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Introduction to Vectrex

by Al Backiel

Reprinted with permission from Digital Press

Officially designated the HP-3000, the Vectrex Arcade System was tagged "The King of the Stand-alones" by Electronic Games Magazine. This classic system is a self-contained cartridge-based unit which uses vector graphics. It has a 64K ROM & 2K RAM memory (the largest game produced was Animaction at 8K ROM and 2K RAM and a working prototype of Dark Tower at a whopping 12K). The Vectrex comes with a 9" diagonal black & white Samsung monitor, and the "footprint" of the machine takes up less than one square foot of space. Most games come with a plastic screen overlay which acts like a filter to simulate color. The boast of "arcade quality games" was (at the time) justified due to: a vertically oriented screen, 4-button 360o self-centering joystick, an 8-bit Motorola microprocessor with an internal speed of 1.6 Mhz and the capability of rotation and zoom. Hot! Hot! Hot!

One of the prime selling points was that it would resolve domestic squabbles by freeing up the family TV. Portability was also claimed even though it weighs in at a hefty 15 pounds and doesn't come with a battery pack. Admittedly, it did fold away neatly, and it does actually have a molded handle.

The Vectrex was introduced in January of '82 at the Winter CES in Las Vegas. It was made by General Consumer Electronics (founded 1980), a company previously known for their watches and calculators that doubled as video games. The original Vectrex prototype was built by Gerry Karr of Western Technologies. GCE was bought out by Milton Bradley soon after and became a subsidiary. GCE provided the graphics for the 1982 sci-fi movie Android which starred Klaus Kinski. The system was available in selected markets in time for Christmas 1982 at $200 for the system and $35 per game. The Vectrex hit its peak during 1983 when most games and peripherals were created and/or released.

I was sold on the Vectrex after attending the Electronic Fun Expo at the NY Coliseum in November of '83. This CES-like show was open to the public and every major game manufacturer was there. Vectrex had a large booth with several systems mounted on pedestals. After playing Mine Storm and Pole Position a few times I was hooked. Miton Bradley was gearing up for a nation-wide distribution while the video game market was slowly collapsing around them in 1983. The price was dropped to $150, then $100. Eventually it reached a point where MB was supposedly losing $31.6 million due to the high cost of manufacturing the unit. Finally, they decided to pull the plug on the Vectrex in February 1984. Stuck with a huge inventory, they were forced to unload everything to discounters who sold them at fire sale prices thru the rest of 1984. The system went down to $45 and the carts were selling for $5 to $10 apiece at that time. I remember seeing Vectrex systems stacked high like building blocks in department stores, and large ads in newspapers announcing the "price break". Many gamers took advantage of these bargain prices and are probably gloating over their good fortune.

The games themselves are generally of a high quality and are mostly licensed versions of arcade games. Cosmic Chasm, however, went from home to arcade. The most excellent (thank you Bill & Ted) built-in game Mine Storm was an answer to Atari's Asteroids. If there is a weakness with the Vectrex, it has to be in it’s sports line-up. The vector graphics are not too cool in depicting the players. They're reduced to stick figures (Heads-Up Soccer) or X's & O's (Blitz!). Spike is the only talking cart and works without any additional hardware. A 3D version of Mine Storm was released and came packaged with the special 3D glasses. The Artmaster cart introduced the light pen. Web Wars, for many years, was the closest thing to the popular arcade game of the time Tempest. Fortress of Narzod is a unique game in which you have to watch out for ricocheting bullets or risk self-destruction. An interesting "Easter Egg" occurs in Fortress of Narzod (by killing the "Mystic Hurler" at the same time he kills you - lives remaining then become 255 and display becomes the infinity symbol). The only known program bugs exist in Berzerk (garbage appears in the score register after 4000 points) and in Spike (score jumps greatly when you leap over the cage when it's on the extreme left or right). One can also "cheat" on Mine Storm and Armor Attack by turning up the brightness. In Space Wars one can deliberately cripple their own spacecraft and at the same time become invincible.

GCE had big plans to build a computer system around the Vectrex. A prototype was shown at trade shows. Some of the hardware planned: a keyboard computer, modem, disk drive, printer, and touch sensitive screen. Proposed software: LOGO Programming, educational, music, and art. Several prototypes exist on a multi-cart made up of re-releases, demos, diagnostics, and games in progress. A group of ex-programmers were going to get together to produce additional software on EPROMs, but that never came to pass. No third party software exists [dated info. new games have been written, ed.]. All of the known Vectrex software was placed in the public domain and can be accessed on the Internet network. You will need a PC and an EPROM burner to convert the programs to a usable format.

Most 2-player games did not require an additional joystick because the single controller was alternately passed between both players. The monitor has been seen years ago in drug stores as a blood pressure analyzer. This might have come in handy considering the intensity and difficulty of some of the games. The accessories that were available: 2nd controller, dust cover, and carrying case. The games came in a grey box with a grid pattern and showed a sample screen. The carts are square and smaller than other systems. Most games are widely available. The hardest ones to find are the 3D and light pen games and a few of the last releases which never went into full production.


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