Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Zaxxon (c) 1984 Synapse

Chuck:  Welcome to our Zaxxon review.  As is tradition with arcade ports, we will begin by analyzing the arcade version.  Zaxxon was released by Sega into arcades in 1982, the first game to have an isometric (axonometric projection) perspective along with the first to have a television commercial.  As we mentioned in our Congo Bongo review, Zaxxon may have been created by the same team of programmers responsible for Radar Scope / Donkey Kong, which is a strong lineage.  As Donkey Kong brought life and vibrancy to platformers, Zaxxon brought a new perspective and a serious jolt of technological wizardry to the space shooter genre.  No one had seen anything like this.

John:  Being arcade rats in 1982 this game was like a bucket of cold water being thrown on you.  It's very hard to get it across to the under 40 crowd what this was like.  You never knew what you were going to run into when you went to the arcade.  You'd walk in in 1982 and see Moon Patrol, Bump n Jump, Jungle Hunt.. then BAM, suddenly there's the most awesome graphics you've ever seen with a play style that you've never experienced before.  It felt like stepping into the future.  This would happen a lot at the arcade, there was always something more advanced to blow your mind, but it seems like Zaxxon is the first time I remember it happening.

Chuck:  For me that game was Donkey Kong, how appropriate that these games are related.  Obviously there is enormous programming talent involved in Kong and Zaxxon, I really wish we knew more about who made these games.

The arcade environment did wonders for video game development and evolution.  In 1982 there was already a crowded game market and the pressure to have something stand out was enormous.  Some were adding voice to spice things up, like in Sinistar, and some were using visuals to rock your world.  You're right, it always felt like you were on the crest of a wave, always at the bleeding edge of technology.  It's still like that in some ways but games that are tent-poles, as it were, are much more rare.  Zaxxon is one of them, a technological masterpiece.

John:  Buuuuuut...

Chuck:  Oh yeah there's a big but.  We cannot lie.  Zaxxon's unique perspective makes it very difficult to play and its' skill set that doesnt translate from or to other games of its' era.  This is one of those graphics vs gameplay situations.  Zaxxon still looks great today, but modern gamers may not want to stick with it long enough to get good at it.  It's definitely still a name that means something to gamers of a certain age but nostalgia glasses will only take you so far with this game.  You've been warned.

Zaxxon imagines you are flying through two fortresses floating on islands in space.  This could have very well been set on land or over a river (which Sega would later do in the spiritual sequel called Future Spy) and it would have made much more logical sense, but having it set in space really worked toward the hi tech / space crazed environment we were living in at the time.

John:  Well, "space games" were all the rage at the time and that's not the only reason.  I feel like a big part of this was that early games had little to no background graphics capability and using a background color other than black could make things hard to see so... most games were set in space by default really.

Chuck:  The fortresses appear to be made from concrete blocks and are replete with dangers such as surface to air missiles (very Scramble-esque), gun turrets which can only hit you when you're skimming the surface, fuel tanks you shoot a-la River Raid to get more fuel and the "boss" character Zaxxon, who is some sort of hovering robot that shoots missiles.   Zaxxon is the only "character" in the game.  There is no story or marketable cartoony hero, the pilot you play as is completely anonymous and frankly your space craft is entirely uninteresting.  The star of the game is the beauty of the setting.  It really is gorgeous and it still looks great today.  I love the high-tech look of the fortress, the walls the floors with their circuit-like designs.  The colorful gun turrets and fuel tanks.  The hexagon-patterned floor that Zaxxon floats over.  The perfect angle at which you view it all from.  Fantastic.  If it looks this good today can you imagine how it looked in 82?

For such an elaborate presentation the game is actually very simple.   Owing to this game's perspective you are granted an altimeter of sorts.  Although you cannot fly too low and crash into the ground, the altimeter gives you a visual reference of where you were when you flew through a gap in a wall or when you blew up an enemy allowing you to plan ahead in the future.  So the game is mainly trial and error, knowing which position to be in at the right time.  Because it's so visually elaborate the game is very short without much variation save for a middle section between the two fortresses that is a free-flying dogfight vs several other spacecraft which I venomously hate, hate, hate with all of my being.  Still, it adds very much needed variety to the proceedings.

