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M > MILTON BRADLEY > Vectrex


Milton Bradley
Vectrex

The following text & information comes from the Museum of Home Video Gaming.
_________________

For those that have no idea of a vector vs. raster display - a Quick explination: Most game displays use what is called a raster display where the electron gun that displays pictures on the screen (such as a Television set) scans down the screen horizontally anywhere from 30 to 60 times a second, drawing small blocks called pixels. Vector graphics have the gun draw to exact locations only using x and y coordinates. Because of this, they obviously require special electronics for this type of display mechanism. The plus side is that the lines and details drawn are much cleaner and crisper than it's raster counterpart. This provides for great wireframe 3D effects. The bottom side is that color graphics become a bit more complicated, and solid graphics (non-wireframe) are next to impossible.

Vector graphics had been in use with coinop arcade games in the late 1980's, starting with Cinematronics Space Wars in 1978. Probably the most famous vector graphic game is of course Atari's Asteroids.

In 1981, Mike Purvis and John Ross at Western Technologies/Smith Engineering, were trying to come up with a way to use the lot of cheap cathode ray tube (CRT) screen that WT/SE had picked up recently from a liquidator/surpluss store. They came up with the idea for a small all in one home gaming system using Vector graphics. Jay Smith, head of Engineering, gave the go ahead and headed the project, which became known as the Mini Arcade.

By Spring, 1981, the toy company Kenner had optioned the Mini Arcade, and it was planned to have only a 5" black and white tube. However by July, it had decided not to. However, by September of that year a company by the name of General Consumer Electronis (GCE) had decided to lease the Mini Arcade after GCE's president, Greg Krakauer saw the concept and early workings and decided it was a potential goldmine. However, a few modifications were made - for example screen was increased to 9". The Home Arcade name was still kept.

By Fall of 1981, the work began on the actual prototype with the goal being the hardware and 12 games completed by June of 1982. John Ross designed the hardware, Gerry Karr and John Hall started the system ROM (codenamed the "Executive").

By January of 1982 a few more changes occured. The Vectrex was originally supposed to have a 6502 processor, but it was decided this was to slow. So they changed it to a 6809. Also, John Hall left to work on one of the 12 games to be done (later Called Minestorm). So, Gerry Karr continued on alone and eventually started over from scratch, renaming the system ROM to RUM for Run Time Monitor. He eventually brought in other people to contribute, such as Duncan Muirhead who wrote the RUM's trig routines not long after joining the company that month.

Most of the games were to be licensed re-leases or copies of already existing coinop games. WT/SE had struck up a licensing agreement with well the well known vector coinop company Cinemetronics, that included full access to each other's games. Full source code was available to the Vectrex programmers, and Cinematronics had the option to release any original Vectrex games it liked as full coinop versions (which it eventually did with Cosmic Chasm).

Programmed by people like Paul Newell, John Hall, Mark Indicator, Bill Hawkins and Tom Sloper, development was tricky at first. Because there was no finished Vectrex console, development at first was done on oscilloscopes driven by prototype boards, and a 6809 processor simulator. According to Bill Hawkins, the only real problem with this method was the aspect ratio - since the oscilloscope was square and the Vectrex screen was to be rectangular. After about two months when the Vectrex console prototype had actually been developed, development was moved to S100 based CPM computer with two 8" floppy drives - one for the CPM operating system and one for the data.


scramble

By April, Scramble, Mine Storm (an Asteroids clone), Berzerk, Rip Off and Star Trek were completed. Work is immediately started on other games such as the Vectrex original Cosmic Chasm. Conceptually designed by Jeff Corsiglia, and programmed by Bill Hawkins, this turned out to be the only game converted in to a coinop by the Cinematronics agreement. According to Bill, it only took him six weeks to do Cosmic Chasm (unlike the three months and 12 boxes of disks to do Rip Off) because while the rest of the programmers were out of town one weekend he stole two more drives from another programmer's setup.


> PLASTIC OVERLAYS

Somewhere along the line, it was decided that color overlays would be used. Overlays, which originated in coinops, served a multitude of purposes. In the early through late 70's, coinops were in black and white. If you wanted color, you would literally affix colored cellophane strips to the monitor screen, such as was done in Atari's Breakout or Taito's Space Invaders. Likewise, if the playfield was to be to complicated to draw (be it in detail, or a color problem) because of the graphics limitations of the time, overlays could be used to render permanent backgrounds or give ambiance. Such as in the asteroid background in Atari's Asteroid Deluxe, or the stairwell in Cinematronic's Warrior. Still other overlays would be on the protective plastic screen itself instead of the monitor, and add anything from exciting borders to game instructions.


