Posted by Sean Aaron
One for the history books, but not for everyone
In 1982 Sega made a little gaming history with Zaxxon: the first 3D arcade game to use an isometric perspective – even more shockingly, it used sprite-based graphics at a time when 3D games were pretty much all being done with vectors. Whilst Zaxxon got a lot of attention due to its flashy graphics and fancy analogue flight stick, even in 1982 it was arguably over-hyped. Aside from the analogue control in the upright cabinet making the game hard to control with precision, the isometric perspective tended to cause a lot of problems for players – though neither of these issues were enough to stop the game from being a big seller in the arcades.
This Virtual Console Arcade release is quite faithful to the original without the problems of arcade louts breaking the controller, so you'll find the D-Pad or analogue stick interface will do the job of manoeuvring your ship through the alien base. As with other Sega arcade titles the Remote, Classic Controller (Pro) and Gamecube Controller are all supported and button layouts are fully customisable, including an optional rapid-fire button mapping. To increase or lower the difficulty you can adjust the number of lives and points required for a bonus as is common with VCA releases from Sega and other publishers.
It is noteworthy as the first VCA title from Sega to be formatted for widescreen televisions, probably because it originally appeared on a vertical monitor: the built-in pillarboxing is definitely preferable to having some kind of even narrower windowboxed image on your TV if you have a modern flat panel set. Of course if you don't, you can take advantage of a full range of display options, including one to display the image on its side – just in case you have a 3:4 vertical display - and the option to have virtual scan lines, if you're into that kind of thing.
Though you won't have problems with the hardware there's no getting around the issues with the game itself. The isometric perspective may look neat, but it presents the player with a lot of problems. You need to navigate through an alien base destroying ground targets, which means moving down to the ground (no bombs, only a laser – sorry!) without running into anything. You have an altimeter to tell you where your ship is, but that doesn't really help with relating to other objects overmuch and you'll rely on firing your laser to give you a clue as to where you are in relation to everything else. It doesn't take long before there's walls to fly over and then energy barriers over those walls with small gaps to fly through. You might think you could just try flying over it all, but if you try to coast through at a high altitude a homing missile will seek you out, and then there's your dwindling fuel gauge which can only be replenished by going to ground level and shooting red fuel tanks. If you've never played this game you're in for a fairly steep learning curve and a lot of frustration with hitting things and getting shot down repeatedly.
There's not that much to Zaxxon, but then it is an old arcade game: you fly through the first part of the base, then go into space to fight planes (arguably the toughest part because the only way you'll know if you're at a matching "altitude" is if an "X" flashes in front of your ship letting you know you can fire – or they shoot you down first), then into the base again to face off against the Zaxxon robot itself, noteworthy as one of the first bosses to ever appear in a video game. After that the game simply repeats with smaller gaps in the walls to navigate and faster, more challenging planes, turrets and Zaxxons.
Zaxxon is a classic arcade game and has certainly earned a place in gaming history, but there's not much to recommend it today other than its novelty. For nostalgia buffs it's most certainly worth checking out, but most gamers should probably give it a pass.