John:  The sound design is very cool.  It seems like your ship has some sort of exhaust sound that is ever-present and sounds really good.

Chuck:  In Zaxxon's literature they call it the sound of "space wind".

John:  The zaps of your laser fire, the pulse of the force field gates, the launching of the surface-to-air missiles, the explosions all sound great.  And I agree that after you get over Zaxxon's presentation the game lacks meat.  Can you imagine if Scramble was as short as Zaxxon?  I also agree that the design of your spacecraft is pretty dull.  It's just a regular airplane or space shuttle, which doesnt match up with the shoot em up nature of the game.  However it does match up with the flight stick used to control the game in the arcade.  So does the "space wind", come to think of it.  They're really pushing the flight aspect of it.

Chuck:  In the literature they push the game as a flight simulation, basically.  It wouldnt surprise me at all to find out the game wasnt originally space-based.  It seems like the design of the ship is made to assist the player with the (at the time, brand-new) controls and also to make it a more simple shape for scaling purposes.

John:  Right, it does look good when it's pitching and yaw-ing.  So, what we have here is a graphical powerhouse that controls pretty effectively for what it is and is short on content and variety.  Par for the course for a game like this.

Chuck:  It depends on if you "get" this kind of game design.  Some folks will play this and pick up on the subtleties with the altitude quickly and have a blast playing it.  Some will be way too frustrated.  It's like a more-playable Congo Bongo.

John:  Well it was made to eat quarters.  It's amazing how many people bought this game for the Colecovision (which is a fine port) who couldnt play it at all.  How many parties did we go to as kids where people were sitting around a TV playing Zaxxon, dying over and over and over again?   Just seeing Zaxxon himself felt like such a huge accomplishment.  The game never felt too short because nobody could play it well enough.

Chuck:  Yes but it's no fun constantly dying either.  I'm content to be bad at Zaxxon because I can usually see what the game has to offer in about 10 minutes or so.  I marvel at the graphics and design and then set it aside, satisfied.  You're better at it than me, what do you think?

John:  Like you said, it's trial and error, figuring out what altitude to be at and when.  You really gotta love the game to get good at it, you have to play it a LOT.  Most wont put that effort into it, especially not in 2016.

Chuck:  I love the idea and the spirit of Zaxxon more than the game itself.  And that middle dogfighting section.  What they were thinking with that I have no idea.

John:  It's the real test of your Zaxxon depth perception, you have to innately know your position on the altimeter by the size of your aircraft and that of the enemy's.

Chuck:  It's unbelievably annoying.

John:  So how about that C64 version?

Chuck:  Oh yes!  Our reason for the season.  Welcome, welcome to the fold, Synapse.  I thought Fort Apocalypse would be our first Synapse game but here we are.

John:  Well Zaxxon ties into our Congo Bongo review very neatly.  It tying into Synapse is just icing on the cake.

Chuck:  Synapse software is a giant among early C64 publishers.  Active until 1984 they provided much-needed quality to the early C64 lineup.  They were mostly Atari ports and although that usually gets under my skin they're mostly good games so it doesnt matter.  I love how they advertise other Synapse games on Zaxxon's title screen: coming soon - pharoh's curse - drelbs - zeppelin - necromancer and many many more!  Yes, they mis-spelled pharoah.

John:  So how did Synapse get to make such a high-profile arcade port?

Chuck:  Dealings with a shady lawyer working for Sega at the time.  Seriously.

John:  Wow.  OK.

Chuck:  Zaxxon here was programmed by Peter Adams, who programmed the C64 port of Blue Max right before this.  He's also responsible for Panther which was released by Mastertronic in 1988 and is also an isometric shooter.  This genre is definitely his bag, baby.

John:  Clearly.

