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A History of Gaming Platforms: The Vectrex
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A History of Gaming Platforms: The Vectrex

December 17, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

The Vectrex's base technical specifications were impressive. It used the speedier and more advanced Motorola 68A09 (6809) instead of the cheap MOS Technology 6502 8-bit microprocessor found in early Apple, Atari and Commodore computers. Likewise, its sound generator, a General Instrument AY-3-8910, supported a competitive three simultaneous channels of sound with a dynamic range of effects. The chip had been used in Mattel's earlier Intellivision (1980) and would show up in the Atari ST (1985) and other computer systems.

The Vectrex is a masterpiece of design. The control panel, which features a small self-centering analog metal joystick and four numbered action buttons, could be placed in a storage area at the bottom front of the console. The coiled cord would be wrapped once around the joystick, with the remaining length laid on top of the action buttons. The control panel could then be slid into the tabs at the bottom of the console and snapped up into place, creating a sleek forward-facing profile.

When the control panel is removed, seen from left to right is a three-inch speaker grille and the two joystick ports. Beneath the joystick ports are a button that resets the system and an Off/On/Volume Control dial. A horizontal cartridge port is located on the bottom of the unit's right side. A Brightness Control is on the top rear, with a permanent two-pronged AC power cord on the bottom rear. Openings for ventilation are present on the rear and bottom of the console. Also on the top rear of the unit is a recession for lifting and carrying the console, a design similar to what Apple would use in their first Macintosh computers two years later.

A rear view of the Vectrex showing the cartridge port on the left and recessed carrying handle on top. The unit on the right shows the control panel placed in its storage area.

The Vectrex shipped in a large, rectangular silver-toned box with Styrofoam inserts. Inside the box was a single control panel, owner's manual, owner's club registration card, and the color screen overlay and instructions for the built-in Mine Storm game.

One obvious liability of the Vectrex is its black and white display. Even in the early 1980s, monochrome was seen as a serious limitation in a game system, no matter how innovative its display method might be. This potential deal-breaker was addressed with heavy gauge, flexible plastic overlays produced for each game. These overlays fit snugly into plastic grooves on the top and bottom in front of the monitor, and featured high quality color printing.

The overlays not only improved the games' aesthetics, but also provided simple instructions. The translucent, semi-transparent overlays also reduced the flicker inherent in vector displays. Since the overlays weren't designed until after a game was considered finished, they often frustrated programmers, since further code changes had to accommodate the position of an overlay's design elements. Nevertheless, the colorful overlays generally helped to enhance each game's presentation and remain one of the Vectrex's most iconic elements.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

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"one-inch CRTs" ?????? Don't you mean 10 inch?

Bill Loguidice
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Nope, definitely one inch. It wouldn't exactly have been handheld if it had been 10 inches!

Noah Falstein
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I had the pleasure of being part of the reason MB bought the Vectrex. I was working in the Advanced Research division when my boss came by and asked me to give it a try to let him know whether he should recommend to the President that MB decide to buy the system. I loved it - at the time it was such a superior home game experience to other alternatives and so evocative of arcade games like Asteroids that I gave him an enthusiastic "Yes" - I think that might have actually made a difference.

Anthony Galante
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Wow. I really wanted one of these when they were released - and many years after. I don't really anymore, but the history is fascinating... and I still think vector graphics look very slick.

Mike Baldwin
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As a kid, I remember riding my bike to Sears every chance I got to play Mine Storm on the Vectrex demo machine they had on display. Little did I know it was my early training for geometry wars. :)

Chris Romero
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Why do idiot authors ape the statement "Jay Smith generously placed the entire Vectrex product line into the public domain". He didn't. He just allows the original titles to be reproduced on carts in a non-for-profit mode. That is completely different from placing them in the public domain. Proper research people!