Portable Vector Arcade: The VectrexPosted on June 6, 2011
Much of arcade Asteroids’s allure is the glowing, minimalist vector screen. Instead of a standard TV monitor, which scans from top to bottom over and over again, the vector display draws straight lines from one point to the next where needed, like an oscilloscope. It can only be a simple polygon outline of one color, but it also means that the image is sharp and bright (Asteroids’s photon torpedoes leave a brilliant trace along the slowly-decaying phosphor of the screen), and simple to program (the video and sound data in the arcade version of Asteroids is just 2 KB of ROM code, and the game program is another 6 KB). It’s why we have the Asteroids locator on this site: to this day, no home version or variation of Asteroids really does the same thing.
Enter the Vectrex. In 1982, Western Technologies/Smith Engineering developed a home video game device with an actual vector display — the only one of its kind, ever. The Vectrex was released by General Consumer Electric (GCE), then bought by Milton Bradley, at the end of 1982. Its big selling point was that unlike the Atari 2600, it was a stand-alone system that didn’t tie up the television. Timing was bad, though with a glut of home video game systems hitting the market at the same time, leading to the North American Video Game Crash of 1983. One year after it hit the shelves, production for the Vectrex was discontinued, and in another year, the commercial life of the Vectrex was over.
The Vectrex came with one game built in: Mine Storm, which is like Asteroids, but with mines. The official story is this:
Tread lightly! The transport lanes of intergalactic space have been seeded with mines from an alien vessel. Use your mine destroying blaster to blow up the mines before they annihilate you! You may survive the floating mines, but beware of the fireball, magnetic, and treacherous fireball- magnetic mines… 13 fields, each one more difficult, await you!
A few years ago, Indie 3D filmmaker and DIY stereoscopic expert Eric Kurland invited me to his Secret Underground Lair in Echo Park, LA, which is filled with all sorts of 3D goodies, including a pristene Vectrex. Yes, not only does the Vectrex have a true vector screen — several of the games are in 3D! Its giant (optional) headset operates much like a lot of home 3D glasses today, alternately blocking the left and right eyes very rapidly, in sync with the display showing the left then right image. Among these games is a 3D version of Mine Storm.
It was pretty cool.
The game action wasn’t actually in 3D, but some of the mines looked closer to you than other ones.
Being such a unique and awesome device, the Vectrex has a following to this day. The Vectrex Museum website is a great resource for all things Vectrex, and is a site after our own heart. Be sure to check out their intro video, which includes an introduction from the excellent video How to Beat Home Video Games (1982), as well as clips of modern users like chiptune musician little-scale.
AtariAsteroids.net will be posting more about Vectrex down the road, in our continuing coverage of Things That Are Awesome Like Asteroids. Stay tuned.