Lines of Force
In 1979, Jay Smith designs the Microvision, the first ever programmable hand-held gaming system, for Milton Bradley. In early 1981, as head of Western Technologies/Smith Engineering, he and his staff conceptualize a portable vector scan home game machine, which they label the Mini-Arcade. Toy maker Kenner options the rights to the system under design, but eventually their interest wanes on the concept. Under the official designation HP-3000, the self-contained system is to consist of a 5″ black and white monitor and attached joystick unit with four buttons. By mid-year, Santa Monica-based General Consumer Electronics licenses the concept, a company founded in 1980 and known as the makers of hand-held games, as well as LCD gaming watches such as GameTime. At this time the monitor size is increased to 9″. Moving from a cancelled project to reverse engineer the Atari VCS in order to produce games for it, John Hall, Mark Indictor and Paul A. Newell begin work on building the Mini-Arcade. John Ross puts together the hardware, consisting of an advanced 8-bit 1.5 MHz Motorola 68A09 CPU, accompanied by the versatile 3-voice AY-3-8192 sound chip by General Instruments. Gerry Karr and Hall work on the software to control all this, known in the industry as the “Executive”. Later additions to the team include Georgia Tech co-op students William Hawkings and Chris King, who end up staying on with the project.
King of the Stand-alones
Built into the system is the Asteroids clone Minestorm, with other games available via plug-in cassettes. Although the vector scan system cannot generate colours, transparent mylar overlays are included with each game, placed over the monitor screen in a cardboard frame to add static spots of colour for gameplay, as well as instructions for some games. Most of the available cartridges are coin-op conversions, with a specialty in vector coin-op maker Cinematronics’ library including Space Wars, Star Castle, Rip Off, Armor Attack, Solar Quest and Star Hawk. Also included are some valiant attempts at reproducing raster graphics games in vector form, such as Stern Electronics’ Scramble and Berzerk, along with a translation of Atari’s hit racing game Pole Position. As the system develops, the GCE marketing department isn’t too impressed with the original name of the project, and through an evolution from the suggested title Vector-X, deemed too “50’s sci-fi”, the machine is finally labeled the Vectrex.
It debuts at the 1982 summer CES in Chicago, and is then released to dealers at a retail price of $199 USD with the games going for $35. The product is certainly unique among big-guns like the VCS, Intellivision and ColecoVision, and meets with critical approval from video game and electronics magazines. Electronic Games declares the system The King of the Stand-alones, and creates the new category Best Mini-Arcade Game in its yearly arcade game awards to accommodate the system’s excellent Scramble conversion. In 1982 Milton Bradley purchases GCE and the Vectrex, but as the market spirals into a drastic depression, not even the 3-D Imager add-on can increase public interest. At the 1983 Summer CES in Chicago, Milton Bradley gamely announces a prototype Vectrex Graphic Computer System in development. The computer add-on is to offer 16K RAM expandable to 64K, include BASIC for programming, an 80 column by 40 line text mode, a 6809 CPU and a full-stroke keyboard. The add-on is estimate to be priced at around $100. Unfortunately, due to tumbling prices through 1983, Milton Bradley is forced to slash the price of the Vectrex itself to $100. Due to the high cost of producing the vector graphic monitor, the company loses 31.6 million dollars in production costs with the Vectrex, and after abortive attempts at developing a colour vector system, new Milton Bradley owner Hasbro ceases production of the Vectrex in early 1984, after the system builds up a library of 29 games. The remaining inventory of the world’s first, and only, home vector arcade system and its games are dumped onto the market at rock-bottom prices.
In 1988, an attempt is made by GCE to bring back the system in hand-held format, but they are foiled as the release of Nintendo’s extremely popular GameBoy device sucks all of the oxygen out of the hand-held market. Eventually, all rights to the ROM game images and system schematics are allowed to revert to public domain by the copyright owners, allowing for legal emulation and ROM distribution. The Vectrex gets a slick emulation package for iOS devices in the shape of Vectrex Regeneration, by Rantmedia Games. Via a florid user interface, players can browse the history of the device, check out game box covers and instructions, and play the games, of course. The emulator itself is free, along with Minestorm. Other games are available via in-app purchasing.
Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)
Image of SportsTime, GameTime and ArcadeTime LCD gaming watches from Electronic Games, “Stand Alone Scene: SportsTime Game Watch” by Joyce Worley pgs. 116-118, Nov 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Compute!, “The Fall Computer Collection At The Summer Consumer Electronics Show” by Tom R. Halfhill, pgs. 22-42, Aug 1983
Vectrex. (1983). The Video Game Update, p.7. By January, 1984, word processing will be added to the unit capable of generating a full 8-1/2 x 11″ page of text (80 columns by 40 lines)…
Electronic Games, “Hotline: Milton Bradley Drops Vectrex”, pg. 10, July 1984. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Image of the Vectrex on a white background by Evan-Amos from Wikipedia Commons
Images of Vectrex Light Pen and Trackball taken by William Hunter at the Videogame History Museum display, CGE 2014 Las Vegas
Image of Jay Smith and Gerry Karr taken by William Hunter at CGE 2014, Las Vegas
EmuMovies. “Vectrex 3D Box Pack.” EmuMovies, 25 Oct. 2016, emumovies.com/forums/topic/13466-vectrex-3d-box-pack/?tab=comments#comment-27073. Box art for Star Castle, Rip-Off, Space Wars and Armor Attack