Milton Bradley’s Vectrex
A cartridge based gaming system with it’s own Built-in Monitor
The very first cartridge based home video games system I experienced was not an Atari 2600 or an Intellivision – it was the Vectrex System which was released by Milton Bradley in Australia during 1983.
The Vectrex had a short production period — roughly 2 years only — from mid 1982 until early 1984. Not long after the 1983 video game crash, and an attempt to develop some new peripherals and upgrades for the Vectrex system, Hasbro took over control of the Vectrex during 1984, and shortly after doing so, put it out to pasture.
Vectrex Hardware Specification
The Vectrex was powered by a Motorola 68A09 chip running at ~1.6Mhz. On the system board was 1Kb of RAM (1 Kilobyte) and 8Kb of ROM (4Kb of the ROM was taken up by the built-in game “Mine Storm”). All software was run from cartridges, most of which only used 8Kb ROMs even though the address space available was a much higher 64Kb. A Samsung 9"x11" black and white CRT screen was also part of the all in one unit – eliminating the need to connect the system directly into your TV.
Having a built-in monitor in the system at that time meant that the main TV of the house remained available for others to watch soaps or sports.
On the front of the system are two inputs where you would connect either a 4-button analogue self-centre joystick or a light pen – and the case was also unique as it gave one joystick the ability to neatly snap into it for easy storage.
All of the games on the Vectrex feature vector graphics – and even with the built-in black and white screen, they still wanted to achieve game colours. This is where the unique screen overlays come in. You would place one of these coloured overlays in front of the monitor and “clip” it inside the notches in front of the screen. One of the bonus things about these overlays is that they also tell you what actions each of the four controller buttons performs in that game. Now taking all of these specs into consideration, I feel that the programming feats to make these Vectrex games is simply quite amazing.
There were only around 28 officially released games for the Vectrex system between 1982 and 1984. Many of these games were quite hard to get in Australia and some games were not even released here at all. A fairly healthy “home-brew” game community exists and new titles have been released, including multi-carts and arcade clones. This quite possibly makes the Vectrex one of the easiest yet also one of the hardest systems to obtain a complete official game collection for.
Vectrex Games — Six of the Best
As the Vectrex was my first cartridge based home games system, I spent quite a bit of time playing on this unit. My family owned 8 officially released titles and there were a few titles I would have loved to have played but I didn’t get the opportunity to experience those until emulation came along — namely Fortress of Narzod and Star Hawk. With that said, here are the six games that to me define gaming on the Vectrex system:
The Vectrex unit had a built-in game named Minestorm which is essentially an Asteroids clone game with mines are geometrically shaped. The mines move off the screen and reappear on the opposite side as if the screen was a continuous play-field – something also present in Asteroids. There is also a Hyperspace type function (Escape) which can assist you in avoiding a collision by jumping you anywhere on the screen, but sometimes right on top of a mine. There is a Thrust button which propels your craft forward while you press the button and it ceases thrust when you release the button – meaning there is no brakes and too much thrust often means your have a collision path straight into a mine. Overall it is a fairly good built-in game and one that gets quite difficult from Level 7 onward. There is also a programming bug in the game if you manage to get to Level 14!
You need to control a special craft that has a laser, a drill and a defense shield inside a space station. You need to follow the map and choose a path from one room to the next to progress towards the central chasm of the station. In each room you must destroy the enemy while avoiding the core of the room that throbs and expands. Once you have destroyed all of the enemy ships in that room you will need to choose an exit and carefully drill through a force shield to continue on. Once you reach the central chasm containing the space stations power source, you must plant a bomb to destroy it and escape quickly, by retracing your path back to where you started and escape the explosion. You then progress into harder levels each time you complete a level. I had a lot of fun with this game.
Solar Quest is a game based on the Asteroids genre, where you control a space ship and you must shoot as many alien ships as possible. The twist to this game is you get bonus points rescuing any survivors before they are pulled into the sun in the center of the screen by it’s gravity. You can spin your ship in a circle as well as using thrust and hyperspace exactly like in Asteroids. There is the addition of a Nuke, where you have the opportunity to destroy everything on screen in it’s path – which at times is handy. There are various types of enemy ships to destroy and some do not fly in a standard flight pattern which is also another difference to Asteroids.
Armor Attack is a birds eye view game in a town in the midst of war where you control a jeep doing the best you can to defend what is left of the city. Your jeep must stop tanks and helicopters that fly overhead. The chopper can enter and exit the screen at any point, and this keeps you guessing. If you are cornered, you can try to use the buildings to assist your cover and with both the tanks and helicopter firing at your jeep, you must evade their fire to survive and then destroy them to progress to the next level. Tanks require 2 direct hits to destroy them, as the first hit will only immobilize them but they can still shoot at you.
Hyperchase is an extremely quick time trial style racing game which is fun to play. Considering the processor speed of the Vectrex, this is brilliant programming and the way the scenery moves as you speed along is quite masterful. You control an F1 style racing car with 4 gears and you need to be able to control the car and effectively change the gears to do well at this game. You will need to avoid traffic with careful steering and as the perspective of the road changes, you must also adjust your center of steering which adds to the challenge. Failure to do so will see you slam into the trees on the side of the road, hit the side walls inside the tunnel, take out a telephone pole or be cleaned up by another vehicle. The challenge of beating your previous time keeps you going back to try to better your current best time. Great fun.
Star Trek (Star Ship outside the USA)
This choice might be controversial as I have left off a few well known titles including Web Warp (also know as Web Wars) and Fortress of Narzod. To me this game has a certain appeal that kept me returning for more. Maybe it was the cockpit view which reminded me of Elite, one of my favorite games. The aim of this game is to control the ship to clear levels by firing at enemies and using your shield sparingly which shows how much is available via a horizontal line at the bottom of the screen. You are also require to dock with your mother-ship (UFO) by lining up the yellow cross-hair with the rotating square door and pressing your power link button. Be careful not to fire at your mother-ship or you will be in trouble. Each level ends with a challenging level boss that is both frustrating to defeat and rewarding when you have done so.
Other Good Vectrex Games
Here are some more Vectrex games that I recommend looking for on the Vectrex system:
- Clean Sweep
- Fortess of Narzod
- Space Wars
- Star Hawk
- Web Wars
- YASI (Yey Another Space Invaders) (home-brew 2003)
Today you will find units and cartridges on eBay and other retro gaming goldmines if you are keen to experience this system first hand. There is also a fairly active home-brew game community and you can get these games on cartridges via various enthusiast groups. If you prefer to check this out via emulation, your best bet is to try it via MESS for a Windows based PC. There are also other emulation options available for Mac and other devices such as Raspberry Pi, which has the wonderful RetroPie project.
Links to More Vectrex Information
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