|Manufacturer||General Consumer Electronics (1982-83)
Milton Bradley Company (1983-84)
|Type||Home video game console|
|CPU||Motorola MC68A09 @ 1.5 MHz|
The Vectrex is a vector display-based home video game console that was developed by Western Technologies/Smith Engineering. It was licensed and distributed first by General Consumer Electronics (GCE), and then by Milton Bradley Company after its purchase of GCE. It was released in November 1982 at a retail price of $199 ($480 adjusted for inflation); as Milton Bradley took over international marketing the price dropped to $150, then reduced again to $100 shortly before the video game crash of 1983 and finally retailed at $49 after the crash. The Vectrex exited the console market in early 1984.
Unlike other non-portable video game consoles, which connected to televisions and rendered raster graphics, the Vectrex has an integrated vector monitor which displays vector graphics. The Vectrex is monochrome and uses plastic screen overlays to simulate color and various static graphics and decorations. At the time, many of the most popular arcade games used vector displays, and through a licensing deal with Cinematronics, GCE was able to produce high-quality versions of arcade games such as Space Wars and Armor Attack.
The Vectrex was also released in Japan under the name Bandai Vectrex Kousokusen. In the U.S., the model number of the Vectrex is HP-3000.
The idea for the Vectrex was conceived by John Ross of Smith Engineering in late 1980. He, Mike Purvis, Tom Sloper, and Steve Marking had gone to Electro-Mavin, a surplus warehouse in Los Angeles. They found a 1" cathode ray tube and considered if a small electronic game could be made of this. A demonstration of a vector-drawing cathode ray tube display was made by connecting the deflection yoke in a standard television to the channels of a stereo amplifier fed with music program material. An axillary yoke was used to keep the raster television's horizontal fly-back high-voltage system running. The demo led to a system originally conceived as a handheld called the Mini Arcade, but as Smith Engineering shopped the idea around to developers, it evolved into a tabletop with nine-inch screen.
The system was ultimately licensed to General Consumer Electronics in 1981. After an exceptionally brief hardware and software development period, the Vectrex was unveiled June 7th of the following year at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. It was released to the public in November, just in time for the holidays. The launch sales were strong enough that Milton Bradley bought out General Consumer Electronics in early 1983.
Milton Bradley's greater resources allowed the Vectrex to be released in parts of Europe within a few months of the buyout, and through a co-branding agreement with Bandai, in Japan as well. However, the Video game crash of 1983 turned Milton Bradley's support of the Vectrex into a costly mistake. In May 1984, Milton Bradley merged with Hasbro, and the Vectrex was discontinued a few months after. Over its lifetime, it had cost Milton Bradley tens of millions of dollars.
Prior to the Vectrex's discontinuation, a successor console with a color screen had been planned. After the rights reverted to Smith Engineering, the company made plans to revive the Vectrex as a handheld, but the imminent arrival of Nintendo's Game Boy put an end to those plans. In the mid-1990s, Jay Smith, then head of Smith Engineering, allowed new hardware and software development on a fee free / royalty free basis. Jay as also allowed duplication of the original Vectrex software on a not for profit basis in order to provide a method for Vectrex owners to obtain the original titles low cost or free.
The Vectrex was the first and only home-based system to ever use a vector-based screen. It was also the first home system to offer a 3D peripheral (the Vectrex 3D Imager), in 1984, predating the Sega Master System's SegaScope 3D by several years.
The computer and vector generator were designed by Gerry Karr. The computer runs the game's computer code, watches the user's inputs, runs the sound generator, and controls the vector generator to make the screen drawings. The vector generator is an all-analog design using two integrators: X and Y. The computer sets the integration rates using a digital-to-analog converter. The computer controls the integration time by momentarily closing electronic analog switches within the operational-amplifier based integrator circuits. Voltage ramps are produced that the monitor uses to steer the electron beam over the face of the phosphor screen of the cathode ray tube. Another signal is generated that controls the brightness of the line.
The cathode ray tube is a Samsung model 240RB40 monochrome unit measuring 9 × 11 inches, displaying a picture of 240 mm diagonal; it is an off-the-shelf picture tube manufactured for small black/white television sets. The brightness of the CRT is controlled using a circular knob on the back of the display. A vector CRT display such as the one in the Vectrex does not require a special tube, and differs from standard raster-based television sets only in the control circuits. Rather than use sawtooth waves to direct the internal electron beam in a raster pattern, computer-controlled integrators feed linear amplifiers to drive the deflection yoke. This yoke has similar, if not identical inductances, unlike a TV deflection yoke. The yoke uses a standard TV core. The high-voltage transformer also uses a standard core and bobbin. There is special circuitry to turn off the electron beam if the vector generator stops or fails. This prevents burning of the screen's phosphors. This design is a great deal smaller than the electronics found in the free-standing, full-sized Asteroids.
