Portable Vector Arcade: The Vectrex

Posted on June 27, 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.

Except one.

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.

Glitch It Up: Bent Festival 2011

Posted on June 20, 2011

Electronics these days, I tell you — they’re too complex or tiny to understand in any human way.  So there’s satisfaction in ripping a gadget open and hearing what the electrical componenets truly sound like.  And when experiments turn to art, and the bleeps and static are music to the ear, this is what we call “circuit bending.”

The annual Bent Festival, organized by The Tank in New York, brings together circuit bending artists from all over the world to present their creations. The festival has performances, screenings, workshops, and installations, and includes video, glitch art, and other related forms.

If you haven’t seen inside an Asteroids arcade machine, it’s a pretty involved series of circuits for a game that’s 6 kb of programming, and another 2 kb for video and sound.  It doesn’t sound like there will be one of these at the festival, but Galen Richmond has an installation using microphones and wobblevision, which hacks black and white televisions to make them play oscilloscope — Prepared Televisions for Voice: Variations on the Wobblevision.

If that’s your thing, and it’s certainly ours, Bent can’t be missed.

This year’s festival will take place from June 23-25, at 319 Scholes in Brooklyn.  Get full Bent Festival details and schedule here.

follow: #bent11 @BentFestival @TheTankNYC @319scholes


Roland Emmerich May Direct Asteroids Movie

Posted on June 09, 2011

New York Magazine’s Vulture site just got the scoop that Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, 2012, Anonymous) has been offered director’s spot on the upcoming Asteroids movie.  This is the first major development news since it was first announced two years ago.

While Emmerich’s films are hit-or-miss, we here at AtariAsteroids.net think he’s a genius.  No one does ridiculous scenarios and go-for-it blockbusters better.  We’d hate for this film to be half-assed, and so far, things are looking good.  IMDb has the release date down as 2014.

Read the Vulture article here.

Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh + Asteroids

Posted on June 08, 2011

Mark Mothersbaugh, co-founder of Devo and frequent composer for Wes Anderson, cartoons, TV shows, and lots of video games, is pictured here with the Atari Asteroids machine at E3 Expo 2011.

He’s also a Raymond Scott Archive Board Member, and owns a rare version of Scott’s Electronium (1950s) — one of the most beautiful and awesome music sequencers you’ll ever see.  If you don’t know who Raymond Scott is, look him up!  It makes sense that Mothersbaugh was found hanging out by the Asteroids machine.

Holding up his new Atari shirt, Mothersbaugh said, “Atari is the best logo ever, better than the Playboy Bunny!”

Photo is from Atari’s Facebook page.


[Update] – we just came across this picture of Mothersbaugh sitting at the Electronium in 1993 (read the full writeup at Synthtopia).


Atari in the WSJ, Plus: New Atari Controller?

Posted on June 08, 2011

The Wall Street Journal today posted an article about Atari: “Atari Takes A Trip Back To The Future.” It talks about the company’s current strategy of developing some new PC-based games, while modernizing select older titles for social and mobile platforms. In fact, packaged-games have been cut in half over the past three years, while “the digital-games business now accounts for about 30% of Atari’s overall revenue.”

Atari probably isn’t developing a new game console any time soon, but the article did mention that they’re working with Discovery Bay Games to make an iPad joystick-arcade accessory.  At time of writing, we can’t find mention of this anywhere else online.  It follows right on the heels of the iCade Arcade Cabinet, but with a smaller footprint and price tag ($30 to $70), and less retro design.

Read the first few paragraphs of the WSJ article here (or the whole thing if you subscribe).  Watch a video interview with the author, Yukari Kane, here.



Techflash.com has given more details on the Atari iPad controller.  It’s due out in the fall, 2011.  Full story here.

Atari to Give Away an Asteroids Machine at E3

Posted on June 07, 2011

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) runs this week, from June 7-9, 2011, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.  Atari just made the following announcement on their Facebook page:

Guess what! This week at E3 Expo 2011 we will be holding a contest to give away an Atari Classic Arcade Cabinet each day to the person with the highest score on the respective machine. (The games are: Asteroids, Centipede, and Missile Command). These babies are collector’s items for sure so make sure you get your butts to the Atari booth at E3!

Sounds good!


At 4:00 pm PST on June 6, winner of the Asteroids Arcade Cabinet was announced: Josh Hollenbeck, with a score of 24,310.

Atari will be holding the contest for Missile Command on Wednesday, and Centipede on Thursday.

(Photo from @Atari)







[UPDATE 2] LA Weekly article on Atari at E3 here.

SXSW Panel: The Videogame Canon

Posted on June 07, 2011

At South by Southwest this past March, six videogame journalists met to come up with a definitive list of games that represent gaming now — the “Criterion Collection” of gaming.  They ask: “What videogames are canon? Are games old enough to have an essential group of titles worthy of the Library of Congress?”  Despite Asteroids’s historic popularity, we weren’t sure if it would make that list; so we stopped by to find out what would.

The panelists were Chuck Osborn (Group Editor in Chief, Future US), Eric Bratcher (Editor in Chief, Future US), Evan Lahti (Senior Editor, Future US), Ryan McCaffrey (Senior Editor, Official XBox Magazine), Brett Elston (Executive Editor, GamesRadar.com), and Scott Butterworth (Assistant Editor, PlayStation the Official Magazine).

