ZAXXON RISING: One Man’s Quest To Save One of The Most Under-Appreciated Games in America

Zaxxon cover image

For days it laid face down in the rain, kicked to the curb on a street in Albia, Iowa, a mere 22 miles from Walter Day’s arcade-famous city of Ottumwa, the very same arcade featured in many films and documentaries.  A seemingly tragic end to a game that had once taken the world by storm and so close to the city where an arcade named “Twin Galaxies” had birthed legendary tales of competitive glory  that are still told today.

zaxxon smallTo the cars passing by it had to be a strange sight to see ZAXXON, Sega Gremlin’s 1982 forgotten classic, laying abandoned on a street; but maybe not that strange at all since Iowa houses The Video Game Capital of The World, in Ottumwa. People are used to seeing and hearing about arcade games even after arcades became denizens of yore. Arcade games are part of Iowa’s culture. Perhaps people thought someone was in the process of moving it? Perhaps they figured it was trashed from being left out in the rain?

Water is particularly dangerous to classic arcade games. ZAXXON’s fiberboard cabinet, joined together with water-soluble glue, is especially unforgiving of moisture of any kind. Some may have been thinking that, no matter how cool it would be to have a free arcade game, a water-damaged, swelling and crumbling game cabinet is no one’s prize. You’d have more fun with a wet paper bag, trust me.

Whatever the reason why it sat like that for even an hour is up for grabs; however on February 24, Ottumwa local Tim McVey, arcade champion and star of the documentary film on his life, “Man Vs. Snake”who was trying to save the Zaxxon  but it wouldn’t fit in his car–  posted a call to action to save the Zaxxon on social media. The response was interesting. By and large most people considered the Zaxxon worthy of being thrown away.  In spite of quite a few people calling for the game to be saved, most notably McVey and arcade historian and video game advocate, Patrick Scott Patterson, the plight of the game got little love. In fact it drew quite a few negative comments which baffled me for many reasons.

‘It’s Zaxxon, man.’ I was thinking. ‘Doesn’t anyone know or remember what that game meant…what it did, what it inspired?’

pyromania zaxxonAlthough in 1982 Zaxxon had been the hit of the season and was a very popular yet exceedingly difficult game, the once ground-breaking isometric shooter’s appeal over the decades hadn’t held up. People by and large don’t enjoy it today as they did in The 80s.

It was sad for me to think that the game that had once sparked creative passion from the likes of New Order, who used Zaxxon in their video “Blue Monday”, and Def Leppard who used Zaxxon influenced imagery on the cover of “Pyromania”, an album that sold 100,000 copies per day upon release, was being deemed as being a game not worth remembering because “it sucks”. Never mind that it’s a classic with an incredible history. People think it “sucks”. Even barcades, those hipster watering holes who usually have an appetite for really good games, think Zaxxon sucks. I absolutely don’t get it. Usually people who don’t like Zaxxon can;t handle Zaxxon. Zaxxon is not a noob’s or poser’s game. Elite players only need apply.

I was quite literally blown away by some of the responses about Zaxxon on social media. Hate on Zaxxon all you want but that game had once been so popular and so cutting edge fantastic that walls of them had lined the arcade’s  darkest back regions; the place where the “aces” held court, away from the kiddy games like Donkey Kong, kicking it cool next to titles like Defender, Star Castle and Robotron.  There had even been a board game released that was modeled on Zaxxon and numerous sights and mentions of it in movies. Even Ronald Reagan liked it. He thought it was a good game to train fighter pilots on.

Zax boardgame

But what surprised me more than anything besides seeing a Zaxxon face-down in Iowa, was the discovery that no one seemed to know that Zaxxon had once played a significant part in putting Iowa, specifically Twin Galaxies Arcade/Scoreboard, in Ottumwa, on a map that most arcades in the early 80s would have sold their souls to the devil to get on… Hollywood.

Zaxxon -believe it or not- was the game that got Twin Galaxies and Ottumwa, The Video Game Capitol of The World, in the movies and led to Twin Galaxies proprietor, Walter Day and his champion players being caricatured in an MTV video, the place where it really mattered to be seen on TV in 1983.