Early units have a very audible "buzzing" from the built-in speaker that reacts to the graphics generated on screen. This is due to improper production grounding of signal lines of the low-level audio circuitry, and was eventually resolved in later production models. A "ground loop" had been created by a grounding strap added in production to meet U.S. Federal Communications Commission signal radiation requirements. This idiosyncrasy has become a familiar characteristic of the machine.
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The 3-D Imager, invented by John Ross, turns the 2-D black-and-white images drawn by the Vectrex into a color 3-D experience. The imager works by spinning a disk in front of the viewer's eyes. The disk is black for 180 degrees and in some cases has 60 degree wedges of transparent red, green, and blue filters. The user looks through this to the Vectrex screen. The Vectrex synchronizes the rotation of the disk to the software frame rate as it draws 6 screens: with the right eye covered: the left eye red image, then green, and then the blue image is drawn... and then, while the left eye is covered by the black 180 degree sector: the right eye red, green, and then the blue image is drawn. Only one eye will see the Vectrex screen and its 3 associated images (or colors) at any one time while the other will be blocked by the 180 degree mask. The prototype was made in the plastic casework of a Viewmaster. The disc spins freely and is driven by a motor. The Vectrex software generates its own frame-rate and compares it to an index signal from the glasses once per revolution. Score is kept of how many wheel rotations are early compared to the software frame rate, and how many are late. The software tries to keep these two trends equal by adjusting the power being delivered to the motor that spins the filter and mask wheel. Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) is used to control the motor speed: the ratio of the "on" time versus the "off" time of a rapid stream of power pulses to the motor. In this way the software synchronizes the wheel rotation to the software's frame rate, or drawing time, for the combined and repeating group of up to 6 evolving images.
A single object that does not lie on the plane of the monitor (i.e., in front of or into the monitor) is drawn at least twice to provide information for each eye. The distance between the duplicate images and the angles from which they are drawn will determine where the object will appear to "be" in 3-D space. The 3-D illusion is also enhanced by adjusting the brightness of the object (dimming objects in the background). Spinning the disk at a high enough speed will fool the viewer's eyes/brain into thinking that the multiple images it is seeing are two different views of the same object due to the persistence of vision. This creates the impression of 3-D and color.
The same 3-D effect is in fact possible with raster or film-projection images, and the shutter glasses used in some 3-D theaters and virtual reality theme park rides work on the same principle.
The light pen allows the user to "draw", to create images and to indicate, on the screen. It has a photo-detector that can see the bright spot of the vector-drawing display monitor when it goes by under the light pen's position where it is being held to the screen. The photo-detector feeds internal pulse-catching circuits that tell the Vectrex and its software of the event. The prototype was made in the plastic casework of a Marks-A-Lot felt-tipped marker pen. The Vectrex draws a spider-web-like search-pattern to track the pen's location. The software changes the pattern size as the pen changes motions and velocity in an attempt keep a continuous lock on the pen's position. The Vectrex light pen was invented by John Ross.
The game built into the Vectrex, Mine Storm, would crash at level 13. However, on some machines the game would continue until the highest level, in which more mines were laid than would hatch. Consumers who complained to the company about the crash at the 13th level received a replacement cartridge in the mail. Titled MineStorm II, it was the fixed version of the Vectrex's built in game. However, very few wrote to the company about it due to the difficulty in reaching level 13, making MineStorm II one of the rarest cartridges for the Vectrex system.
The liquor company Mr. Boston gave out a limited number of customized Clean Sweep cartridges, with a Mr. Boston sticker on the box. The overlay was basically the regular Clean Sweep overlay with the Mr. Boston name, logo, and copyright info running up either side. The game itself had custom text, and the player controlled a top hat rather than a vacuum. "Clean Sweep" was written by Richard Moszkowski.
Since late 1995, there is a Usenet Vectrex community that creates homebrew games for ParaJVE, a Vectrex emulator. Today there are also several people manufacturing and selling newly made games, complete as cartridges with packing and overlays.
Byte in 1982 called Vectrex "one of the greatest game machines we have seen this year ... [Vectrex] is a good bet to score big with the consumer". It praised the screen, stating that "it almost has to be seen to be believed; imagine playing games at home (or in the office) using vector graphics with three-dimensional rotation and zoom", and noted that "It is unusual and refreshing to see a product appearing on the market with its software ready to run".
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