So, you’re telling me there was a fantastic bit of kit that came out during the second generation of consoles that had its own screen, came with a built-in game and said pish-posh to pixels? You bet your Asteroids!
Retrobates, this is an introduction I have been dying to write for you here on RetroGameGeeks. Now, the time is right! Let’s talk about the Vectrex!!
The Vectrex was released as a somewhat ‘portable’, highly-advanced and arcade-like competitor in North America to the Atari VCS and ColecoVision back in late 1982. The Vectrex was a great idea and technically well-executed, but ultimately became the least prominent of the home consoles of the time. Undoubtedly the console suffered greatly by the poor timing of its release, which in a situation of hindsight is entirely unfortunate. Just a couple months into the Vectrex’s shelf-life, it quietly became a victim of the infamous video game crash. The console had a unique release history with a slow rollout to Europe in 1983 and Japan in 1984, with its licensed distributor changing hands over its 6-year run on the home market.
But it’s the meat of a system that gets the RGG love-in treatment, as you all know by now (unless this is your first read intro)! Basically, sales can eat it, because that’s not the factor alone that gives a game or a console its rightful place in history, remembered fondly with a sweeping euphoria-like nostalgia.
Now, what was so special about the Vectrex, y’may ask? Well, it’s the Vectrex. D’uh! But to get deeper than just that: a lot. It was the very first home console (not microcomputer or whathaveyou) to come with its own built-in screen, for one. That alone should be a selling point for any retro game fanatic out there who worries a great deal about nabbin’ the right tube for their hook-ups, because with this bad boy you just plug it in the wall and you’re good to go. No, really. It came with the ingenious marketing ploy of having a built-in game ROM (the rather incredible Mine Storm, which is essentially Asteroids, but actually a clone that is arguably superior to the original). Much like its console rivals, it also had 2-player support via its unique controllers (with its sassy self-centralising joystick and lovely analogue buttons) that could be tucked under the console for easy storage and its individually-sold game library came on cartridge too, backed with overlays for the screen in box. But it’s what that glorious screen showcased that makes the Vectrex a masterful piece of gaming history.
While everyone was relying on rasterised pixel graphics, the Vectrex had a monochrome display that pumped out gorgeous vector-line graphics, just like many of the arcade hits of the day that so many loved, adored and fondly remember even now. Utilising the overlays that came with the carts to simulate colour and give added still images/artwork…this was the closest you’d get to have a coin-up arcade unit in your home. Even better, the thing was relatively small to the extent you could easily sit it on a desk somewhere out of the way, or in a corner of a room (but nobody puts Vectrex in the corner) and it wouldn’t bother anyone. Aces!
To dig slightly deeper into what tech the Vectrex was built around. First up: dat screen!
The screen itself was a CRT display sourced from Samsung that was a vertical standing 9x11 inch tube. The control circuits found inside were essentially a miniaturised variation of what could be found in the likes of the original Asteroids cab. The overlays that accompanied the separate carts helped to dim the vector effects as so the player wouldn’t have their eyes strained by the surprisingly bright white-on-black lines. Being vector instead of raster graphics, obviously the Vectrex was kicking out incredibly sharp and crystal clear lines unaffected by the drawbacks of the standard display seen with something like an Atari 2600, making the 3D wireframe titles look absolutely outstanding and alone in its capabilities (at least outside the arcades). Funnily enough, the near-magical Vectrex unit was formulated from the minds of engineers looking for something to do with a bunch of cheap CRT’s they had at their disposable while working at Western Technologies/Smith Engineering. Incredible.
The innards bring about the true tech-specs, which is another point of impressiveness. Utilising a Motorola 68A09 (a CPU that continued to pop-up albeit in a modified form into the 90’s with the KONAMI-1) processor and having its sound generated via a General Instrument AY-3-8910 (you know the Atari ST? Jus’ sayin’). Dems some good guts, non? The CPU was clocked at 1.5MHz, with 1KB of on-board RAM with the extension of the game carts being 8KB ROM size. The sound was pumpin’ 3 tone generators with wave-shaping, giving a wide array of noises. Interestingly, early models (prior to revision) of the Vectrex actually had a slight, but noticeable; buzzing sound that emanated from the system which is in relation to the graphics on-screen, coming about thanks to production grounding issues. But don’t we all love a bit of white noise? Mmmm…soothing…
The majority of the physical features of the machine have been mentioned already, but just to reiterate further; this was an all-in-one device, folks! Every Vectrex came with its own 3inch electrodynamic paper cone speaker to kick out the jams and there were two input/output ports available, as well as room for peripherals and good ol’ switches for the likes of off/on/volume and a reset button. Standard.
