Atari and the Vectrex
By Darryl BrundageFebruary 3, 2007
(Note before starting this feature: I'm probably the least technically-minded person that's involved with
TAT, which, as I'll explain later, may lead to inaccuracies with this piece, even though a lot of this is just wishful thinking. So keep that in mind as you read on...)
The author's Vectrex, running the homebrew card
game of Vector 21, along with... a hoola hoop in the background? (Don't ask.)
First off, I'll get to the obvious: no, to the best of my knowledge, Atari and GCE, the creators of the Vectrex, never had any kind of business relationship with each other.
However, the POSSIBILITIES of such a relationship would have been pretty cool. But before we get into that...
For those who don't know, the Vectrex was a nifty little machine that made it's debut into the crowded computer and gaming console world in 1982. Having it's own monitor, it produced straight lined, or "wire frame" vector scan graphics that were popular in many arcade games, such as the Atari classics of
Asteroids, Space Duel, Tempest, Major Havoc, and Star Wars, along with others produced by non-Atari companies such as
Space War, Armor...Attack, Starhawk, and Star Trek, among others. (All other consoles at the time that had to be attached to a
TV [or a monitor for personal computers] utilized the square pixels, or raster scan graphics instead.) The Vectrex was also capable of utilizing 3-D graphics, rotating and scaling way better than most of the other home consoles at the time, even the more powerful ones (check out the jerky movements in the Colecovision version of
Zaxxon, for instance!).
As cool as this device was (even though it had no color, which would have made it very expensive), the Vectrex was, unfortunately, doomed from the start: other video game heavies of Atari and Intellivison (among others) had far more advertising bucks to spend, plenty of software was available for all the other consoles and computers at the time, personal computers were making their way into homes, and their prices were dropping as well. Milton Bradley had also bought out the Vectrex from GCE, which, as Milton Bradley was also being bought out by Hasbro at the time, Hasbro wasn't interested in video games, so the Vectrex television commercial (that CGE produced themselves) was withheld from any further
TV airplay, also not helping with the Vectrex's future.
Vecmania (left) has games based on the Atari vector
coin-op classics of Star Wars, Asteroids, and Tempest, and Moon Lander
is based on Lunar Lander
Even with the convenience of not tying up a TV like all the other gaming consoles did (not counting handhelds) by having it's own monitor, that was another one of the Vectrex's problems: the high price of producing it's monitor, which, after repeatedly slashing the unit's price to try to remain competitive in the gaming world, ended up ultimately losing over $30 million when it's production ended in 1984, as the great Video Game Crash killed it off for good then, due to the severe saturation of well over a dozen different gaming consoles and computers for consumers to pick from, along with the (aforementioned) tons of games that were available for them all as well (a lot of which were pretty bad, as companies had sprung up left and right over the years to try to make a buck, mostly off the Atari 2600).
And of course, you guys are familiar with the products Atari had out back then of the 2600, 5200, and later 7800, right? Ok then! ;)
AND THESE COMPANIES HAVE TO DO WITH...*WHAT*, NOW?
Backing up to what I said earlier, there were several arcade games that utilized vector graphics that were not producible for the home market, since home consoles back then had far less power than their arcade cousins. However, that's just in the
look of the game, as Asteroids proved to be fairly close adaptation on the 2600, and closer versions were made, play-wise, for the 7800 and the Atari line of personal computers as well.
Gravitar would also work pretty nicely for the 2600 too, I do believe the Sega ported
Tac/Scan received decent reviews as well, and I can vouch for their port of
Star Trek on the same system working out pretty decently, since I've played that one. Parker Brothers also, in a bizarre twist of fate, brought home the Atari coin-op
Star Wars to the 2600 when they acquired the Star Wars license. (Versions for
Star Trek and Star Wars also made it to the Atari 5200 and Colecovision as well, among various computer systems too.)
Part of Moon Lander attract mode
Now, that's the factual Atari side of this story, though.