Hollywood Zap, written and directed by David Cohen, was filmed in 1983 but unfortunately was not released due to problems with distribution until 1986. However Cohen had connections with many popular bands and musicians at the time, including  Joe Walsh, formerly of The Eagles, who allegedly wrote the song “Space Age Whiz Kids” to be used in Hollywood Zap. The song never surfaced in the film -most likely because of the film’s late release- but Walter Day’s likeness is more than just a little obvious although agreeably unflattering in the video Walsh released on schedule for MTV in 1983. I take it that Walsh wasn’t a fan of the video craze:

So it was eerie to see that, out of all the thousands of titles that could have been dumped and forgotten on the street, that it was a Zaxxon. One of the few games linked to Twin Galaxies’ earliest history with pop culture media. It was almost as if it was trying to get back home.

Giving a Friend a Lift
zaxxon in snow copy(1)

On February 24, arcade preservationist and arcade tournament coordinator, Terry Burtlow, Ottumwa, Iowa,  was scrolling through his Facebook when he spied the post from Tim McVey concerning the abandoned Zaxxon.

“I saw a photo of this Zaxxon laying face down on the street curb waiting for the garbage man to come and get it. It was raining and snowing that day as well. Tim (McVey) had put the caption  ‘Left to rot in the rain and snow‘,  and the next thing you knew that post just blew up.”

People were curious, some were amused but a few were dead set on saving the game. Tim McVey had someone willing to get the game for him as his vehicle couldn’t accommodate such a large cabinet. However when McVey’s friend arrived at the street to pick up the Zaxxon, he discovered the game was too heavy for him to load on his own. So the Zaxxon remained on the street.

Burtlow was still adamant about saving the game. He contacted some friends of his in Albia and asked him to go get the game. His friends agreed and set off on a rescue mission only to discover the game was gone.

“I was a little bummed, ” Burtlow explains.  “But I was, like, well, okay…at least somebody got it. And then I just left it at that.”

But as the weekend passed, on Monday, around 9 PM, Burtlow received  a notification that the Zaxxon was still there.

“I instantly texted my friends back in Albia and told them to ‘CALL ME’ as soon as they got off work. So a little after 11 o’clock they got a hold of me. I told them that the Zaxxon was still there and asked if they could go get it and bring it to me. I gave them the directions again. It was then that I realized they’d written down the wrong directions the first time around.”

terry waltHaving been around arcade games most of his life Burtlow knew that chances were the Zaxxon’s cabinet had been destroyed beyond repair from days of being in the rain and snow. In the world of arcade restoration and preservation, sometimes the worst has to happen to save another. Most of the time one can repair just about anything other than wet and swelling fiberboard which eventually crumbles into pieces in your hands no matter how strident your efforts. Burtlow figured he could at least save the monitor, the board and the joystick, as well as other parts which could help another Zaxxon live another day. It was worth a shot, he thought. Better than seeing it all end up in a landfill.

So he waited for his friends to return with it, thoughts of the game being ruined clouding his thoughts. But any gloomy thoughts were burst the moment his friends texted him, “We got it!”.

“I was jumping up and down and was happy as hell. I even woke up my wife Ginny out of a deep sleep.”

At midnight, on Monday, February 27, Zaxxon finally came home.

terry copy (2)

“We got it unloaded and I began to go thru it,” Burtlow explains, detailing not only the good condition of the game but the historic treasures collectors are always happy to find inside. “I was blown away by how clean the board was and how solid the cab was from sitting outside in the elements. We also found 3 service slips along with the original manual and everything that goes with it.”

14495321_1191516364244602_685416691471280877_nBurtlow, who sits on a committee dedicated to the preservation of Ottumwa’s cultural history, says this Zaxxon “…will be repaired and set up in the arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, The Video Game Capital Of The World.”

On March 25th 2017, at the Market On Main in downtown Ottumwa, Burtlow and others  have teamed up with the Wapello County Rural Fire Department to host an arcade event  to help the Fire Department raise funds to purchase new equipment.


Ottumwa’s Old School Arcade



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