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A History of Gaming Platforms: The Vectrex

December 17, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

After a successful holiday launch, Milton Bradley took notice of the Vectrex and decided to buy GCE outright in early 1983, still maintaining use of the company name. With its strong financial foundation and worldwide reach, Milton Bradley was able to bring the Vectrex to parts of Europe by mid-year. Through a co-branding agreement with Bandai, the Vectrex also reached Japan as the Computer Vision Kousokusen, or Light Speed Ship.

"You need important resources to compete in a meaningful way in the video game market, and with Milton Bradley we will have that combination." -- Edward Krakauer, former GCE chairman, as quoted in the Boston Globe, July 15, 1982

At the SCES in Chicago, June 1983, Milton Bradley showcased a computer add-on. The computer add-on was a fashionable idea at the time -- the thought was to turn a "simple" videogame system into a full-fledged computer -- but few companies actually delivered on the promise, including Milton Bradley.

While a very early prototype was favorably previewed and did well in magazine benchmarks, the computer add-on was never finished and released. Other upgrades and accessories that never made it out of the development stage were a type of touch-sensitive screen overlay and a color Vectrex. While a color system would have been a logical next step, the engineering challenge proved too formidable for a mass market consumer device at the time.

The light pen package, complete with Art Master

In early 1984, a light pen and 3-D Imager (headset) that simulated color were introduced and released in limited quantities. The light pen, which plugged into the second controller port and came bundled with the Art Master cartridge, allowed direct drawing and interaction on the Vectrex monitor. The 3D Imager came bundled with 3D Mine Storm and utilized spinning color wheels specific to a game to create one of the most convincing home 3D effects up to the introduction of more advanced shutter-based systems like those released in the late 1980s for the Nintendo Famicom (Japan only) and Sega Master System (SMS).

An artist's rendering of the Vectrex 3D Imager from the December 1983 issue of Electronic Games magazine

Unfortunately, despite a strong start and continued technological innovation, the Vectrex's success was short-lived. The Great Videogame Crash of 1984 had depressed the entire industry. Even after trying direct distribution, shuttering GCE operations, and aggressively cutting prices, Milton Bradley lost tens of millions of dollars over the life of the product line. In May of 1984, Milton Bradley merged with Hasbro, and the Vectrex was discontinued worldwide a few months later.

Callout: "We were badly hurt by Vectrex." -- George R. Ditomassi, Milton Bradley's Executive Vice President, as quoted in the Boston Globe, October 22, 1983

After product rights reverted back to Smith Engineering, an attempt was made in the late 1980s to resurrect the Vectrex as a handheld. Unfortunately, the pending introduction of Nintendo's GameBoy in 1989 put a practical stop to such plans once and for all.

In the mid-1990s, Jay Smith generously placed the entire Vectrex product line into the public domain, opening up legal, not-for-profit distribution. More good news came in 1996, with the release of John Dondzila's groundbreaking Vector Vaders, the second ever console homebrew cartridge (after Ed Federmeyer's Tetris clone, Edtris 2600, which was released in 1995 for the Atari 2600 Video Computer System.)

There has been a steady stream of increasingly impressive homebrew hardware and software since Dondzila's early work, with dozens of titles added to the Vectrex's catalog of releases. And there is no end in sight.

Article Start Previous Page 3 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!