“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
I’m in my retro prime, NPCs! I feel like I’m having the best month ever because I finally secured the Vectrex, a vector-graphics portable home console from 1982. This is officially my 14th system and the second oldest console I own behind 1977’s Atari 2600. I understand and empathize with the perspective I suspect several of our readers share when looking at the Vectrex for the first time. There’s a kind of dismissal which occurs, especially in those who aren’t drawn to retrogaming, and that’s that the unit at hand merely looks “weird” but holds little other interest.
Well, allow me to salve your conscience by informing you that honestly I feel the same way about a great many vintage systems. The Vectrex is three years my senior but I was intrigued by it from the moment I saw it via an internet showcase. I can’t say the same for other early consoles. I don’t own any of the units from the first generation, the Magnavox Odyssey, Epoch Electrotennis, Coleco Telstar Arcade, or Home Pong (but I got my eyes peeled, idiomatically speaking).
When I think of the first generation, I really don’t think of the grandfathers of gaming. I don’t think of big wheelers and dealers and influencers. I think of a bunch of forgotten technology that got off to a clumsy start. Things don’t change much, to my mind, by the second generation, which reminds me more of failure than of success. It was a generation with a lot of clones and a lot of bandwagon jumping, and consumers evidently grew weary of it all.
The second generation was the longest so far, stretching from ’77 to ’92 with the lifespan of the Atari 2600, but it saw a flooding of the market when many companies decided to just jump in the pool and try their hands at making their own video game home console. It seems pretty wild that a single generation could see over a dozen consoles when today we’re pretty much down to just three. The Atari 2600 was the stand out device from this second generation, but that’s not saying much considering how large of a part Atari and their activities contributed to the North American video game crash (aka “the Atari Shock”) of ’83.
It wasn’t until Nintendo appeared on the scene with a home console built on strict quality control, stellar marketing, and incredible exclusives that the gaming industry began heading in the right direction again, but I’m certain most of you know the story from there. So what about the Vectrex? What about this strange, clunky device from the second generation that was only available for two years? What made it so intriguing to me?
Well, now that I’ve got one, it’s my job to educate!
#1. How I got it
First, I’d better explain how I got a hold of this 35 year old system. It all started with the Gaming Historian (one of my few favorite YouTubers) and a documentary on the Vectrex. A few friends and I were sitting around my house casting vids to the TV when I thought I’d pull it up to show them the bizarre device in this video that I’d watched a few days earlier. That’s when one of my associates pointed at the screen and said, nonchalantly:
“I have that.”
“No you don’t!” I asserted.
“Yeah, I do. It’s in my garage.”
“What? I’ll buy it off you!”
“Don’t patronize me with your convoluted sarcasm!” I expectorated.
“Yeah, I’m not.”
And that’s how the conversation went. We deliberated for several weeks, and what with the business of life the golden dream of owning a nigh-forgotten device like the Vectrex faded in and out of my subconscious. Finally, I just offered a $100, $50 up front for the unit and another $50 once he was able to dig out the six or so games in his closet.
So that’s how I quite randomly bumbled into buying a Vectrex, which works! Chalk it up to Providence, I guess.
The Vectrex Arcade System was designed with bringing the most popular arcade games at the time to homes across the nation. Many of those arcade games used vector displays and the Vectrex was designed with that in mind. In fact, it is the first and only home console to ever use a vector-based screen. This vector art is beautiful, in its own anachronistic way.
Inception of the idea for the Mini Arcade (later the Vectrex), a console that came with its own tube screen, came from John Ross, Mike Purvis, Tom Sloper, and Steve Marking when they discovered a 1″ CRT and thought about applications of electronic games using the device. The Vectrex became a miniature 9″ tube TV screen mounted in a black housing meant to be played on tabletops.
The final Vectrex was revealed at the Chicago Summer Consumer Electronics Show, June 7th, 1982. The console developed by Western Technologies/Smith Engineering and licensed and distributed by General Consumer Electronics (GCE). When GCE was purchased by Milton Bradley, that company took over distribution. The Vectrex was originally marketed in November of 1982 (just in time for Christmas) with a launch price of $199. Well, hey, that’s not so bad. Maybe. But if you adjust that for inflation it’s almost $500 dollars. That’s some top dollar current gen tech equivalent in 1982!
Milton Bradley was able to expand the Vectrex to reach the European and even the Japanese market, but the looming video game crash in ’83, the disinterest of consumers and the flooding of the market, led to the Vectrex having its price slashed from $199 to $150. It eventually ended up at $49 right before it was discontinued in early 1984, after the crash had taken its toll. Milton Bradley didn’t even sell a million units (compared to competitor Atari’s 30 million 2600’s sold), and they unfortunately lost out on tens of millions by supporting the doomed device.
In the short time that the Vectrex was on the market, it represented one of the most unique video game home consoles ever built. It was an unusual system, even for that era. That has a lot to do with its vector display as well as its peripheral accessories.
