Zanthrax is a fast-paced vertical shooter for the 48K Spectrum which was only released on a 1989 Crash magazine covertape. Fans of the Wipeout games will have no trouble understanding an early top down variation on that series’ concept. Fans of the 1986 horizontal shooter Uridium however will immediately recognise the graphical style and gameplay as Zanthrax is effectively a 90-degree rotation of that game, albeit with a number of nice individual touches.
These begin with the custom loader, which was always a bit of a temperamental swine, but emulation allows you to circumvent (or relive) those frustrations. For the uninitiated, the tape-loading schemes on the Spectrum tended to feature a loading screen and some fairly unremarkable flashing borders to let you know (if the screeching noise didn’t) that something was happening. Some software houses preferred their own loading software, as an anti-piracy measure or as a professional touch, e.g. loading counters were unusual but not an uncommon feature. Implementing a custom loader for a game was an unnecessary bit of spit-and-polish which made a game (and player) feel loved. If nothing else it was something to do for the three minute loading times if you didn’t need a wee or a cuppa.
Zanthrax‘s loader has a bar on the left which decreases to show the time left, as well as a scrolling text banner to read and an animated wasp. The programmer Lyndon Sharp (and collaborators?) used the name W.A.S.P (backronymed as “We Are Spectrum Programmers”) as well as populating the game’s high score table with other band and rock artist names. You may notice these logos look slightly familiar too.
There’s some short synthesised speech when you “Press Space To Start”. Select your control method next (keys are redefinable, joysticks are suicide, precision is king) and we move on to the name entry screen then to the high score/championship position table. The game is notionally a Wipeout-style “Race Of The Future” with championship points awarded after each level, but it’s unclear to me quite what effect if any they have on progress or the final outcome. Maybe there’s a minimum needed to compete on the next track, maybe they do nothing.
A quick word about the neat little sci-fi font, which is very readable, even when scaled up to the double-size, two colour, chunky Atari 2600 style used throughout. You’re shown the shop screen before every race/level, it’s not much good to you at the start of the game since you begin without any credits to spend. Later you’ll particularly want to purchase high shots to hit targets behind walls and surprisingly cheap insurance(!) so that you don’t lose your power-ups when your ship’s destroyed.
The game proper consists of 12 named levels, with those aforementioned shop visits inbetween. Each level has you flying above a differently-coloured monochrome racetrack in space. Your mission each time is to shoot the 10 beacons placed awkwardly around the track, usually behind high walls. Your ship can deftly flip over to fly down the screen as well as up so knowing which way to head first is important. Having destroyed the beacons you have to “land” on the chequerboard finishing strip. Later tracks introduce ground based structures which recharge your “Total Blitz” smart bombs or pull an un-Stealth-ed craft sideways into obstacles as you fly parallel to it.
The graphics are great, very metallic-looking, especially on the more high contrast levels. The walls cast unreasonably long shadows, making them clearly obstacles rather than background. Everything moves at a fast and smooth pace, your ship is never at rest instead having three fixed speeds or “gears” the third of which is not to be attempted on unfamiliar levels as you search for the beacons. There are no other competitors either, rather randomly-selected patterns of enemy ships come flying and shooting at you draining your energy. As well as your initial front-firing twin cannon and the aforementioned “High Fire” upgrade you can purchase “Dual Action” rear fire upgrades which make keeping the screen clear of enemies and hitting beacons much simpler.
There’s also a docking minigame every three levels, which allows you to earn more credits to spend. It’s essentially a neat little gravity-flipped Lunar Lander/Thrust-style challenge with your craft drifting up the screen to slot into the mothership which deploys your craft at the start of each race. Crashing into the mothership just means you miss out on the Docking Bonus credits, but impacts in the minigame are forgiving in a way that the least brush with the architecture in the main game isn’t.
I didn’t know until I watched the gameplay video on YouTube but there’s also a final Boss Battle vs Zanthrax‘s ship (whoever ze be). A nice way to cap off the game, I thought. Looks quite cleverly conceived, with shades of Gorf, Centipede and Arkanoid‘s battle vs Doh.
The music on the menu screen is pretty decent especially for 48K, the menu sound effects sound suspiciously close to ones from Chaos, and the in-game sound effects… are a bit rubbish. Too plinky-plinky, the sounds of you and your foes shots blend into a semi-rhythmic noise. There’s an annoying alarm effect when all ten beacons are destroyed which alerts you to head to the finish point. Irritatingly, there’s no distinguishable noise for when you do shoot a beacon, which is something that would benefit from emphasising.
In conclusion, Zanthrax is a solid, challenging game and has more than enough little flourishes to make it worth trying. Gameplay is a touch harsh in places. I always hate the softness of energy systems as opposed to one-shot kills, but the game would have been brutal beyond bearing if every impact was fatal.
If you like 8-bit vertical shooters then this take on Uridium or Xenon is one to try.
47040, 254 Infinite Lives
Even with infinite lives Zanthrax isn’t easy, since on death you’re sent back to the start of the level although the race timer isn’t reset and there isn’t an opportunity to purchase new/different power-ups.
23354,25 Credits = 90,000,000
Having excessive cash means you can afford insurance from the off and won’t lose power-ups but still doesn’t make the game a walkover.
Again, see World Of Spectrum, The Tipshop and The RZX Archive for maps, tips, instructions, artwork and more. This article is possible thanks to them, YouTube uploaders and fans who’ve contributed to the sites through the years.