Just what could have been expected if Atari produced games for the Vectrex?
WHAT WE HAVE THUS FAR
What I mean by "we" is the Vectrex community, with homebrews that were brought to life (so to say) by the influence of various Atari vector coin-op originals. (Of course, none of the games I'm going over are officially licensed Atari games, as gameplay has been altered a bit from their coin-op inspirations.)
Take Moon Lander, for instance, which was inspired by Atari's first ever vector coin-op
Lunar Lander, as each planet you land on is different from the previous, having different gravity pulls, wind, and sometimes satellites to contend with as well. There is no "zooming" effect when your spacecraft nears the planet, unlike with the Atari original, but with different landscapes and the aforementioned pressures to have to deal with, along with a voice-digitized intro and
cinematics of when you ship blasts off for the next moon, this 32K game (pretty large for a Vectrex homebrew) really surpassed the original.
And speaking of big games, the largest of them all (as of the time of this writing) is
Gravitrex Plus by Vectrex homebrewing great
John Dondzila, inspired by Atari's
Gravitar. There were a few new wrinkles added, though, like rescuing people (like in
Time Pilot, I suppose) on the planetscapes, and two gameplay versions were created for the cartridge, one of which (the arcade mode) is faster and more intense. It also weighs in at a whopping 64K (and remember when games came in kilo, rather than megabytes, by the way?).
Arcade Asteroids (above) and Rockaroids (below) from the All Good Things cartridge
Dondzila's Vecmania cartridge also has several Atari vector-inspired games in it as well, one of which is based on one of the vector arcade favorites of all, which is
Star Wars. It plays a little differently though, as the camera view doesn't pan around to the next T.I.E. Fighter-like ship after you destroy it like the original does, as you have to wait until the next ones appear. Also, instead of a set pattern of a landscape (Death Starscape?) to blow the tops off laser towers in the second stage, they also appear randomly, although the final stage of navigating the trench (known as "Dark Planet" in this homebrew) is pretty much the same as the original's, although without catwalks to duck in the later levels.
Vecmania also contains a second version of Rockaroids, an Asteroids clone (obviously). This time however, the asteroids rotate around, like in the Atari arcade sequel of
Asteroids Deluxe, and you are invincible for the first several seconds with every new onscreen life (thank goodness, it helps, the asteroids can move pretty fast!). And rounding out the Atari vector clones on the cartridge is a demo of a
Tempest clone called Abyss, but Dondzila didn't fully plan out the game before diving into it, so he never finished it. All you have is one level that never ends (until you shut it off), as there's no way to die, no sounds, and hardly any of the enemies are present either, just Flippers, Spikes and Spikers.
Yes, I know, I see tons of light bulbs going off over your heads, going "Tempest! OMG!" As it says on the Vectrex database,
"A vector game that so many had been waiting for - a Vectrex version of
Tempest.", yes, the closest the Vectrex got to Tempest back in the day was with
Bedlam, which was kind of a "Tempest in reverse," where you're in the middle, and objects come towards you. As far as modern homebrews go, though, a complete
Tempest version was completed, known as Tsunami, by Christopher Tumber.
Unfortunately, the cartridge -– which also included a vector version of the arcade game
Qix, known as Vix -- sold out, and Tumber has apparently "disappeared from the internet," as I've read on forums, since e-mails to his last known address don't bounce back, nor do they get answered either. Another possibility is for Mark Shaker of
Mark's Video Game Manufacturing to create a version of it -- Shaker can produce most Vectrex games ever made, due to having permission from Jay Smith, one of the Vectrex's creators, aside from
AnimiAction, which he can't create, due to it's onboard RAM -- but he has been unable to get in touch with Tumber either, at the time of this writing. Hopefully that will eventually be rectified, so we can see the games again outside of emulation (which sometimes play better on a real Vectrex, rather than on a computer)...
