The Vectrex is a vector display-based home video game console developed by Smith Engineering. It was first released for North America in 1982 november and for both Europe and Japan in 1983. Originally manufactured by General Computer Electronics, it was licensed to Milton Bradley after they acquired the company. Bandai released the system in Japan.
In contrast to other video game systems available at the time, the Vectrex uses a monochrome CRT monitor, capable of displaying vector graphics, without need to be hooked up to a television set. The control pad is mounted to the base of the console, and is detachable. Games came with color overlays to compensate for the monochrome screen. A number of peripherals were also produced, such as a pair of 3D goggles known as the “3D Imager”, alongside a “light-pen” that allowed the player to draw on the screen. The system also comes with a built-in game, Mine Storm, playable if a cartridge is absent.
The console was originally conceived by John Ross, an employee at Smith Engineering, as far back as late 1980. Originally an idea to clear out excess inventory of 1-inch monitors, the console became Smith’s first foray into the home game market. It was at first conceived as a handheld system, known as the “Mini Arcade”. Once the prototype was completed, it was presented to General Computer, who agreed to publish the console. Initial sales of the system were strong, causing General Computer to be acquired by Milton Bradley. The Vectrex was a victim of the North American video game crash of 1983, and was discontinued shortly after Milton Bradley’s acquisition by Hasbro.
Despite being a commercial failure, the Vectrex was highly praised for its software library, graphical capabilities and use of a built-in monitor; several publications labeled it one of the best home consoles available at the time. The Vectrex is considered the first video game console to have a 3D-based peripheral. In later years, the system gained a cult following, with many releasing homebrew software for it. A colorized handheld version of the Vectrex was conceived in the late 1980s. However, the success of the Nintendo Game Boy and manufacturing cost caused it to be shelved.
The Vectrex was conceived by John Ross of Smith Engineering in late 1980. He, Mike Purvis, Tom Sloper, and Steve Marking had gone to Electro-Mavin, a surplus warehouse in Los Angeles. They found a 1-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) and wondered if a small electronic game could be made of this. A demonstration of a vector-drawing cathode ray tube display was made by connecting the deflection yoke in a standard television to the channels of a stereo amplifier fed with music program material. An axillary yoke was used to keep the raster television’s horizontal fly-back high-voltage system running. The demo led to a system originally conceived as a handheld called the Mini Arcade, but as Smith Engineering shopped the idea around to developers, it evolved into a tabletop with nine-inch screen.
The system was ultimately licensed to General Consumer Electronics in 1981. After an exceptionally brief hardware and software development period, the Vectrex was unveiled on 7 June of the following year at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. It was released to the public in November, just in time for the holidays. The launch sales were strong enough that Milton Bradley bought out General Consumer Electronics in early 1983.
Milton Bradley’s greater resources allowed the Vectrex to be released in parts of Europe by mid-1983, and through a co-branding agreement with Bandai, in Japan as well. However, the video game crash of 1983 turned Milton Bradley’s support of the Vectrex into a costly mistake. In May 1984, Milton Bradley merged with Hasbro, and the Vectrex was discontinued a few months after. Over its lifetime, it had cost Milton Bradley tens of millions of dollars.
Prior to the Vectrex’s discontinuation, a successor console with a color screen had been planned. After the rights reverted to Smith Engineering, the company made plans[when?] to revive the Vectrex as a handheld, but the imminent arrival of Nintendo’s Game Boy put an end to those plans. In the mid-1990s, Jay Smith, then head of Smith Engineering, allowed new hardware and software development on a fee free / royalty free basis. Smith has also allowed duplication of the original Vectrex software on a not for profit basis in order to provide a method for Vectrex owners to obtain the original titles low cost or free.
The computer and vector generator were designed by Gerry Karr. The computer runs the game’s computer code, watches the user’s inputs, runs the sound generator, and controls the vector generator to make the screen drawings. The vector generator is an all-analog design using two integrators: X and Y. The computer sets the integration rates using a digital-to-analog converter. The computer controls the integration time by momentarily closing electronic analog switches within the operational-amplifier based integrator circuits. Voltage ramps are produced that the monitor uses to steer the electron beam over the face of the phosphor screen of the cathode ray tube. Another signal is generated that controls the brightness of the line.
The cathode ray tube is a Samsung model 240RB40 monochrome unit measuring 9 × 11 inches, displaying a picture of 240 mm diagonal; it is an off-the-shelf picture tube manufactured for small black/white television sets. The brightness of the CRT is controlled using a circular knob on the back of the display. A vector CRT display such as the one in the Vectrex does not require a special tube, and differs from standard raster-based television sets only in the control circuits. Rather than use sawtooth waves to direct the internal electron beam in a raster pattern, computer-controlled integrators feed linear amplifiers to drive the deflection yoke. This yoke has similar, if not identical inductances, unlike a TV deflection yoke. The yoke uses a standard TV core. The high-voltage transformer also uses a standard core and bobbin. There is special circuitry to turn off the electron beam if the vector generator stops or fails. This prevents burning of the screen’s phosphors. This design is a great deal smaller than the electronics found in the free-standing, full-sized Asteroids.
Early units have a very audible “buzzing” from the built-in speaker that reacts to the graphics generated on screen. This is due to improper production grounding of signal lines of the low-level audio circuitry, and was eventually resolved in later production models. A “ground loop” had been created by a grounding strap added in production to meet U.S. Federal Communications Commission signal radiation requirements. This idiosyncrasy has become a familiar characteristic of the machine.