Speaking of peripherals, though – the Vectrex rocked up with a couple of unique ones. We’re talking the Light Pen and the 3D Imager Goggles!
The Light Pen came with Art Master as a pack-in to get test your vectored drawing skills and was backed with Animaction and Melody Maker both sold separately. The Light Pen did what you should be expecting it to do from name alone. Think of it as a primitive version of what can be found with an iPad crossed with a Light Gun. That’s about right. Either way, it allowed you to fricken drag and draw things on your Vectrex screen and that to me is beyond cool.
The 3D Imager Goggles were a first of their kind device. Remember me banging on about the SegaScope 3D for the Master System? Well, same deal here but initially released many years prior, making its distinction as a pioneering bit of kit. Exclusive to the USA (darn lucky Americans) a couple years down the line for the console, packaged with 3D Mine Storm (yay). It essentially tricks your vision with some clever usage of RGB, dual-image drawing and wizardly wizardness. It was also, however, an absolute beast and didn’t exactly sit most comfortably. But the pioneering aspect of it deserves much props and is now a huge collector’s item to boot. So don’t expect any resellers listing it to take £5 offers. I may or may not have tried that already. And failed. Much like the Light Pen, only a couple of 3D carts were released separately for the device at retail.
You’re probably thinking: RIGHT, OLLY023, I GET IT! THE SYSTEM WAS AMAZIFIED, NOW TELL US ‘BOUT DEM GAMES, SON! Well chill, bro. Just about to…
Thanks to GCE (the company behind getting the Vectrex into our collective mits in the first place) there was a sizeable number of official releases, most of all that coincided with a special deal between GCE and Cinematronics to help bring that arcade flavour into the home environment. Thus, ports-a-plenty! Some stand-out titles include the likes of Bezerk, Pole Position, Rip-Off, Star Trek, Cosmic Chasm, Fortress of Narzod, Hyperchase Auto Race and a standard games bin-full more! If you love that undeniable charm that is constantly present with the wireframe classics of the past, then the Vectrex is easily your best option in terms of easy home use. It’s closest to perfect you’ll ever get, the games play great thanks to the amazing analogue joystick and arcade-sized buttons and look just as you’d remember with its sexy display. Oh and if you like to shoot things in space, this is a no-brainer. Silly.
Since 1986 there has been a large number of homebrew/unofficial games released for the system that stand as well-made and worthwhile indie titles. Many include cloned ports of famous franchises, but there’s some truly astonishing works outside of just clones, too. The tight-knit and loyal Vectrex fanbase are always coming up with more games to push more play out of console. New titles on an old system is always a plus in my book! That’s not to mention releases of multicarts and previously unreleased (including some completed) titles from GCE themselves that have since surfaced in binary form online for budding enthusiasts to give a go. In fact, the Light Pen-game Mail Plane was released as recently as 2013. Longevity, yo’.
Of course, if you do want to go all retro collector on dat ting, then Vectrex is a wise choice. Mine Storm II is one of the most sought-after CIB items in all of gaming and considered the rarest cart on the platform. The 3D Goggles also fetch silly prices and attempting to get an official CIB set of the available library will undoubtedly take a lot of time, money and patience but would ultimately be a rewarding experience. This is cult collecting at its finest.
Thankfully, this article is being written at a time where the Vectrex is finally getting some of the wider-recognition and attention it has always deserved. Much credit goes to the unwavering retro community that have kept the machine alive where others have abandoned, with specific credit going to the likes of the VectrexMuseum.com website, the original 1989 alt.net group and even the likes of YouTube celebrities in the form of ClassicGameRoom championing the cause.
If you fancy some pixel-perfect (or rather, line-perfect?) emulation make sure you pick up the Vectrex Revolution app for iOS which was released back in 2012. Whack it on the iPad, get yourself the MegaPack, hook up your iCade and fun for days shall be had.
You can pick up a Vectrex unboxed and alone for a genuinely fair price these days and we here at RetroGameGeeks thoroughly recommend you do, if chance is given. The Vectrex is one of the most underappreciated, yet ultimately amazing consoles in the history of video games. Give it its due and pay your respects, retrobates!