The history of Zaxxon

Someone had way too much time on their hands. Then again, the joke’s on me since I watched their video. I’m talking about this one:

Zaxxon was groundbreaking, though.

You have to really consider what video games looked like in 1982. This was the dawn of video gaming. A decade earlier, the most advanced video game in the world looked like this:

and here was something in color that made you feel like it was even in 3D. I remember seeing Zaxxon for the first time and thinking that it was pretty unlikely that games could get better than this in my lifetime.

It wasn’t just graphics

Although Zaxxon borrowed heavily from other side-scroller games of the time with an endless playfield and multiple tasks that ended with a boss level, it introduced a lot more playability. Using a shadow under the plane made it a lot easier to know where the plane was in space, since it didn’t get bigger or smaller as it went up and down. It was still a challenge but it wasn’t impossible.

Zaxxon really drove gameplay forward and was a real hit for Sega, which wasn’t a really well known company at that time.

Finally the mystery of why they called it that

At the time I thought the name sounded a lot like Xerox but I didn’t know why they called it that. I still think the connection’s a bit tenuous but apparently it’s a riff on “axonometric projection.” That’s the way you describe a 3D world where the Z axis is represented as a 45 degree line from the X and Y axes and there is no perspective. This graphic helps it make sense:

You see, Zaxxon wasn’t really in 3D. That would have been far beyond the limits of what video game technology could do in those days.  There were some basic 3D games being developed then, the most notable being Atari’s Tempest, but the idea that you could do solid shapes with multiple colors in 3D was still years away back then. Even 1985’s Space Harrier which looked like it was 3D wasn’t a true 3D system.

How to play Zaxxon today

There are a number of free emulators out there including web-based versions like this oneThere are also downloadable ones that are easy to find on the internet. Because of copyright laws, you would technically need to have a non-working arcade version of Zaxxon to use them. I’ve talked before about the need for copyright reform and how maybe a 38-year-old arcade game doesn’t really need legal protection. But for now use your own best judgment if you’re going to play a game from that era.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.