The 3-D Imager, invented by John Ross, turns the 2-D black-and-white images drawn by the Vectrex into a color 3-D experience. The imager works by spinning a disk in front of the viewer’s eyes. The disk is black for 180 degrees and in some cases has 60 degree wedges of transparent red, green, and blue filters. The user looks through this to the Vectrex screen. The Vectrex synchronizes the rotation of the disk to the software frame rate as it draws 6 screens: with the right eye covered: the left eye red image, then green, and then the blue image is drawn… and then, while the left eye is covered by the black 180-degree sector: the right eye red, green, and then the blue image is drawn. Only one eye will see the Vectrex screen and its 3 associated images (or colors) at any one time while the other will be blocked by the 180-degree mask. The prototype was made in the plastic casework of a Viewmaster. The disc spins freely and is driven by a motor. The Vectrex software generates its own frame-rate and compares it to an index signal from the glasses once per revolution. Score is kept of how many wheel rotations are early compared to the software frame rate, and how many are late. The software tries to keep these two trends equal by adjusting the power being delivered to the motor that spins the filter and mask wheel. Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) is used to control the motor speed: the ratio of the “on” time versus the “off” time of a rapid stream of power pulses to the motor. In this way the software synchronizes the wheel rotation to the software’s frame rate, or drawing time, for the combined and repeating group of up to 6 evolving images.
A single object that does not lie on the plane of the monitor (i.e., in front of or into the monitor) is drawn at least twice to provide information for each eye. The distance between the duplicate images and the angles from which they are drawn will determine where the object will appear to “be” in 3-D space. The 3-D illusion is also enhanced by adjusting the brightness of the object (dimming objects in the background). Spinning the disk at a high enough speed will fool the viewer’s eyes/brain into thinking that the multiple images it is seeing are two different views of the same object due to the persistence of vision. This creates the impression of 3-D and color.
The same 3-D effect is in fact possible with raster or film-projection images, and the shutter glasses used in some 3-D theaters and virtual reality theme park rides work on the same principle.
The light pen allows the user to “draw”, to create images and to indicate, on the screen. It has a photo-detector that can see the bright spot of the vector-drawing display monitor when it goes by under the light pen’s position where it is being held to the screen. The photo-detector feeds internal pulse-catching circuits that tell the Vectrex and its software of the event. The prototype was made in the plastic casework of a Marks-A-Lot felt-tipped marker pen. The Vectrex draws a spider-web-like search-pattern to track the pen’s location. The software changes the pattern size as the pen changes motions and velocity in an attempt keep a continuous lock on the pen’s position. The Vectrex light pen was invented by John Ross.
The liquor company Old Mr. Boston gave out a limited number of customized Clean Sweep cartridges, with a Mr. Boston sticker on the box. The overlay was the regular Clean Sweep overlay with the Mr. Boston name, logo, and copyright info running up either side. The game itself had custom text, and the player controlled a top hat rather than a vacuum.Clean Sweep was written by Richard Moszkowski.
Byte in 1982 called Vectrex “one of the greatest game machines we have seen this year … [Vectrex] is a good bet to score big with the consumer”. The magazine praised the screen, stating that “it almost has to be seen to be believed; imagine playing games at home (or in the office) using vector graphics with three-dimensional rotation and zoom”, and noted that “It is unusual and refreshing to see a product appearing on the market with its software ready to run”.David H. Ahl stated in Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games in 1983 that “Vector graphics really do make a difference, and the strong line-up of games helps immensely”.
Since late 1995, there is a Usenet Vectrex community that creates homebrew games for ParaJVE, a Vectrex emulator.
Today there are also several people manufacturing and selling newly made games, some complete as cartridges with packing and overlays in the style of the original commercially released games, others with varying degrees of newly designed packaging with and without overlays, some in plastic multipurpose videogame shell cases or reused VHS cassette boxes, some with custom paper boxes or sleeves, some with no box at all.
Reproduction cartridge cases have been available since the early 2000s, replacing the reuse of modified Intellivision cases used before that. In the late 2010s some game makers have used 3-D Printed cases as well.
- Worley, Joyce (September 1984). “Farewell To Vectrex”. Electronic Games. pp. 82–84.
- Barton, Matt and Loguidice, Bill. (2007). A History of Gaming Platforms: The Vectrex, Gamasutra.
- Classic Videogame Hardware Genius Guide Imagine Publishing. Chapter 9.
- “Vectrex Programmers Guide – Project Breaker and the 6502 Vectrex”.
- What’s New in Electronics, By William H. Hawkins, Popular Science, Nov 1983, Page 116, …3-D game maker: Wear the Vectrex 3-D Imager,…the images from special plug-in games are in 3-D and color…made by GCE…Price: $50…
- InfoViews:’Rush in, Shake hands, Vittle up, Proceed home’, By John C. Dvorak, InfoWorld, 4 Jul 1983, Page 33, ..Anyway, the fantastic Vectrex arcade machine is due to become Vectrex II and come with an optional keyboard…One of the most interesting things at CES was a 3-D Vectrex machine. You put on some weird spinning glasses, and when you look at the screen, you see a full-color, 3-D image. It was strange because the colors were in the spinning glasses and somehow synchronized with the black-and-white TV image. It was great…
- World’s Most Expensive Video Games
- Clark, Pamela (December 1982). “The Vectrex Arcade System”. BYTE. pp. 92–93. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
- Ahl, David H. (Spring 1983). “The Vectrex Arcade System”. Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games. p. 56.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vectrex.|
- Vectrex Museum including a Vectrex Wiki and the mirror of the Vectrex Game Database
- Vectrex.co.uk Vectrex fan site with news, highscores, reviews, manuals, patents, datasheets, and other docs
- Vectrex infosite News, manuals, reviews, screenshots, FAQs, scanned manuals, scanned boxes and more.
- Spike’s Big Vectrex Page Vectrex portal, recent games/projects/news, information archive