The game is a lot like many Fixed Shooters and has a feel of Space Invaders and Galaxian. Every level is divided into five waves, starting with several birds in a formation that would walk, quickly zig-zag, and fly off at angles. Along with shooting at the birds, the player(s) had a shield that could destroy any bird upon contact, although players could not move while it was activated (although they could still fire) and it would be several seconds before the shield could be used again.
The second wave was pretty identical to the first except the birds were in a different formation and the player could fire two shots at a time. The third and fourth waves consisted of eggs that floated about the screen, then they would hatch into larger, different birds that, it not shot straight up the center, could have their wings shot off.
The final wave consisted of the birds from the first two waves but with a mother ship that players had to shoot enough shots through its moving band so the alien inside the ship could be destroyed, which the game would then cycle over from the beginning, but at a higher difficulty level.
A lesser-known sequel of Pleiades was released the next year, which built on the several different wave scheme of Phoenix but was not as successful.
The first wave consisted of several entities flying at the player’s ship, which, if players did not shoot them quickly enough, would turn into an alien that would lay down bricks that would have to be shot away. The large bird wave was similar to the ones on Phoenix, but when players shot one of the birds’ wings, they would start flying straight down. The mother ship wave was also different, which there were several ports that had to be destroyed, but that could only be accomplished when a port window above it was open, and the last segment was totally new, as the player had to guide their ship along a runway full of other ships to try to land as close as possible to the target at the end of the runway.
Phoenix was ported to the Atari 2600 in 1982, keeping the basic gameplay pretty much intact, although without the background graphics and the mother ship wave had no birds included with it, but the ship traveled down the screen at a much faster pace than on the original, plus the game was for one player only.
In 1998, Ultracade machines (which resembled arcade units and were originally called HyperWare) included Phoenix, as well as 85 other games. The gameplay and sounds were identical to the original, but with a different-sized monitor (Phoenix ran on a different-sized, more vertical monitor than the larger Ultracade machines) the look wasn’t quite right. The Ultracade machines have since been discontinued, as the owner of Ultracade was reportedly indicted by a grand jury on multiple counts of selling counterfeit game packs.
In 2004, the Radica! Space Invaders Plug and Play unit included the game (along with several others built into the unit), but the gameplay was said to have been changed, such as the egg/big bird waves playing differently and there were no double shots enabled in the second wave.
A game was released like Phoenix prompting a lawsuit from Atari, who had purchased the latter's home video game rights. Imagic settled out of court, as Atari had contended the mother ship wave on the Intellivision version of Demon Attack resembled the Phoenix mother ship wave too closely. However, the Intellivision and all other versions of Demon Attack remained on the market, and Atari did not sue over any of the other versions (Odyssey2, TI-994a, Atari 2600, etc.), even though the TI-994a version of the game had a mother ship wave.
- There is a shield glitch that occurs at times when the player activates the shields, their ship is destroyed anyway but the sound effect of the shield being activated is still heard. This glitch was corrected on the 2600 port.
- In 1999, the Birds of Prey game on the Vecmania compilation cartridge for the Vectrex was a clone that was modeled after Phoenix, having the same five waves that played very much like the original.