1982 gamers had never seen anything like Sega/Gremlin’s Zaxxon.
Players had flown spaceships into strafing raids and interstellar dogfights before, but Zaxxon did it in something approaching 3-D, putting a whole new perspective on action games.
The game was actually played in an isometric three-quarters’ view, giving the illusion of depth as your craft dove over, under and around obstacles on its run through a floating space fortress.
An altimeter at the side of the screen showed your current height, a necessary tool for soaring over brick walls and slipping through deadly “laser barriers.”
Your mission was simply all-out destruction, blasting away at every gun turret, missile, radar tower, fighter and fuel tank in sight. Your own fuel was limited, but refills were available with every enemy fuel cylinder hit.
After one run through the floating fortress, your ship flew into a fast-paced dogfight with the now-launched fighters. The bad guys also had the ability to climb and dive, but a handy “X” appeared in front of their noses whenever your ship was lined up at the same altitude.
After passing through several sorties, your craft made another run on an even tougher fortress, leading up to a final showdown with a missile-firing giant robot.
Zaxxon’s striking view added new depth to the action genre, and the cabinet’s pilot-type joystick helped make players feel like genuine space jockeys.
The oddball look gave first-timers control headaches, but savvy players soon learned that if your laser blasts had a clear path through obstacles, then so did the ship itself.
The game was a strong hit for Sega/Gremlin, and the company followed up with Super Zaxxon in 1983.
Very similar to its predecessor, the new game was faster, adding a new dragon boss and placing the dogfight inside a fortress corridor to help players better orient themselves in space.
The new additions weren’t enough to overcome a market that was already going soft, but thanks to its pioneering use of perspective and fundamental action gameplay, the original Zaxxon retained a following of loyal players for years to come.
Unusual for arcade games, Zaxxon was even translated into a board game by Milton Bradley (pictured above left).