The Vectrex was marketed with two separate peripherals: a frickin’ light pen and a set of 3D goggles. WHAT?! This was 1982, folks. Don’t forget. The Vectrex was the first system ever to offer a 3D imager, a headset that fit down over the eyes of the player. Only three games on the Vectrex supported 3D imaging functionality, however. The 3D imager uses spinning discs in the goggles to create the illusion of 3-D graphics in color. The discs synchronized with the frame rate of the Vectrex screen, allowing for a smooth impression of three dimensions with the objects in the vector display.
There was also the light pen, which plugged into the second-player controller port. Again, only three games were ever developed that could support use of the pen but we’re talking about a device in 1982 that let you draw on its screen with a physical pen, creating images and objects. That’s almost nearly a 9″ CRT tablet touchscreen with a stylus. I mean, imagine if this idea had caught on early instead of being swept under the rug with all the other trash!
#4. Unit Specifications
The tube TV screen is framed in a black housing which resembles a tall, narrow old school television such as a lot of us grew up with. On the back is a handhold for easily picking up the system, and there’s also a knob below that for adjusting brightness (which I discovered out of necessity, since when I first booted it up, I could only see the brightest images on the display but nothing else). On the front, below the 9″ screen, there’s a dock which swings forward and becomes the controller. In the bay is another knob for turning the system on and adjusting the volume (similar to a radio power knob) and a button to reset the device. The controller is attached to a spiraled wire that must be plugged into a controller dock in the bay.
Much hullabaloo has been made (and rightfully so) over the Nintendo Switch being the first hybrid home console/handheld, but decades before it, the Vectrex was already playing around with the idea of being a home console that wouldn’t hog up the TV, which you could take anywhere and play anywhere, provided you could find yourself an outlet.
The Vectrex uniquely (out of all home consoles) uses vector graphics and not raster or pixel graphics, with which we gamers are so familiar. Its visuals look entirely different from anything it competed against in the home console market during the second generation, and it even looked different from later advances in 8-bit and 16-bit graphics. Including the monitor with the console allowed the Vectrex to pursue this different avenue in visuals. Vector graphics are essentially just lines of light and the Vectrex wasn’t capable of displaying color. When you switch it on, the lines glow white on a black screen. To facilitate color, the Vectrex came with sheets of colored plastic that were designed to fit over the top of the CRT screen, just like the Magnavox Odyssey. There were different sheets for different games.
Vector graphics are truly beautiful. There’s a sharp elegance to them with their polygonal shapes. The colors, especially the white on black, are haunting and ghost-like. The endearing bleeps and boops of arcade fare emitting from the Vectrex in tandem with the vector art is unlike anything else I’ve played on home consoles.
Here’s a comparison of the white graphics and the display using a plastic filter. I originally thought I could only play this device at night in the dark, but with the brightness all the way up the vector lines really pop!
#7. the Controller
The controller is from an era before the rise in popularity of the directional-pad, so it uses an old fashioned arcade-like joystick and four buttons marked with the numbers 1 through 4. It’s remarkable to me how responsive this controller is even after all these years. I love how much it feels like an arcade cabinet, especially when played as intended on a tabletop, even though tapping with my fingertips is by now something I’m unaccustomed to after training my thumbs to do most of the work with modern controllers.
#8. the Games
It’s not as if the Vectrex needed anything else to make it unique, but it came with a built-in game that didn’t require an additional cartridge to play. This game is an Asteroids clone called Mine Storm. It’s quite fun and it really feels like a game transported from the arcades of old. I’m looking forward to securing the rest of the lot and the games my friend says he’s got somewhere for the system. I’ll just keep dangling Ulysses Grant over his head until he finds them!
Out of all of the consoles of the second generation, it’s the Vectrex that I was happiest to hunt down until I owned it. It stands out in a generation where not much else stood out. As Matt Barton put it in an article on the History of Gaming Platforms:
“The annals of videogame and computer history are littered with promising and ambitious systems that inexplicably flopped on the market, only later garnering the attention and passion of dedicated collectors and enthusiasts. However, the bulk of these obscure platforms are valued mostly for nostalgic reasons; only a precious few attract the time and energy of serious homebrew enthusiasts who continue to develop and release software for their favorite system long after it has disappeared from store shelves… GCE’s Vectrex is one such system.”
The Vectrex’s swansong was lost in a sea of voices and because it was expensive to produce, it was unpalatable for consumers and distributors. Its unfortunate timing in history led to its early demise.
I wonder just what could have come out of gaming if the crash hadn’t ended its lifespan so soon. Could we have had consistent 3D imaging technology in gaming as early as 1982? Would we have already had TVs in the 90’s that were essentially tablets where you could draw on your screen with a stylus? Would vector art have remained a constant in the realm of graphics, granted it could sustain its own evolution? What would the progress of technology look like if the great ideas and innovations of the Vectrex hadn’t appeared in the ill-fated second generation?
The world will never know.
-The Well-Red Mage
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