Sunday, 6 July 2014

When is a TV not a TV?


...When It's a Vectrex.


Welcome to the wonderful world of the Vectrex. The worlds one and only vector graphics bases console. 

Now you may think you have seen vector graphics on everything from old home-computers right up to modern day browser based games. 

But the chances are you really haven't. What you probably have seen are line-based games made up of pixels, on a CRT rastascan or LCD matrix based screen.

Ah, you say, but all computer graphics are made out of pixels. Well no actually, vector systems displays aren't, and only a handful of Arcade cabinet games from the eighties, and the Vectrex console; by Milton Bradley, no less; have truly been capable of proper vector graphics.



So what is a vector display? Well, it's all about the way a cathode ray tube (CRT) screens 'gun' writes the image you see on the screen, and only CRT based screens can display true vector graphics.
Basically, in a 'normal' TV the 'gun' fires at the top-left of the screen, and carries on to the top-right, before going back to the left and drawing another line directly underneath the first one. In this way each frame of a TV picture is built up one line at a time, ending at the bottom-right of the screen. The gun then jumps back to the top-left to begin the next frame. This type of picture build up is called a rastascan image, and was the standard way for all CRT based TVs and monitor systems to display images. But there was another way for a CRT system to display images... It could move the 'gun' directly over the screen's surface, drawing a line from one point to another, and this line is the only way a real vector graphic can be produced. Obviously this display system wasn't any good for displaying TV programs, or conventional computer graphics. But amidst the chunky graphics of the 8, and even 16 Bit era, it did have one major advantage, it could display a high-resolution image that could be manipulated quickly by the relatively slow processors of the day. The trade off being that any image had to be made up of line-drawing type graphics, thus the iconic look of games like Tempest, Star Wars, and Battlezone were born. And many vector graphics fans would add another game to this mighty list. Not another arcade behemoth, but a loley built-in game shipped with a little known console from the eighties, made by a toy manufacturer.


That console was of course the MB Vectrex, and the game was MineStorm.

Complete with colors screen overlay, this was the very first vector graphics based home console game the world had ever seen.

And what did the world do?
... Well mostly it shrugged and passed it by.

Although you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you read the advertising blurb of the day.

Then you would have to find it first.

About the only time I saw the Vectrex at launch time was in mail order catalogs.



The fall and fall of the Vectrex....
The Vectrex first appeared around November in 1982, just in time for Christmas, but at $200, or around £180 (yes I know that doesn't add up) it was a bit on the expensive side for a TV-Games system. And you could, at least,  double that price for today's equivalent value. Unfortunately it seemed that at the time people didn't quite know what to make of the (expensive) Vectrex. It was made by MB, so was it a toy? If it was a TV games machine, like the Atari VCS, why did it come built into its own TV - that you couldn't even watch TV on? They may seem laughable questions now. But at the time people just didn't have the context to understand the Vectrex. A state of affairs that relatively quickly led to its commercial demise. One good thing to come out of this, albeit years later, was the releasing of the machines entire commercial games catalog to the public domain, so there's no such thing as pirate Vectrex ROMs. It also lead to a thriving home-brew scene, and many of the best ever 'top ten' vectrex games lists regularly include home-drew titles. Arguably the best games for the Vectrex were produced years, if not decades, after its commercial demise. Not bad for a Machine that more-or-less died and failed to gather much following at its launch.


Peripherals...

The vectrex wasn't without its official peripherals. I say 'official' because these were relatively little peripherals produced by the manufacturer. Although the Vectrex community has come up with many creative peripherals since the machines commercial demise.


Home-brew...

A surprisingly long-lived and industrious home-brew community has sprung up around the Vectrex, and is still going strong.  You will find everything from those 'top ten' level games to utilities and how-to blogs on programming, to multi-carts containing all the original commercial games lineup, to hardware plugins allowing you to run your own creations, or downloaded games on a Vectrex. No to mention the various add-on controller mods and goodness knows what else... Even now new things are still turning up from the home-brew and mod community!

A good list of home-brew can be seen at the Vectrex Museum site.
A, still maintained, list of all Vectrex games, including home-brew can be found at the Vectrex Wiki

My Games...

And then there's all the rest, and that's where my games probably come in. There are a lot of people like me who program for the Vectrex just for the sheer fun, the difference of it. Outside of a specialized arcade board its the only integrated piece of equipment you can get that allows you to program for real vector graphics, and this is a very unique environment that can't be truly replicated, even by today's power-playing behemoth games machines. I think it's this quirky difference, uniqueness and simplicity that makes the Vectrex fan base persist with a decades old machine using, by today's standards,  antiquated technologies.

If you haven't heard of the Vectrex before I'd heartily recommend taking a look. There are some good emulators out there, ParaJVE probably being one of the best. But bare in mind that you can only really get the true feel of the machine from playing the real thing, simply because it is so different from any other console ever made. If you want to take a look at my efforts you can go to my Vectrex page at the top of this blog.

5 comments:

  1. You reminded me this article :o (spanish)

    http://www.pixfans.com/la-vectrex-sigue-viva/

    ReplyDelete
  2. Unfortunately I don't know Spanish!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Basically is a techie, gaming and nostalgia website. On this article, they explained the basic concepts behind the Vectrex and presented the (then) new Kristof's games. http://www.kristofsnewvectrexgames.comli.com/

      They also added a video, but I guess that's less interesting if you own a Vectrex yourself :P.

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