Chuck:  Zaxxon was released in 1984 near the end of what I consider to be the C64's early years.  It had already made a big splash at home with the Colecovision version, but the C64 version is certainly not unwelcome.  However, coming after Blue Max it seems like a bit of a step backwards.  Blue Max is arguably better, with more gameplay elements, etc.  But if you're looking for your isometric shooter to be set in space rather than WWI, Zaxxon is the better way to go.

John:  Zaxxon for the C64 is a very sturdy port.  Smooth scrolling.  Responsive controls.  The skills you build playing the arcade game apply well and the game scores the same as the arcade.  You'll notice that the scores on the C64 version match those of the arcade version if you play it the same way.  Pretty impressive.  It's a little easier because it's a little slower but I wont count that against it.

Chuck:  Yes, please dont because that's definitely a huge plus in my book.  I can enjoy playing it on the 64 even if it doesnt wow me with its' presentation like the arcade version does.

John:  They definitely paid attention to the arcade version when creating the port.  Notice how you can shoot the cannons on the ground by flying slightly higher so that you hit the red spot on top while at the same time avoiding their shots.  That's attention to detail you dont find in other versions.

There are two major differences between the 64 and arcade version:

1.  The controls.  The arcade versions controls are floaty.  The spacecraft has momentum and pushing the stick to the left and then stopping will cause the ship to tilt (bank) left then continue to travel in that direction briefly before straightening out after you've stopped moving the stick.  In the C64 version the craft does not bank left or right but rather strafes left and right and stops immediately when you stop moving the joystick.  It's not a problem, necessarily, but if you're used to the arcade version you will definitely notice the difference and have to adjust your play accordingly.  In the end I believe you'll find it's easier to control the 64 version.

2.  The perspective has changed.  In the arcade version of Zaxxon you can move left and right along the entire length of the fortress.  In the 64 version you seem to have a zoomed-in perspective of the left side of the fortress and you can only fly to the right to what feels like the middle of the screen.  It's strange but not a dealbreaker, the game feels very much like the arcade game anyway.  And it's not because of the aspect ratio difference between home TV vs the arcade, the C64 version is the only version like this that I could find.  All the other major versions have a "right side".

Chuck:  The graphics in the C64 version are just average.  I miss the arcade version's colors.  The blues of the surface and the white lines drawn overtop look so much more "futuristic" than the C64's.  The surface in the C64 version is actually made up of alternating lines, it's actually a pattern of grey and blue, and there's too much of this same gray color on everything.  It looks too dark and I'll dare say it - ugly.  There are bright spots though, the dreaded dogfight section has a cool space background with color shifting planets and galaxies.  It's good stuff.

John:  Compared to other versions the 64's looks very good.  The explosions are very well done.

Chuck:  They are but they also reveal "seams" in the background's character set graphics.

John:  Getting a little nit-picky there.

Chuck:  Wanna pick nits?  Go ahead and talk about the sound design.

John:  OK.  Well it kind of sucks.

Chuck:  I said pick!

John:  It's very early-period C64 sounding.  Lots of taps, ticks, wooshes, dirty cymbal hits.  There should be zaps when you fire your laser, dammit.  Not this tippy-tap-tap crap.  It's completely missing the background noise of the arcade game also, which makes the game feel very quiet, which is also a common feature of this era of 64 games.

Chuck:   As a side note there is also a different port than the Synapse version, from Datasoft(?).  The background graphics are definitely better but in videos the gameplay looks choppy (we have not played this version).  My conclusion is that Zaxxon is best played on an arcade cabinet.  The C64 version is very competent but doesnt have the wow factor.  I'd go with Blue Max instead.

John:  Well, sometimes you want to play Zaxxon, and this is one of the best, if not THE best ports of it.  I give it a thumbs up.  So Zaxxon gets a half-recommend.  I'd say that's about right.

Chuck:  But dont go yet dear readers because it's time for a ** BONUS REVIEW ** !!

John:  Oh, be still my beating heart.

Chuck:  Up next is SUPER Zaxxon.  Because we just cant get enough punishment.

John:  Punishment is correct.  The arcade version of Super Zaxxon came out very quickly.  It is NOT a sequel.  It's meant to be a cheap conversion kit for existing Zaxxon cabinets that provides an extra hit of adrenaline for Zaxxon junkies by making the screen scroll unbelievably fast.  It is a "hard mode" for players getting bored with the original Zaxxon.

Chuck:  It's ridiculous.  It's literally impossible to play.

John:  This was a good move on Sega's part.  Strike while the iron is hot, as they say.

Chuck:  I like the tunnels instead of the space dogfights even though they dont add much variety to the game.  I really like how the tunnels look, with the road and the TUNNEL IN!! flashing message.  It's got the same future-cool look as Zaxxon but everything is lime green instead of blue.

Super Zaxxon (arcade) mixes things up by making the playfield green instead of blue.

John:  The tunnels are there, I think, because the speed of the game wouldnt make any sense regarding the dogfights.  And instead of facing Zaxxon you face a mighty, fearsome space dragon!

Chuck:  LOL

John:  LOL

Chuck:  Yeah it's about as fearsome as Barney the dinosaur.  It looks like a parade float.  It looks NOTHING like the dragon in the game's literature.  It literally looks like a Muppet Babies version of the dragon on the cabinet.

Drogon, this aint.

John:  It looks like a Disney mascot costume you'd see walking around the Magic Kingdom.  I will admit when I played this game on the C64 many years ago I thought it was some kind of joke or hack or something.  Nope, it's real.

The C64's terrifying dragon.

Chuck:  So, Synapse had nothing to do with this C64 port.  It was programmed by Micheal Cranford and Lawrence Holland for Hesware (who published many of Jeff Minter's games).

There is also another version of Super Zaxxon which does maintain the green color of the arcade version and was published by US Gold.  It looks and sounds pretty awful according to this video right here.

John:  That is one of the most annoying games I have EVER heard.

Normally I'm not big on who programmed what and when.  That's more your department.  But I have to say I was surprised to find out that this was (at least partly) programmed by the guy responsible for The Bard's Tale.  What a big leap in genres.

Chuck:  That's Micheal Cranford.  He also designed Dark Seed, so yeah he did a lot of genre hopping.  I'm more surprised that Lawrence Holland also programmed Spike's Peak for the 2600.  Not sure why I'm surprised, it's just such an odd (and technically advanced) 2600 title, it's unexpected to see it mentioned anywhere for any reason.

John:  It's probably the C64 version of Spike's Peak, not the 2600 version.

Chuck:  There's a C64 version??

John:  Yes.

And I think you might be brushing right by his huge involvement in the Star Wars X-Wing and TIE Fighter series?  Some of the most renowned games of ALL TIME?

Chuck:  Damn, this stupid Super Zaxxon port has some serious genes.

John: Stupid, I can agree with.  It's as slow as the arcade version is fast.  The only reason Super Zaxxon exists is to be a lure for Zaxxon freaks who are too good at the game.  The 64 version removes that reason.  So now it has no reason to exist.

Chuck:  They completely ignored the arcade version's art style.  There's no green to be found.  It's all grey and blue like the first Zaxxon.

John:  At least it has decent sound effects.  An actual laser sound, a nice siren to warn of the Dragon approaching.  Oh and it has a nice little title tune that the aracde version lacks.  I actually think it would be interesting to have a real home port of Super Zaxxon but this isnt it.  Super Zaxxon is supposed to be very fast, period.

Chuck:  The most interesting thing about Super Zaxxon is its' heavy-hitting programming lineage.  Two mighty game franchise creators have such humble beginnings.  Who knew?

Chuck:  OK, so we both agree that one can pass on Super Zaxxon.  Overall, though, Zaxxon in any incarnation is one of the more playable of the "graphical flash vs. gameplay" designs, with a unique and beautiful backdrop.  I imagine it will be remembered for years to come.  By old people.  Like us.

John:  Synapse's 64 port is very playable but lackluster in the audiovisual department.  Super Zaxxon is a bit brighter but is too slow to be considered an actual port of the arcade game.  Stay away from the US Gold (or whomever) versions of the games we didnt cover here and Zaxx off everyone, good night!

Chuck:  Sigh.