in all honesty shouldn't take too much of a great deal of time, then you just may find it worth a once or twice-over to take a few minutes off your hands. If you are the type of gamer with an appreciation for the arcade classics of the golden era and are looking for something that was a bit different from the bigger names of the time, has a good degree of challenge, and if you can overlook the short lifespan, so long as you don't have too much trouble with the isometric angle, then Zaxxon is worth a go.
The theme of Zaxxon is that you take control of a small fighter craft armed with a laser cannon. The craft flies straight ahead at a constant speed through four short stages in a futuristic setting. The aim is to navigate your way through fortresses and outer space in order to reach the castle in order to take on a giant robot, the main antagonist of the game. While you fly ahead, you are capable of moving the craft from side to side by tilting the control stick left or right, and you can also raise the craft up by tilting the stick down, and adversely lower the craft by tilting the stick up, giving the game somewhat of a flight-simulator feel with the control. With the main action button, the craft fires a laser directly ahead that can blast away any enemies or hazards directly ahead, as well as aid the player in giving them an approximate judgment of their position, in case you need to change your position in order to squeeze through any tight gaps coming up.
Now, while the main objective is to make your way through each stage, blasting away enemies for points and avoiding crashing into walls or force fields, the game doesn't let you try to take the cheap route by simply staying put in one particular spot on the screen at a time without moving, for three various reasons. The first, as already mentioned, is that there are many gaps and walls you'll need to fly over or around, so memorisation of which height to fly at, and very quick reflexes will play a big part. Secondly, there is also a fuel gauge displayed at the bottom of the screen that gradually decreases over time while you go through each level. If it empties, the craft will plunge straight down and blow up. In order to keep the gauge topped up, you have to shoot and blow up red fuel barrels - yes, not collect them, but actually SHOOT them to gain fuel! Thirdly, by staying in the same spot for too long, a warning sound will indicate a homing missile that gets launched towards you (seemingly by the unseen end boss). These homing missiles cannot be avoided, so your only option would be to rapidly shoot away to blow it up in order to continue on.
So, for these various reasons, you're going to have to continually be on the move and get used to the level layouts, and be quick and precise with your movements. This definitely adds to the challenge, not least due to the somewhat-confusing viewpoint in which most of the time you aren't always completely certain of your location. You may be flying too far to the side and hit a side wall next to a gap you're aiming to get through, or end up going straight into a missile or enemy projectile when it looks as though you're clear out of the way. It can also be rather tricky to keep an eye on things going on in the main game play area and the altitude meter at the same time. However, once you've gotten the hang of the control, it becomes a good deal easier.
The game also has some reasonably good graphics for its time. They have the classic look and feel of an early 1980s arcade game. The futuristic space theme is pulled off quite well and there are a good deal of colours and effects used for stage designs, and a lot of the objects and plants in each level like force fields, missiles and flames look reasonably good. There is also a cool flashing explosion effect seen when your craft is hit and blown up. The three-quarter-down isometric view looks okay, too, but in some fortress levels it can sometimes get confusing on the eyes, and many similar colours also tend to blend together, making judging your position at times difficult. However, on the plus side, the graphics are not too overly complicated and have a good sense of depth to them, which is very impressive for a game released in early 1982.
Audio-wise, the sounds of Zaxxon are reasonable and easy on the ears. While it lacks any actual background music, the gameplay experience is accompanied by a low-key 'whoosh' sound as your rocket pierces through the vacuum of space. The sound effects are also all quite good, mainly the sound of the craft firing lasers, and explosions when you blow fuel barrels and enemy ships up. Altogether the sounds of the game, while all quite good, well-done and easy on the ears, are nothing too overly spectacular.
While the game is good to take some time off your hands and has a decent deal of challenge to it, its biggest problem is that it is over far too quickly. There are four distinct stages, and two of them have identical themes and very similar layouts. The fortress levels are the most enjoyable due to their layouts and testing your hand-eye co-ordination, reflexes and gameplay skills, but the other two levels are disappointingly short and very simple. When you've managed to successfully defeat the robot end boss, the game just starts over again from the beginning and from there on constantly repeats until you've run out of lives. Because of the lack of variation and replay value, unless you're looking to try and see how far into the game you can get or how high a score you can build, it's perhaps less likely that you'll be coming back to this game than the likes of a Pac-Man or a Donkey Kong.
Whether you can somehow manage to check it out in its original cabinet or tabletop arcade form or a download, for example the Wii Virtual Console, Zaxxon is a game that is worth a try if you're a fan of this type of game. It's very well-made, but sadly very short and the makers could really have done with adding or expanding some stages. Luckily, some semi-sequels for various home consoles are available if you're looking for more of the Zaxxon experience than what the arcade original has to offer. Perhaps a great game for back in the day, it feels to me that by today's standards there are some better offerings out there in terms of arcade space-shooters, as this game is definitely showing its age nowadays. Overall a fair game, and if you can overlook the disappointing short length of the game and simplicity in some areas, it's an enjoyable and unique experience that is worth playing.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 01/14/13, Updated 07/01/13
Game Release: Zaxxon (EU, 12/31/82)
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