During the early 1980s, Smith Engineering/Western Technologies founder and Microvision designer Jay Smith III led an effort to develop a portable home video game console capable of emulating such popular vector graphics-based arcade games as Asteroids (1979) and Tempest (1980). This year marks the 30th anniversary of the General Consumer Electronics (GCE) (and later Milton Bradley) Vectrex; the first vector graphics-based video game system.
I first encountered the black rectangular console with its built-in 9-inch monochrome display on Christmas morning, 1984. Thanks in part to liberal department store lay-away policies, my mother’s keen eye for bargains, and the crash of the video game console industry in 1983, the Vectrex arrived under our Christmas tree at a quarter of its original $199 launch price. Unfortunately, the same industry crash that put the Vectrex within our reach also hastened its commercial demise. Today, the Vectrex remains one of the most unique game systems ever produced, and its history exemplifies the ways in which presumably dead consoles live on for new generations of gamers.
Before the Vectrex reached store shelves in November 1982, Smith and his team spent more than a year working out problems and finalizing the design. They created an analogue joystick to fit perfectly into a slot below the screen and plastic overlays reminiscent of the Magnavox Odyssey to add a splash of color to the glowing white graphics. The system’s vertically oriented screen stood out above all, easily distinguishing it from computers and television sets.
But more than a distinctive piece of hardware, the Vectrex launched with a number of games that brought some of the excitement of vector graphic-based arcade games into one’s home. The system came preprogrammed with the Asteroids clone Minestorm (1982). Separate cartridge-based games included a vector version of Pac-Man titled Clean Sweep (1982), and popular arcade conversions such as Berserk (arcade, 1980, Vectrex, 1982), Pole Position (arcade, 1982, Vectrex, 1982), and Scramble (arcade, 1981, Vectrex, 1982). The Vectrex also boasted a 3D Imager peripheral and such innovative games as Art Master (1983) and AnimAction (1983), which gave players the ability to draw directly on the screen with a Light Pen. Despite all of these entertaining and inventive products and the sale of their entire initial shipment (grossing nearly $80 million), Milton Bradley couldn’t control the declining market, and ceased production in December 1984.
Nevertheless, the Vectrex’s appeal endured well after its commercial failure. By the mid-1990s independent game designers revived the platform with such “home-brew” titles as the Missile Command clone Patriots (1996), the Defender clone Protector (2003), and the third-person shooter I, Cyborg (2004). While the home-brew community continued to thrive, recently Welsh studio Rantmedia launched the iOS-based Vectrex emulator app, Vectrex Regeneration. Commenting on the lasting appeal of the Vectrex 30 years later, Smith told ICHEG that there aren’t any color raster graphics to distract the player, it’s about “simplicity and the essence of game play.”
The Vectrex also lives on through such online communities as the Vectrex Museum and the preservation efforts of ICHEG, which has Vectrex hardware and games on display and accessible to researchers, as well as materials documenting video game pioneer Ralph Baer’s work with Smith Engineering on many electronic toy, game, and doll projects.