All About Zaxxon: A Retro Space Shooter Game

During the early 80s, arcades are the hottest hangout spots. Along with the top video games of the era comes Zaxxon, which breaks all the rules and takes the gaming world by storm.

What’s the big deal about Zaxxon? Well, it was a game-changer. It was the first name to use axonometric projection, hence the name Zaxxon, from “AXONometric projection.” This type of axonometric projection is isometric projection – an effect that simulates 3D visuals from 2D. During that time, players felt like they were ace pilots on a top-secret space mission.  

 But it wasn’t just about the adrenaline-pumping action. Zaxxon was a game of strategy and skill. You needed to keep an eye on your fuel, manage your altitude, and have lightning-fast reflexes.

Overview

Zaxxon made its grand debut in 1982, developed and published by Sega. This was a time when arcade games were rapidly evolving, and Sega wanted to create something groundbreaking. They did just that with Zaxxon – it was one of the first games to introduce an isometric perspective, a technical leap that added a whole new dimension to the gaming experience. This innovation did not just simulate 3D for aesthetics – it added a layer of depth and strategy to the gameplay. Released initially as an arcade game, Zaxxon quickly captured the hearts of gamers and became a must-have in arcades across the globe.

In its basic sense, Zaxxon is a shooter arcade game in which the player must fly a fighter craft through a fortress while shooting at enemy entities. The object of the game is to hit as many targets as possible without being shot down or running out of fuel, which can be replenished by blowing up fuel drums. This game challenged players in new ways, requiring them to manage their ship’s altitude, keep an eye on their fuel levels, and navigate a visually complex environment. It wasn’t just about shooting things – it was about strategy and skill.

Besides being the first arcade game to have an isonometric projection, it was also the first arcade game to be published on television, with a commercial produced for $150,000 by Paramount Pictures.

From 1982 to 1985, the game was ported to the Atari 8-bit consoles, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Sega SG-1000, Apple II, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Dragon 32, ColecoVision, Intellivision, TRS-80 Color Computer, TRS-80, and IBM PC compatibles. The Intellivision and Atari 2600 ports use a third-person, behind-the-ship perspective instead of using isonometric graphics used in other versions.

Gameplay

In Zaxxon, your goal is to score as many points as you can by hitting targets, all while avoiding enemy fire and keeping your fuel tank from running dry. You can top up your fuel by destroying fuel drums along the way.

The game takes you through two action-packed fortresses, with a space journey in between. At the end of the second fortress, you’ll face a big challenge: the Zaxxon robot, a formidable boss waiting to test your skills.

Navigating your ship in Zaxxon is all about mastering altitude. Your ship casts a shadow, giving you a handy visual clue of how high you’re flying. Plus, there’s an altimeter on the screen to help you out, which is especially useful in space where there’s no ground for your shadow. You’ll need to fly at just the right height to pass through the fortress entrances and exits and to clear walls inside the fortresses.

To control your ship, you need to use a four-way joystick, shaped like an aircraft stick, to maneuver. Pushing the joystick forward lowers your altitude while pulling it back raises your ship. Your ship moves at a constant speed, so there’s no forward or backward movement. But here’s the catch: moving up and down adjusts the ship’s altitude, which is crucial for avoiding obstacles like walls and energy fields. Timing and precision are key, as a single miscalculation can lead to a crash, ending the game. This type of control was pretty unusual for video games then, so the arcade cabinets even had handy illustrations around the joystick to guide you on how your movements affected the ship.

Targeting enemies in Zaxxon requires a good eye and quick reflexes. The isometric perspective adds a twist to the targeting system. Players need to align their shots diagonally, which is quite different from the traditional vertical or horizontal shooting in most shoot ’em-ups of that era.

Since the game isn’t just about shooting and dodging, strategy plays a crucial role. One strategic element is managing the ship’s fuel. Players must destroy fuel tanks to replenish their supply. As players progress through levels, the difficulty increases with more obstacles, tougher enemies, and faster-paced action.

In essence, Zaxxon‘s gameplay is a blend of strategic flying, target hitting, and fuel management, all wrapped up in a visually engaging and unique control experience.

Legacy, Success, and Awards

In the early 1980s, the arcade gaming scene was booming. Games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders had already set the stage, making a craze for video games. Arcades were the hotspots where the latest and greatest games were played, and competition was fierce among game developers.

