When you think of 1982, you immediately think of isometric projection. It was this go-on-then-but-we’re-being-very-generous 3D-ish effect that first came to the popular consciousness with the landmark game Zaxxon, an early arcade hit for the pre-Sonic house of Sega. In truth, this effect was the only thing that marked Zaxxon out from a number of the fly along and bomb stuff games which were the early glimmerings of a key genre that would one day spawn graphics card gobbling thrillathons as Il-2 Sturmovic, and the Fighter Ace massive multiplayer.
It seems slightly unkind to suggest that Zaxxon was huge simply because it was the first to use this isometric gimmic. It certainly wasn’t a bad creation, by any means. You flew along shooting stuff, avoiding surface fire and missiles, and replenishing your fuel supply by – and this was an odd feature of early arcade games – destroying fuel dumps The scenery was nice enough, a sort of industrial-military enemy-scape with walls to navigate and force fields to avoid. At the end of every level there was a super baddy to kill, in the form of what appeared to be a fat and very angry filing cabinet. But you could swoop on stuff, to an extent, and roll a bit to avoid incoming missiles. Oh come on. It was 1982. People were playing Zaxxon in arcades when the Falklands War broke out. The Jam were still releasing singles. Swansea City were in the old First Division. It was a long time ago.
Interestingly, Zaxxon was one of a small corps of arcade games that had a boardgame version, published by Milton Bradley in a spirited bit of bandwagon-jumping. It was terrible. They did a Donkey Kong one as well. That was probably also terrible. Still, the boardgame could be polished off in twenty odd minutes, which is a lot swifter than the many hours it took Vernon Kalanikaus of Hawaii to clock up the 4,680,740 points which is the officially recognised highest score ever. Which, when strafing a fuel dump only nets you 100 points, must’ve been a very long evening indeed.
The Milton Bradley cap-doffing represents the high watermark for Zaxxon. Its sequel – Super Zaxxon – was released just two years later and disappeared, nudged aside by Out Run and the first driving games. It wasn’t that these incoming games were necessarily any better in terms of actual gameplay, it was just that in the cut throat world of early 80s arcade programming, the gimmick made the game. Zaxxon’s slightly dazzling 3D-lite graphics were yesterday’s news. To be honest, they were yesterday’s news on the afternoon of the day in which they were created, but let’s not tell the legions of brave Zaxxon pilots that. Fly on, lukewarm adventurers.