Arcade Tempest (above) and the unfinished Abyss
demo (below), on the John Dondzila homebrew Vecmania cartridge
And as I mentioned Asteroids earlier, just like with Bedlam/Tempest back in the day, the closest we got to an
Asteroids game was with Mine Storm, which was built into the Vectrex. But then flashing forward to over a decade after the Vectrex "died," Dondzila made his first version of
Rockaroids, which the second version of that game (for those who missed it when he first released it) made it onto his compilation cartridge of
All Good Things. (However, for those that have seen the curious screenshot of an
Asteroids clone on the Video Game Museum website under it's Gamepics section, called the
BCor-FTS Demo [which stands for "Big Chunks Of Rock Floating Through Space," heh], made by Clay Cowgill [who also made
Moon Lander], this was never made out to be, nor released, as a full Asteroids-type game, it was just a demo for the ship's physics.)
WOW, THE COLOR--UH, THE *POSSIBILITIES*, MAN
Ok, finally we're onto the reason why this feature is here: the possibilities of Atari-ported vector games if they were brought to the Vectrex!
One semi-popular hit (I don't know if the term of "cult" would fit here) -- and I feel, somewhat ignored -- of Atari's vector game of
Black Widow might have worked out on the Vectrex. As I put up a warning to this feature at the very beginning, I hardly know anything about programming at all, so I'm not sure if this game could have been very doable; after all, the Vectrex suffered flickering with some of their games (just like the 2600!), along with slowdown (again, 2600...) with too many vector lines being drawn at once. So this might not have worked out too well, unless the port was scaled down a bit; after all,
Widow was considered by many to be a "vector version of Robotron: 2084," which a Vectrex homebrew of
Robotron was supposed to have been completed in
2004, but has yet to materialize...
(And likewise, Dondzila ironically did a stripped down version of Centipede as a hidden bonus game in one of his cartridges. The game only has mushrooms, your blaster, the spider, and the vectrepede, no fleas or scorpions included. Even though playable and can be fun at times, there's too much flicker and slowdown with too many mushrooms and the vectrepede onscreen. So
Black Widow, even though a welcome addition to the Vectrex library if it were created, might not have worked out, like how
Vectrepede feels a bit "unfinished" [to me, anyway] as well.)
Another one I'm not too sure about is
Battlezone, which probably ranks right up there with Tempest as to what vector games Atari fans would want to see created for the Vectrex. Again, not knowing about programming, it seemed to me that, being able to handle 3-D and scaling, this would be fairly likely, but someone on the
Vectrex forums (that actually knows about programming, or at least I assume) said it would take some pretty nifty programming tricks to be able to pull off a feat such as a
Battlezone game. And since you could run both games off the same hardware with only a few modifications of the wiring harness (not counting the controls, though, according to it's entry at the
Killer List of Video Games), I assume that leaves fellow Atari coin-ops
Red Baron (which runs off the Battlezone hardware) and The Empire Strikes Back off the future homebrew list as well, unless someone's up to the challenge.
The Vectrex 3D Imager add-on
(Note: there was also an add-on known as the 3D Imager for the Vectrex as well, which I've also read on the Vectrex forums that even veteran Vectrex homebrewers REALLY have to know what they are doing in order to make games for the 3D Imager [or it's later modern reproductions]. Right now there's only one homebrewed game that was made especially for the Imager (Lord of the Robots), and two more are slated for release in 2007. So using this as well for any homebrews seems to be a pretty slim chance, at best, as well.)
Probably a better chance of seeing the light of day on the Vectrex would be a
Major Havoc clone, a unique game that was released during the video game crash, not getting a lot of attention. Running through a space station (after engaging in outer space dogfights) to destroy it by mucking up it's reactor would be unique to the Vectrex as well, and being a personal favorite of mine, you know I'd be one of the first people to send whatever homebrewer an e-mail to get a shot at a place for it's reserve list.
