In the early days of the arcade, there were two approaches to graphics – raster (like a traditional TV or computer display), which was driven by processors that offered color but not very good resolution, or vector, also known as X/Y graphics. Raster TV displays work by using a series of “guns” to fire electrons at a screen; to fill the entire screen, the display constantly scans and redraws every horizontal line of the picture. X/Y displays drew only what they needed to: the guns in an X/Y display would fire an intense beam of electrons only at those portions of the screen that required something to be drawn, resulting in a very sharp, very bright display, but one which left plenty of “black” space. At first vector graphics were strictly black & white, though later innovations brought color to vector displays, though usually at the cost of equipment that would run hot and break down easily. Vector graphics drove medical displays for years before gamers became familiar with vector as the kind of display that drove games like Asteroids, Warrior, Tempest, Star Wars and Omega Race.
Vector graphics games were incredibly hard to translate to home consoles, since even the most advanced consoles were generally considered to have rather chunky graphics. (Some attempted translations were so clumsy, in fact, that there were abandoned before ever hitting the market – such as Atari’s version of its hit game Tempest for the Atari 2600.) GCE engineer Jay Smith had an idea, however – if you couldn’t bring vector graphics home without an X/Y monitor, then why not bring the monitor home? Together with his team at CGE, Smith devised the Vectrex, a stand-alone game system which, while pricey, would delight mom and dad by freeing up the TV. Among video game fans circa 1982, Vectrex was the ultimate status symbol – it was a little arcade game unto itself, but with cartridges that would let its owners play different games. Even now, a working Vectrex is still one of the high points of any classic video game collection.
As enthusiastic about Vectrex as game players were, game makers were too. Cinematronics, one of the companies that pioneered vector games, licensed games like Star Castle for the first time. The makers of Berzerk, Stern, licensed that game even though a similar license had already been granted to Atari. And Milton Bradley, the board and card game giant that had only put out the most tentative feelers in the video game industry, saw Vectrex as the future of that industry and bought the company to bring the system (and its future profits) under its wing.
Vectrex, however, shared one drawback with its arcade cousins: the machine generated only black & white graphics on its 9-inch vector monitor. Built into the monitor housing were tabs that held sturdy, colorful transparent overlays in place to create the illusion of spot color, a trick that hadn’t been used since the days of the Magnavox Odyssey. But at the same time, Jay Smith and his team were quietly working on a color version of Vectrex, and they constructed at least one working prototype.
But time ran out for Vectrex, as it did for every other system in the early 1980s with the video game industry crash that leveled the playing field and drove many of the players out of business – or at least out of the industry and back into the business of making more traditional toys, games or computers. Yet even without the crash, Vectrex was a system living on borrowed time, as vector graphics fell out of favor with arcade game designers. The resolution of raster graphics technology was making huge advances even as the industry floundered, and advances in computer processing power were closing another gap as well. Programmers who had favored vector graphics often said that with an X/Y display’s faster draw and scan rate, it was easier to create scaleable 3-D graphics such as those seen in Battlezone and many others. The nature of drawing only point-to-point graphics made it easier to program 3-D graphics with limited processor power. But faster, better processors were quickly becoming available, capable of realistically scaling and rotating 3-D graphics on a raster monitor without sacrificing the speed of the game. The push toward photorealism was on, and vector graphics were left by the wayside, a brief detour in the evolution of the arcade – and an even briefer detour at home.
Vectrex remains a prized collectible and a completely unique evolutionary cul-de-sac, to borrow a phrase from Arthur C. Clarke, in home video gaming. Modern programmers have taken up the cause of expanding the Vectrex library with impressive results, and have even created new controllers. Thanks to these dedicated fans, the Vectrex lives on. Furthermore, Jay Smith and his former GCE colleagues released the entire Vectrex library into the public domain, ceding any copyright claims to the games they programmed at the height of the early 80s home video game gold rush; those games can now be enjoyed with startling accuracy through emulation.
But only on a raster monitor.