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Retro Gaming Hacks by Chris Kohler

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Find, Fix, Play, and Emulate the Vectrex

Play real vector graphics arcade games, right in your own home.

The Vectrex is one of the “holy grails” of classic video game collectors, the centerpiece of any collection. Not bad for a system that was an abject market failure as soon as it hit store shelves in 1982, finding itself in the clearance bins just a year later. Released by a company called GCE or General Consumer Electronics (that was swiftly purchased by Milton Bradley during the age when every toy, movie, and candy manufacturer wanted to get a finger into the video games pie), the Vectrex was the first and only home console to use a vector graphics display.

Vector graphics were already all the rage in arcades, having been used for such popular games as Asteroids and Battlezone. Vector graphic displays produced sharper, cleaner graphics because the beam in the monitor would draw the images based on specific sets of X/Y coordinates (i.e., vectors).

Atari’s home versions of their vector games for the 2600, although they may have replicated the gameplay, couldn’t have replicated the graphics because home systems that hook up to a television set all use raster graphics, drawn by a beam that scans horizontally across each row of pixels, from the top down.

But the Vectrex included its own built-in vector monitor, so it didn’t need to be hooked up to a TV. Thus, it was marketed as portable, although its heaviness and large size (and requirement of a wall socket to plug into) probably precluded it from that sort of use. The monitor only displayed in black and white, because a color vector display would have been prohibitively expensive for a consumer product, but tinted acetate overlays provided with each game cartridge added some color and background graphics to the games.

Collecting the Vectrex

Vectrex systems can be had on eBay for between $70 and $100, depending on condition. If you’re looking to go the cheaper route and scour flea markets and garage sales… good luck. If you do manage to find one, though, take comfort in the fact that it’s probably complete as is, since all the necessary bits were built in. Just make sure the attached power cord and controller haven’t been hacked off. The joystick conveniently snaps into a bay underneath the monitor.

There’s even a game built into the hardware, an Asteroids knockoff known as Minestorm. About thirty additional games were produced in total during the system’s lifespan, ranging from the relatively common to the obscenely rare; also falling into the latter category are some accessories such as a pair of 3D goggles and a light pen that let you draw on the screen. Some relatively inexpensive Vectrex games that a beginning collector might try to track down are:

Armor Attack

You’re a tiny little square jeep, and tanks and helicopters are firing on you. As you view the action from the top down, you’ll have to use your armor-piercing gun and the barriers around you to evade and shoot down the enemy vehicles.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Hop into your X-Wing and drop bombs on the Death Star! No, wait, I’m thinking of a different vector graphics arcade game. This isn’t as fun as the other one, but it’s still a relatively easy-to-find first-person space shooter. Actually, I think I have two copies of this. Anybody want one?

Spike!

Yes, it’s actually a vector graphics platform game. Your little spiky girlfriend is kidnapped and you have to negotiate platforms and ladders and such to get her back. It even uses speech synthesis!

In addition to the originally released games, there is also a vibrant Vectrex homebrew scene. Many Vectrex games were created by John Dondzila, including clones of games like Space Invaders and Tetris. You can buy the cartridges for $20 each from his web site, http://www.classicgamecreations.com/ . Other homebrew games, like Vec Sports Boxing, have been released from Good Deal Games (http://www.gooddealgames.com).

Fixing the Vectrex

Inspired by collectors’ stories that I’d read online or in the Digital Press Collector’s Guide, I hunted in vain for a Vectrex (as well as pretty much any old console I didn’t have) for years, but never did see one at a yard sale. Once I had pretty much given up on ever finding one, my father came home and said he’d found a Vectrex on the side of the road.

Plugging it in, we discovered why it was there in the first place—it didn’t work. Specifically, it had a problem that I soon discovered was evident in most Vectrex systems. When powered on, it just displayed a single white dot in the center of the monitor.

We never did get around to fixing it, but I did find all the information we needed. At some point in 1998, the original Vectrex troubleshooting guide and repair manual—the documents that GCE sent out to licensed Vectrex dealers—were located, scanned, and converted to PDF file format for easy viewing in Adobe Acrobat Reader. You can download it from http://www.playvectrex.com/shoptalk_f.htm and download the reader from http://www.adobe.com. Note that both guides assume knowledge of electronics and that you have certain general tools used in television repair.

As for the white dot issue, the Vectrex FAQ (http://www.classicgaming.com/museum/faqs/vectrexfaq.shtml) has this to say on the subject:

There is 1 common problem that will cause this symptom. Inside the unit there is a 4-wire power connector connecting the side board to the bottom board. Often units with no picture have bad solder joints on this connector. Try resoldering the pins and see if that helps.

Emulating the Vectrex

If you’re curious—but not a hundred dollars curious—as to what Vectrex games played like, you might try emulating the system on your PC. We’ll talk much, much more about emulation in Chapters 3 and 4 of this book, but I’m including Vectrex emulation in this hack for one specific reason: it’s perfectly legal. The owners of the games have granted users the right to download and distribute all the Vectrex games for free, provided they do not use them to make a profit.

There are two different emulators that run Vectrex games, both of which are available at Spike’s Big Vectrex Page (http://www.classicgaming.com/vectrex/). One of them is called DVE, and there are two versions of the program. Version 2.0 comes in two Zip files that are 1.8 MB and 1.3 MB large, and it contains all the Vectrex game software as well as the emulator files. Version 1.40 is a group of smaller Zip files, and the emulator software is not as advanced (there is no GUI and no joystick support). It is meant for slower, older PC hardware [Hack #69] .

The other emulator that runs Vectrex games is called MESS, short for Multi Emulator Super System [Hack #59] . One advantage to using MESS is that it will let you play the Vectrex 3D games if you have a standard pair of red and blue anaglyph 3D glasses, like the kind that used to come with comic books. You can also adjust the color settings to be able to play the 3D games in 2D.

You can download a Zip file containing all the games at Spike’s Big Vectrex Page. There are actually two files: one optimized for DVE and one for MESS. The Zip file contains all commercially released games, homebrews, and demos.

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