I believe technology has reached the point where “retro” game collections can move beyond mere curious nostalgia, and truly return players to a specific time and place in their past. I recently experienced something akin to this while playing Vectrex Regenerations on the iCade.
Back in the summer of 1983, my brother and I both wanted a GCE Vectrex. Our Atari 2600, one and half years years old, was just not satisfactory any longer. By 1983, arcade games were so much better than just a couple years prior, that the underpowered Atari 2600 just could not keep up trying to recreate them. We sold a bunch of our Atari 2600 games to friends and relatives, and saved allowance, birthday and report card money until we had enough to purchase a next-generation game system. The decision to buy a Vectrex did not come easy. As long-time Atari fans, abandoning their platforms made us feel something akin to disloyalty.
Atari had their own answer to the 2600 in the form of the 5200 Super System. The Atari 5200 had some good looking games for sure, but the controllers were terrible. The Pac-Man cartridge looked arcade-perfect, but our tests in the local Target TV department showed it to be nearly unplayable with the 5200’s weird, non-centering joysticks. At the same time, their was no Asteroids cartridge for the 5200, which beamed like glowing hole the console’s launch line-up.
The ColecoVision was a better alternative. It had Donkey Kong plus an exciting collection of licensed weirdness (Mr. Do, Mouse-Trap, Carnival) and first party oddities (Smurf Rescue) that were a refreshing change from the same 10 or so games Atari released over and over. However, with all its’ cool licenses, it did not have one game that we badly wanted at home: Star Castle.
The Vectrex, a stand-alone game system with its’ own black and white vector-based display, was combination of both systems. The pack-in game, MineStorm was an Asteroids inspired contest, that played very close to the original because of the vector display. The system also touted it’s own refreshing set of licenses including games like Rip-Off, Armor Attack, and best of all, the aforementioned Star Castle.
So we decided that the Vectrex was system of choice, but the next step was finding one. The consoles were elusive, with lots of demo units, but nothing in stock at every store we tried. The flailing video game market on 1983 hit companies like GCE (bought by Milton Bradley) very hard. Stores were not willing to chance large orders of video game products, and when they did, supply issues were a huge problem. For instance, a summer, Sunday 1983 J.C. Penny Advertisement that touted a selection of Vectrex games and consoles led us to an empty display, and employees who told us the systems never arrived.
A few weeks later, while visiting my grandmother in Van Nuys, my brother and I begged my dad to take us to Fedco. Fedco was membership only precursor to Costco, but more like a giant Target with better prices. You were never sure what you would find at Fedco, but it was always worth a look. On this particular Saturday, Fedco had stack of brand new Vectrex consoles and game cartridges. My brother and I were ecstatic with glee. We purchased a console plus the games Hyperchase and Star Castle, then took it all back to play at my grandmother’s place.
Those first few hours, playing the Vectrex on my grandmother’s coffee table at Prell Gardens retirement village are some that I will never forget. Since my grandmother moved from her house in Anaheim to the retirement apartments in Van Nuys, we visited her every week with our dad. Besides Scrabble and Parcheesi board games, plus the latest issue of Time Magazine,there was not much else to keep two 13 year old twin boys busy for a Saturday night. While I enjoyed visiting my grandmother on holidays and an odd weekend, this new, every week cycle strained my 13 year old patience. The apartment was always dark, and we were compelled to whisper inside, even though there was no reason for it.
So having a self contained video game system like the Vectrex, even for just one visit, was a simply awesome. I recall that we played the games over and all night. My dad, never a video game fan but always intrigued by his boys’ obsessions, watched over our shoulders with interest in way that never happened before or after. When we stopped playing to go home, I dreamt about the Vectrex and our new games on the way back, asleep in the camper shell covered bed of my dad’s pickup truck.
