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.
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.
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.
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.