Do you remember the ATARI Star Wars arcade from 1983? If so, you must recall the cool color 3D wireframe graphics displayed by the game while you were using the force to destroy the Death Star and to get rid of the Tie Fighters and defense turrets, before reaching the flawed and infamous exhaust vents.

starwars 1983

Well, today I will tell you a bit more about this cool technology called vector displays. Besides the ATARI game and few high-end early CAD workstations, it is unlikely that we could put our hands upon a vector display system in the 80s – or ever for that matter. Except, of course, if you owned a Vectrex. This small game system was manufactured by General Computer Electronics and was introduced in the US during 1982. Licensed by MB and Bandai, you could buy one in Europe and Japan in 1983. That’s when I discovered this system. Just for the fun, I added a few advertisements and articles from the French TILT gamer magazine and the US BYTE magazine (December issue). I am sure you will enjoy these backgrounders as much as I did.

One advertisement in particular – the cartoon titled Bonsoir les parents – highlights one main quality of the Vectrex: no need for a TV to play your games. If you didn’t grew-up during the 80s’, you might not know that there was a time when households had only one TV. This meant that each time you wanted to use your computer or game console, you had to wait until no-one watched and only then you could set up your stuff (and tear it down after use every time). With the Vectrex, you could play where and whenever you wanted thanks to its embedded CRT display. Last but not least, you still needed a power plug!

The Vectrex system was simple to use. Out-of-the-box, you could play the MineStorm game as it was stored in ROM. Additional games were distributed as ROM cartridges that you inserted, one at a time, into a slot located on the right side of the console. Because the 23 cm CRT (9 × 11 inches) was black and white, each game had a color overlay to put in front of the screen to get colors! Many of these overlays are lost these days, so a complete game can be pricy. Speaking of which, buying a working Vectrex in good shape will cost you. I have two Vectrex, one MB from France and one GCE from the US that I bought during the PRGE 2019. The former is out for servicing for more than a year now, and it is still not completely fixed! So, if you have one of these babies in your attic, make sure you don’t throw it away. A real joypad was shipped with the console, and you could buy an extra one for a two-player configuration. This joypad is very precise, robust, and high quality.


Vectors, vectors…

Embedding a CRT into the console is not the foremost originality of the Vectrex. What is remarkable is how the console uses it: as a vector display. Almost all computers and gaming systems – today and back in the 80s’ – were producing raster images. This means that the image is composed-of and is stored-as pixels – picture elements. These pixels are then displayed on the CRT by the electron beam while it is scanning line by line the screen surface from top to down and usually left to right.

For example, if you have a single vertical line in the middle of the picture (let’s assume black and white for simplicity), the pixel of the top of line will be lit (the electron beam excites the phosphorus on the CRT at that point) when the electron beam reaches its position on the first line. The next pixel below will be lit only when the beam reaches its position within the next line. And so on.

With a vector display, the electron beam will be positioned at one end of the line, let’s say the top, and the beam will literally draw the line by being deflected vertically only, with no horizontal deflection what so ever. This gives the characteristic look of vector images. I added an example below using my favorite bunny character as a vector and bitmap image. One shows pixels, where the other does not. Vector displays have an interesting side-effect: the more segments you have on-screen, the more flicker you have during the image rendering. You could increase the refresh rate of the display to delay its appearance – if your hardware allows it –, or, you could simply keep the number of segments low.


Anything Else?

OK, so, you could play – 29 games – with the Vectrex, you had original graphics and a hideous way to add color to the mix. Okay, you could also do some speech synthesis and Art if you owned a light pen. Fine. But that was pretty much it. This is probably why, in 1984, the Vectrex was discontinued, properly wiped-out by the competition imposed by the home computers and gaming systems tsunami. Nowadays, like other dead console systems, one can develop new games for the Vectrex. Like what AtariAge does for example with the ATARI 2600 system. With the Vectrex, you can buy the Vectrex32 cartridge by Bob Alexander. It is comprised of a 32-bit processor @ 200 MHz with an FPU unit – cool to do trigonometry –, 2 MB of flash memory and 512 KB of RAM. This raw power – in comparison of the frugal original 8-bit, integer only, Motorola 6809 CPU @ 1.6 MHz and 1 KB of RAM –, used in conjunction with the Galactic Studio Basic, gives a new breath to the now public domain Vectrex. The development is done on your desktop computer, and your creations are transferred using a USB cable. A classic cross-platform development setup. Although this solution is ideal to develop games, including 3D ones thanks to the FPU and the BASIC’s quality, it also allows for more classic computing (more or less). I find this refreshing since the Vectrex was never a computer. More on that soon. In the meantime, I am looking forward to recouping my MB Vectrex and will enjoy playing Spike, Star Trek, Berserk, Scramble, etc.