THE RISE -- AND FALL? -- OF A CONTROVERSIAL DISPLAY TECHNIQUE
by Brian Scott
(Appeared in the September 1984 issue of "Electronic Games" Magazine)
Ask a mathematician what "vector" means, and the reply is likely to
be something like, "A physical quantity that has magnitude and
direction in space, as velocity and acceleration." But pose the same
question to a videogamer and the answer will be more like, "A system
of graphics that etches straight lines onto a screen."
Vector graphics, a staple in the arcades as well as home videogaming
(the Vectrex system by GCE), requires the engineer to have a very
strong sense of geometrical concepts like translations, dilations,
rotations, mappings, and XY coordinates. (In layman's terms, these
can be interpreted as movement, changes in size, spinning, and the
actual construction of an on-screen object.) Anyone who's ever slept
through geometry in school would probably never associate those terms
with the kind of fun they have playing videogames.
While the more traditional raster-scan graphics are still more widely
used in arcade and home games, there are plenty of advantages to
using vector graphics. For one thing, vector makes it easy to draw
many on-screen objects -- ane move them -- with precision, and color
resolution is especially crisp. Vector graphics systems have their
drawbacks as well. It's just about impossible to produce real-
looking images due to the lack of shading, and large areas are often
left empty of detail. However, vector's biggest drawback is its
considerable cost, at least in arcade machines. (The home vector
graphics system, the Vectrex actually costs LESS than other gaming
machines with comparable memories.)
When Cinematronics' Space Wars arrived in arcades in 1978, the new-
born videogame market was given a boost by the machine's novel
technology. (Larry Rosenthal, creator of Space Wars, is widely
credited with having invented vector graphics. He later left
Cinematronics to form a company called Vectorbeam.)
Space Wars was an imaginative, original game with its basis in a game
created in 1962 by computer students at MIT. The game allowed two
players to simultaneously battle each other in space, with ships
looking very much like the Starship Enterprise and the insignia worn
on its crew's uniforms. The game ushered in a new set of controls,
like the thrust and fire modes and the ever-popular hyperspace
option. Previous games had fewer controls (usually one or two.)
Cinematronics later went great guns into vector graphics games,
releasing titles like Starhawk (reminiscent of the death-star trench
sequence in Star Wars), Tailgunner (the first 3-D first-person
videogame, which was also one of the few games that didn't use a
timer), Rip Off, Armor Attack, and more. The same company also
holds the rights to Cosmic Chasm, the first home-to-arcade license
from GCE's Vectrex system and one of the few full-color vector
graphics games in the arcades.
If Sega, now a subsidiary of Bally/Midway, were to be identified by
one word, that would be: revolutionary. The vast majority of its
games were innovative -- consider Zaxxon and Turbo. What really set
the world afire, though, was Space Fury.
Its game play wasn't all that new, but what grabbed people were two
things: color vector graphics and voice synthesis. Up until 1981
when Space Fury was released, game players were either playing vector
games in black & white, or vector games with a colored plastic
overlay on the screen. Sega didn't seem satisfied with present day
technology, so it decided to reinvent the vector process. It opted
for vector graphics primarily because of the sharpness of detail and
an edge over raster screen, which at the time was being used for a
majority of the games on the market.
The second innovation Space Fury delivered was voice. This wasn't
entirely new with Berzerk and Gorf already out, but the alien's voice
had something different about it: It was human! It seemed as though
someone uttered, "So, a creature for my amusement" in a voice so
clear, it absolutely riveted gamers to the spot.
Since that time, Sega's raster to vector game production has been
five to one, with only Zektor, a vector Zaxxon with a female voice,
and the colorful voice-enhanced Star Trek.
Atari has been a brilliant star in the videogaming world for some
time, and the name shines very brightly indeed, when we speak of
Atari's coin-op division. Though Atari has made a name for itself
with typical raster-scan graphics, the vector system hasn't been
In 1979, Lunar Lander became Atari's most talked-about game, at least
partly because of its novel vector graphics, but also because of its
lever-type control scheme. In the game, players controlled a small
lander, attempting to set it down on different flat outcroppings of
When fans clamored for more, Atari responded with what was to become
the most talked-about vector graphics game of all time: Asteroids.
The rest is history!
But vector graphics are not for arcaders alone. When GCE entered the
videogaming field in 1982, its main idea was to develop an
alternative approach. By utilizing vector technology and 64K
capacity, the only vector-based home videogaming system was born.
The Vectrex includes its own sound chip -- generating more arcade
realism than the mass-produced sound chips used on every other home
device -- and its own built-in monitor, which provides sharp vector
graphics and easy portability, as well as freeing the family TV set
from being monopolized for hours on end. Add to this an arcade-style
control panel, and a solid stand-alone hit was born.
Though its black-and-white monitor was state-of-the-art in vector
graphics at the time, technology has caught up to the Vectrex, and
the last year has seen the introduction of full-color games, computer
ability, 3-D imagery, and extra controllers (light light pens).
While laserdisc technology seems to be squeezing more traditional
arcade games into the cold, the game's not over yet for vector
graphics. Star Wars is one of the hotter games gobbling tokens
right now, and more vector games are sure to grab their share before
the tallies are in. However, the future of vector is unpredictable.
VECTOR AT HOME AND IN THE ARCADES
The following is a partial list of the best vector games to have ever
zipped across a screen:
Bally/Midway Omega Race
Cinematronics Armor Attack
Sega Space Fury
Typed by Keita Iida