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[The 'ambitious and unusual' vector-based Vectrex console was one of the most intriguing game console failures of all time, and Loguidice and Barton continue their 'History Of Gaming Platforms' series on Gamasutra, started with the Commodore 64, by analyzing the rise, fall, and legacy of the cult '80s console.]
One of the most ambitious and unusual videogame systems ever released, GCE's vector-based Vectrex failed to win massive audiences, like the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) did. Nevertheless, the distinctive platform gained a cult following after being pulled from the market in 1984, two years after its debut, and now enjoys one of the finest homebrew development scenes of any vintage system.
The annals of videogame and computer history are littered with promising and ambitious systems that inexplicably flopped on the market, only later garnering the attention and passion of dedicated collectors and enthusiasts. However, the bulk of these obscure platforms are valued mostly for nostalgic reasons; only a precious few attract the time and energy of serious homebrew enthusiasts who continue to develop and release software for their favorite system long after it has disappeared from store shelves.
GCE's Vectrex is one such system. Debuting just two years before The Great Videogame Crash of 1984, it soon joined many lesser systems in the bargain bins of toy stores across the nation. The media was saturated with reports and speculations about the demise of the videogame industry, and the Vectrex was sucked into the vortex of bad publicity and uninformed opinion.
Yet the Vectrex deserved and continues to deserve more attention than the hordes of cheap, me-too game systems and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial cartridges of the early 1980s. It is, after all, unique among programmable videogame systems, falling somewhere between a television-based console and a handheld in terms of design.
The Vectrex is a self-contained AC-powered transportable videogame unit that displays unique vector graphics on a built-in monitor. These vector graphics, which are essentially lines of light, have a timeless appeal that typical raster graphics, which consist of small pixels or blocks, can't duplicate. The Vectrex took the road less traveled, and was the better for it.
The system got its start in late 1980, when one of the hardware designers at Western Technologies (Smith Engineering), John Ross, had a light bulb go off -- or, to be more precise, a surplus one-inch Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). He took his idea to company head, Jay Smith, who had designed the ill-fated Microvision for Milton Bradley in 1979, the first cartridge-based handheld videogame system. Smith was impressed with Ross's idea, and his company shopped around a plan for a new type of handheld dubbed the Mini Arcade.
In early 1981, the Mini Arcade concept was offered to toymaker Kenner, who wanted a five-inch screen and a less portable design in which the CRT would sit on a stand with the controls on the bottom. However, Kenner soon canceled further development, so Western Technologies shopped the idea again. Western Technologies redesigned the system as a tabletop, and later that year General Consumer Electronics (GCE) licensed it for production -- though now with a nine-inch screen.
The system went through several name changes due to copyright and marketing concerns before assuming the now familiar moniker. After a very compressed and hectic hardware and software development period, the GCE Vectrex was officially unveiled at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show (SCES) in Chicago, June 1982, to positive notice, and released to the public in November, just in time for the holidays.