The Video Game That Changed The Way We Play

By Mark Nobes

In the early 1980s, Sega released a video game that would change the way people play video games forever. The game was Zaxxon, and it was the first video game to use isometric graphics - it was a quantum leap forward for the industry. The game was first released in Japan in 1981, and then internationally during 1982.

The iconic space shooter game became an almost instant hit, thanks mainly to its refreshing and unique Pseudo 3d perspective, which made a refreshing change from the flatness of all of the other 2D shooter games around at the time, such as Defender and Galaga. In fact, Zaxxon looked rather like a 3D version of Scramble, and this use of new graphics technology was copied by many games that followed it. This was definitely Zaxxon's big selling point, rather than the actual gameplay, which I'll come to in a moment.

The video above features just about every version of the game you care to mention - plenty to keep you amused for a while!

By far, the best version to play was the arcade cabinet, which was released by Sega in 1982. The game caused great excitement when it first appeared in arcades across the UK, and looked like something from the distant future, albeit it, one with brick walls!

What made the game exciting was the use of simulated 3D graphics from a third person viewpoint. It also featured shadows, which gave the graphics extra depth, and this was extremely rare in the early 80s.

The game used a type of Axonometric Projection (the name Zaxxon was derived from Axonometric) called Isometric Projection. However, the Atari 2600 and Intellivision versions were displayed in a standard 3D mode, and this was because these machines weren't technically capable of running the game with Isometric projection. I suspect that there is a programmer out there who may have disproved this theory, though, as there is an unofficial version of the game on a Radioshack TRS-80 computer (see the playlist above) which is quite a feat.

A sequel, Super Zaxxon (see further down the page), was released in 1983, but wasn't as well-received by gamers and critics, as it proved to be rather too difficult to play and was waytoo fast!


Graphics aside, much of the gameplay in Zaxxon is actually not particularly groundbreaking or original, although having to adjust the spaceship's height certainly was unique.

The Player controls a shuttle-like spaceship by moving it up, down, left, or right, firing at obstacles which include fuel tanks, gun emplacements and enemy fighters. A nice touch is that the nose of the ship rises and falls as you ascend and descend.

The ultimate goal of the game is to destroy the enemy fortress and escape.

After the fortress, comes the free space section, where the player faces enemy spacecraft and satellites. This can be tricky for the player, with plenty of enemy fire to avoid. The spacecraft in the original arcade version have more intellingent AI programming than most of the home computer conversions, and are definitely more difficult to defeat.

The next fortress ends with the giant robot, Zaxxon. The only way to destroy it is by repeated firing. The robot fires missiles and moves back and forth, adding to the challenge.

For a newcomer to the game, Zaxxon can be frustratingly difficult to play, as it is very hard to judge what altitude are flying at, despite having a shadow to guide you - it's all too easy to fly into a wall or energy barrier because you misjudged your height off the ground! But with enough practice, this can be overcome.

The sound effects of the arcade version really add to the excitement, and sound really futuristic, with lots of laser sounds and explosions. 

Despite the pretty average gameplay, Zaxxon certainly left its mark on the gaming industry, and is regarded as a classic and iconic by many gamers.

Zaxxon Arcade version (Sega) screenshot of gameplay

The colourful arcade game


Ports of the arcade game were made for virtually all of the home computers and consoles of the time, but vary greatly in their quality and playability. Conversions were made between 1982 and 1985 for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit family, Atari 2600, 5200, MSX, IBM PC, Apple II, Dragon 32, ColecoVision, Intellivision, Sega SG-1000 and Tandy TRS-80.

Atari 8-Bit Version

I remember playing this version (which is the same as the Atari 5200 version) in 1984 on my 800XL with a school friend in my final year in school, and he was absolutely gobsmacked by the graphics, more particularly so because he owned a ZX Spectrum. The graphics on this version are impressive, and on the Speccy version they definitely are not!