Each panelist made a 30-second pitch for their “best game,” followed by some discussion, audience input, and then a vote.  One big guideline for selection was: Rule out nostalgia.  “If you’re introducing someone to gaming, you might love Street Fighter 2, but would you suggest playing that one over Street Fighter 4?”  On the other hand, to what degree should a game’s influence and historical significance be considered, even if elements seem dated?  This became a key point immediately.

Scott Butterworth started out by nominating the original God of War, for its influence of the interaction wtih 2-button combos, plus the blockbuster value.  Others asked, why pick that over God of War 3, which is the culmination of the ideas in the series, with better production value etc.  Which would you tell someone to play right now?  It was voted down.

Next, Brett Elston picked Super Mario Brothers 3, as the baseline for video games. Mechanics are tighter than 1, and the idea of different worlds comes from this. Plus, this list would be incomplete without a Mario game.  Accpted.

The discussion went on, with yeas and nays (Splinter Cell, Chaos 3: no; StarCraft II: yes; World of Warcraft: yes), and things were looking grim for Asteroids.  Then, Eric Bratcher, who had really been pressing for relevance today in the selections, nominated Tetris (1984).  You can understand it in 30 seconds, but can’t master it in 30 years.  It has been on more platforms and played by more people than any other game.  Tetris recevied a unanimous yea.  Asteroids it is not, but it’s in the same family of simple geometry, simple gameplay, and a race to survive.  We’ll take it.

Here’s the final list, in the order they were nominated:

– Super Mario Bros 3
– StarCraft II
– World of Warcraft
– Orange Box (Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal, Team Fortress 2)
– Red Dead Redemption
– Street Fighter IV (“what a sequel ought to be”)
– Minecraft
– Tetris
– BioShock
– Link to the Past

From the Archive: International Atari Tournament

Posted on June 03, 2011


David M. Ewalt at Forbes just dug this image out of the archive: Promotional photo of modular game stations at the first Atari International Asteroids Tournament, at the Chicago Expocenter on Halloween weekend,1981.

iCade Arcade Cabinet is Here

Posted on June 01, 2011

The iCade Arcade Cabinet has shipped, and Engadget.com has the review.  It pairs with your iPad 2 via bluetooth, and is designed to work with the Atari Classics app.  Price: $100.

Atari Classics released for iPad

Posted on April 07, 2011

Atari has just released Atari’s Greatest Hits for Apple mobile devices, with 100 classic Atari games: 18 arcade and 92 Atari 2600. The basic app is free and includes Pong. Games can be purchased in packs of 3-4 for $0.99, (there are 25 total), or you can get all of them for $14.99. A few truly great hits are missing (Pac-Man, Space Invaders, although these aren’t actually Atari games), but there are more than enough good ones that aren’t as readily available elsewhere.

The “Asteroids Pack” includes Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, Asteroids 2600, and Canyon Bomber (Bluetooth Multiplayer). In the iPad app, the arcade version offers three control options: Disc, Roller and Arcade, with the controls in the border around the video window.

In Disc mode, the device is held horizontally, with a left-thumb 360-degree disc area for direction and thrust, and right-thumb buttons for fire and hyperspace. Rotation is very responsive, but perhaps too responsive, and difficult to fine-tune without more practice.

Roller mode has a left-thumb vertical roller for rotation (up-down equals rotate left-right), and the right-thumb controls thrust, fire and hyperspace.

Arcade mode turns the iPad upright, with five buttons along the bottom in the standard arcade layout. It’s good, although when playing with thumbs, we prefer the roller.

Disc Mode

Supposedly this app has been developed along with ION, who will be releasing their bluetooth-connected iCADE iPad arcade cabinet in June. Currently, the Atari app can connect with other devices via bluetooth to play certain games head-to-head. With the iCADE, you place your iPad in the cabinet-looking holder and use the physical controls from there.

It goes without saying that the graphics can’t be compared to a vector screen, but they’re true to the original code with slight modifications. Specifically, when Asteroids is played on an LCD or CRT screen, the photon dot is almost too small to be seen. It glows brilliantly on a vector display, and the trace takes several seconds to disappear completely. But without creating some artificial effect, they’ve just increased the size of the dot so that it’s visible, along with the thickness of several lines. This is also the case with the online classic version at the Atari website, but missing with other authentic versions of the game, including the computer-based MAME.  Game play feels about right, although just a hair faster than at the arcade.

Speaking of other modern versions, Asteroids HD ($0.99) is an authentic replication of the game for iPad, with full-screen graphics and invisible control: slide your left thumb back and forth on the left side of the screen for rotation, tap on the right side of the screen to fire, and tap with two fingers to hyperspace.  Works well.  And while we haven’t tried the iPhone version of the new Atari app — and it may be great — the screen is almost certainly too small for the detail of the original.  A favored variation that retains the feeling of line-art simplicity but adapts it to the small screen, is Spheroids [we couldn’t find a browser link for this game — this will link to iTunes].

Back in the new Atari app, Asteroids Deluxe, is similarly authentic, with the faint background image found in the arcade.  The Atari 2600 version of Asteroids has the standard game console options on load, and decent play with a virtual joystick and fire button.  The graphics flicker like it would on a TV.

The games also include a gallery of original package artwork and images, and all-in-all, it’s a dollar well spent.