I never found out how Sega had ever come up with the name “Zaxxon” until I started looking into the game for this article. It apparently comes from the term “axonomic projection” which is how the game is portrayed onscreen and whose use in the game is more popularly known today as isometric projection. The “Z” was apparently tagged onto the “axon” part to create the funky name that was plastered on arcade cabinets everywhere when it arrived in 1982.
In the arcades, Zaxxon surprised players with its tilted, pseudo-3D look as they flew a fighter through gaps in the walls, narrow spaces below flickering force fields, and blasted targets on the ground while trying to avoid everything coming at them from bullets to other ships. This was a city-base on a floating asteroid in space that wanted to destroy them before they could reach the giant, floating robot at the end.
Flight would literally stop as the player moved from side to side, up and down, and tried to blast the robot’s weak spot. Players didn’t have to shoot its core — but the giant missile substituting for an arm was where they needed to send their shots. After sending the giant robot at the end to the scrap pile, the game looped back to the start with a tougher challenge.
The game had a lot of technical bits that made it stand apart from every other space shooter in the arcades. The isometric presentation simulated 3D and players had to take that into account as they guided their jet through the killer city’s defenses. Sometimes it was just hard to tell whether you were lined up to slip through that gap in the wall or just below the force field, so shooting was often used as a kind of help to show just where you would be going. Or if you needed to adjust your flight to avoid ending up as an exploding sprite.
Players also needed to pay attention to fuel and keep their jet topped off by “blowing up” fuel tanks on the surface — which was a weird way of stopping in for a quick filler ‘er up, but it worked. There was also an indicator on the left hand side of the screen showing your altitude although a shadow on the “ground” also gave you some hint of just how far you were from smashing into it.
This was also a tough, but fun, game that challenged players into playing a shooter differently from what most of its competition in the arcades were doing at the time. It was also the first arcade game to have a commercial made for it on broadcast television.
As a result of its success in the arcades, ports also came out for practically every platform available with tweaks squeezing as much of the original onto those that couldn’t run it in its full glory. The Atari 2600, for example, couldn’t bring over the isometric look and instead turned it into a third-person, chase plane view shooter with the city of Zaxxon coming at the player instead. The ColecoVision, on the other hand, was able to bring over the arcade’s isometric magic with a reasonably solid port.
It also shot its way across other platforms such as the Apple II, the Commodore 64, Intellivision, the TRS-80 CoCo, and many others as it reappeared in game collections like 2009’s Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection as one of several unlockables.
A sequel, Super Zaxxon, also came out later in the same year that the first game arrived in, 1982, with faster action, different looking stages, and replacing the giant robot at the end of the stage with a giant dragon instead. In 1987, a 3D version arrived on the Sega Master System though it was like the Atari 2600’s approach — the city came at the player instead of as an isometric city that the player flew over — but it was more notable for using the 3D glasses that were available for the system. And just last year, in 2012, a sequel called Zaxxon Escape was released for mobiles. It also had its own share of copycats such as Fortress from Amcom and published by Pace Software in 1983.
Zaxxon is one of those arcade classics that stood out for the way it challenged how players would actually experience an arcade shooter. It wanted to be as different as possible and succeeded wildly, further bolstering Sega’s reputation in the arcades for the bold ideas that they could bring to the table. Not only was the game graphically solid, the gameplay was as unique as its “3-dimensional-like playfield” making it an instant classic — and raising the bar on what players could expect at the arcade and at home.