The Vectrex is a second-generation home video game console developed by Smith Engineering. In contrast to other home consoles the Vectrex featured an integrated monochrome CRT monitor capable of displaying vector graphics unlike traditional home television sets.
The console was originally conceived in late 1980 by John Ross and Mike Purvis, employees at Smith Engineering who was trying to find a way to utilize their excess inventory of 1-inch monitors. Smith Engineering purchased a large amount of small cathode ray tube (CRT) displays from a liquidation surplus store and the engineering team was exploring ways to make use of the displays. Ross and Purvis came up with the idea for a small handheld video game system that used Vector graphics.
First conceived as a handheld console dubbed the “Mini Arcade” which would use vector graphics which draws graphics on the display using lines of light opposed to the raster graphics found in standard displays which consist of small pixels or blocks. Vector graphics have the unique advantage over raster graphics in that the lines and curves drawn on screen can be scaled up or down to any resolution with no aliasing. Vector graphics have a timeless appeal that provides consumers with a unique experience that can not be replicated using home television sets.
|Manufacturer||General Consumer Electronics (NA)|
Milton Bradley (EU)
|Designed By||Smith Engineering|
|Hardware Type||Home Console|
|Release||NA: November 1982|
EU: May 1983
JP: June 1983
|Launch Price||$199.99 USD|
|Game Library||28 Games (NA)|
19 Games (EU)
11 GAmes (JP)
John Ross presented his idea to Jay Smith, founder of Western Technologies and owner of Smith Engineering. Smith who had previously designed the Microvision for Milton Bradley in 1979, the first cartridge based handheld video game console was quite familiar with video games and their market demand. Western Technologies was an early pioneer in development tools for gaming systems while Smith Engineering was Jay Smith’s private company under which he could patent his own designs, projects or inventions such as the Microvision. Smith was impressed with Ross’ idea and chose to proceed forward with himself heading the project.
While Smith Engineering was working to flush out the details of their concept and potential design aspects of the console, they were also searching for a manufacturer to lease their technology to. In early 1981, the toy company Kenner showed interest in the Mini Arcade and planned to have a 5” black and white CRT display included in the final product, however in July 1981 they ultimately decided not to pursue the endeavour. Smith Engineering was able to find a new partner in September 1981 when General Consumer Electronics (GCE) decided to lease the Mini Arcade after the president of the company, Greg Krakauer was extremely impressed with the concept and demo presented to him by Smith Engineering. While negotiating leasing terms a few modifications were made such as the display being increased to 9” and the name changed to “Vectrex”. While shopping for a manufacture to partner with the original vision of creating a handheld console evolved into developing a tabletop unit with a nine-inch screen.
With the agreement in place with General Consumer Electronics development of the prototype began in the fall of 1981 with the goal of having the hardware and 12 games completed by June 1982. John Ross was put in charge of the hardware design, Gerry Karr and John Hall worked on the system rom codenamed the “Executive” and Walter Nakano and Colin Vowles were responsible for the look and feel of the console.
In early 1982 John Hall was pulled from working on the system rom in order to work on “Mine Storm”, one of the 12 games for the console’s launch. Gerry Karr continued to work on the development of the system rom and eventually started over from scratch after the originally planned 6502 processor was deemed too slow and was changed to a 6809 processor. The newly started system rom was renamed to RUM for Run Time Monitor and Karr brought in additional resources to contribute with the development of the system rom in time for the Summer Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show.
While vector graphics were not considered a new technology, they were not something readily available to consumers. The technology existed since the early 1960’s in military air defense systems and is something Atari decided to incorporate into their 1979 arcade game Lunar Lander. Although the game wasn’t particularly successful it was the first video arcade game to use vector graphics which was an important step for both Atari and the video game industry. This was an important step for Atari as vector graphics were the base of their next game Asteroids which became Atari’s most successful video arcade game, and this was an important step for the industry as it inspired the creation of many classic arcade games.
Atari followed up with the release of Asteroids another game that would use a vector display to give the game more detail and an overall better effect. The Vectrex, named after its vector graphics capabilities, would be able to bring the unique experience of the emerging arcade games being developed to utilize vector graphics to the home, something other consoles could not offer due to the limitation of standard television sets. Vector graphics were being used in popular arcade games such as Asteroids, Battlezone, Space War and Tempest, something consumers were starting to get familiar with by the time the Vectrex would hit the market.
Vector graphics are very sharp and allowed the Vectrex to produce some outstanding visual effects such as scaling and rotation. Smith Engineering incorporated a nine by eleven-inch monochrome monitor to produce the vector graphics, choosing not to use color vectors due to technical limitations and the additional cost that would be involved. Instead games included translucent color sheet overlays that could be placed over the monochrome screen to provide color and additional graphics.
The Vectrex was unveiled on June 6, 1982 at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago and released in November in time for the 1982 holiday season. The system sold for $199 and had a very successful launch, so much so that Milton Bradley bought out General Consumer Electronics in early 1983 to gain rights to the console. Milton Bradley retained the General Consumer Electronics (GCE) name and branding for distribution of the Vectrex in the United States. With Milton Bradley’s strong financial backing and worldwide distribution, they were able to bring the Vectrex to parts of Europe in May 1983 and established a co-branding agreement with Bandai for distribution in Japan in June 1983.
Things were looking up for both Milton Bradley and the Vectrex but by the end of 1983 the video game market became over saturated and the video game industry experienced a market collapse. The large-scale recession in the video game industry occurred from 1983 to 1985 with revenues falling from $3.2 billion in 1983 to $100 million by 1985. The almost 97% drop in revenue led to many companies leaving the video game industry and many were reluctant to get back involved in video games after the crash ended and video games start to regain market share.
Unfortunately, despite a very strong start the Vectrex became a victim of circumstance. Milton Bradley closed down General Consumer Electronics (GCE) and decided to distribute the console themselves, discounting it as it first to $150 than to $100 in hopes that the market would stabilize. In May 1984, Milton Bradley merged with Hasbro, and the Vectrex was discontinued a few months later. Due to the poor timing of the purchase of General Consumer Electronics (GCE) to gain the rights to the console coupled with the video game crash of 1983 cost Milton Bradley tens of millions of dollars. Despite its commercial failure, the Vectrex was highly praised for its software library, graphical capabilities and built-in monitor.
History of the Vectrex & Game Library Review