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 completely ignored.

  • 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 rock.

  • 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.


  • The following is a partial list of the best vector games to have ever zipped across a screen:
    Atari                Asteroids
                         Star Wars
    Bally/Midway         Omega Race
    Cinematronics        Armor Attack
                         Space Wars
                         Star Castle
                         Star Hawk
    Stern                Berzerk
                         Cosmic Chasm
                         Star Trek
                         Web Wars
    Sega                 Space Fury
                         Star Trek

    Typed by Keita Iida

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