Armor Attack plastic overlay

It was decided for reasons of all of the above, that the Vectrex system would use overlays, and Miva Filoseta was given the job of designing them. The problem's with game designing would occur here however, because of someone's decision to have Miva do the overlays only after the game was finished. Because of this, none of the programmers would make their game with any sort of an overlay in mind. And more often than not, Miva would design the overlays with lettering and such that would cover part of the game area. So, the programmer would then have to go back in and try and alter the game to account for this. As Tom Sloper and Bill Hawkings related during their Classic Gaming Expo 2000 keynote address, this created a big rift between Miva and the programmers.

Lenny Carlson was then brought in to add music and and sounds to many of the original games.

The look and feel of the Vectrex goes to Walter Nakano and Colin Vowles. Both model builders, they created the unique look of the Vectrex system a full 2 years before the Macintosh computer came out with it's similar look.


> THE CONTROLLER

 


Vectrex controller pad

Also decided along the way were the look of the controllers. It was decided to give as close to an actuall arcade experience as possible to go with the overall idea of the console. So, the controller was designed to be rectangular box that could sit on a tabletop along with the vectrex or in a person's lap. Mounted on it were 4 fullsize arcade buttons, and a top heavy joystick. The controller itself was detachable and connected to the Vectrex through a phone chord type connection. There were two controller slots made available to be plugged in to on the Vectrex unit itself, allowing for realtime two player games.

Also unique to the Vectrex, and to go along with it's mini arcade "portable" look, was the fact that the controller folded up in to the console for easy storage, as shown below. A recessed handle at the top of the unit also allowed for easy carrying.


controller folded up into the console

By June of that year, the GCE Home Arcade and it's 12 games were finished on schedule and ready to be shown to the public at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, and interest was sparked.


> CHOOSING THE RIGHT NAME

During the Summer of '82 before production could start, it was learned that another company had already released a product called the Home Arcade, so the name was changed to Vectron. GCE didn't like this, so eventually a brainstorming session was held with the engineers, programmers, and the president of GCE. Bill Hawkins, a fan of the old 'B' sci-fi movies suggested something with Vector in it, such as Vector-X. Initially declined, as the meeting went on Tom Sloper eventually brought up possibly compressing the earlyer suggested Vector-X name, to something like Vectrex. Names were put on a whiteboard, one by one they were eliminated, and eventually Vectrex stood.

As all consoles around this time usually shipped with one game cartridge included, Vectrex was to be no different. However, what made Vectrex unique as well was that the included game - Mine Storm, was shipped already included in rom form in the Vectrex unit, no cartridge required. This produced an interesting bug, because at the time that Mine Storm was distrubuted in the unit it only had 13 levels (each level stored in an array structure), when the player got past wave 13, the next levels would be created by the game code looking at the next block of code past the array (since it's not aware that the array ends after 13 entries) and using whatever is in memory there to form the mine patterns. If it's invalid, it skips the level (and you might suddenly find your self jumping to level 14). This was eventually patched and released to the public under a seperate Mine Storm cartridge, that displayed itself as Minestorm II.


> ON THE SHELVES

The Vectrex shipped in the US in November of 1982 in time for the Christmas season. It included the unit with built in Minestorm game and one stick, for a cost of US$199.00.

Milton Bradley, who had been working with portable (tabletop and handheld) gaming systems starting with it's Comp IV in 1977 and Microvision in 1979, had been looking for something to enter in to the electronic game arena with. After seeing the Vectrex, they bought CGE outright in early March of 1983.

This move gave the Vectrex worldwide distribution (which started in Europe that summer) and a much wider exposure than it would have had under GCE alone. This included large ad campaigns and instoor pomotionals.

By summer of 1983, Vectrex was released in several other countries (France, Germany, Sweden, Japan, etc.)

What's interesting to note, is that because of this maze of ownership, all game development did not take place at WT/SE. Some of their former employees continued to write games under contract to GCE. People like Mark Indicator, John Hall, Jeff Corsiglia, and Richard Moskowski.


> COLOR PROTOTYPES

By the Fall of 1983, efforts were beginning to create a color prototype of Vectrex. Several projects were created, each trying a different method. One was to use a color tv tube, however this was not economically feaseable. Another was to use a projection TV with three vector scan tubes, which also becomes too expsensive. The third effort is to use two layers of color phosphor on a black and white type TV tube. By varying the high voltage level, the electron beam would excite the bottom layer or the top layer. This project failed though, because the voltage could not be changed rapidly enough to keep up with the scan of the beam.


