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Archive for April 12th, 2010


Blast from the Past: Zaxxon Comes to Wii Virtual Console

From the far back reaches of arcade history — 1982, to be exact — Zaxxon has come to the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console!

Now, it should be said: games have changed. That much is pretty easy to agree with. A lot of the classic stuff I get to write about, I remember from growing up with it; as a kid I learned their sometimes maddeningly difficult rhythms for the sake of the experience or even just the challenge. I also stuck with games that had obtuse and protracted systems of leveling up just because the games themselves were so immersive, unique, and awesome that the fun outweighed the insane number of hours it took to master — come to think of it, the fun always was the insane time you had to spend to master a game.

Zaxxon - Nintendo Wii Virtual Console

But even 1987 (the year both the first Phantasy Star and R-Type were released) was a far different time than 1982, in terms of gaming technology & design. Witness Zaxxon, one of the quarter-hungry beasts originally brought to life as an arcade game before being brought to (among others) various Atari consoles, Commodore-64, and ColecoVision (the first console with enough power to replicate the isometric graphics of the arcade version). It also made its way to the SG-1000, and is one of the few games that appeared on that system which SEGA has re-released (the others are Wonder Boy and, as an unlockable for Ultimate Genesis Collection, the incomparably weird Flicky).


The game even has the distinction of having been ported to the SEGA Master System — as a 3-D game, in 1987. It is worth noting that the 3-D glasses for the Master System were one of the most awesome fashion statements a happening 80s kid could make:

SEGA Master System 3D Glasses

So I’ve been trying my hand at the original Zaxxon, and after dying many, many times while playing, I can offer at least one essential piece of advice. One of the most difficult things about the game is figuring out what height your ship is flying at; the best way to gauge this is to make sure you are constantly shooting your laser weapon. Use the impact of the laser as a guide for what height you’re at — this is crucial for guiding yourself through the tiny gaps between walls and lasers in certain parts.

Zaxxon - Nintendo Wii Virtual Console

Now, it’s hard to say in good conscience that Zaxxon has gameplay that “stands the test of time” — it is insanely difficult and idiosyncratic. Either that, or I am very, very bad at it. At the same time, however, there is something undeniably compelling about this game — as there is with Frogger or similar games with a single repeating level and escalating difficulty: playing this game in my cubical here at work, both our Associate Web Producer and our Associate Digital Brand Manager (who regaled us with stories of his prowess at Xenon II) came by to try their hand at the game. It attracted all kinds of attention from random passersby, and Ruby Eclipse stopped by my cubical between meetings to offer some advice, yelling “Don’t crash!” repeatedly while I crashed repeatedly.

It has that kind of old-old-school fun to it. Deeper than this, though, is the pure challenge of honing a very difficult set of skills. It used to be that your ability with a game was measured by exactly two things: how far you could get without dying, and what your highest score was (your score, above all else, is what mattered). We expect modern games to have discreet endings but they don’t require “skill” in the same way; you are expected to beat them. Not that this is bad, but Zaxxon is a reminder that video games used to be a test of something else: the idea that you were refining and honing a difficult set of skills, and that with just one quarter you could play forever.