Vectrex: The very name sounds futuristic, sort of like Valtrex. It doesn’t luckily (or unfortunately, sorry) treat herpes, because it’s a unique system released in 1982 initially by General Consumer Electric that is known as being the only home vector-monitor based game console. The system had a brief retail run, cut short due to that dang video game crash back in 1984.
Designed around a 9″ x 11″ vector monitor, the Vectrex uses vector drawn graphics rather than raster graphics (plain speak: a bunch of lines drawn by the electron gun on the screen like an oscilloscope). The console is ‘self contained’, like a really big Game Boy; If Game Boys needed to be plugged into the wall at all times and had a detachable corded controller. Like the Coleco and Intellivision, the controller stores as part of the console (mini rant: I wish new systems did this. My Atari 5200 may be a monster on the shelf, but the controllers at least store nicely.. I constantly lose my PS3 controllers /rant). Since color vector monitors were insanely expensive, the Vectrex uses a small black and white monitor along with transparent sheets of plastic printed with colored backgrounds. These overlays were placed over the screen to give color graphics. The illusion works fairly well. Games are playable without them, which is good since they are often lost or missing. Sound comes out of a small built-in speaker at the base of the unit. The crash killed the Vectrex, with only 29 games being released over the initial run. There is an active home brew scene to this day, but this week I’ll be discussing one of my favorite games for this overlooked gem, Armor Attack.
Armor Attack’s formula is simple. Take Combat for the Atari 2600, add some computer controlled tanks and a helicopter that fires missiles at you. Instead of driving a tank, you now drive a small Jeep which has a crazy line-of-sight missile launcher! For whatever reason, this mini army is after you. Maybe you stole the Jeep? Maybe you slept with the General’s daughter. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. Points are awarded for kills and damaging tanks. A level ends when you destroy all the enemy combatants… Only to start again in the same city with faster enemies! It’s like Groundhog Day! Unfortunately, this game ends if you run out of lives by getting shot at. Armor Attack was initially an arcade game by Cinematronics (who produced a ton of vector-based arcade games) and it’s an excellent port on the Vectrex with seemingly identical graphics and gameplay.
Vector graphics look amazingly simple, like line drawings like a kid would doodle really quickly in a notebook during study hall. Clean angles with no pixelated lines? It’s like HDTV in 1982! Butbutbut, no color : sad-face: the on screen objects all move so smooth though, and it’s a good trade off that gives a unique play-field appearance. Unlike Combat, you aren’t limited to the eight cardinal directions. Your Jeep is a few squares connected together , with your flying
swords missiles blowing up any enemy they make contact with. Shooting a tank once damages it and another shot destroys it completely. Shooting the helicopter causes it to spin out of control before it disappears. You can’t crash into the walls or damage them in any way, so don’t bother trying.
As I mentioned earlier, the Vectrex controller is stored on the bottom of the system. It looks great when stored, and looks even cooler when out of the system. Unfortunately, ergonomics is a four letter word.. and it’s not “good”. It’s too small to put in your lap and a little too thick to hold comfortably for long periods of time. Fortunately, Vectrex games are not hours-long affairs. (For you hackers, a Genesis controller can be modded to fit, as the system uses that familiar DB9 style plug that seemingly everything used back then.) A few buttons in a row greet your fingers along with a small analog joystick that is actually very responsive.. but not particularly responsive in Armor Attack as the rotational speed doesn’t change as you press the joystick more or less. One button fires missiles, another accelerates, and the remaining buttons steer, which is how the arcade game is played.
There’s no in game music except for a marching band drumming during the title screen. The actual sounds in the game are pretty sweet with a helicopter sound that will annoy you long after the game ends as it signals a flying harbinger of death.
I actually picked up my Vectrex a few years ago for $25 with a few games at a swap meet for hot rod parts and lugged it around a dusty parking lot walking over four miles that afternoon with it cradled in my arms like a big plastic baby. I got it home and I skipped Mine Storm, the built-in game, instead going straight for Armor Attack, so it has the virtue of being the first Vectrex game I’ve played.The units are out there, the overlays are reproduced, and the whole thing makes a great conversation piece! The whole system is small enough to bring out into the living room or even the bathroom (don’tdropthecontrollerinthetoiletdon’tdropthecontrollerinthetoilet), and if you needed another reason to get one, I’ve presented one with Armor Attack.