Although vector technology in gaming lasted less than a decade, some of the designers from the industry’s Golden Era utilized this revolutionary display technology to create classics. Bright, crisp graphics gave vector games a distinctive look and their fast-moving game play mesmerized arcade-goers who lined up to drop quarters for titles such as Space Wars, Battlezone, and Tempest.
Vector games burst onto the arcade scene during a time of rapid innovation and creativity within the industry. In 1977, pioneering game designer Larry Rosenthal created Space Wars, an arcade game inspired by the first PDP-1 computer-based video game Spacewar! Rosenthal licensed both the game and his unique Vectorbeam monitor technology to Cinematronics, an arcade developer, and soon Space Wars electrified patrons in bars and bowling alleys with its distinctive monochromatic display. Cinematronics continued to design vector games, including Warrior (1979), Rip Off (1979), and Star Castle (1980).
Rival developer Atari recognized the potential of vector technology and joined the fray in 1979 with Lunar Lander, a vector arcade game. Between then and 1985, Atari developed numerous iconic vector games. The company’s Asteroids (1979) encountered only one problem: overflowing coin trays. The game instantly ascended to classic status. Atari’s design team continued their success with the first-person tank simulator Battlezone (1980) and the fast-moving, multi-color Tempest (1981). These early arcade hits remain popular today among the retro gaming crowd.
One of my favorite childhood vector games was Atari’s space-shooter Star Wars (1983). With its audio clips and music from the blockbuster movie of the same title, this quick and colorful game brought the film to life for me. I found the 3-D effect rendered by the vector-display, especially while battling TIE fighters and navigating the numerous obstacles in the Death Star’s trench, the games’ most compelling feature. I felt particularly lucky when I found an arcade with a cockpit-style cabinet. What a great game!
No discussion of vector games would be complete without mentioning Vectrex (1982), the only vector-graphics home videogame system. The product of Smith Engineering, founded by Jay Smith, Vectrex stands as a unique gaming machine that is neither a home console nor a handheld. Televisions of that day used raster graphics and simply could not produce the distinctive vector-display needed when paired with consoles such as Atari VCS or Mattel Intellivision. The solution? Create a system with a built-in vector monitor. The result? A masterpiece of a system.
Vectrex is cartridge-based and came with a built-in Asteroids-style game, Mine Storm, and provided a one-of-a-kind gaming experience. Like Atari arcade vector titles, Vectrex continues to enjoy immense popularity in the retro community. In fact, one of the most common questions asked by visitors to the ICHEG Lab is, “Do you have a Vectrex?” ICHEG owns an extraordinary collection of vector games, from arcade classics Warrior and Quantum to numerous Vectrex units and the system’s 3-D Imager. And I always tell guests that playing Asteroids on an emulator can’t compare to playing it on the original glowing vector monitor.
As the graphics on raster games improved, developers found vector technology less appealing. Cinematronics moved beyond vector and broke new ground once again with the 1983 release of Dragon’s Lair, the first laserdisc-based arcade game. Nevertheless, vector games, although short-lived, changed the look and feel of the gaming landscape. Compared to their pixeled contemporaries, vector games provided a unique gaming experience and an esthetic that evokes powerful memories to this day.