When Zaxxon was released in 1982, it emerged as a technological marvel that stood out from the crowd. It pushed the boundaries of what was possible in video game design and laid the groundwork for future 3D games. For many, it was a first glimpse into what the future of gaming could look like.

Its innovative use of isometric graphics, employing a technique called axonometric projection, allowed the game to render in a pseudo-three-dimensional perspective. It gave players a new experience of spaceship dogfighting with the ability to move in four simulated directions: side to side and in altitude. This not only made Zaxxon visually distinct but also added a layer of complexity and excitement to the gameplay.

The game’s commercial success and critical reception were just as remarkable. Upon its release, Zaxxon topped the US RePlay arcade charts and was listed among the top six highest-grossing arcade games of 1982 in the United States. It received widespread acclaim for its graphics and gameplay, with many noting its “incredible three-dimensional realism” and realistic altitude-based gameplay. The Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA) later listed Zaxxon as one of the top six highest-grossing games of 1982 in the US.

The ColecoVision version of the game was particularly lauded, described as “one of the most thrilling games available” and a significant achievement for the system. The game was Coleco’s best-selling non-bundled cartridge for the ColecoVision until 1983.

Zaxxon‘s home computer ports were commercially successful in both North America and Europe. II Computing recognized Zaxxon as the fourth top-selling Apple II game in late 1985, considering sales and market-share data. In the United States, the Software Publishers Association (SPA) awarded Zaxxon a “Gold Award” in December 1987, acknowledging software sales surpassing 100,000 units. Additionally, US Gold’s home computer adaptation of Zaxxon claimed the second spot on the UK software sales chart in early 1985

Zaxxon‘s impact extended beyond gameplay and into marketing, with a major TV commercial produced by Paramount Pictures, part of Gulf + Western, the owner of Sega at the time. The commercial, considered a massive success, helped to nearly double the game’s sales and drew waves of new gamers into arcades.

Zaxxon inspired future isometric video games across various genres, from other shoot-em-ups to role-playing and action games. The game spawned several sequels, including the immediate follow-up Super Zaxxon, and influenced titles like Congo Bongo and Q*bert. It was included in “The Art of Video Games” exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2012, showcasing its cultural significance.

Even in popular culture, Zaxxon made its mark with a board game released by Milton Bradley and appearances in various media, including the film Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and the TV show Home Improvement.

Sequels

Banking on Zaxxon‘s success, an arcade sequel named Super Zaxxon was introduced in November 1982. It had a different color scheme, increased ship speed, a replaced space segment with a tunnel, and a dragon as the end-of-level enemy. Super Zaxxon didn’t match the popularity of the original, but it still topped the US RePlay arcade chart for software conversion kits in July 1983. In 1984, Sega released Future Spy, maintaining a similar style.

In 1987, Zaxxon 3-D made its debut for the Master System, with a pair of 3D glasses as an add-on. As with the Atari 2600 and Intellivision ports, this version adopted a forward-scrolling perspective.

Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000 hit the Sega 32X in 1995, marking the series’ venture into polygon graphics. Notably, the game carried the Zaxxon brand in the United States, while the Japanese version was named Parasquad, and the European version was called Motherbase. Gaming critics in the US expressed that the game deviated too far from the original Zaxxon concept to justify the use of the brand.

A departure from the traditional gameplay, Zaxxon Escape was released on October 4, 2012, for iOS and Android devices. However, it was criticized for having little resemblance to the original Zaxxon.

Re-Releases

Zaxxon is featured as a bonus game in the Sega Genesis Collection for the PlayStation 2. It’s also an unlockable arcade game in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

The arcade version made its way to the Wii Virtual Console in Japan on December 15, 2009, followed by releases in the PAL region on March 5, 2010, and North America on April 12, 2010.

In 2022, the original arcade version was included in the Sega Astro City Mini V, a vertically oriented variant of the Sega Astro City mini console.

Conclusion

In essence, Zaxxon was much more than just a game – it was a pioneering technology in the arcade games era. When you talk about classic arcade games that left a mark, Zaxxon definitely deserves a mention. It’s a piece of history that helped shape the gaming industry as we know it today.