In this second post, I’m talking about another particular phenomenon I witnessed—the degradation of the Vectrex, a vector-graphics based home video console that was developed by Western Technologies/Smith Engineering (1982-3), and later Milton Bradley (1983-4). A Vectrex unit sold for $199 in 1982, then $150 in 1983, $100 shortly before the video game crash of 1983, and $49 after the crash, and its sales ended in 1984. The Vectrex was sold at a far more affordable cost than many of its raster graphics-based competitors (such as the Commodore 64, which sold for $595 in 1982)—while less ‘powerful,’ the Vectrex is a simpler machine geared towards translating vector-graphics based arcade games to the home gaming console. The Vectrex (which can be seen on display at the Media Archaeology Lab) also makes use of the ‘light pen’ peripheral that could be purchased in addition to the unit, which permits users to ‘draw’ on the screen and create virtual animations (in games like AnimAction, 1983, as seen at the MAL). The other peripheral, the 3D Imager, was the first at-home 3D peripheral available to consumers.
While pen-like devices for handheld devices such as ‘palm pilots’ never became ubiquitous, the stylus does still remain an important part of Nintendo’s 3DS and 3DS XL line of portable game consoles, as well as in some tablets, particularly for gaming. Competing devices, such as the PS Vita, don’t come with a stylus but the stylus can still be used. Mainstream handheld consumer devices tend towards the fingertip-touch, but there remains a gaming niche for stylus-electronics which benefit from precision controls. In some ways, the Vectrex’s light pen predicted the niche market for the stylus in the consumer video game market, but this was a marketplace that was largely dismantled when the video game crash of 1983 saw the demise of the Vectrex. Certainly, there has always been a 3rd party market for the ‘stylus,’ but from 1984 on it has remained a very small market, often separated from the ‘gaming’ market completely.
The other crash I’d like to talk about, outside of the Vectrex’s sales crash from 1982-1984, is the degradation I witnessed when working with the Vectrex. The first Vectrex unit I personally used was the Media Archaeology Lab’s Vectrex—a unit that remains one of my favorites since it is consistently reliable unit and has a boot-cycle of mere seconds (far shorter than the Commodore 64’s, which takes a much longer time to read content from 5.25″ floppy disks and cassette tapes). The Vectrex reads flash memory to run the built-in game, Minestorm, and the ROM cartridge games all run similarly fast. The second Vectrex unit I’ve used it MITH’s Vectrex. It has worked very well for me when I’ve used it from Fall 2014-Fall 2015, but in the Spring 2016 semester, I began to see some very disruptive errors in the system, as seen below:
While the glitches frustrate, indeed thwart, my attempts to play Minestorm (a game I’ve played many times), the errors also provide me the opportunity to see behind the screen (see my previous post on screen essentialism). From the images, I can begin to see that the vectors are rendered from a single central point. From this one point in the middle, the X and Y axes are drawn, creating four unique planes on a Cartesian coordinate system. Polygon-shapes are rendered across this coordinate system, which appear as the mines I attempt to destroy across this two-dimensional plane. While I’ve never personally used a Vectrex with the 3D Imager, I believe that the 2-dimensional Cartesian plane would be rendered in 3-dimensions (now containing x,y, and z axes). Beyond the game’s design, the visible lines that reach the center point also clearly mark each mine that player is supposed to destroy—in some ways making the earlier levels easier to play, while making later levels more difficult to play since gameplay becomes obscured by the added visible vector.
This opportunity, I’ve now discovered, was a limited one. Some few short weeks later I’ve sat down at the machine to play a bit more Minestorm with just a simple image seen below.
Only the central point is visible now, although the joystick still works, with full audio effects. Without a doubt, this is the most challenging incarnation of the game yet. If I ever master all 13 levels of the ‘traditional’ version of the game, I’ll then try to master the gameplay with no display at all. This, I’ll add, is a project I’ll leave for another day…
 Wikipedia.org (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vectrex). Originally Forster, Winnie (2005). The encyclopedia of consoles, handhelds & home computers 1972 – 2005. Gameplan. p. 54. ISBN 3-00-015359-4.
Kyle Bickoff is a PhD Student at the University of Maryland and works as Site Manager for Romantic Circles, a refereed scholarly website devoted to Romantic-period literature.
- Jamie Allen
- miniMAL exhibit at BMOCA’s MediaLive Festival