I’m fully aware that I have a basement full of crap, and, yes, to many eyes, my collection of crap really may be analogous to a firm, healthy turd, but if I accept this unpleasant analogy, then I’d have to say one of the most golden, gleaming kernels of corn in that turd would have to be the machine I want to show you today, the Vectrex. The Vectrex is a fascinating machine, a technical dead end, an elegant and fascinating look at a path not taken, technologically. Yes, it’s just another 1980s game console, but I think it’s so much more.
Among the YouTube comments disturbed and revolted by my hair were a number requesting that I focus an episode on this machine, so, for those of you who looked past the Hair Situation long enough to comment about something else, this is for you.
The Vectrex is fascinating because it’s the only vector-scan game console ever made. In fact, it may be the only vector-scan consumer device ever sold, period. Oh, and in case you’re not a painful dork, let me explain what vector scan is.
Pretty much every computer or video game system you use today uses what’s known as a raster scan display. Anything that uses pixels is raster scan, which is just about everything.
Back in the days of CRT televisions, these displays were drawn on a screen by a computer (or TV reciever) controlling an electron beam to “scan” horizontal lines down the screen, one row at a time, putting pixels on each row as needed to make an image.
The electron gun just scanned, top to bottom, over and over. In a vector scan display, the electron beam could be pointed at specific locations, effectively drawing whatever lines and shapes you want.
Maybe a visual will be clearer:
So, raster scan was far more common, and could do things vector scan couldn’t like big areas of filled colour, but was limited by resolution, and in the 1980s, pixels were big and blocky. If you wanted something with clean, perfect lines, vector scan was your best bet.
For home consoles, the problem was your normal TV wasn’t able to do this sort of thing, so the Vectrex was unique in that it had to include a CRT display in the console.
This increased the machine’s cost a good bit, since they were throwing in a big component no one else had to, but it also meant that the kid could play games while the parents watched some Geraldo special or 20/20 or M*A*S*H or whatever mums and dads watched back in the day.
Vectrex marketed this as an advantage: you didn’t monopolize the TV set, and the graphics were far more sleek than their blocky competitors.
The system was really only on the market a couple of years before the video game market collapsed, and while you could argue that the system never really got a fair shot, it was clear it was a niche machine from the start.
Vector scan had a mid-’80s heyday when they could simply display games with a look and feel that nothing else could match, but eventually raster display resolution improved enough that the advantages were minimal compared to the limitations.
From an automotive perspective, the system had a couple of good racing games, which I show you in the video, and even had Jackie Stewart as a spokesperson for the console and the racing game Hyperchase for a brief, exciting moment:
I love that game, but the idea that it gives the “feel” of racing is some mind-bending hyperbole, which may be what that “hyper” in Hyperchase meant.
Later in its short life the Vectrex offered some really novel options, like a light pen and an electromechanical “3D Imager” that sort of predicted modern VR goggles.
Today, the Vectrex is an interesting footnote, a technological cul-de-sac that really doesn’t have any descendants, technically. It did make an aesthetic impact, though, with the spare, crisp, and light-trail-happy look of its graphics inspiring modern games like Geometry Wars and standing in as a sort of icon for 1980s overall technical aesthetics.
I love this strange old machine! If you can find one, I happily recommend picking it up, though today it’s hard to find them for less than $750 or so on eBay. But, who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky, and can impress all your pals with this bit of very, very obsolete tech.