I've got a few little bits and pieces, on the cheaper end of the scale. I've got an original Astro Wars machine that I've had for years, a Tomytronic 3D handheld (because I never had one back in the day), and a Digital Derby Auto Raceway. I don't tend to pick up old consoles because, frankly, it's so much more convenient to play old games through emulation. And even then, I'd still rather lob a few quid at the Nintendo Store to play an old SNES game than download it for free.
In fact, this is the reason why there are only really two old games systems I've ever thought about owning, because they're the two which are the hardest to emulate; Nintendo's Virtual Boy and the Vectrex.
The Virtual Boy got a lot of stick upon release, and is undoubtedly Nintendo's biggest flop. Nonetheless, it's a quirky looking thing, and I've long liked the idea of owning one. I guess I've got a bit of a soft spot for the underdoggos, and it's a gap in my gaming knowledge that I'd like to one day plug.
The Vectrex, however, is a machine I've desired since I was a kid. I think I first saw ads for it in imported US comics, and it looked too good to be true.
I'd always had an abundance of love for arcade games with vector graphics - they're somehow timeless, and still look futuristic to me. Oh, how disappointed I was when I played Asteroids on the Atari 2600... but here was a machine which would let me have actual, real, glowing vector graphics in my own home! I mean, it even had its own screen, for pity's sake!! To an 11 year-old, that was hands down the coolest thing I could conceive of.
I've lost count of the number of times I've been tempted by a Vectrex on eBay. I've come so close on a number of occasions, but common sense has always kicked me to the kerb. Fortunately, my resolve was reinforced last year after I attended to Retro Revival event near Birmingham. I played on a Vectrex and came away disappointed. The control stick was incredibly loose and unresponsive, and I decided that were I ever to own one it would probably gather dust.
Well, was I ever wrong...
But first: some history.
The two people most directly attributed to the creation of the Vectrex were Jay Smith and Gerry Karr. Smith had worked on the Apollo space program before moving into making electronic toys for Mattel, where he created the Microvision - the first handheld console with interchangeable cartridges. The Microvision was distributed through Milton Bradley (they of "MB Games"), which is where he met Gerry Karr. The two got to work trying to create a games machine which would push the envelope of what was possible on a home system.
The original brief Smith and Karr set themselves was to build a console capable of running the arcade enorm-o-game Asteroids (which it essentially would do in the form of Mine Storm, that would eventually be built into every Vectrex). As development continued, the proto-Vectrex started to take shape as the "Mini Arcade", running on a system with an integral five-inch screen.
Initially, Smith and Karr offered the device to Kenner, then enjoying huge success with its line of Star Wars action figures. Kenner apparently took the best part of a year to decide not to proceed, at which point Smith and Karr approached General Consumer Electronics, a new company formed by ex-Intellivision employee Ed "The Kraken" Krakauer.
Unlike Kenner, Krakauer took little convincing, though insisted the screen be enlarged and positioned vertically so that it looked less like a TV, and the name be changed to Vector-X - which later got contracted to Vectrex.
The finalised hardware became the first console to have an analogue joystick, and the first to position it on the left of the controller - inspired by the layout of an F-14 fighter cockpit, apparently. Adding authenticity to its claims of offering an arcade at home, many of the original games were developed in conjunction with Cinematronics - one of the era's main developers of vector arcade titles (along with Atari and Sega).
The Vectrex was released in North America in late-1982, then pumped out in limited quantities into Europe then Japan (where distribution was handled by Bandai) in mid-1983. General Consumer Electronics was eventually bought out by MB, following promising sales of the Vectrex over Christmas '82.
Their timing couldn't have been worse, alas; the games industry crashed in 1983, and by the time MB merged with Hasbro in early 1984, and the Vectrex was discontinued, remaining stock was selling for a quarter of its original $199 price. An expensive machine to manufacture - the only one, at the time, with its own built-in screen, see - it ended up costing Milton Bradley tens of millions of dollars.
Prior to all this, there had been plans for a Vectrex 2 - with a colour display (the original was black and white, with coloured plastic overlays, like early arcade games) - a keyboard peripheral, a music pack, and a speech recognition unit (a demo of a voice-activated baseball game was used as proof of concept).
Though ambitions were clearly sky-high, in the end only two Vectrex add-ons were released; a light pen and set of 3D goggles, which were compatible with a handful of games.
In the late-80s, there were tentative plans to release a handheld Vectrex, and a prototype was knocked-up using a Sinclair pocket TV. While MB continued to dither about whether or not to go ahead, Nintendo released the Game Boy - and the company realised that it wouldn't be able to compete at a competitive price point.
By being a system quite unlike any other ever released, the Vectrex has maintained a long afterlife. Following the liquidation of remaining stock, both the hardware and its games were released into the public domain for non-profit use, and there's now a healthy home-brew scene. Independent developers and hobbyists are pushing the system further than it ever went during its brief life.
The Vectrex continues to have a sort of mystique about it. Somehow it has remained ageless for many of my generation - to me, it still looks like something which has arrived from the future, fully formed and perfect. As mentioned above, I always feared it might actually disappoint were I ever to own one, and that - aside from the cost - might've factored into why I convinced myself never to splash out for one.
But yes... I was wrong. Thanks to the ridiculous generosity of Digitiser readers Emma and Nikki Heald, who - utterly unbidden - have gifted me with one, I am now the proud owner of a Vectrex. Much to my amazement, unlike so much in life it actually lives up to the expectations I had in my head.
It's a truly beautiful, original, machine. The joystick on the hardware I played at Retro Revival was obviously worse for wear, because the one on my Vectrex is solid and responsive. The whole system, in fact, feels well designed - and still seems like something from the future rather than a device that was released 35 years ago. The fact it's light enough to be portable means it deserved better than the fate it got. It should've been a phenomenon.
For me there has always been something genuinely magical about vector graphics. To have them running in my own home, almost four decades after I drooled over those Vectrex ads, is something I never expected to have.
Thank you, Nikki and Emma. You made an old gamer very emotional.