Zaxxon’s tale is one of backstabbing and espionage… but maybe not in the way you’d think. Yes, the game’s plot revolves around stopping the construction of a space base where a giant robot called Zaxxon prepares to launch a missile that can wipe out all the good guys—a blatant metaphor for Cold War paranoia if ever there was one—but the real intrigue happened behind the scenes of its development.
Or so we think. Here are the facts as we know them: Zaxxon was manufactured and distributed by Sega, of course. But the game is believed to have been programmed (and possibly designed) for them by a firm called Ikegami Tsushinki, the company that also created Congo Bongo. That game, in turn, was Sega’s answer to Donkey Kong, and rather more obviously than most given that its action revolved entirely around an ascent designed to put a stop to the object-flinging frenzy of a huge, raving gorilla.
But Congo Bongo may be less a rip-off than sweet vengeance: Ikegami Tsushinki is also suspected of creating Donkey Kong as well, at least in terms of the programming and other technical gruntwork necessarily to take Shigeru Miyamoto’s cool sketches and turn them into the tens of thousands of phosphor dots that enticed so many millions of gamers to part with their quarters. Nintendo (so the story goes from people who have dug into the details of the privately settled lawsuit that resulted) then turned around and converted the code to Donkey Kong into its sequels without getting the OK from Ikegami Tsushinki, who not surprisingly was less than amused by all of this. Congo Bongo came a short time later, and it’s hard not to see it as Ikegami Tsushinki thumbing its collective nose at Nintendo, audaciously daring the other company to sue with a taunt that the general public would never understand.
Which brings us back to Zaxxon. Congo Bongo and Zaxxon could safely be assumed to share similar under-the-hood code, given that both games hail from the same developer and manufacturer. Both share the same cutting-edge (for the time) isometric perspective. Both have great (for their time) graphics. Zaxxon came before Congo Bongo, so it’s not like Ikegami Tsushinki created it just to have something to do with its code base. Much more likely is the possibility that someone behind the scenes said, “Hey, let’s tell Nintendo to screw off, and let’s use this engine to do it.” So while Zaxxon’s birth may not have stemmed from an act of vengeance, it certainly enabled such an act.
And that’s pretty cool, because the game is a lot of fun in its own right. Tricky, with its false perspective and inverted flight stick. But challenging and interesting, as players dodge threats from both ahead and below while navigating its three-dimensional spaces to their best of their ability. Sure, maybe Zaxxon is the sort of game that time would forget on its own merits… but add in the machinations behind the scenes, and suddenly Zaxxon becomes a key player in an important moment of game history. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer game.
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Zaxxon