|Known for||Protector/Y*A*S*I, Spike Goes Down|
Alex Herbert is best known for the homebrew Protector, an introduction some people believed was not possible on the Vectrex. He also produced a highly accurate Space Invaders clone called YASI (Yet Another Space Invaders). He was working on some new Vectrex projects such as Berzerk Arena and an Atari 2600 game called Man Goes Down when ill health overtook him. He recently (Dec. 2014) posted an update on his official website in regards to Packrat Video Games, LLC, signaling a possible return one day.
One of the reasons for producing a Defender-type game on the Vectrex was that Herbert loved the arcade original. He stated he was completely blown away when he first saw it back in the day and still loves it just as much now. He had seen some of John Dondzila's Vectrex homebrews (especially his Phoenix clone Birds of Prey) and wanted to have a stab at coding something himself. Herbert's initial plan was to do Centipede; he thought the vertical screen orientation and analogue joystick would suit this. So the first thing he tried to do was fill the screen with mushrooms - the Vectrex tripped out big time! The screen refresh was horribly slow and flickery, and the hardware was totally overloaded. (In light of Chris Tumber's Vectrex engine developments, this may now be more of a reality to produce.)
Herbert then decided his first project needed to be a game that had a mostly black background - no tile-mapped playfield. He thought about Defender, looked at the scrolling landscape, and realised that it was just an outline. He looked at the Vectrex controller and all those buttons. To him, it just seemed an obvious choice. Also, Herbert believed most ports of Defender to home computers/consoles were pretty awful and he wanted to rectify that.
Alex's high score on Protector at the time was 170,250.
The main reason for selling Protector as a limited edition was that Herbert only wanted to do a one-off production. He didn't hold stocks of parts and didn't really want to get into that. Minimum order quantities and long lead times on the custom manufactured stuff (cartridge PCBs, overlays, boxes) pushed him into making that decision too, plus there was the time it took to actually assemble the carts, trips to the post office, and so on. Herbert admitted he was basically lazy and would rather spend time coding the next game, rather than building/selling carts.The boxes were made by Swiftbox to his design and were actually quite reasonably priced. The overlays were manufactured by Universal Screenprinters, who specialised in printing plastic and glass parts for arcade/fruit machines. Herbert deliberately only used two inks to keep the costs down, but the overlays were still pretty expensive, costing more than the cartridges themselves.
The response was far better than Herbert anticipated. He was "quite surprised at the suggestion that it might be a hoax on the basis that the Vectrex 'can't do that'. The numerous reviews were just fantastic. I really couldn't have hoped for better."
It took three weeks for pre-orders on Protector to be allocated. According to Herbert, early on it was immediately obvious that 100 copies wasn't enough and he could have sold 250 easy. He stated he'd only made an initial batch of 30 and thought he'd be able to make the rest in small batches as the orders came in. "Was I wrong!" he chuckled. On the other hand, he was very happy that he wasn't going to be left with a pile of unsold games, since they weren't cheap to produce.
Despite the reception when bundled with Protector, Herbert wasn't too sure about the game, stating it looked the part and thought it was fairly playable. YASI was only supposed to be a tech demo, which Herbert bashed together in a week, but people liked it and wanted a cartridge release. So he added the extra game modes, Atari 2600 style (guided missiles, moving bunkers, invisible invaders, like with the 2600 port of Space Invaders) and support for the VecVoice speech unit (made by Richard Hutchinson) to make it feel a little more complete.
According to Herbert, purists commented that there are certain aspects that aren't right - the points for hitting the UFOs are random, rather than being based on the number of shots fired, for one. But overall he thought it turned out quite nicely. For him, the biggest triumph was displaying the full 11x5 sheet of invaders and having proper destructible bunkers.
Protector and YASI were coded on a Windows PC using the bog standard DOS text editor and a free cross-assembler called AS09. Herbert used one of Richard Hutchinson's first generation VecRAM cartridges which hooked up to the parallel port for testing on the actual hardware. He later got a serial VecRAM, which Hutchinson specially modified to expose the single I/O line that's present on the Vectrex's cartridge port so he could develop the serial EEPROM stuff to save high scores.
At the time the interview was conducted, Herbert had other Vectrex games in the works but wasn't sure which would ever get completed. The one project he really hoped he would finish was the VecLink game. VecLink allowed two Vectrexes to be connected via the second joystick ports. The game's working title was Berzerk Arena and it was a one-on-one 3D maze shooter type of arrangement. It was only started as a tech demo (a repeating theme here) but it had been so much fun to work on and fun to play in his opinion, he kept adding stuff - extra mazes, power-ups, 1 player vs. CPU mode, and so on. The game was demonstrated in person by Herbert at CGE 2005 in Croydon in August 2005.
Herbert also expressed interest in a port of Sinistar, but he was still trying to work out the best way of doing the sampled speech. In his assessment, "the DAC in the Vectrex could be routed to the speaker, but it's shared with the display, so it's not possible to draw stuff and play samples cleanly at the same time this way. Also, using CPU interrupts disturbs the timing of vector draws, so it's going to take some trickery to get it working right."
Herbert was quite pleased there were more original games being developed rather than just arcade ports. He was also hopeful of seeing Vectrex carts with extra processing on board at some point, and looking into adding a co-processor to do 3D geometry transformations and/or build display lists.
- Alex Herbert official site
The majority of the content of this article was the result of two e-mails between the original author and Herbert conducted in early 2005.