The next day however, the shiny newness of the Vectrex wore off. While the game were decent, they didn’t seem to be such a great advance of the Atari 2600 games of the last generation. They looked better, but the depth of game play was about the same. Hyperchase had nice graphics, but the driving simulation was little more than moving left and right. Star Castle had tiny graphics, and the controls felt very loose compared to the coin-op. MineStorm remained our favorite game, but it died with bug at level 13. The whole system and games cost us about $250, which is nearly $600 in today’s dollars. For that kind of money, we expected a huge jump in video game playing satisfaction, but it was just not there.
When we got our Atari 800 computer at Christmas the same year, the Vectrex hit the game-playing back-burner where it remained a curious novelty for the rest of the 80’s. We bought at least a 1/2 dozen more games for it with varying levels of satisfaction.Armor Attack was arcade-perfect, which it was deliriously fun for about 10 minutes until you saw everything. Fortress of Narzod was weird and wonderful at the same time. At some point, the #1 fire button stopped working in the console connection (the controller still worked fine). With no way to get it repaired, the system was packed into box and stored away for good. I still have it in my garage, with games, overlays and boxes, still waiting to be resurrected in the 21st Century.
Nostalgia for the Vectrex gripped me starting when my first daughter was born in 1998. Suddenly, I got an urge to show her this weird and wonderful relic from my long-gone past. I experimented with emulation, and explored eBay, but neither was fruitful. The emulated games on PC were a chore to play, and the prices for consoles on eBay were astronomical. I’ve been waiting for a workable solution to my Vectrex-less existence ever since. In that time, the relative fun excitement of playing games on Vectrex back at Prell Gardens grew in my mind. I long-forgot the loose controls and thin gameplay. I simply wanted to see my old console fired up again, play a few games, and re-discover that feeling of pure joy I experienced that one night when I was 13 years old.
The chance to to relive those classic days of the Vectrex arrived just before Christmas 2012 in the form of the Vectrex Regeneration app from Rantmedia Games for the iPad. The app aims to recreate the classic Vectrex experience on a mobile device. The free version includes the game MineStorm with on-screen controls. Like most other games that try to recreate classic games with on-screen buttons, it only works as long as you can convince yourself that controls are not getting in the way of the game play. However, when you pay the upgrade price ($6.99) that offers iCade support (plus adds a bunch of original Vectrex games and a few homebrews), the app show its’ worth immediately. If there was ever a classic video game system that was built to be emulated by an iPad + iCade, it was the Vectrex. While they don’t look the same, the form factor of an iCade compared to Vectrex is still very close. The iPad screen, iCade cabinet, and iCade control scheme match the original Vectrex very closely. It’s not an exact match, but it’s far closer than say, trying to play Atari 2600 games on an iPhone.
When I started-up Mine Storm with an iPad slipped into an iCade, the feeling of playing a Vectrex three decades ago came streaming back almost immediately. It was not just that the emulation is very well done, but it was also the nuances of my gaming muscle memory. I was sitting at my coffee table, looking directly at the Vectrex screen just like in 1983 all over again. My left hand gripped the joystick, my right hand had four fingers splayed and ready to hit any of the the four (bottom row) buttons at the proper time. As I shot the mines and flew around the screen, it was easy to imagine myself playing the Vectrex back at my grandmother’s 30 years ago. The action was near perfect, the controls felt original. I could almost hear the spirit of my grandmother fussing around in her tiny kitchen, and feel the ghost if my father watching over my shoulder, impressed with my video game skills. It was as close to time travel as I can imagine I will ever experience. The whole of that intense experience only lasted for a few minutes, but it was worth every penny I spent on the iCade and the Vectrex Regenerations App.
Vectrex Regeneration is not perfect. The original Vectrex used an analog joystick, but since the iCade joystick acts like a bluetooth keyboard (with press and release button events), it does not work well with games like Hyperchase that require fine steering. At the same time, games like Armor Attack are fun for a few minutes, but feel just as thin and uninvolving now as they did when the console was first released. However, this is not really a bad thing. Vectrex Regeneration for the iPad, when coupled with an iCade, just might be the best “retro” compilation ever released. It has unique the ability to recreate both the glory and heartbreak of classic gaming in way that few other (if any) collections ever matched before.