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Zaxxon is a sci-fi themed "shoot 'em up" where you pilot a spaceship and blast everything you see while carefully navigating a deadly obstacle course. The game is of the standard Sisyphus-style of simply completing a few different stages and an end boss and then starting over again with the difficulty increased. You start with five lives and also have a dwindling fuel tank which you must keep refilling. Everything you destroy garners you points and after 10,000 points you receive a 1-Up. There are four different skill levels you can chose from, and each has the option for 2 player-mode.
This cartridge is a port of an arcade game that was played in a three-dimensional environment, but at a 45-degree angle, which made controlling your spaceship confusing (which I always hated, as well). Naturally, the Atari 2600 doesn't have the power to adopt the game verbatim, so it changed the format to a forward-moving "three-dimensional" shooter. Unfortunately, the spirit of the game is lost in translation, because this attempt at 3D is laughable and makes the game barely playable.
PLAYER 1 - READY!
Just a few seconds into the first stage I realized how bad this game was going to be. I couldn't make heads or tails out of what was appearing on the screen, let alone feel out the controls. This so-called 3D perspective was innovative for its time, but that doesn't necessarily make it good. In fact, it's bad - really bad.
Since you're moving forward the entire game, the field of play follows the elementary art class rule of having a vanishing point at the top center of the screen. So as things move closer to you they enlarge in size and also move outwards (and vice versa for your shots). The problem is the technology is so obviously limited you have to wonder why the game designers even attempted to use such an awkward format. It is nearly impossible to tell how high off the ground everything is. Often your shots will pass right through the enemies because you can't tell what their altitude is and you have to be at the exact same elevation in order for your shots to connect. The game does throw in a "height bar" to help you gauge your proximity to the ground, but that doesn't help in figuring out where the enemies are.
Not that you really need to worry about destroying the enemies, anyway. This game is so arbitrary that it's more of a racing game than a true shoot 'em up. In fact, you could go from the first screen to the boss without absolutely having to fire a shot. The enemies are all fairly easy to dodge, so why cramp up your hand mashing the button? A strategy I found helpful is to simply fly at the lowest level possible and fire away. This guarantees you'll hit the gas tanks and if you hit the enemies, great - if not, oh well. If you can't shoot them they can't shoot you, either. It's not like they fly rapidly all over the screen, they pretty much stay in the same place.
Another problem with the pathetic perspective is trying to tell when you're at the proper altitude when flying through narrow barriers. There are many instances in which you must fly above a wall and under an electronic barrier. Because you can never tell where exactly you are, successfully passing these obstacles has more to do with luck than skill (good thing you start out with so many lives and earning 1-Ups are fairly easy).
And what is the point of having a fuel gauge, honestly? It's not enough to make it a flying button-masher, they have to throw in a sidebar quest? And if this is so important, why put fuel tanks on the screen so often? Since they're all at the bottom of the screen they're very easy to get since flying low is the best way to survive. And on top of all this, why do you have to SHOOT the fuel tanks in order to get fuel!? Wouldn't blowing up fuel make it useless to you? Why not simply fly over fuel tanks? Why not space them out more? "What were they thinking!?" quoth the Angry Video Game Nerd.
One thing I have to give this cart kudos for is its incorporation of a "boss," which must have been one of the first games to start the trend. In fact, the end boss is Zaxxon of the game's title. And defeating him isn't as easy as simply blasting away at him, you have to hit the missile he's holding a certain number of times before he throws it at you or else you're dead.
As much as the poor perspective hurts the gameplay to Zaxxon, this flaw is highlighted even more so by the awful play control. Trying to pilot your spaceship in this game is hard enough without being able to tell where you are and where you're going, but the fact it moves at a snail's pace is the nail in the coffin. This is an action game, but if I can't move my character at a reasonable speed, what's the point? It's tolerable if you play at the lower skill levels where the entire screen moves quite slowly, but at the more difficult ones the game is made unplayable by these miserable controls.
The worst example of this is during the second stage, which is essentially just a vertical scrolling shooter. The enemy fighters come at you so quickly that even if you shoot them, by the time your shots connect, the explosion occurs so close to your ship that it gets caught up in the explosion, too! What's the point of shooting the enemy if you still get killed?
Why didn't the game designers just make the entire game an overhead vertical scrolling shoot 'em up? It would have worked well here.
SPRITES & PIXELS
I already mentioned the game's terrible use of perspective, so there isn't much point in elaborating on the specific graphics themselves. Suffice to say that they are blocky, monochrome, dull, repetitive and very few of the objects look like what they're supposed to represent.
There is no music to this game and hardly any sound effects, either, but the ones it does use are pretty darn annoying (but does that surprise you considering how bad everything else is here?). The worst part about the aural aspect of Zaxxon is the constant humming sound which is supposed to be the spaceship's engine, but just sounds like some kind of electrical interference. As soon as you turn the game on this sound is audible, and I initially thought there was a problem with the cart or my VCS.
Not surprisingly, the explosion noise is the typical Atari "pok!" sound, although I did find the sound of the ship's lasers to be the only interesting sonic feature to the game.
INSERT COIN TO CONTINUE
As is true of all bad games, there's very little reason to play them once, let alone multiple times. To this game's credit, having four different levels of difficulty does make it challenging, but only in that you have to adjust for the distorted perspective all the more quickly. And since the play control is so slow, you really can't do that anyway, so don't bother. If you beat Zaxxon on the easiest skill level, consider the game beaten and move on.
Zaxxon for the Atari 2600 is a game that's not so much bad as it is lame. You can tell the designers had good intentions when they created it. To its credit, the use of a 3D perspective is impressive considering the technological limitations. Still, it doesn't change the fact this game isn't fun to play, isn't easy to learn and has little appeal.