And we can't forget Space Duel! Ahhhh, another game (among several already available for the Vectrex) with simultaneous two player onscreen action would be very welcome (other Vectrex games of this nature include
Armor...Attack, Space Wars, and the homebrews of a Discs of Tron demo on
Vecmania, and Nebula Commander, among others). And with several Asteroids-type games available for the Vectrex already, what's one more, especially since it added several features that were unique to that genre? And I don't think
Asteroids Deluxe would be too much trouble either -- just add the wedges and diamonds -- along with a vector version of
Blasteroids (or it could go for a raster look, which I'll get to in the next section).
Arcade version of Space Duel.
Another kind of cult arcade hit that I don't think ever made it to any kind of compilation (even today) is
Quantum. This unusual game required you to use a trackball to capture various objects that floated around onscreen. It probably would have been possible to port it to the 2600. The new homebrew of
Star Sling has an element or two that's similar to Quantum, but it doesn't really count as a Quantum clone, since it's creator, Alex Nicholson, has stated that he had never heard of Quantum before he made his game. The game involves catching rides on passing asteroids and roping several objects togther, unlike with Quantum, where you just have a string that trails along onscreen. You also have to match similar objects so they will dissapear, if you catch a different object then they'll multiply. So this is why Star Sling can't exactly be counted as a Quantum clone (which the same goes for Color Clash, which can't exactly be counted as a Tetris clone either, due to differences in gameplay, and the same goes for VPong, since, running vertical and being for only one player, doesn't exactly count as a Pong clone either).
YOU CAN HAVE IT BOTH WAYS...
Vectrex version of Pole Position.
Of course, ports, or clones, were created for both sides, whether they were vector to begin with, but ended up raster, or vice versa: as far as the Vectrex went, the non-Atari arcade hits of
Scramble and Berzerk weren't vector originally, but they were ported anyway to the system, as well as
Pole Position (about the only thing the Vectrex had in common with any of Atari's systems [along with the similarities of both systems having a space war-type game], since Atari distributed the arcade original, made by Namco).
Vector homebrews of raster Atari clones were also released, like the aforementioned
Vectrepede. Versions of Missile Command (known as Patriots) made it onto several Dondzila cartridges, as well as
Breakout, a hidden bonus game in two of Dondzila's releases, along with a
Tetris clone (Vectris, on his All Good Things compilation). And another hidden bonus game of his, which is based on not an Atari-made game, but the 2600 game
Commando Raid (made by U. S. Games), also appears on one of his cartridges (if you can find it!).
Also, several versions of the game Kaboom!, which appeared on several Atari consoles and home computers (made by Activision), also have made it onto the homebrew scene, with two versions done by Dondzila (actually they play the same, one of them is just made specifically for the original Vectrex analog controller), called Spike's Water Balloons (which also allowed you to kick some back up to your enemy, Spud, a la the coin-op game of
Kickman), and on Vaboom!/Vectrace (Vaboom!, which allows a player to earn a bucket back by grabbing an onscreen heart, although catching the occasional 'X' that floats down will also rob a player of one of his paddles. Also, occasionally a bomb will fly up towards the bomber; smack him 10 times and you'll go to a bonus round where the bombs are worth not only three times their point value, but the player also won't lose a paddle if they miss a bomb). Dondzila also created
a racing demo that was akin to several of Atari's early top-viewed racing coin-ops of
Indy 4, Indy 800, and the 2600 game Indy 500. And a screenshot of the (as of yet) unfinished game of
Spudster's Revenge can be viewed on the Vectrex database, a version of the controversial 2600 game
Custer's Revenge. Oh my! However, probably being most gamers' cup of tea instead would be the
Yars' Revenge clone of
Oh, and I mentioned the Star Wars coin-op clone earlier, right? Well, there's actually another hidden Star Wars game on a cartridge, being a clone of the 2600 Parker Brothers game The Empire Strikes Back! Of course, it's a little different than the original, as your ship thrusts differently, there's no areas to repair your speeder, and the AT-AT-type machines only seem to be vulernable in the head, no destroying them from behind or via bomb hatch or anything. The smart bombs act differently too (plus they can't be destroyed), and after you shoot several of the walkers, they start JUMPING, of all things! Funny stuff...but having the walkers start shooting several fast smart bombs at you at a time, not so much!
