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Zaxxon's Motherbase 2000 (Sega 32X) artwork

Zaxxon's Motherbase 2000 (Sega 32X) review

"We're the only website dedicated to video games enough to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a 32X pseudo-sequel shooter you've never heard of."

Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000 is… weird. There’s very little about it that makes any kind of contextual sense, including whether or not it’s actually a Zaxxon game at all. The original Japanese version was released under the name “Parasquad” while the European release went by just “Motherbase”. As such, I’d be tempted to suggest that those underhanded SEGA of America charlatans just slapped Zaxxon on the box to mess with the consumer’s nostalgia in the hopes of a few rose-tinted sales. But, I dunno; it seems kinda Zaxxon-y.

I should explain. Back in the early 80‘s, Zaxxon was one of those arcade games that went around revolutionising everything. It was the first cabinet to employ isometrics, giving the player an illusionary 3D realm to fly in for the first time ever. It was a big deal; it was the first arcade game to receive a televised advertisement, the first game to offer shadows to indicate a ship’s altitude from the surface. Isometric meant, for the first time, you weren't limited to just dodging left and right and had some control over rise and dip. It was very much illusionary, and it was fiddly as hell to adapt to the seemingly alien controls, but it was unheard of at the time.

A sequel followed that didn't gather as much praise, as well as a host of ports to home consoles and computers that often dropped the isometric approach due to processing restraints and still exist today in a bubble of absolute pointlessness. Despite how adventitious the false 3D effect of isometric shoot-’em-upping was, it never really caught on. It gave us Viewpoint around a decade later, which was okay, I guess, but it seemed like a forgotten foundation too niche and clumsy to really build upon.

It’s kind of fitting that the doomed 32X is home to the equally doomed isometric revival (yes, I know Viewpoint got a 32bit remake -- let’s stop harping on about Viewpoint!), equally so as Motherbase isn’t all that isometric-y. It has all the makings of a game mapped up in isometrics -- the controls are fiddly as hell, it takes a while to adjust to the fact that the directional controls that exist on every other game are irrelevant here and need to be re-learnt -- but there’s no real way to control pitch and fall. Instead, your craft can just jump a bit. If that was all there was to it this would be an easier review. I could just roll out the mockery and disdain and move on to the next one. But, damn it, Zaxxon or no, Motherbase is actually kind of clever.

It’s advanced for its time, even if the aesthetic it chose has long started to show its age. Taking inspiration from Virtua Fighter/Racer, Motherbase is an early prospector for a 3D polygon-based engine, moving away from the 2D sprites and tilemaps that were then the norm. It looks a bit silly now, and technology would quickly catch up and make obsolete these low poly counts, but it’s a technological foothold of note. That by itself wouldn't save the game from my constantly-bubbling ire, so it’s just as well that, should you manage to overcome the clumsy and antiquated nature of Motherbase, you’ll find a very well made scrolling shooter.

There’s a weird insect theme going on that's dropped as quickly as it's introduced, but the very first stage rolls out ally fighters who scroll along with you, taking on the enemy forces. This struck me as a cool mechanic that the genre hardly ever explores in its haste to advance its one-versus-all trope, but Motherbase takes it a step further. Your own craft is a weak little thing with an inconsequential weapon and the durability of balsa wood, but you wouldn't know that from the start. That’s because you’re encased in the shell of a huge ant-like robot that spits twin lasers and can fire an infinite supply of homing missiles from its…. thorax? Yeah, let’s go with that. The coolest thing about Motherbase is that your puny craft has the ability to jump into and hack other craft, therefore prolonging its life and adding immensely to its artillery. The ant-bot can soak up a lot more damage than you can naked, but isn't invulnerable. The time will likely come when you’ll have to bail out or explode along with it -- but that’s fine. If you've stayed synced with another craft long enough you learn their secondary attack. Your stand-alone craft still might be soggy-kitten weak, but it does now have an infinite supply of heat-seeking missiles to help keep it alive until it can attach itself to a stronger enemy.

The first stage presents you with a series of blade-fisted mechs that try to charge you down on sight, but are relatively easy to destroy. What more or less ensures that you’ll need to latch on to new armour at some point is when the screen-filling robot shows up and starts rampaging around the screen.

The robot cannot be hurt, so your time is better spent trying to destroy the obstacles around you while trying to avoid his mighty fists of destruction. There will be times during your game of cat and mouse that the stages vie against you and try to box you in. When this happens, you need to keep ahead of the robot’s onslaught and destroy the blast doors that pen you in. OR! Just a thought, seeing as the robot seems overly keen in destroying those doors as well, you can attack the floor and jettison him into outer space before he smashes his way to freedom.

Other levels give you the chance to take over ships that armour your nose and shoot big fat missiles at meteors that scythe in and out of the screen, or let you command spikey UFOs that fire bursts of laser in 360° at swarms of smaller fighter craft against the backdrop of deep space. Stages taking part inside giant factories have destroyable interiors, allowing computer banks or massive steel support beams to fall on either you or your enemy. Stage 4 takes part over marshland (because of course it does) where weird angry fish leap out of the waters to spear you on their sharp polygon noses while lazy griffin-like birds fly overhead unfazed. Next, you’re whisked away to a rocky barrens where lice borrow out of the floor and giant spiders skitter down the edges of the screen only to explode into smaller spiders if openly attacked. A massive titan falls into individual body parts that rain down around you then start waging war. The head spits bullets, but the hands crawl towards you like a 32-bit recreation of Evil Dead 2. The feet wiggle their toes enthusiastically while they march unaided towards you. The head even tilts to one side as if to quizzically inquire as to why you’re not dead yet.

There’s so many little clever touches and inspired design choices going on that it’s hard to explain why Zaxxon Motherbase never profited from a bigger following. Oh, wait, no it’s not; it’s a 32X game and no one bought the console because it was discontinued seven minutes after it was released. And, yeah, that whole isometric thing meant that getting a grip on the controls means investing both time and effort before you could get far enough into the game to appreciate it. While I'm bitching, it doesn't help that there’s no auto-fire, meaning that I have to make individual button presses every time I want to shoot at something. My wrist hasn't appreciated that. But I marched on regardless in the hopes of finding reward and was pleasantly surprised to find it. I'm not done crowing about that titan boss fight yet -- in the second stage of the battle, it discovers flight and circles around you bellowing laughter while the camera spins and focuses with it. The 2D sprite-based engines of the time couldn't do that, but Motherbase could.



EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (July 14, 2015)

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