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Zaxxon (Atari 2600) artwork

Zaxxon (Atari 2600) review

"Zaxxon - The Doomed Port"

In 1977, the Atari 2600 hit the shelves. A simple home video gaming system, it became a juggernaut, with hordes of games, both original and arcade ports. Since the system was lacking in memory compared to its contemporaries, the quality of these games wildly varied. In the hands of skilled and hard-working programmers, the system's limitations could be greatly masked. While the finished project wouldn't have the same visual and auditory appeal of the originals, they'd still be faithful enough to provide the same entertainment. In the hands of less-skilled or lazier people, though, those games would become shoddily-made junk.

In 1982, Sega published Zaxxon. While it might not go down in history as one of the all-time great games or anything like that, it was unique in its day. Unlike other space shooters such as Defender or Space Invaders, it wasn't a straight horizontal or vertical game. Instead, it took place from an isometric perspective, giving a three-dimensional feel. The screen would be angled to have you flying from the bottom left to the top right of the screen, while foes would come at different heights, forcing you to move up and down to avoid them while watching their shadows to determine how close to the ground they were.

So, we have an early gaming system that was technologically inferior to others from its era and a shooter which used cutting-edge technology to separate itself from the pack. A marriage made in hell, if I say so myself!

While I never played Zaxxon during its heyday, I did spend a good bit of my youth messing with one of its clones, the Atari 7800's Desert Falcon. I didn't particularly care for that game, but it at least worked on a fundamental level. You could gauge your bird's height in relation to obstacles and enemies and move accordingly, which is the most important thing.

But that's the Atari 7800, a more advanced system capable of pulling off that graphical style without a hitch. With Zaxxon on the Atari 2600, I'm somewhat reluctant to even call it by that name. It's more of a demented sibling -- the sort of deformed monstrosity that gets locked in the attic in order to spare the general public the horror of its visage.

The isometric perspective is not present -- apparently a casualty of the 2600's limited memory. Instead, the screen scrolls from bottom to top. If anything, I give Coleco (who handled this port for Sega) credit for doing a somewhat competent job of essentially switching the game's angle. If you play or watch a video of the arcade version of Zaxxon, you'll note that the game alternates between bases loaded with things to shoot and things (such as walls) to avoid or fly over and zones of empty space where you simply have to worry about enemy ships trying to eliminate you by either bullets or collision.

Both of those phases are present in the Atari 2600 and there's even a sort of 3-D scrolling, as walls and objects get larger as you get closer to them. It's rough and clunky, like stop-motion animation with more of an emphasis on the "stop" than the "motion", but I have to give Sega high grades for their efforts in making Zaxxon work from a different perspective than it was meant to.

Here's the thing, though. Growing up, I owned an Atari 2600. While Colecovision and others had better ports of arcade games, I played them on the 2600 because that's what was connected to the television. My parents weren't going to run out and buy a new gaming system every time I complained about mine being less powerful than another, so I had no choice but to enjoy what I had. While I didn't own this game growing up, I did have more than my fair share of shoddy, chopped-up arcade ports on my system and I played them religiously as a child, regardless of quality.

I'm an adult now. An adult who eschews my parents' fiscal responsibility in order to spend large amounts of income on video games. If I want to play Zaxxon, you know what I'll do? I'll get off my couch, walk to my XBox 360 library, pick up Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection and do the work necessary to unlock the original arcade game, even if that means I have to spend more time with DecapAttack than I'd ever want in this or any life!

Here, it's just hard as hell to figure out where your ship is height-wise, as compared to enemies. Or oftentimes, what said enemies are. I mean, I'm pretty sure that you're not supposed to be under fire from picnic baskets, but one of the more common foes did share a resemblance. After a while, I found myself flying as high as I could in order to avoid all but the small airships that seem to be the only high-flying foe, while only descending in order to shoot fuel tanks to restore my supply. That's the risk-reward aspect of Zaxxon. If you stay high, you'll dodge walls and most foes, but eventually run out of fuel and lose a life. Therefore, you're constantly moving higher to dodge walls and then descending to wipe out tanks to increase your life span.

I could imagine this game often being pretty tense in its original form. From watching it in action, the screens were regularly loaded with foes and missiles making it tough to get to those tanks. Here, the screens are more barren with entire sections between walls often only housing a couple easily-dispatched (or ignored) enemies along with a tank or two. The only challenging aspect to the end-of-level confrontations with the giant robot Zaxxon is getting on the right level to shoot his missile before he can fire it. And, of course, since this is a port of an old arcade game, after doing that, all that's left is to accomplish the same feat over and over, but at a higher degree of difficulty. Which involves some walls having forcefields attached. In the arcade version, they appear over the walls, so you have to fly through a small, safe gap in between. Here, well, good luck figuring that out, as the perspective doesn't give any help determining where to fly. I guess trial and error is the only way to know exactly what height to be in order to survive those…

Zaxxon was a heralded game when it came out and deserves its share of respect for how it implemented 3-D graphics into the standard old-school arcade shooter format. This port does not deserve such respect. Coleco put some effort into making the game work, even if shown from a different perspective, but the limited hardware of the Atari 2600 just doomed this project from the beginning. It's choppy and chopped up, with formerly busy screens reduced to a tiny handful of obstacles. There's just no reason to play this game other than curiosity.



overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (July 11, 2015)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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