The Vectrex is also capable of raster graphics, which the excellent homebrew of
Y. A. S. I. proves (which looks almost identical to the original
Space Invaders coin-op). So that opens up even more possibilities, although there haven't been many of those kinds of games produced in that fashion (Debris, Color Clash), as most Vectrex owners prefer what made the Vectrex what it is: a vector graphics machine.
And likewise, as I mentioned earlier, non-vector versions of Gravitar and
Asteroids have appeared on various Atari consoles (actually Gravitar was a 2600 only game, but
Asteroids went pretty much everywhere!). Ironically enough, one of THE biggest hits of them all,
Tempest, never made it past the prototype stage for the
7800 consoles. A raster version of
Space Duel made it to one of the modern Atari Flashback consoles, along with
Major Havoc being ported to a home compilation on the home computer circuit a few years ago (actually it was planned for the Jaguar as well, but that never happened), and vector versions of
Tempest, Asteroids, Gravitar, and Battlezone have appeared on various PC compilations as well.
And it would be pretty near impossible to cover all of the vector and non-vector Atari versions for various consoles and updates, like one-time Atari nemesis Activision (Atari sued them when they first hit the video game scene in the early days) ironically making PC updates to
Asteroids and Battlezone, to other modern compilations on the Game Boy Advance (Lunar Lander on the
Millipede Super Breakout Lunar Lander cartridge) to tons of other consoles and computers, which will continue until the end of time, I suppose.
And, like I said, it goes both ways: due to tons of us being fascinated with anything vector starting with the arcade heyday and from then on, there have been many 2600 "vector"
Defender and Asteroids (of course), altering the games' graphics to resemble wire-framed vector lines.
It's mind-boggling the influence that Atari and vector graphics have had over the years, to put it mildly.
And, since I can't figure out where else to put it in this article, the Logo programming language was released for the Atari personal computer line back in the 1980s, plus it was also made available for the Vectrex recently as well.
BACK TO THE FUTURE (OR PAST)...
River Raid on the Vectrex? (Editor's rendition.)
In conclusion, who knows what the future will bring to the Vectrex homebrew scene, and various Atari vector adaptions to all kinds of platforms, including hacks. Some Vectrex homebrewers prefer not to announce a project until it's nearly ready, so anything is possible, especially with how huge a library the 2600 alone has. After all, with it being able to handle scaling so well, it wouldn't surprise me one day to hear of a
River Raid-type game coming out as a Vectrex homebrew (which reminds me, what about a clone of the
Spy Hunter coin-op?)
As long as we have homebrewers that think "_____ Atari game is missing from the Vectrex's library," then Atari will never die.
Even for those that are reading this that don't own a Vectrex, you have to admit that is quite a nice thought, coming from two consoles that don't have much in common with each other, especially since they both "died" a couple of decades ago.
Thanks to Jeroen at www.vectrex.nl and Alex Nicholson from Vectorzoa.com for their info about some of the gameplay for Star Sling.
Edit: Even though this article instantly went out of date the moment it went online -- I since got the I, Cyborg homebrew, dating my photo of "all" the homebrews I had at the time, it's since been announced that one of the games for the 3-D Imager might not be released in 2007 after all, etc. -- I'm just going to leave it pretty much "frozen" in time for when it was written. However, I couldn't believe that I forgot to include a link to a video I made of the homebrews, which you can see at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq7T5P3bjnI . It's only a slideshow for now, but I'll eventually redo it using video instead of photos! So you'll be able to see even MORE of the Atari influence now!