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Vectrex Stories: VectrexMad!

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I remember I was on a school trip to London in early 1983. As well as touring all the famous sites, we visited the famous Hamleys toyshop on Regent Street. Upstairs was a whole section for games machines and home computers. In one side of this section was a darkened area with multiple Vectrex consoles glowing with different games and hordes of kids gathered around them.

At the time I owned a 1K Sinclair ZX81 (for U. S. readers, this was the equivalent of the Timex 1000) where a space invader character was typically represented by an upper case character from the alphabet and pixel resolution extended to a measly graphics array of just 64 x 48 pixels. This was before the 1984 software programs, which were able to trick the ZX81 display into showing higher resolution images.

So imagine my amazement then, at seeing the superior vector line graphics, which looked identical to some of the games machines found in the arcades I now and then visited. At that time I didn’t know why the “resolution” looked so good and wasn’t really familiar with the concept of vector graphics. I didn’t even realise at that time the Vectrex was only a black and white machine and the colour effects were achieved via a plastic coloured overlay. Of course the price tag was way out of reach for a poor school boy who had spent nearly a year saving up his pocket money in order to purchase a ZX81. For some years afterwards I always dreamed of getting a Vectrex system. But the desire dwindled as my computer ownership evolved to more advanced machines including Memotech MTX512, Acorn Electron, Commodore 64, and then various PlayStations and IBM PC compatibles.

Then, late in 2007, I accidentally came across a mention of the Vectrex on a retro gaming website and was reminded of this console again. I started to make some investigations and this rekindled my interest in the Vectrex. First I downloaded the ParaJVE Vectrex emulator and started playing the old Vectrex classics like Mine Storm and Armor Attack on my PC.

Vectrex games seem to have a different quality to those on other systems. The wire-like drawings seem to be as a result of a different mind concept. The graphics architecture of the Vectrex is different to the pixel-based raster scan technology found in all other computer systems of then and today. Therefore, Vectrex programmers had and have different issues when writing programs for the Vectrex. If they make vector images that are too full in detail, then there is a display speed overhead to pay. Without the luxury of detailed graphics to fill the gamer’s imagination, the programmers had to make more effort with game play design. This means that many games have stood the test of time, making playing games on a Vectrex as pleasurable as playing games on more modern gaming consoles. The nice thing concerning Vectrex today is that nearly all of the original games are available as downloadable binaries. Some years ago Jay Smith, the father of Vectrex, released all the intellectual property relating to the Vectrex to the public domain.

With the majority of games freely available, the ParaJVE Vectrex emulator satisfied me with daily Vectrex fixes for a month or two. However, the more and more I played, the stronger the desire to obtain a real Vectrex became. After all, as good as the ParaJVE emulator is, no amount of software emulation can compensate for displaying vector graphics being presented on a pixel-based display. The following month I managed to purchase a Vectrex on eBay. The particular Vectrex I had “won” wasn’t pretty, had paint splattered all over its casing, and the joystick controller, though functional, did not return to its centre position (a common condition for overplayed controllers). It came with five cartridges including the built-in game Mine Storm. Despite the well-used condition of the Vectrex, I was over the moon. Even some of the common annoyances of the system which have been widely reported did not put me off. The loud buzzing background sound coming out of the speaker is a fact of life for the majority of Vectrex consoles and is due to a design fault rather than an age issue with a system that is over 25 years old. There are instructions available on the internet to fix this problem, but personally for me hearing the buzz adds to the retro atmosphere. The sometimes shimmering and glowing graphics are also part of the retro deal.

Just to end with a wallet and addiction warning. I think there are two types of Vectrex owners. Those that just enjoy playing with these wonderful machines, and those that are collectors. I am more of the former type. As a result I have become completely addicted and have ended up spending a small fortune (probably not as much as a collector though) on Vectrex-related products! Why? Well, of course many of the newer games are not available as a downloadable binary and must be purchased in cartridge form. It’s well worth it though. There is still the anticipation and excitement, like I had many years ago, when a newly ordered cartridge drops through the letter box and gets played for the first time. Likewise, the enjoyment that can be had from playing homebrew games such as Protector (an excellent Defender clone), which really push the Vectrex to its limits, and original games such as Mine Storm, Spike, Armor Attack, Pole Position and Scramble ensures that my Vectrex is switched on more now than my PlayStation 2!

Today in 2011 I'm still mad on the Vectrex, own eight consoles and various peripherals, and continue to enjoy playing them.

VectrexMad!


This article was featured from April - May, 2013.

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