Year Released: 1982
Original Price: £149
Buy It Now For: £80+
Associated magazines: None
Why The Vectrex Was Great: Vectors have never gone out of fashion. They were cool in the Eighties, and they are still cool today as witnessed by games such as Geometry Wars. They have not aged with time like many other graphics, their sharp pinpoint definition and almost hypnotic phosphor glow a lure drawing you closer. The games behind them were pretty good also, with a level of quality today that just keeps going up and up. To not Vectrex is to be incomplete.
The Vectrex when you look at it in today’s gaming environment is a complete aberration: different to anything that came before it or has come after it. Whilst there are a few other examples of the display/machine hybrid, it is the only one to stand out on its own right, and the only machine to offer a dedicated vector-based gaming experience. The fact it also had one of the shortest life spans of any machine makes it doubly interesting. If you thought the Dreamcast didn’t have that long of a commercial life, then pity the poor Vectrex which was dead within 18 months of its launch. Yet today it has such a cult following, and a home-brew scene second in size to that of the Atari 2600.
The men primarily responsible for creating the Vectrex we love today were Jay Smith and Gerry Karr. Smith had a long and detailed technical background that started whilst working on the Apollo space program. “I was really a gadget maker, and not too long after that, I went to work at Mattel Toys,” he states. “We got into making electronic toys, and from electronic toys to videogames, which were just coming onto the scene.”
Smith was also head of two companies that are often labelled together as Smith Engineering/Western Technologies, which for the further purposes of this article are abbreviated to SE/WT. The real break for Smith came with the Microvision, which was picked up by Milton Bradley (MB) for distribution in 1979. It was whilst dealing with MB that Karr met Smith; Karr would later work on the Microvision before being hired for what would become the Vectrex project and be responsible for much of the technical design.
“We really didn’t have any idea at the time that this would become a classic. What we were trying to do was push the envelope, move it to the next level, do something unique, make your contribution that way, and provide another outlet,” admits Smith. Vector machines such as Asteroids and Tempest were popular in the arcades and Karr recalls “… part of the initial design specification and push to sell was to produce a device capable of emulating Asteroids.” Continuing the portable theme, the idea for a handheld device was formed and a prototype was built with a one-inch screen using a supply found by hardware designer John Ross, though in hindsight it was incredibly hard to achieve logistically given the short distances involved with deflecting the dots from the plates inside the CRT.
Towards the end of 1980, so it is told, workers from SE/WT found a supply of five-inch monitors going cheap and it was decided that the new vector project was going to be based upon this display instead. “There were really only two iterations of design. The original concept was for a device called Mini Arcade. It was a five-inch screen, much smaller and less capable. We ended up licensing it to GCE, in a different configuration, but quite similar to what it looks now. As we were on a short schedule, and we had control over the design, there was constant evolution right up to production. At any one time, it was prototyped what was there, but conceptually it didn’t vary a great deal,” states Smith. By the end of the year the general design of the machine was almost complete and Smith began to look for potential investors.
“We optioned the product to Kenner, who were the ones to do the Star Wars products. Kenner thought about it, and thought, and thought, and this all occurred in the winter of 1980, spring of 1981. Finally in the summer of 1981 they decided no, it would not be popular, would never go. They gave it back to us in around July or August, and we went to a guy called Ed Krakauer, who was the key guy for Intellivision at Mattel and then left to form his own company called GCE, or General Consumer Electronics.”
Krakauer saw the potential for the machine immediately. “Ed was really quite a visionary, and he took a look at it and said, ‘Great, that’s wonderful, if it could have a bigger screen, I’d really be interested.’” Hence in place of the original five-inch screen, the final design encompassed a nine-inch screen instead.
The “Mini Arcade” name was not exactly catchy in the eyes of the marketing people (and apparently the name of another already existing product), and so a suitable replacement was sought. After a brainstorming session, programmer Tom Sloper came up with the name “Vector-X”, which was eventually contracted to the name we know today.
“And so by September or October we were in fully swing with a plan to do a games system and 12 games, and have them all ready to show by June 1982, which was about nine or ten months away. So in the ensuing ten months we developed the entire games system, the operating system for the game, 12 games that were showable at CES, and that was the birth of Vectrex.”
In that time, a number of design points were nailed down, such as the screen orientation, the control system and the overlays. “The Vectrex has a vertically orientated screen instead of horizontal. This was was so it didn’t look like a TV. By orientating it vertically, it gave it a different look, and it had its own value as a game.”
Smith continues to remember the choices made over the joystick. “How did we decide it was an analogue joystick or a digital joystick, and why was it on the left instead of the right? The placement of the joystick wound up being from a discussion if you were flying an F14 or whatever the fighter was at the time, the pilot’s hand is on a flight stick in his left, and the throttle in his right. So he does all the flying control with his left hand.”
The size of the joystick unit was based purely on the fact that the unit was as wide as it was, and it needed something that size to fit the slot at the bottom. Which is why there were also four buttons to use, and was also the reason why analogue control was present; there was the space and it needed to be filled. Almost all consoles since the Vectrex have had the pad/stick on the left, and in further terms of pioneering, the Vectrex was also the first console to have a dedicated analogue control as standard.
It wasn’t all easy going. Smith recalls, “Another big problem along the way was that it was a TV set, and had a lot of digital circuitry in it. The screen with all these electrons running around didn’t go well with the digital circuitry at all, there was a lot of moving around, shielding, but we got through it.”
In the midst of the hardware finalisation, there needed to be some games to play on it. Paul Alan Newell, Mark Indictor and John Hall were pulled off an Atari 2600 reverse engineer project and assigned to writing games or develop the internals for the launch of the Vectrex instead. Joining them were placement appointees Bill Hawkins and Chris King, who were students at Georgia Tech, and Duncan Muirhead who had just dropped out of a course at UCLA. All six were assigned to write the first batch of games pencilled in (Minestorm, Scramble, Armor Attack, Star Trek, Berzerk and Rip Off) that was later expanded to 12 by the time the console was to be shown at the Chicago CES in June 1982.
Many of the early titles came from Cinematronics, with WT/SE striking a licensing agreement that allowed full access to each other’s games. The source code of many of the arcade machines was fully available to the Vectrex programmers, and Cinematronics had the option to release any of the original Vectrex games it liked as full arcade versions (which it eventually did with Cosmic Chasm).
Included with each game was the final component, a hard plastic overlay to attach to the front of the unit. The marketing department decided that the black and white display would not be as appealing to the general consumer and it needed an injection of colour. Newell especially was never happy about them, and there was always a rift between some of the programmers and those advertising the machine regarding the policy. Hawkins once joked that they had thought about coding messages into each game stating, “for improved gameplay, remove the overlays”!
Smith comments about having a game included with the console, “At that time most Atari cartridges were done in 4k, with some adventurous cartridges getting up to 8k. The system ROM that ran the machine was put in 4k and the original game that was included with the unit was put in the other half of an 8k ROM. So the included game required no cartridge. Everything was in one ROM within the unit.” However whilst Hall and Karr had worked together on the system ROM (called the Executor), when Hall was assigned to write Minestorm, the eponymous Asteroids clone, Karr felt that the module needed rewriting from scratch…
Notable Vectrex Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 35, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop