Phoenix Review: Elusive Splendor

Image from the arcade game Phoenix (1980), showing a flock of large, blue birds.

In 1980, the greatest strengths of Phoenix were its graphics and the mothership boss.  The visual experience it provided was light years ahead of Galaxian, and arguably better than Galaga in some respects as well.  What's more, the multi-stage design offered a great deal more variety than its shooter contemporaries, and the addition of a boss would have been an exciting new challenge to gamers of the time.

In 2020, these things are still strengths, even if less novel than they were 40 years ago.  With gracefully flitting birds and fiery explosions that happen just infrequently enough be spectacular, modern gamers will find plenty to enjoy in the visuals.  What's more, the boss is well designed -- arguably, the best-designed part of the game -- requiring a healthy balance of strategy and reflexes.

Animation from the arcade game Phoenix (1980), destroying the mothership.

That this game holds together at all, considering all of the hurdles they had to overcome to make the graphics work, is a major credit to the designers (see this entry for details).

Still, I can't help but have a short attention span with Phoenix.  As much love as the developers pored into the graphic design, you have to wonder if they would have been better off taking more time with the gameplay.  For example, in the first two rounds, both times you face a similar set of enemies, but in the second round you can fire twice as frequently, making it a lot easier.  On the other hand, between the third and fourth rounds, the only things that change are the color and initial patterns of the enemy movements.  Neither of those things has much impact on the gameplay, so the experience feels redundant.

Targeting the small fliers is another issue.  Due to the nature of the tiled graphics, the small birds have the ability to pass by your guns in as little as two frames of motion.  The clip below, which spans only 0.2 seconds of game time, shows two birds flying in and out of the path of a bullet in ~0.1 seconds, while the player is given about the same amount of time to dodge the blasts of a diving enemy. 

Slow-motion animation from the arcade game Phoenix (1980), showing how quickly the birds can cross your line of fire.

This scenario is not so common as to make the difficulty excessive, but is common enough to give the player a sense that the outcome has a lot of randomness.  These problems are amplified at the end of each round, when the enemies speed up by a factor of two.  At that point finishing them off basically becomes a matter of firing in their general direction and hoping you connect, a luck-based design paradigm that I'm not a fan of.

Still, there is something to be said for a spectacle, and that Phoenix provides in spades.  There are few shooters that can provide an experience as satisfying as when you rain down a quick barrage of half-screen explosions on a flock of retreating birds.  If you're lucky, you'll even be gifted with a 200,000-point bonus for your efforts.

Animation from the arcade game Phoenix (1980), where the player gets a quick point bonus for shooting birds in succession.

For fans of shooters, Phoenix is a must-try, offering a range of visual and gameplay ideas that are compelling, if not always effective.  Others will likely find it to be an enjoyable experience, but I wouldn't blame you for moving on after a few games.


  1. Phoenix is one of those rare games that I enjoy more on the Atari 2600. (Others include Venture, Joust, and Jawbreaker) It just feels smoother, since it's all sprites, no tilemaps, though I don't think the Firebirds' patterns are anywhere near as complex.


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