The Color Phosphor Prototype

Also that year, Milton Bradley did it's only demonstration of vaporware at the summer CES show - keeping in line with many of the other console companies who did the same during that time. They promised a computer add on for the Vectrex, that included a 65 key keyboard, an extra 16K ram, built in basic, and would use 120K tape wafers for storage.

Even though the industry was entering the great shake out (great video game crash of '83-'84), there were two revolutionary new products were introduced in '83 and released in '84. Both have become rare and valuable collectibles to Vectrex enthusiasts.


> THE LIGHT PEN

The first of which was the light pen. The light pen allowed direct drawing and manipulation on the Vectrex screen, and came packeged with Art Master, a drawing/doodling program. 3 other cartridges were made for use with the light pen - Melody Master (a music program that allowed you to write music notes on the screen and have them played), and Animaction (an animated drawing program). The was also one un-released but fully completed game called Mail Plane which was a flight simulation that allowed you to control an actuall plane that must travel around delivering mail.


two different boxed versions of the light-pen


> 3D IMAGER

The second device was the Vectrex 3D goggles, released a full 3 to 4 years before Sega's LCD version (who later had to pull a TV commerical claiming they were first). This unique device also a provided a unique solution to the color graphics dillema. The glasses produced a 3D effect with a complicated process that used a disk that spins in the center of the glasses. The disk itself is half black and half colored bands (red, green blue). Drawings on the Vectrex are then synchronized to the rotation of the disk, with drawings displayed according to a specific color or eye. This synchronization allows one eye at a time to see the vectrex screen and the image, and when repeated rapidly produces a stereoscopic 3D effect. The added bonus was that synching with the colors allowed you to now see the vector graphics in color as well. The disks were removeable and each game could have it's own unique disk.

This tricking of the vision requires extra steps in drawing of objects as well. From the Vectrex faq: "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 whether the right eye image or the left eye image is drawn first 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). "

This design led to some unique problems with the glasses. Sometimes double images were seen due to natural human focus problems. Likwise, the wheel produced a gyroscopic effect that caused the disk to want to stay put when a person wanted to turn their head.

The goggles came bundled with a 3D version of Minestorm, and two games were released - 3D Narrow Escape and 3D Crazy Coaster (a roller coaster simulation). 3 games were also fully completed but never released - 3D Pole Position, Tour de France and Hangman (which also used Touch Screen, a prototype accessory).


> THE END...

With the great video game crash underway, Milton Bradley decided to try and cut costs by closing down GCE in January of 1984 and distributing Vectrex itself. They also lowered the price to first $150 and then $100 in hopes of luring people to buy the console. However, they still lost a 18.7 million (a grand total of 31.6 million since '92), and decided to discontinue the Vectrex. By March, sales were discontinued in Europe, and slowly phased out everywhere else during the rest of the year. Milton Bradley was not in good shape overall, and would merge with Hasbro by May of that year. Hasbro, who was notoriously against entering any electronic gaming area, and some speculate that the Vectrex was really killed because of this. It is plausible, because similar events have occured with several other game consoles and companies - Hasbro bought Coleco during it's bankruptcy and reorganization period in 1989, bought Atari from JTS in 1998, and bought out Tiger in the late 90's canceling their Game.com series as well. All together, Hasbro is sitting on the rights of a good many gaming systems and doing nothing with them. But I digress. Some of the stock was bought out and converted to run the Luscher Color/Profiling test, and showed up in malls around the U.S. in the late 80's.

In 1988, WT/SE thought about re-releasing the Vectrex as a handheld unit using the Sinclair flat TV tube. However, with the release of the GameBoy and Atari lynx in 1989, the project ws scrapped.


> LIFE AFTER FOR VECTREX

Currently, the Vectrex enjoys a big underground following. In the '90's, WT/SE released much of the Vectrex material for public use, allowing non-commerical reproduction of the overlays and manuals. A number of the game roms have also been released to the public including many of the formally unreleased games.

Many people are also writing new games for the Vectrex console. John Dodzilla, has made several new games and offers them in both cartridge format for play on an actual Vectrex, and in binary format for use on Vectrex emulators. He's also offering replacement controllers for the Vectrex, as well as new games for Colecovision and Odyssey² consoles. Kristof Tuts is offering several games in cartridge form, and has links to others developing new games. Ronen Habot is offering several games in cartridge form and binary form. Sean Kelly is offering a multicart, containing every original Vectrex game minus AnimAction. T. Price is offering brand new reproductions of overlays for the Vectrex console.

And the list goes on, including Vectrex overlay resources, programming archives, and more (see the LINKS section for more info)...

 


Vector Patrol is a good example of a brand new game
developped by Kristof Tuts for the Vectrex






 
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