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Why I’m still hung up on the weirdest console flop of the 1980s

When you can’t separate the hardware from the games

The Vectrex
Marcin Wichary/Flickr

Finishing up your backlog is usually discussed as an act of time; these games are kept around until we have the free weekend necessary to finish them before moving them over to the mental “finished” pile. In some cases the backlog is an issue of money, although ever-lowering game prices make this situation more rare in 2018. My most frustrating chunk of gaming work that will likely be left undone is a mixture of both, with a side of hardware that’s rapidly aging. My biggest gaming regret is one that I will unlikely ever be able to fulfill.

I am speaking of dreams. I am speaking of the Vectrex.

An issue of longing

The Vectrex was a self-contained video game system that was released in 1982, and came with its own vecter graphics display instead of connecting to a television. The display was oriented vertically, and was monochrome. Certain games “added” color by shipping with plastic overlays that fit over the screen. There was a light pen that was released at one point so you could draw on the screen itself. You could get 3D glasses for it, although almost no one did. The controller had a single joystick and four buttons, all arranged in a row. There was a game built into the system itself. It was a very odd duck, even for its time.

Vector displays look different than more traditional displays of the time — you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever played an original Asteroids or Tempest arcade cabinet — but it’s hard to describe how without showing you one in person.

Everything is made of simple lines, and objects slide across the screen as if they were butter on a hot skillet. The visuals were sharp, yet moved smoothly. Every display uses light to show an image, but vector graphics made it look as if the games were being built from pure radiance. It’s an aesthetic that I found, and still find, incredibly beautiful.

My love affair with the Vectrex began during a gaming convention with a robust selection of classic and rare consoles for attendees to play, and it felt like that moment in high school in which we first lay eyes on someone who know we’re going to marry, even if we never get the nerve to even ask them out.

I felt that sort of instant, lightning-fast attraction and connection that’s hard to describe in words because you don’t know why you feel it so strongly. I played for close to an hour, and made up my mind right then and there to track one down for my collection and play through the game selection.

While the Vectrex may feel like a curiosity today, I wanted one because something about the design spoke to me, not because of its rarity or strangeness. It almost like a prototype for the Virtual Boy, another system I feel affinity for despite its dead-end sales performance.

A nightmare for any backlog

The Vectrex, as a system, is the Dark Souls of backlog fulfillment. The hardware itself is expensive, and it’s not getting any cheaper. Fewer surviving units exist, and they’re certainly not making any more copies of the original games with the overlays, although there once was, and still may be, a small but dedicated home brew scene for coders who love a challenge.

I didn’t get one when I first became enamored with the console because it felt like an expensive purchase when I could barely afford the new games I wanted to play, and a self-contained system with its own fragile screen that was wired to the controllers felt like it would be hard to play properly in my apartment, especially with my rowdy roommates. It was a purchase that I put off until some point in the future, thinking that all those problems would sort themselves out.

But they only got worse. The system is still expensive — even a loose unit in middling condition will be a few hundred dollars before games — and the rowdy roommates have been replaced by rowdy-but-lovable children. There is an official, emulated version of many of these games for iOS devices, but the appeal of the Vectrex itself was as much in the hardware as it was in the games themselves. You can’t separate the display from the software if you want the real deal; the visuals were as defined by the vector display as they were by the design behind them.

I’m unlikely to ever clear out the Vectrex games from my backlog, but I’ve made peace with this fact. There’s something I like about it, in fact.

Technology is making it easier and easier to pick up older games digitally to play in ever-greater resolutions if you missed them the first time, but the Vectrex is locked in time. It’s not going to get better, because any new technology would destroy the aesthetics that made the original so striking. It’s a footnote in gaming’s history, which means that a few people will dedicate themselves to saving the remaining systems but ultimately the Vectrex will go extinct. The things that made it special are the things that doomed it to oblivion.

Some things are too weird to live forever.