The free space section is rather basic and disappointing, with the enemy craft simply flying in a straight line, unlike the arcade version where the craft move around more intelligently. There are also no satellites. This definitely could have been much improved and feels like a rush job,

Although I really enjoyed playing this version of Zaxxon, I was terrible at judging the height of the spacecraft. The Atari version is also extremely fast, (probably too fast!) which makes it even more of a challenge. However, with a lot of practice, I found myself completing the levels more easily. 

Zaxxon on the Atari is an okay game, but definitely not a classic, and it does become rather boring and monotonous after a while. Once the thrill of the graphics has worn off, it feels like just another basic space shooter, and the free space section is lousy and adds nothing to the game. 

Zaxxon on the Atari 5200
This screen grab is from the Atari 5200 version, but you will notice that it is identical to the XL/XE version, as the console uses the same internal hardware.


The Zaxxon port for the C64 is my favourite in terms of playability. It's a pretty fine conversion, and that's no surprise considering the machine's capabilities.

Graphically, due too its limited colour palette, the C64 version actually looks quite dull compared to many conversions, particularly the arcade and Atari versions, although are of a higher resolution the the Atari 8-bit, therefore, looking slightly less blocky. The Atari version is also a lot quicker due to its slightly faster CPU. However, the slower scrolling speed has the advantage of helping to make this version more playable and enjoyable.

Overall, Zaxxon on the C64 is decent, but the challenge soon becomes monotonous and the gameplay doesn't really offer much in terms of originality and variation. But the conversion has been quite well executed, at least.

The free space section does have craft with intelligent movement (unlike the Atari 8 bit version), although is not as well programmed as the arcade version. But is does provide a decent enough challenge.

Zaxxon, Commodore 64 gameplay screenshot

ZX Spectrum Version

The ZX Spectrum version of Zaxxon was published by U.S. Gold in the UK and sold for around £7.95. Unfortunately, it's not very well executed (and that's being polite!) and probably the worst of all the versions available. The scrolling is painfully slow and juddery, to the point it makes the game almost unplayable. A port for this machine should never even had been considered given its limitations, and thankfully the sequel Super Zaxxon was not ported to the Spectrum.

Zaxxon, Sinclair ZX Spectrum screenshot
Zaxxon cassette and inlay card for ZX Spectrum 48k
ZX Spectrum 48k cassette and inlay card

PC Dos Version

The port for the IBM PC and compatibles is actually a pretty decent one, and I'm a fan of the neon pink and blue CGA graphics, although I know plenty who are not! The scrolling is fairly smooth, at least, although the sound effects aren't great, with an annoying beep sounding each time a missile is fired, and the explosions sound like your PC throwing a tantrum. 

I think it's a decent enough port, though, and definitely more playable than the Atari 2600 and ZX Spectrum versions. 
Zaxxon upright arcade machine by Sega (1982)
Upright arcade machine by Sega (1982)

Zaxxon Board Game (1982) MB Games
Yes, there was even a family board game - this one is from 1982
Zaxxon cassette game box for C64 (U.S. Gold Synsoft) with red background


While Super Zaxxon certainly improved on the original in the graphics department, the breakneck speed of the arcadegame totally killed the gameplay. Even hardcore gamers had problems trying to complete this one.

Personally, I found the original Zaxxon game far better than this sequel which was released in 1985 by US Gold. The Atari XL/XE version was actually slower than the original and featured a ghastly colour combination of military green and deep blue, although the shadow effects are quite decent. 

I remember the excitement of seeing the tantalising inlay card, which tempted me to buy this on cassette as a treat during my first year in work - I kind of wish I hadn't bothered!

Ports of Super Zaxxon were made for the Apple II, Atari 8-bits, C64 and IBM PC. It was not available on the ZX Spectrum, Colecovision or MSX, unlike its predecessor, which was.

Super Zaxxon cassette case front (US Gold) for the C64
Super Zaxxon cassette case rear for the Commodore 64